J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Washington’s Attack That Never Was

On 18 Feb 1776, Gen. George Washington sent the following report to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia:

The late freezing Weather having formed some pretty strong Ice from Dorchester point to Boston neck, and from Roxbury to the Common, thereby affording a more expanded and consequently a less dangerous Approach to the Town, I could not help thinking, notwithstanding the Militia were not all come In, and we had little or no Powder to begin our Operation by a regular Cannonade and Bombardment, that a bold and resolute assault upon the Troops in Boston with such Men as we had (for it could not take many Men to guard our own Lines, at a time when the Enemy were attacked in all Quarters) might be crowned with success...
The result of this plan is so well known as to be almost cliché. Most Americans carry mental images of militiamen marching across the white expanse, breaking into a charge as they neared Boston Common; of the British artillery skipping shells and cannonballs across the ice, trying to break the surface. Often those images are based on later works of art, such as Emanuel Leutze’s monumental “Washington Crossing the Charles” (he used artistic license to show the general riding his horse across the ice). Military tacticians still debate the street-by-street fighting in the South End, what looked like the royalists’ last stand on the docks, and that sudden turn of events...

Well, no, none of that happened. (The painting above is actually “Washington’s March Through the Jerseys,” created in the early 1900s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. For a larger reproduction and historical background, visit the Washington Association of New Jersey.)

Instead, careful to follow Congress’s instructions, Washington called his generals together for a Council of War on 16 February. And those generals told him that his plan wouldn’t work. The commander’s report back to Congress continued:
The Result will appear in the Inclosed Council of War, and being almost unanimous, I must suppose to be right although, from a thorough conviction of the necessity of attempting something against the Ministerial Troops, before a Reinforcement should arrive and while we were favour’d with the Ice, I was not only ready, but willing and desirous of making the Assault; under a firm hope, if the Men would have stood by me, of a favourable Issue, notwithstanding the Enemy’s advantage of Ground Artillery, &ca.
The other generals felt the Continentals didn’t have enough soldiers, guns, and gunpowder to carry off such a big assault. They noted that the British military had strong fortifications, and artillery both on land and on their warships. Washington’s arguments in favor of action were that:
  • The Continentals had 8,800 men ready for duty, with 1,400 militiamen easily summoned. The British fighting force, in contrast, was “not above 5,000”—and it was important to strike before reinforcements arrived.
  • The alternative for the Americans was a cannonade, but they didn’t have enough powder and would damage the town worse than the enemy.
  • “that a stroke well aim’d at this critical juncture might put a final end to the War and restore Peace and tranquility so much to be wished for.”
The last point strikes me as the most important for Washington. He wanted to do something. He’d overseen the siege for more than seven months. He’d reorganized the Continental Army, launched privateers, sent troops off to Canada (which turned out badly), but not caused any serious damage to the British command in Boston. He’d already proposed assaults on the fortified town in September and January.

Washington still thought success (and fame) would come from defeating and capturing the royal military. He hadn’t yet realized that he was leading an insurgency, which would succeed by wearing down that military and the taxpaying class back in Britain until they didn’t see enough at stake to continue the American war.

Washington was so eager to strike a dramatic blow, in fact, that he was willing to disregard his own observation on 1 February (quoted back here) that his troops “will not March boldly up to a Work—or stand exposed in a plain.” Or stand exposed on ice, his generals might have told him.

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