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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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The British Prepare to Attack Dorchester Heights

On 24 Feb 1776, David Cobb sent his in-law, Robert Treat Paine, an update on how the siege of Boston looked from their home town of Taunton. (Paine was in Philadelphia as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress). Cobb predicted:

The Bombardment of Boston takes place within 12 days from this, proberbly on the 5th of March, and I am as certain of the Town’s being carry’d, as I am of my own existance.

Poor Devils. 5500 British Troops in a strong Fortefied Town, taken prisoners of War by a percel of undisceplin’d Yankees comanded by a Virginia Farmer. O! terrible.
Why did Cobb have his eyes on the 5th of March? Folks from Massachusetts relished the idea of attacking the British garrison on the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. According to the Rev. Dr. William Gordon’s early history of the war, Gen. George Washington himself told men on the Dorchester heights, “Remember it is the fifth of March, and avenge the death of your brethren.”

[We interrupt this posting for a reminder about this week’s Boston Massacre commemorative activities. And now back to 1776.]

Here’s what 5 Mar 1776 looked like to one British officer, quoted in The Remembrancer, an annual compilation of newspaper dispatches published in London:
This morning, at daybreak, we discovered two redoubts on the hills on Dorchester Point, and two smaller works on their flanks. They were all raised during the night, with an expedition equal to that of the genii belonging to Aladdin’s wonderful lamp. From these hills they commanded the whole town, so that we must drive them from their post, or desert the place.

The former is determined upon, and five regiments are already embarked. A body of light infantry, under the command of Major [Thomas] Musgrave, an excellent officer, and a body of grenadiers, are to embark to-night at seven. I think it is likely to be so far a general affair, that we shall take our share in it. . . .

It is worth while to remark with what judgment the leaders of the rebels take advantage of the prejudices, and work upon the passions of the mob. This 5th of March is the anniversary of what they call the Bloody Massacre, when, in (I think) 1769, the king’s troops fired on the people in the streets of Boston. If ever they dare stand us, it will be to-day; but I hope to-morrow to be able to give you an account of their defeat.
Gen. Sir William Howe later described the new Continental fortifications as “three very extensive works, with strong abattes [abbatis] round them, on the commanding hill on Dorchester-Neck, which must have been the employment of at least twelve thousand men.” The large cannons and mortars on those heights could not only throw shot and shell into Boston, but also threatened the Royal Navy vessels in the harbor. The endgame of the siege had started.

Howe ordered a massive attack on the Continental position. He had five regiments board ships at Long Wharf, each man carrying a full day’s provisions, and sail to Castle William. Meanwhile, he wrote in his general orders:
Clerk’s & Musgrave’s Corps of Lt. Infantry, Agnews & Wemy’s Grenadiers, 23d & 38th Regts. to parade this evening at 7 o’Clock, & be ready for embarkation. The two Corps from Barton’s point will march to the Long Wharf as soon as form’d; the whole to have their Canteens fill’d with Rum & Water, to take the day’s provisions order’d to be ready dress’d & their Blankets with them. Those Corps not to Load [their muskets]; and their Barrack Guards to consist of Convalescents [i.e., no able-bodied man was to be left behind].
These two bodies of men were to attack different parts of Dorchester in the evening and fight their way up to the heights. Both sides expected such a battle could be as hard-fought and bloody as the fight for Bunker Hill, which neither army had truly won.

[Gosh, this is suspenseful! Have I mentioned this week’s Boston Massacre commemorative events?]

Lt. John Barker described how the amphibious expedition unfolded (in a part of his journal that had some gaps]:
5 Regts. embarked under [command?] of B[rigadier]. G[eneral]. Valentine Jones and fell down to Castle William; in the night they were to have [landed in Dorchester?] on that side, while the Grenrs. Light Infy. and some more Regts. were [to have?] attacked on the side next the Town; the Men were not to load but [embark with?] fixed Bayonets: in the night it came on to blow such a gale [that no?] boat cou’d possibly land, which stopt the expedition.
The following day, Howe’s headquarters issued included this statement in his general orders: “The General desires the Troops may know that the intended expedition last Night was unavoidably put off by the badness of the Weather.”

Here’s how the same events looked to selectman Timothy Newell, stuck in Boston with the British troops but hoping for their defeat:
Tuesday.—This morning the Provincials were discovered fortifying the heights of Dorchester—

About 12 oclock 7 Regiments of the Kings Troops, embarked in Transports, commanded by General Jones where were to land at Dorchester-Neck and the main body, with the Light Dragoons were to go out at the lines in the night &c. &c.

Eight or ten Ships sailed below—but whether, a Hurrycane, or terrible sudden storm which arose, in the evening prevented, or a pretence only, can’t say—nothing was attempted,—

Indeed the violence of the storm rendered it impossible for any boat to land—Some of the Transports were driven on Governors Island, but got off and returned.
The storm gave the Continentals another day to strengthen their already-strong position, and that proved crucial.

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