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, March 17, 2008

The Continentals Take Possession of the Town

Timothy Newell’s journal offers this perspective on the departure of the British military from Boston on 17 Mar 1776:

Lord’s day. This morning at 3 o’clock, the troops began to move—Guards Chevaux de freze, Crow feet strewed in the streets to prevent being pursued. They all embarked at about 9 oclock and the whole fleet came to sail. Every vessel which they did not carry off, they rendered unfit for use. Not even a boat left to cross the River.—

Thus was this unhappy distressed town (thro’ a manifest interposition of divine providence) relieved from a set of men, whose unparralled wickedness, profanity, debauchery and cruelty is inexpressible, enduring a siege from the 19th. April 1775 to the 17th. March 1776.

Immediately upon the fleet’s sailing the Select Men set off, through the lines, to Roxbury to acquaint General [George] Washington of the evacuation of the town. After sending a message Major [Joseph] Ward aid to General [Artemas] Ward, came to us at the lines and soon after the General himself, who received us in the most polite and affectionate manner, and permitted us to pass to Watertown to acquaint the Council of this happy event.

The General immediately ordered a detachment of 2000 troops to take possession of the town under the command of General [Israel] Putnam who the next day began their works in fortifying Forthill &c., for the better security of the Town. A number of loaded Shells with trains of Powder covered with straw, were found in houses left by the Regulars near the fortifycation.
Newell’s diary apparently ended then; he was creating this document not for personal reasons but as a town selectman, recording what he considered the injustices of the royal authorities for future reference.

Boston’s population had sunk to less than a third of what it had been before the war, and the economy took years to recover—trade within the British Empire was no longer an option, and many young men would be away serving in the war.

Many of the town’s wooden structures, from fences and shacks to the Old North Meeting-house and the West Meeting-house steeple, had been torn down for security or firewood. The town’s largest building, the Old South Meeting-house, had been converted into a riding stable. Considering that the town had been under siege by a large army for eleven months, however, it was in pretty good physical shape. Charlestown, across the mouth of the Charles River, was in ashes.

The picture above shows a medal commemorating the end of the Boston siege, courtesy of the Notre Dame University coin collection.

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