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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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Washington’s Reply to the Selectmen

On 9 Mar 1776, Capt. John Barker of his Majesty’s 4th Regiment of Foot recorded that the Continental Army had consolidated its position on Dorchester heights, and was building new artillery batteries even as the British authorities continued to prepare for evacuation:

The Rebels having been deserned carrying Materials for making a Battery to Foster’s hill [also called Nook’s hill] at Dorchester, the nearest of any to Boston; and at 8 o’clock in the evening it being reported they were at work there, our Batteries at the Blockhouse, the New Work at the Neck and...Wharf began to play upon them, and kept it up all night so as to prevent their Working: they likewise fired at the Town from their different Batteries at Roxbury.

All the Brass Artillery on board except a few small field pieces. Orders for all the sick Men and Wo[men to] be embarked before night.
On the same day, in his diary Timothy Newell wrote the eighteenth-century abbreviation for “ditto,” meaning he saw the same “hurry and commotion” as the day before, and described some property damage from the Continental barrage:
Do. Do. Do. Received answer from the lines from Colo. Learned commanding officer at Roxbury—Saturday evening 9 oclock, began cannonade, which continued the whole night—One 18 pound shot came thro’ our house, another thro’ the fence and summer house into the Garden, and several shot, thro’ my neighbour’s Houses.
On the 7th, Newell and three fellow selectmen had sent a letter “To the Commanding Officer at Roxbury,” describing their conversation with Gen. James Robertson, who in turn had spoken to Gen. William Howe, the overall British commander. Col. Ebenezer Learned replied to the gentlemen who had carried that letter out, Thomas and Jonathan Amory and Peter Johonnot:
Roxbury March 9th 1776.

Gentlemen, Agreeable to a promise made to you at the lines yesterday, I waited upon his Excellency General [George] Washington and presented to him the Paper handed to me by you from the select-men of Boston. The answer I received from him was to this effect—

That as it was an unauthenticated paper without an address and not obligatory upon Genl. Howe, he would take no notice of it.

I am with esteem and respect,
Gentn. your most humble servt.
Ebenezer Learned.
Though that reply might have seemed discouraging, the letter had probably accomplished its purpose. Washington and other American officers had read the report that Howe had “no intention of destroying the Town” if the inhabitants and besiegers didn’t try to harm his men as they left. The Continental commander-in-chief might stand on protocol and refuse the letter, but he now knew that his rival was leaving Boston and probably didn’t plan to burn it to the ground.

Even during the day’s artillery exchanges, some people saw signs of moderation as the siege came to an end. An anonymous British officer whose remarks were published in the Remembrancer in London wrote:
I have slept one night on board [a transport ship]; the troops are embarking as fast as possible. I mistook when I imagined the works already made could destroy the town; but the rebels possess a hill so situated, that if they pleased to erect a battery it would entirely consume us. They as yet have not proceeded to make a work, nor do they attempt to molest us in our embarkation. It appears as if there were at least a tacit agreement between Washington and General Howe.
Today’s image is “George Washington at Dorchester Heights,” painted by Jane Stuart (1812-1888) after a canvas by her father, Gilbert Stuart. His version is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Hers comes courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

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