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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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Watching the “Wretched Fleet” Sail

Today is Evacuation Day in Boston, the official commemoration of the British military’s departure from the town at the end of the siege of 1775-76. Here’s an account of that evacuation credited to “a passenger from Boston” to Britain and published late that year in Almon’s Remembrancer:

General [William] Howe then began his embarkation. The Refugee inhabitants went first, not being suffered to carry anything but necessaries.——

The mortars and heavy artillery could not be embarked; these, therefore, they endeavored to burst, by charging them full with powder, and firing it off; but this did not answer their wishes. They attempted also to destroy all the small arms belonging to the town. While this work was going on, a deserter from the Provincial camp informed General Howe, on the 10th, that General [George] Washington was preparing for a general storm. Upon this intelligence the General and all the troops immediately embarked, leaving the artillery, stores, &c., damaged only, as the hurry and confusion would permit.

It now appeared by the movements of the Provincial army, that they were taking stations upon Hog and Noddles Islands, and preparing to attack Castle William. If they had succeeded in this, they would have had the command of Boston harbor, and destroyed the fleet. General Howe, therefore, dismantled and blew up Castle William, and then fell down with the whole fleet into Nantasket road, which is an open and exposed station.

The transports were mostly small schooners, under the protection of three men of war. March is the most tempestuous month of the year upon the American coast; so that without a miracle this wretched fleet must be dispersed and lost. It is impossible that more events could concur to render their distress complete, and their ruin almost inevitable.
The letter went on to a section headed “Cambridge, March 27,” so it came from someone who had stayed in Massachusetts after the British military left, and thus probably leaned to the American side. I therefore take the comments about the fleet’s “distress” to be less genuine sympathy and more an attempt to convince the British back home that it would be too costly to try to subdue the colonies.

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