One of the great ironies of the British military evacuation of Boston in 1776, celebrated yesterday, is that the British generals in charge of the town had wanted to leave months before.
Gen. Thomas Gage wrote to his superiors in London soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill that there was no military advantage to holding Boston. Geography and the fervor of the Massachusetts people made that town a lousy place from which to pacify the rebellious region. At the same time, Gen. William Howe (Shown here) started sending letters home, recommending that the army move most of its troops to New York or Newport, Rhode Island.
The problem was that neither Gage nor Howe dared to make such a big move without approval from London, and it took weeks after they sent a message across the Atlantic before they received a considered reply.
On 5 Sept 1775, Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State in London, came to the same conclusion as his top general. (He had also concluded that his top general should be Howe, and told Gage to come home.) An official summary of the secretary’s correspondence with Howe says:
his Lordship, after describing the State of the Troops cooped up in Boston & exposed to numberless wants, difficulties and danger, observed, that it was not only advisable but necessary to abandon Boston before the Winter & to dismantle Castle William, and having embarked all the Stores and Artillery, and afforded to the well disposed Inhabitants every means of getting away with safety, to remove with the Troops either to New York or to some other place to the Southward, which considerations of superior Advantage should point out as the most proper, and where a Squadron of the King’s Ships might lye in the Winter:So why did the British army stay through the winter?
His Lordship then proceeds to point out the advantages of such a Measure in various lights, and concludes with directing him to make an early return of every thing that would be wanted for the ensuing Campaign, and authorized him to appoint such Persons to be Adjutant General and Quarter Master General as he should think most fit for those Situations.
On 27 Dec 1775, almost at the end of the year, Gen. John Burgoyne arrived in London from Boston with letters Howe had written between 26 November and 3 December. Once again, the government summary:
In these Dispatches General Howe begins by stating that Lord Dartmouth’s Dispatches of the 5th September, directing the removal of the Troops from Boston arrived so late that they could not be carried into Execution,…[because of] the want of a sufficient number of Transport[ ship]s (there being a Deficiency of 11,062 Tons in, the Quantity necessary for the whole Embarkation at once[)], and that if they were embarked in separate Divisions, at different Periods, more would be hazarded than Prudence would justify.Since his troops didn’t have enough ships to move and couldn’t accomplish anything anywhere that winter, Howe concluded, they might as well stay in Boston, where they were already well fortified. Come spring, he’d leave.
He then says they are under no apprehensions of Attack or Surprize by the Rebel Army, on the contrary, it was very much to be wished they would make such attempt; that, however, from Sickness of the Army, and the extent of Post to be defended, the Force would not be adequate to any undertaking of Consequence, such as the Possession of Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia or Charles Town [i.e., Charleston, South Carolina].
The American bombardment from Dorchester in March 1776 sped up the British departure. It may well have made the army leave behind some supplies it would have liked to take, and it probably postponed a spring attempt on New York (with far fewer forces than eventually arrived in summer). But Howe hadn’t planned on staying in Boston much longer, anyway.