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 19, 2014

Washington “lamenting the disappointment”

Most Americans viewed the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776 as a triumph. The colonies’ third-largest port had been liberated without major loss of life or property. Most British forces in North America had withdrawn from the thirteen colonies represented in the Continental Congress.

The Congress even voted to have a medal struck for Gen. George Washington, a rare honor (full story here).

But how did Washington himself view the development? On 27 March, he wrote a letter to neighbor Landon Carter about the British action:
Upon their discovery of it [i.e., the fortification on Dorchester Heights] next Morning great preparations were made for attacking us with their whole force but not being ready before the Afternoon and the Weather getting very tempestuous much Blood was Saved, and a very important blow (to one Side or the other) prevented—

That this remarkable Interposition of Providence was designed to answer some wise purpose I have no doubt of but as the proposed end of the Manouvre was to draw the Enemy to an Ingagement under disadvantageous circumstances—as a premeditated Plan was laid for this purpose—and seemd to be succeeding to my utmost wish—and as no Men could be better disposed to make the Appeal than ours seemd Upon that occasion I can scarce forbear lamenting the disappointment as we were prepared for them at all points and had a chosen Corps of 4000 Men with Boats ready to push into Boston upon a signal given if the Enemy should have sent out large detachments—

However they thinking (as we have since been informed) that we had got too formidably Posted before the Storm abated (for we Workd through the whole of it) to be much hurt by them, and apprehending great annoyance from us resolved upon a precipitate retreat & accordingly Imbarkd in as much hurry, and as much confusion as ever Troops did on the 17th Instt not having got their Transports half fitted & leaving Kings property in Boston to the amount as is supposed of thirty of £40,000 in Provisions, Stores, &ca among which many Pieces of Cannon some Mortars & a number of Shot Shells &ca are left—
On 31 March, the general repeated his language in a letter to his brother John Augustine Washington:
I can scarce forbear lamenting the disappointment, unless the dispute is drawing to an Accomodation, and the Sword going to be Sheathed.
Washington had wanted a battle for two reasons:
  • He hoped to hurt the British forces as much as at the Battle of Bunker Hill, thus convincing the government in London that the war would be too costly to continue.
  • He viewed that sort of battlefield victory as the only way for a military leader to gain honor and fame.
Over the next two years Washington kept setting up situations which he thought would force the British army to attack his troops head-on so the Continentals could inflict heavy casualties: at Brooklyn, on Manhattan, at Brandywine. Most of the time the Continental Army came off worse from those confrontations.

Only after Valley Forge did the American commander abandon his hope of battlefield glory in favor of outlasting the king’s forces—what his generals called his Fabian strategy. Washington learned that it was more disappointing to lose a big battle than not to fight it.

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