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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Saturday, March 03, 2018

“Dangerous to delay taking Post on Dorchester Hills”

On 3 Mar 1776, Gen. George Washington followed up his short note to Gen. Artemas Ward (quoted yesterday) with a full set of orders for moving onto the Dorchester peninsula on the evening of the 4th.
My Letter of last Night would inform you that the Genl Officers at this place thought it dangerous to delay taking Post on Dorchester Hills, least they should be possess’d before us by the Enemy, and therefore Involve us in difficulties which we should not know how to extricate ourselves from—this opinion they were Inclind to adopt from a belief, indeed almost a certain knowledge, of the Enemys being apprisd of our designs that way.

You should make choice of some good Regiments to go on the Morning after the Post is taken, under the Command of General [John] Thomas, the number of Men you shall judge necessary for this Relief may be orderd—I should think from two to three thousand, as circumstances may require, would be enough. I shall send you from hence two Regiments, to be at Roxbury early on Tuesday Morning to strengthen your Lines, and I shall send you to morrow Evening two Companies of Rifflemen, which with the three now there may be part of the Relief to go on with Genl Thomas. these Five Companies may be placed under the care of Captn Hugh Stephenson, subject to the Command of the Officer Commanding at the Post (Dorchester). they will I think be able to gall the Enemy sorely in their March from their Boats & in Landg.

A Blind along the Causey should be thrown up, if possible, while the other work is about; especially on the Dorchester side, as that is nearest the Enemy’s Guns, & most exposed. We calculated I think, that 800 Men would do the whole Causey with great ease in a Night, if the Marsh has not got bad to Work again, & the tide gives no great Interruption—250 Axe men I should think would soon Fell the Trees for the Abettes, but what number it may take to get them, the Fascines, Chandeliers &ca in place I know not—750 Men (the Working Party carrying their arms) will I should think be sufficient for a Covering Party. these to be Posted on Nuke-Hill. on the little hill in front of the 2d hill, looking in to Boston Bay—and near the point opposite the Castle. Sentries to be kept between the Parties, & some on the backside, looking towards Squantum.

As I have a very high opinion of the defence which may be made with Barrels from either of the Hills, I could wish you to have a number [sent] over—Perhaps single Barrels would be better than linking of them together, being less liable to accidents—the Hoops should be well Naild or else they will soon fly, & the Casks fall to Pieces.

You must take care that the Necessary notice is given to the Militia agreeable to the plan settld with General Thomas. I shall desire Colo. [Richard] Gridley & Colo. [Henry] Knox to be over tomorrow to lay out the Work—I recollect nothing more at present to mention to you; you will settle matters with the Officers with you, as what I have hear said is intended rather to convey my Ideas generally, than wishing them to be adhered to strictly.
And just in case that wasn’t enough detail, Washington’s military secretary, Robert Hanson Harrison, followed that up in the evening with another letter:
I am commanded by his Excellency to Inform you that If the wind which is from the Eastward this Evening shou’d Occasion the Tide to be rather high to morrow, and there shou’d be a probability of Its continuing so for any Time, that he wou’d not have you to call in the Militia ’till you hear further from him—as the propriety of calling them in, depends upon the circumstances of the Tide you will be enabled to form a proper Judgement from appearances To morrow—

His Excellency desires that you will be particularly attentive to the motions of the Enemy, and use every precaution in your power to discover whither they have any designs of Taking possession of Dorchester Heights, as he would by no means have them accomplish It.
Now that’s a lot of detail—Washington really seems to have been micromanaging here, even as he assured Ward that he “intended rather to convey my Ideas generally, than wishing them to be adhered to strictly.”

TOMORROW: What did Ward think of that?

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