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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Monday, March 05, 2018

Men Who Brought Us Dorchester Heights

On 5 Mar 1776, Gen. William Howe and his colleagues in the British military woke up to find Continental troops positioned and protected on the heights of the Dorchester peninsula. The cannon up there threatened not only Boston, already under artillery fire from other positions, but the all-important naval and supply ships in the harbor.

The person who deserves the most credit for making the move onto Dorchester Heights possible was Lt. Col. Rufus Putnam, one of the Continentals’ self-taught engineers. As shown by his 11 February letter (quoted here), he knew that soldiers going on to those hills would have to fortify their positions to hold off a British counterattack. But digging in would be hard because the ground was hard—still frozen at the end of the winter.

When Putnam wrote that letter, he could only imagine a long, costly operation that would require fortifying the entire “causeway” or low, narrow approach onto the peninsula. Then, however, Putnam stumbled across a better solution in a book belonging to Gen. William Heath. Some year I’ll tell that whole story. For now, I’ll summarize by saying that Putnam realized the army could build wooden structures in advance of the move, assemble them on the heights, and strengthen them with dirt. Those walls, while not as strong as an earthen fort, would be enough to protect the men as they dug in further.

William Davis, a Boston merchant, suggested adding “Rows of barrels filled with earth” to those fortifications. Heath wrote:
They presented only the appearance of strengthening the works; but the real design was, in case the enemy made an attack, to have rolled them down the hill. They would have descended with such increasing velocity, as must have thrown the assailants into the utmost confusion, and have killed and wounded great numbers.
Heath took credit of relaying Davis’s idea to Gen. George Washington, who loved it.

Finally, the timing of the operation was the brainchild of quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin (shown above), according to the Rev. William Gordon’s eyewitness history of the Revolution. Gordon wrote, “A council of war was called to fix the time for going upon the heights.” However, he didn’t state a date or place for that meeting, and there’s no record of it in Washington’s papers. Perhaps it was a smaller, more informal group than a “council of war.”

Mifflin was brought into the meeting since he was responsible for supplying the carpenters, wood, wagons, tools, and other material essential to the operation Putnam had suggested. Never a shy man, Mifflin also shared his bright idea:
He went prepossessed in favor of the night of March the 4th, a friend having reminded him, that probably the action would be the next day; and that it would have a wonderful effect upon the spirits of the New Englanders, to tell them when about engaging—“Remember the fifth of March, and avenge yourselves for the massacre at Boston.” When required to give his opinion, he spake in favor of the aforementioned night, and supported it in opposition to the contrary sentiment of gen. [Horatio] Gates, who for some reasons deemed it an improper time. After a debate, it was carried for that night, by a majority of one.
Washington would have preferred an even earlier date, though it’s not clear the army would have been ready until the 4th. That night also offered a nearly full moon for the work.

As it turned out, the British were never able to mount an attack on the Continentals’ new position. Gen. Howe was of two minds about that idea, the weather turned bad, and the men on the heights kept working to make their position even stronger. Less than two weeks later, the British military abandoned Boston.

The barrels never got rolled down the hill.

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