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, August 25, 2008

Rumors of British “Boasting the 25th August”

Between the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775 and the British evacuation of Boston around 17 Mar 1776, the siege lines around Boston didn’t move much. Most history books skip quickly over those months. But for the officers and men of the time, they were full of rumors, feints, and anxieties. We know nothing big was about to happen; they didn’t.

On 26 Aug 1775, Col. Jedediah Huntington (shown here, courtesy of the Huntington Family Association) wrote in a letter:

We have been told that our enemies have for some time past been boasting the 25th August, intending then to make a visit to us, and that General [Thomas] Gage has given Earl Percy the command of the lines on the Neck, who is to exhibit such proofs of his military abilities as will retrieve the honor he lost at the Lexington affray; but matters remain this morning in statu quo.
That night, the American army acted to forestall the British. Gen. John Sullivan led three to five thousand soldiers forward to take possession of Ploughed Hill, commanding the road out of Charlestown. (Here’s his report on the advance. Ploughed Hill is now known as Mount Benedict, with a peak elevation of 62 feet.)

In response, on Sunday the 27th, the Royal Artillery started firing from Bunker Hill and two floating batteries, joined by a Royal Navy ship. I quoted Lt. John Barker’s characteristically cranky account of those days last year. The British had in fact planned an attack in late August, according to Barker, but on Dorchester instead of Cambridge. And in the end Gen. Sir William Howe called it off.

On 31 August, Gen. George Washington reported to Congress:
Last Saturday night we took possession of a Hill considerably advanced beyond our former Lines, which brought on a very heavy cannonade from the Enemy on Bunkers Hill, and afterwards a Bombardment, which has since been kept up but with little Spirit on their side or Damage on ours. The Work having been continued ever since, is now so advanced and the Men so well covered as leave us under no Apprehensions of much farther Loss. In this Affair we had killed, one Adjutant, one Volunteer and two Privates.
The Royal Artillery continued to lob balls and bombs at the Continental siege lines, mostly unanswered because of low supplies of gunpowder, until 10 September. So even though almost nothing changed, everybody kept very busy.

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