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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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“A General Assault upon the Town”?

On 16 Feb 1776, Gen. George Washington summoned his top generals—Artemas Ward, Israel Putnam, John Thomas, William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Sullivan, and Horatio Gates—to a council of war at his headquarters. Such a discussion among top officers was standard operating procedure in the British army, and the Continental Congress had instructed Washington to convene councils before major decisions.

The minutes of this council of war preserve the generalissimo’s big proposal:

His Excellency, the Commander-in-chief, informed the Council, that…the Regiments of the United Colonies, at these encampments, by Saturday’s return, amounted to eight thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven men fit for duty, besides officers, and one thousand four hundred and five men on command, which might be ordered to join their respective Regiments immediately.

That our Stock of powder was so small as to afford but little aid from cannon and mortars; and, therefore, that small-arms must be our principal reliance in any event, till a supply could be obtained.

That in the state Boston harbour has been all this year, and now is, a bombardment might probably destroy the town, without doing much damage to the Ministerial troops within it, as there were transports [i.e., ships], wooded and watered, with a view, more than probable, to take them in upon any sudden emergency, consequently, that might not produce the desired effect, if those transports were sufficient for the embarkation of the Army.

That from the best intelligence which had been procured, the strength of the Army in Boston did not much exceed five thousand men, fit for duty. That considerable reinforcements were expected, and, when arrived, they would undoubtedly endeavour to penetrate into the country, if their strength should be sufficient, or remove to some other part of the Continent, if not; and, thereby, greatly harass and fatigue our troops, by constant marching and countermarching, for which, in the present situation of affairs, they neither were, nor could be provided.

Therefore, that a stroke, well aimed, at this critical juncture, might put a final end to the war, and restore peace and tranquillity, so much to be wished for.

For these reasons, and under these circumstances, and as part of Cambridge and Roxbury Bays were so frozen as to admit an easier entry into the town of Boston than could be obtained, either by water or through the lines on the Neck, the General desired to know the sentiments of the General Officers respecting a general assault upon the town.
Washington wanted to push the British military out of Boston with a glorious attack. He wanted to do something. For weeks he’d planned an assault across the frozen mudflats on either side of the Boston Neck and across the frozen Charles River. He hoped such an infantry attack would capture or wipe out most of the British force in North America, thus hobbling the empire and bringing the Revolutionary War to an end after less than a year.

The other generals didn’t share his thinking.
The question being put, and their opinion demanded, [the council] Resolved, That an assault on the town of Boston, in the present circumstances of the Continental Army, is, for the following reasons, judged improper:

Because, it is the opinion of this Council, that the King’s forces in Boston, comprehending new-raised corps, and armed Tories, amount to a much larger number than five thousand, furnished with artillery, assisted by a fleet, and possessed of every advantage the situation of the place affords. The officers, in proportion to the number of men, are so many, that the troops there may be said, with propriety, to be doubly officered.

Because our Army is at present very defective in the numbers this Council declared to be sufficient for the purposes of offensive war; and, also, deficient in arms to the amount of two thousand stand. . . .

Because, it appears to the Council, by the report of a majority of the General’s commanding Brigades, that upon discoursing with the Field-Officers of their respective Regiments upon the subject of an assault, they, in general, declared a disapprobation of the measure, as exceedingly doubtful.

Because, if an assault should be found practicable and expedient at any time, it was declared highly necessary, that it should, for some days, be preceded by a cannonade and bombardment.
So after all Washington’s planning, after making all those PowerPoint slides, he didn’t convince anybody to go with his plan. So he asked his colleagues—perhaps still hoping they’d see their error—if they really wanted to go with plan B.
His Excellency the Commander-in-chief, then required the opinion of the Council, whether it would be advisable to begin a cannonade and bombardment, with the present stock of powder?

Resolved, That a cannonade and bombardment will be expedient and advisable, as soon as there shall be a proper supply of powder, and not before; and that, in the mean time, preparations should be made to take possession of Dorchester-Hill, with a view of drawing out the enemy, and of Noddle’s Island, if the situation of the water, and other circumstances will admit of it.
Gen. Ward had in fact been pushing his colleagues to take control of Dorchester since before Washington had arrived in Cambridge, though his plans were never detailed. And Col. Henry Knox’s arrival the previous month with cannons from Fort Ticonderoga meant that the Americans now had enough heavy artillery to do something with that peninsula besides just keep the British from grabbing it.

So that’s how the Continental Army ended up mounting many of those cannons on Dorchester Heights—because it seemed smarter than Gen. Washington’s plan, but it was still doing something.

TOMORROW: And how did that plan work out?

(Photo of Washington’s headquarters in winter by j-fi, available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


Patty said...

I love your blog, I've learned more history from here than I ever did in class :) Thanks for posting!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the kind words! We won’t tell your history teachers.