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, June 15, 2011

“To take immediate Possession of Bunker’s Hill, and Dorchester Neck”

A couple of days ago, I quoted a warning from New Hampshire to Massachusetts about the British army planning to seize the Charlestown and Dorchester peninsulas.

In response to that and other warnings, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety met on 15 June at the house of Harvard steward Jonathan Hastings and came to this conclusion:
Whereas, it appears of Importance to the Safety of this Colony, that possession of the Hill, called Bunker’s Hill, in Charlestown, be securely kept and defended; and also some one hill or hills on Dorchester Neck [i.e., peninsula] be likewise Secured. Therefore, Resolved, Unanimously, that it be recommended to the Council of War, that the abovementioned Bunker’s Hill be maintained, by sufficient force being posted there; and as the particular situation of Dorchester Neck is unknown to this Committee, they advise that the Council of War take and pursue such steps respecting the Same, as to them shall appear to be for the Security of this Colony.
As Charles Martyn interpreted the documentary evidence in his biography of Gen. Artemas Ward, that commander convened his council of war, also in the Hastings house, and decided:
Resolved in Council of War to take immediate Possession of Bunker’s Hill, and Dorchester Neck.
But Gen. John Thomas wasn’t at Ward’s council of war in Cambridge. In fact, I’m not sure whether he was at any of Ward’s councils of war. And Thomas had responsibility for Dorchester and the southern wing of the siege.

So the Committee of Safety sent two members, Joseph Palmer and Benjamin White, to meet with Thomas. And Ward’s council of war sent Gen. Israel Putnam, Col. Joseph Ward (the commander’s secretary), and Col. Samuel Gerrish to relay its resolve. They were all “to consult with the Commanding Officers at Roxbury respecting the expediency of carrying the above Resolutions into Execution.”

Thomas didn’t take the decision of Ward’s council as an order. He evidently convened his own council of war, and they concluded that they didn’t have the resources to hold the Dorchester peninsula against a likely British countermove. As a result, that area remained a no-man’s land until the following March.

Would the siege of Boston have been different if Gen. Thomas’s troops had taken possession of the Dorchester peninsula at the same time that Ward’s wing marched into Charlestown? Well, sure. But different in what way is hard to figure.

Would Gen. Thomas Gage have split his forces to attack both peninsulas, and not been able to capture either? Or would sending men into Dorchester have weakened Thomas’s defenses in Roxbury, opening the door for a British charge down the Boston Neck?

Given the topography of the Dorchester peninsula, would its hills’ defenders have been cut off? (Most of the provincials who went into Charlestown got out.) Would holding the heights of either peninsula have mattered for the New England forces when they had little to no heavy artillery? We’ll never know.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, on 15 June 1775, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army it had just created on paper.

(Above is Thomas’s headquarters in Roxbury, now known as the Dillaway-Thomas House. The photograph is by Tim Sackton via Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)


EJWitek said...

Occupation of the Dorchester Heights by the rebels was only militarily significant if that occupation included artillery; the British Generals realized this. Artillery positioned on Dorchester Heights threatened British ships in Boston Harbor and without the navy, the British could not hold Boston. The Patriots knew that they didn't have sufficient artillery to fortify both Bunker Hill and Dorchester heights. Any infantry occupation of the heights was a nuisance to the British but not of critical military importance.
The British evacuation of Boston only occurred when Henry Knox brought the cannon from northern New York and GW positioned them on Dorchester heights. It was then that Gen Howe recognized that his position was untenable because of the threat to the ships in the harbor and he decided on evacuation.

J. L. Bell said...

It looks like the provincial decision in June 1775 was aimed at preventing the British from taking the peninsulas and gaining new bases for attack. I don’t get the sense that the New England leaders thought they could do much with those positions themselves. They had artillery, but not, as you say, enough heavy guns to force the British military out.