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, February 12, 2018

Reconnoitering the Dorchester Peninsula with the Generals

As I discussed yesterday, in early February 1776 Gen. George Washington and his engineers were discussing whether it was feasible to move onto the Dorchester peninsula and mount cannon there to threaten British shipping.

On 12 February, the commander-in-chief took some of his top advisors to look at the ground themselves. We know that from a letter written the next day by Capt. John Chester of Connecticut:
Yesterday the Generals went on to Dorchester Hill & point to view & plan out the works to be done there, Knox and Gridley were with them.—Their plan I cannot as yet find out.—
Col. Richard Gridley was the Continental Army’s Chief Engineer, in charge of planning and building fortifications. Until the fall he had also been in charge of the artillery. But after being wounded at Bunker Hill, he had gone home to recuperate, lost operational control of that regiment, and lost the confidence of the new commander.

In October, Washington had convinced the Continental Congress to kick Gridley upstairs with his new title. The new artillery colonel was Henry Knox, a full forty years younger than the veteran he replaced.

Since he was stationed in Cambridge, Chester didn’t see what happened in Dorchester, but he got some word about the planning from a man who had gone onto the peninsula, Gen. Israel Putnam:
Gen. Putnam says Gridley laid out works enough for our whole army [to build] for two years if the frost was to continue in that time & in short thinks we cannot do much to purpose there while the frost is in ye ground.
The ground on the heights was still so winter hard that it would take days or weeks of digging to construct fortifications there. And of course the British military would strike back as soon as they saw what their enemy was up to. The Royal Artillery had cannon and mortars mounted on Boston Neck easily able to hit the low ground that led on to the Dorchester peninsula. Plus, there were thousands of soldiers in town.

Chester continued:
Something droll Happen’d as they were on the Point & within call of the Enemy. They observed two [British] officers on full speed on Horses from the Old to the New lines & concluded they were about to order the Artillery levelled at them. Just that instant they observed a fellow Deserting from us to them. This set em all a running & Scampering for life except the lame Col. Gridley & Putnam who never runs & tarried to wait on Gridley. They had left their Horses 1/2 a mile back & feard the Enemy might attempt to encompass them.
Fortunately for the Continental cause, this scouting mission didn’t end with the commander-in-chief, third-in-command in the theater, chief engineer, artillery commander, and perhaps other generals being captured or torn apart by artillery fire.

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