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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Saturday, August 25, 2018

“Dorchester Hill would be a very important Post”

On 25 Aug 1775, Gen. Artemas Ward wrote from his “Camp at Roxbury” to the man who had replaced him at the head of the army besieging Boston, Gen. George Washington:

The Relations of Several Persons last out of Boston all tending to confirm our Belief that our active & restless Enemy are making large Preparation for some important Step & having ocular Demonstration that they have stript Colo. [John] Hancocks Lime Trees as well as many other Trees in Boston which we are informed was done for the Purpose of making Facines

I beg Leave to suggest to your Excellency that Dorchester Hill would be a very important Post to them as it would inevitably deprive us of the Advantage of a very considerable Part of our Works & supply the Enemy with Forage for their Cattle which we may rationally Judge is no inconsiderable Object of their Wishes:

As we ever ought to be watching a Powerful & sagacious Enemy & considering what Posts they might take which by Nature are rendered easily defensible & convenient to annoy us so also we ought carefully to consider what Steps may be taken consistent with Prudence & Safety should an Enemy in Part gain such an Ascendency—

If Sir, the Object they have in View is to entrench upon Dorchester Hill (their Facines are Indicative of entrenching or throwing up a Breast Work somewhere) I beg your Excellency to give me some Instructions relative to my Duty in that Case: I need not inform you of the Situation of the Hill nor how narrow the Passage is from the main Land to the Hill.

Whether an Attempt (should the Enemy move that Way) is to be made to dislodge them or whether they are to be permitted to go on unmolested in fortifying the Hill I shall be much obliged for particular Orders which I always shall endeavor faithfully to ex[e]cute.

I am with the greatest Respect your Excellencys most obedient Servant.
In sum, Gen. Ward worried that the British army would take possession of the Dorchester peninsula and its strategic heights, as they had taken the Charlestown heights after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He wanted to know what to do about that. As it turned out, Gens. Thomas Gage and William Howe had become convinced that the best course was to leave Boston, but they needed approval from London before acting.

Ward might have been hinting that the Continentals themselves should move onto the Dorchester peninsula to forestall a British move. But the American army was still short of gunpowder and would probably have had a hard time holding that position against a major amphibious attack. Plus, Washington was still more interested in a glorious assault on the town.

Come February, when yet another of the commander-in-chief’s proposed attacks was voted down by his council of war, he asked what those generals wanted him to do. And Ward said, no doubt more politely than this, that they should think about Dorchester Heights as he’d been saying for six months!

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