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, March 16, 2019

“His Excellency is apprehensive”

On 16 Mar 1776, the British military still hadn’t evacuated Boston.

To be fair, that wasn’t for lack of trying. The previous day, Capt. John Barker wrote in his journal:
The Wind being fair at 12 oclock in the day, the Troops were order’d under Arms in order to embark; but after waiting some time returned to their Quarters, the Wind having shifted.
As far back as 9 March, a British officer wrote: “I have slept one night on board [a transport ship]; the troops are embarking as fast as possible.”

But that wasn’t fast enough to reassure Gen. George Washington. Within a few days of the Continental move onto Dorchester heights, Gen. William Howe had signaled through the Boston selectmen that he was pulling out. Washington had responded by ordering the Continental artillery to hold back, as his military secretary Robert Hanson Harrison wrote to Gen. Artemas Ward:
It is his desire that you give peremptory Orders to the Artillery Officer commandg at Lams Dam [in Roxbury], that he must not fire upon the Town of Boston tonight unless the Enemy first begin a Cannonade, and that you Inform the Officer at Dorchester heights that he is not to fire from thence on the Town—If they begin, and we have any Cannon on Nuke Hill, his Excellency wou’d have the fire to be returned from thence among the Shipping and every damage [don]e them that possibly can.

Notwithstanding the accounts received of [the] Enemy’s being about to evacuate the Town with all seeming hurry & expedition, his Excellency is apprehensive that Genl Howe has some design of having a brush before his departure and is only waiting in hopes of findg us of[f] our Guard
What Harrison called “Nuke Hill” was more commonly known as Nook’s Hill or Foster’s Hill. It was the corner of the Dorchester peninsula closest to Boston. The Continentals had started to fortify that position, but then backed off after a British artillery attack killed a man and the commanders reached their “tacit agreement.”

But now it was a week later, and the British hadn’t left. “Still detained by the Wind,” Barker wrote on Saturday, 16 March. Selectman Timothy Newell reported only “Rain” and looting.

Gen. Washington had had enough. He ordered Continental soldiers back to Nook Hill, where they completed building an artillery emplacement without suffering any casualties from British fire. From that position they could hit both the town of Boston and the scores of ships gathered in the harbor.

TOMORROW: Gone at last.

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