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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Sunday, March 05, 2023

“Two Redoubts on the Heights of Dorchester”

On 5 Mar 1776, the British military and their supporters inside Boston got their first look at the brand-new Continental fortification on Dorchester heights.

We have remarks on this sight from several British army officers. Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment wrote: “This Morning Works were perceived to be thrown up on Dorchester Heights, very strong ones tho’ only the labour of one night”.

Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble recorded:
Discovered the Rebels had raised two Redoubts on the Heights of Dorchester, at which they were at Work very hard, and had raised to the height of a Man’s head, and had as many Men as could be employed on them.
The 15 May Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser quoted a letter from “an Officer of Distinction at Boston” writing more hyperbolically:
This is, I believe, likely to prove as important a day to the British Empire as any in our annals. . . .

This morning at day-break we discovered two redoubts on the hills on Dorchester Point, and two smaller works on their flanks. They were all raised during the night, with an expedition equal to that of the Genii belonging to Aladin’s wonderful lamp. From these hills they commanded the whole town, so that we must drive them from their post, or desert the place.
Probably the most perceptive observations came from Capt.-Lt. Archibald Robertson (1745–1813, shown above), who focused an engineer’s eyes on the works:
About 10 o’clock at night [on 4 March] Lieutenant Colonel [John] Campbell reported to Brigadier [Francis] Smith that the Rebels were at work on Dorchester heights, and by day break we discovered that they had taken possession of the two highest hills, the Tableland between the necks, and run a Parapet across the two necks, besides a kind of Redout at the Bottom of Centry Box hill near the neck. The Materials for the whole Works must all have been carried, Chandeleers, fascines, Gabions, Trusses of hay pressed and Barrels, a most astonshing nights work must have Employ’d from 15 to 20,000 men.
The Continental force was large but not that large. Nonetheless, Robertson was right that fortifying the high points of the Dorchester peninsula was the most impressive logistical feat the New England army had carried off so far.

TOMORROW: Gen. William Howe’s response.


Unknown said...

Military leaders on both sides recognized the strategic importance of Dorchester Heights to controlling Boston and its harbor. With the arrival of British generals Howe, Burgoyne,and Clinton and sufficient troops, General Thomas Gage planned to fortify Dorchester Heights by June 18, followed by the Charlestown Hills. By June 14, 1775, Gage's plan was known all over Boston, and his opponents beat him to the punch by fortifying Breed's Hill in Charlestown (easier than fortifying Dorchester Heights). Although the British won the erroneously named Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 (with high casualties),they lost when the Continental army got to Dorchester Heights first and erected two redoubts. Robertson was rightly impressed with the enemy; not so much with his superior officers!

J. L. Bell said...

The British army actually raided the Dorchester peninsula a few weeks before the Continentals made their move. They probably thought that the heavily fortified Castle William nearby, the ships in the harbor, and such raids would keep those heights as neutral ground.

Both sides had seen how poorly the provincials had organized their move onto the Charlestown peninsula in the preceding June. They had time then to built one small redoubt and a few improvised protective barriers. The men who did the digging ended up having to fight the battle. The army couldn’t bring on enough artillery, gunpowder, or reinforcements. So the provincials lost, even though they still inflicted tremendous casualties.

To their great credit, the New England army and its new commander learned from Bunker Hill. The move onto the Dorchester heights was carefully planned out, well supplied and well manned. It was a stronger maneuver than the British had seen so far.

Gen. William Howe almost didn’t apply the lesson of Bunker Hill. Having been the field commander in Charlestown, he had already decided to leave Boston for a more friendly base. Nonetheless, Howe at first ordered an assault on the Dorchester heights. Luckily for him, he was thwarted by the weather.