*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In desperate need of some good news three months before the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, General George Washington and the Continental Army managed the first big colonial triumph of the American War for Independence on March 17, 1776. Two weeks after a strategic move into the hills of Dorchester Heights, the 11-month Siege of Boston — and an 8-year British occupation — had come to a close.
From the early 1760s, Britain’s colonies in North America had been under the yoke of a revenue program that attempted to bolster the profits of the East India Company’s tea imports. In order to avoid heavy taxes, Britons and colonials both organized smuggling operations to bring in cheaper Dutch teas. When Parliament opted to install a complex system of duties on a variety of goods sent to North America with the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, an old argument erupted once again — this time with far more on the line.
The debate centered on whether or not the colonies could be taxed directly by the government of Great Britain. Some residents of British America, known at the time as Whigs, argued the policies amounted to taxation without representation — the fact the colonists had no elected officials arguing their side in London made this a violation of the British Constitution. Parliament brushed aside the claims, instead reinforcing its authority to enact statutes “in all cases whatsoever” for any corner of the Empire.
Boston, of all the settlements in North America, was hit hardest. Among the major importers British tea, the capital of Massachusetts Bay sat at the top of the heap for bringing it in legally. (New York and Philadelphia had a deeply-embedded black market.) To protest Parliament’s new laws, merchants quickly organized a non-importation agreement and promoted local teas instead. When combined with product boycotts and threats to customs personnel — some of whom were corrupt — the Sons of Liberty and other political organizations, Massachusetts Bay governor Francis Bernard felt the need to request military support.
In October of 1768, red-coated British soldiers arrived in Boston to stabilize the volatile environment. Demonstrations against the government of King George III continued, the most famous resulting in the death of five civilians at the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. With the Tea Act of 1773, Parliament doubled down on taxes once again and the Sons of Liberty, becoming more frustrated with each month, responded by dumping 342 crates of tea into the harbor on December 16, 1773.
Parliament bit back with another round of laws specifically targeted at the North American colonies in April 1774. Spurred on by these “Intolerable Acts,” the rebel spirit blossomed throughout the colonies — particularly around British-occupied Massachusetts Bay. A year later, the first shots of America’s Revolutionary War were fired in the farming communities of Lexington and Concord, just 15 miles northwest of Boston. Given hope by the small victory, colonial militias swept in to blockade the port town and isolate the British.
In June 1775, the ragtag American force ceded Bunker Hill to the British, but managed to inflict heavy casualties and hold the line. General William Howe, disappointed with his losses, pulled his men into Boston confident the colonists could not muster a lethal attack — and he was right: the Americans had neither the experience to overtake his soldiers in open combat nor the firepower to keep British ships away. With constant resupply from the Royal Navy, Howe and his men might have been able to survive in Boston as long as they liked.
Fresh off his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington arrived on the outskirts of Boston in early July 1775. Immediately, he barked out orders to solidify the American position, doing his best to instill some professionalism into his untrained and undisciplined troops.
Unable to make a breakthrough by November, Washington turned to Henry Knox for a long expedition to Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York, where a host of weapons and supplies were seized from the British garrison six months before. After trudging through the snow on an arduous 300-mile roundtrip, Knox arrived at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge with 60 tons of cannons and rifles on January 24, 1776. The Continental Army finally had a chance at victory.
Over the next four weeks, Washington’s men pushed the the captured British cannon around Boston, sliding a handful of the 56 heavy guns up onto Dorchester Heights south of town. During the night of March 2nd, the Americans opened up on the British down below, starting a two-day skirmish with little consequences for either side.
Under the cover of darkness on March 5th, the Continental Army moved additional cannons and hundreds of men up to the high ground, working through the night to fortify positions against enemy fire. As the sun rose, legend has it Howe immediately expressed surprise: “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.”
Though shocked Washington seized the initiative with such an unexpected move, the British were determined to hold on to Boston if at all possible, but there was one problem: their cannons could no longer reach the American firing positions. Howe and his leadership team, knowing they would soon be cut off if the Continental Army maintained its hold on Dorchester Heights, planned an assault — then Mother Nature intervened. A storm blew in, forcing Howe to abandon the attack and opt for a retreat instead. With a handful of Loyalists and thousands of soldiers packed onto the British ships over the next ten days, all Howe needed was favorable winds to sail off.
On March 17, 1776, the Royal Navy was finally able to get underway. Some 120 ships loaded with 11,000 people pulled up anchor and left Boston Harbor by 9am. Other than mild harassment by American boats and the capture of a few British supply ships, Howe and his men floated away without incident, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia to regroup. For the first time in eight years, none of the King’s soldiers were in Boston.
Within hours, a small Continental Army unit under the command of Artemas Ward entered the town to clear the streets. By March 20th, Washington and most of his soldiers were able to join them. Their stay would be short, however: two weeks later, the Americans would move southwest to New York City for the next phase in the war.
Shamed by the defeat, the British officers were largely criticized by the public — some of them would never again take command of soldiers in the field. Energized by the retreat, the Continental Army would officially be fighting for its sovereignty after the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence four months later on July 4th.
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