In mid-1775, the British troops seize Bunker Hill, and soon after they invade Boston. However, they don't try to seize Dorchester Heights, just outside of Boston, even though many point out that it’s the most important point from which to defend the city. Many British generals propose that the troops leave Boston and relocate to New York, a better tactical location. But by the time General William Howe receives orders from England to leave Boston, it’s too cold, and the troops are forced to stay.
The decision not to take Dorchester Heights is one of many tactical blunders by General William Howe, the leader of the British military effort in America. Howe receives his orders from England in delay because of the time it takes to travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
Winter in America is a challenge for the British soldiers. Soldiers freeze to death standing outside on watch, and keeping warm seems impossible. The soldiers cut down trees in the surrounding area for firewood, and food remains scarce. Nevertheless, some of the more high-ranking British soldiers manage to enjoy their time. They attend plays commissioned by General Howe, many of them satirizing the American soldiers.
The British military’s experience in Boston emphasizes the strong class divisions in British society: upper-class British officers thrive while their inferiors starve and freeze. For an army that is already suffering from low morale, such stark class differences would only serve to further demoralize low-ranking British troops.
British commander General William Howe is well known for being an indulgent, fun-loving man. He’s rumored to be in an adulterous relationship with a woman named Elizabeth Loring, the wife of a Boston Loyalist (i.e., a supporter of King George III). William Howe, along with his brother Richard Howe (George III’s Lord Admiral of the Navy), belong to a wealthy English family. William Howe is respected for his bravery, though he’s also rumored to be too “soft” for war. Howe is particularly shaken by the carnage at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Howe is also rumored to dislike his second-in-command, Henry Clinton.
General Howe is a powerful, well-connected man, and he’s clearly no coward. Nevertheless, the passage gives the impression that Howe and his brother have been chosen for their posts because of their aristocratic heritage, not their talents in warcraft. In many ways, General Howe seems too inexperienced to be running the British military in America. For instance, a commander who’s shocked by the carnage of battle is not the best candidate for running a war effort.
The British army takes a different approach to appointing generals than the American army. America gives leadership opportunities to lower-class men like Greene, while Britain’s army reflects the structure of British society, with aristocrats taking the top jobs.
The British and American militaries reflect the differences in British and American society at the time. American society is more meritocratic, offering working-class people like Nathanael Green opportunities for advancement.
Meanwhile, the British have little intelligence on the Americans, and don’t know that the Americans are running low on supplies. On January 14, George Washington writes a letter to Joseph Reed, explaining that his army is near collapse. He lists various problems: no gunpowder or money, and too many deserters and undisciplined troops. He suggests that he should never have agreed to lead the American army.
Despite his reputation for level-headed and unflinching leadership, George Washington frequently expresses fear and regret to his close confidant, Joseph Reed. However, Washington is a strong leader who understands the importance of appearances, and he keeps his fears private.
In the week before writing his letter to Reed, Washington takes an important step. With the approval of the Continental Congress, Washington sends General Charles Lee to New York, recognizing that the city needs to be protected from a possible British invasion. On January 17, Washington receives the worst news so far: the expedition that he sent to attack British troops in Quebec was defeated, and many Americans were killed or wounded.
As 1776 begins, Washington continues to experience setback after setback. Though 1776 is often remembered as a glorious year in American history, the passage suggests that it’s also full of defeat and disappointment.
On January 18, Knox returns from Fort Ticonderoga, bringing good news: he’s brought back the cannons. Knox pulled the cannons across frozen Lake George using enormous sleds. During the dangerous journey, one of the cannons broke through the ice and sank—but Knox manages to recover it and returns with all the cannons, and thousands more guns. This event strengthens Washington’s trust in Knox and gives the American troops momentary hope that the stalemate in Boston might soon change.
Knox earns Washington’s trust by succeeding in his mission. This reinforces McCullough’s point about the meritocracy and upward mobility of the American army at the time: Knox succeeds and wins respect because of his talent, not his family name.
George Washington is encouraged by the retrieval of the cannons, but he knows that his army is still weak. As January presses on, the temperature drops further. In February, Washington confers with his generals and proposes attacking Boston. The generals determine, again, that the attack is a bad idea. However, they propose luring the British army out to Dorchester, and then attacking Boston while some of the troops are away.
As before, Washington proves himself to be a sober, realistic military strategist. He genuinely values his generals’ opinions, allowing them to modify his plan to invade Boston.
The American troops plan to occupy Dorchester late at night. Using their new cannons, they’ll defend their position and build fortifications. To distract the British from the noise of building, Washington suggests artillery fire from Cobble Hill. He allocates 3,000 men to fortify Dorchester and another 4,000 to attack Boston once the British have gone out to Dorchester. To keep the operation secret, Washington forbids any messages from being sent to Boston.
In part because his army is weaker and undersupplied, Washington has to rely on secrecy and strategy to defeat the British. As his generals have just told him, he can’t possibly defeat the British in a head-on conflict. Therefore, Washington’s best option is to take the British by surprise and divide their attention by seizing Dorchester.
The operation begins with Washington’s troops firing on Boston. The British fire back, though neither side does much damage. For two nights leading up to March 4, the firing continues. Meanwhile, American troops march out to Dorchester Heights and begin setting up fortifications. They work hard, and by the dawn the fortifications are finished—a “phenomenal achievement.” When General William Howe sees what the Americans have done, he says, “These fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.”
Even though Washington has yet to win an actual battle against the British, he distinguishes himself as an excellent general in other ways. By this time, his soldiers act very efficiently, suggesting that Washington has managed to introduce some organization and discipline in his ranks after all.
The British forces are intimidated by the Americans’ move into Dorchester. General Howe orders 2,000 of his men to march to Dorchester, and they leave by noon on March 5. However, there’s a horrible storm that evening, and Howe calls off the attack before the troops have arrived. It’s unclear exactly when Howe decides to cancel the attack. He may have recognized that it was a mistake to send British troops to Dorchester, and then used the storm as an “easy out,” rather than admitting his mistake.
It’s instructive to compare Howe’s decision-making process with Washington’s. Washington allows his generals to talk him out of bad decisions. Howe, it’s suggested, doesn’t accept as much input from his inferiors, and as a result has to back out of a bad decision to save face.
In less than a day, the Americans have leveled a significant attack on Britain’s control over Boston. Now that the Americans control Dorchester, it’s unclear how much longer the British will be able to last in Boston. Rather abruptly, General Howe commands Britain’s troops to leave Boston at once, rather than wait for the Americans to attack. Howe organizes ships to carry away the troops, along with any Loyalists who want to come. On the night of March 9, Howe orders the British to bombard the American troops, but the bombardment kills only four people.
It’s a sign of Washington’s tactical genius that he manages to force the British out of Boston without facing them in head-on conflict. Even if his army is too weak to defeat the British directly, it’s efficient and organized enough to outmaneuver the British, humiliating General Howe and his forces.
On March 10, General Howe announces that he has arranged for Loyalist townspeople to be sailed away from Boston. For Boston Loyalists, this is a daunting offer. Most of them have never lived anywhere but Boston, and they’re frightened about leaving, especially since Howe is secretive about where the ships are bound (some say Nova Scotia). More than one thousand Loyalists board the British ships, including many Harvard graduates and other elites.
The decision of so many Loyalists to flee Boston is an indication of the war’s shifting tides. The Loyalists who leave are likely very afraid of what might become of them when the Revolutionaries retake Boston.
Also March 10, General Howe orders all Bostonians to surrender any supplies that might be useful to the American troops. He claims that Bostonians will be compensated with certificates from England for doing so, but most people in the city understand that these certificates are worthless. Howe instructs Crean Brush, a prominent Loyalist, to buy up any valuables using these certificates. Brush takes advantage of the authority he has been given, and uses force to steal precious resources from locals. This prompts a series of riots as soldiers plunder the town. A week later, the British leave Boston.
In the British forces’ final days in Boston, chaos breaks out. While William Howe appears to be sincere in his desire to compensate Bostonians fairly for their possessions, the effect of his plan is to rob Bostonians of their property and give them worthless certificates in return. (It’s worth noting, however, that Washington’s forces engage in somewhat similar behavior later on in New York.)
On the morning of March 17, the American troops realize that the English are leaving Boston. That afternoon, they march into Boston. The next day, Washington begins a survey of the city to assess the damage. He finds that the British have robbed Boston of much of its wealth, though the town itself isn’t in bad shape. Buildings are still standing, and there are still bushels of wheat and hay, along with many horses. Washington puts Nathanael Greene in charge of Boston while he plans his next move.
It’s a mark of Washington’s respect for Nathanael Greene (and, implicitly, a mark of the meritocratic structure of the American army) that he gives Greene so much responsibility.
Aboard the British ships, many of the soldiers wonder what William Howe is planning. Loyalist civilians in particular are terrified that they’ll never return to Boston. By March 27, it’s announced that the ships will be sailing to Halifax. Meanwhile, Washington sends the good news to the Continental Congress, which designs a gold medal in Washington’s honor. The news of Howe’s defeat in Boston arrives in England in early May, prompting a wave of outrage in Parliament.
Washington is widely regarded as a hero for his military strategies in Dorchester, even though he only ordered the occupation of Dorchester after his generals talked him out of invading Boston itself. In this way, it’s suggested that Washington is an effective general because he knows how to take advice, not simply because of his own talents.
The assault on Dorchester has been a resounding success for the American army. Washington has defeated William Howe, a far more experienced general. Furthermore, he’s waged a military campaign while also negotiating with the Continental Congress for money, showing that he’s a good politican as well as a great tactician. He has also cultivated relationships with exemplary leaders from New England (such as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox) and no longer speaks ill of New Englanders as a result. Meanwhile, many prominent thinkers in America, including Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense, begin lobbying for a declaration of independence from Britain.
After the Siege of Boston, as it’s often called, the entire American army becomes more strongly united as soldiers from different colonies learn to trust and respect one another. The victory in Boston also emboldens the Founding Fathers to push for more radical changes in America. Rather than trying to restore the status quo, they now begin lobbying for total separation from the British Empire.
Emboldened by his success, George Washington begins sending troops to New York in anticipation of another British invasion. Many of the American troops welcome the opportunity to leave cold Massachusetts. By April 4, Washington and his troops have begun the march to New York.
Spirits are high among American troops as the spring begins, even as the possibility of another invasion looms on the horizon.