Providence Rides a Storm

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That George Washington drove the British out of Boston in early March 1776 is known to almost every schoolboy who has studied the American Revolution, but a disturbing aspect of this crucial event is not recognized even by most of the experts. One may read biographies of Washington, and military histories of the Revolution, without coming on more than a stray hint. This omission has undoubtedly occurred because the story flies in the face of the traditional Washington legend. But a thorough study of the facts makes abundantly clear how innocent Washington was of military know-how in the early stages of the war, before he taught himself in the school of experience to be a soldier vastly superior to his professional opponents.

The maneuver that succeeded in driving the British out of Boston was only the first, and to Washington the less important, step in his strategic plan. The second half of the plan was aimed at nothing less than the annihilation of the British army. However, what Washington intended was so badly thought out and so foolhardy that it might well have resulted in the destruction of his own army, it is doubtful that in this early stage of the war, well before American independence had been declared, the patriot cause could have survived such a blow.

Everything was ready for the potentially disastrous effort when the unforeseeable intervened: the move was blocked by what lawyers call “an act of God”; Washington himself described it—ruefully, in disappointment—as “a remarkable interposition of Providence.”

Ever since Washington had taken over the command of the Continental Army almost a year before, the war had been a stalemate. (The battles at Lexington and Concord and the one at Bunker Hill had been fought before Washington’s arrival.) The British occupied two paddle-shaped peninsulas that stretched out into Boston Harbor: Boston Neck, on which the city of Boston stood, and Charlestown Neck, the broad end of which was separated from the city only by a minor channel. The narrow isthmuses where the two necks joined the mainland were so heavily fortified that no force could move across them in either direction, except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Along the jagged shore line of the intervening bay, Washington’s army was encamped in defensive positions. He himself kept his headquarters in the university town of Cambridge, which was three miles back from the bay.

Such had been the situation when Washington joined his army. He had strengthened fortifications and drilled men and recruited and gathered supplies, but shortages of everything had plagued his efforts, and he had never been able to do anything toward advancing the cause. This was as anguishing to him as to anyone else. He had hoped to bring the matter to a conclusion and be back at his Virginia plantation by the fall of 1775, but winter arrived with nothing definite accomplished.

With the winter came snow, snow such as Washington had seldom encountered in Virginia. It imposed silence and seemed to dim out the world; yet as he lay sleepless in the dark, Washington felt “the Eyes of the whole Continent fixed with anxious expectation” upon him. He knew that he was being criticized for allowing a large and expensive army to sit motionless month after month. Although he did not put the whole blame on Congress for the chronic shortages he had suffered of money, arms, tents, gunpowder, and engineers—”I dare say the demands upon them are greater than they can supply”—he nonetheless found it discouraging that Congress seemed “to look upon this as the season for action, but will not furnish the means.”

When morning came, he would go to the bay and jump up and down on the ice. There were times when he judged that it was strong enough to carry his army all the way to the British. Shortages or no, surely this presented an opportunity to be seized!

Accordingly, in mid-February, 1776, Washington notified a council of his general officers that their army had, or expected soon to have, 16,077 men. His spies reported that the enemy had only 5,000 fit for duty. These would be kept so busy by a “bold and resolute push” across the ice that the Americans would have to leave only a skeleton garrison to protect their camp and could bring virtually their whole force to bear, overwhelming the British. The battle might well “put a final end to the war and restore [the] peace and tranquillity so much wished for.”

As he argued for such a battle, Washington scanned the faces of his generals without seeing any kindling of enthusiasm in their eyes. The reply came that with Tory irregulars the British numbered many more than 5,000 (this was correct); that 2,000 of the patriots lacked arms; that, in fact, a strong force would have to be left to hold the American lines. And, in any case, an assault should be preceded by several days of bombardment. Washington then asked whether the bombardment could be begun “with the present stock of powder.” His officers voted to wait for an adequate supply, and the General concurred.