- Historic Sites
Providence Rides a Storm
Had a tempest not thwarted his plans, George Washington might have lost the Revolution in the first major operation he commanded
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
The decision to postpone everything, Washington commented to Congress, “being almost unanimous, I suppose must be right,” yet he was still in favor of an immediate assault. Of course, “the irksomeness of my situation … might have inclined me to put more to the hazard than was consistent with prudence.” Yet he had considered the matter very carefully. How the planter and wilderness fighter, long used to improvisation, emphasized will over means is revealed by his “firm hope” that, “if the men would have stood by me,” an assault would have triumphed “notwithstanding the enemy’s advantage of ground, artillery, etc.”
For months, Washington had been developing an artillery corps of his own. Since he was perpetually urging his officers to make up for their lack of experience by reading, he was impressed by a very fat but surprisingly active young man who almost always had an artillery manual in his hand. On better acquaintance, Henry Knox proved to be strong (despite his obesity) as well as clever, gay, and amiable. Furthermore, whenever the former Boston bookseller had been given anything at all to work with, he had been able to improvise something that would function at least pretty well. The Massachusetts leaders also admired Knox. Washington had, therefore, put him in charge of the artillery. During the previous November, as soon as snow had smoothed rutty roads so that heavy objects could be pulled over them on sledges, Knox had been sent off to Ticonderoga, several hundred miles away, to fetch the cannon that had been captured with that royal fort. By early February, he had succeeded in dragging fifty-nine field pieces to Cambridge. Although many were rusty, cumbersome, and antiquated, the patriots felt that they now had, in Knox’s words, “a noble train of artillery” (see “Big Guns for Washington” in the April, 1955, AMERICAN HERITAGE ).
When his plan for attacking across the ice was abandoned, Washington worked out with his officers a plan for using this artillery. Penetrating the bay to the southeast of Boston Neck was still another peninsula, Dorchester. Inland on this broad neck, but still within two miles of Boston, were heights from which, so Washington wrote, cannon could “command a great part of the town and also the whole harbor.” Furthermore, jutting out from the Dorchester peninsula on the Boston side was another hill, known as Nook’s Hill, which was separated from the city only by a half-mile-wide channel. The council of general officers decided to prepare so that, when the necessary powder arrived, they could plant the cannon first on Dorchester Heights and then, if possible, on Nook’s Hill.
The strategic importance of the hills had long been recognized by both commands. However, the Americans had been incapable of making effective use of them until Knox appeared with the cannon. And for the British to have occupied them would have overextended their lines, which were already long in relation to the size of their army. Furthermore, any British force on Dorchester would have been vulnerable to a surprise assault, since the peninsula abutted on the patriot-held mainland and was separated from Boston by water barely passable in bad weather.
Even after his spies had told him that Washington intended to fortify Dorchester Heights, General William Howe, the British commander, reasoned that he should let the rebels try and then, by blasting or driving them out before they could get a foothold, return the hills to their role as no man’s land. He knew that the rebels were good at burying themselves like moles, but the ground was frozen too solid for such digging.
But for two months now Washington had been preparing materials that could be used for fortifications on frozen earth. Men not guarding the lines or building barracks had been kept busy tying together “fascines”—bundles of sticks about three feet thick and four feet long—or nailing up “chandeliers”— frames in which these fascines would be placed. Others had been collecting hay and twisting it into great bundles. Carts were now mobilized to carry all these supplies to Dorchester Heights, and spades were sharpened so that at least a little dirt could be hacked out of the frozen ground to hold the equipment down.
As these American preparations went on, the British seemed to be preparing to evacuate Boston. Four or five hundred men actually sailed away under the British second-in-command, General Henry Clinton. The rest of the shipping in the harbor was being mobilized, and some mortars were taken down from Bunker Hill.
Although Washington feared a feint to put him off his guard, there was the possibility that the British actually intended to move. A few months before, this prospect would have delighted him, as he would have assumed that the departing enemy was going back to England. But since then, public statements by George III had made it clear that the British would continue the war until they were defeated. Knowing that they had control of the ocean, Washington now had to assume that they would evacuate Boston only to move to some more strategically advantageous American harbor, probably New York. Since the patriots would their be in a worse position than now, more might be lost than gained by simply dislodging the British from Boston. Washington concluded that he should try to crush the British before they could get away.