Providence Rides a Storm

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British regulars, Washington reasoned, would not cravenly embark under the threat of guns placed on Dorchester. If the patriot positions could withstand the cannonading that would certainly be the enemy’s first reaction—and Washington intended to see that they could—surely Howe would feel that the honor of his army required an assault with musket and bayonet. This would create another Bunker Hill, with the enemy forced, after crossing open water, to charge uphill against entrenched patriots firing down on them.

The ice having melted, Washington collected a flotilla of small boats in the Charles River, which flowed past Cambridge into the harbor. If the British should attack Dorchester Heights in sufficient numbers to weaken the Boston garrison, 4,000 patriots would climb into the little boats and cast off in two divisions.

After three “floating batteries” (each consisting of one twelve-pounder) had been rowed into position and had softened up the beachhead, the first wave would land on Boston Common and seize the two hills there, Beacon Hill and Mount Horam. The second wave would then land a little further south. The two forces would meet, advance against the unfortified rear of the British lines on Boston Neck, smash those lines, and let into town another patriot force that would be waiting at Roxbury. Then it would be just a matter of mopping up the British army.

Considering the plan “well digested,” and made confident by “the cheerfulness and alacrity” of the subordinates to whom he had entrusted the preparations, Washington saw “reason to hope for a favorable and happy issue.” Yet he was not entirely free of personal forebodings. To his wife’s brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett, he expressed concern about his title to some wilderness lands at the confluence of the savage Kanawha and the wild Ohio: “In the worst event,” they would serve him “for an asylum.”

On February 27, Washington’s general orders sent quakes of excitement and fear through the thousands of human beings around him: “As the season is now fast approaching when every man must expect to be drawn into the field of action, it is highly necessary that he should prepare his mind. …” The troops were bidden to remember that they were engaged in “the cause of virtue and mankind,” and also that every man who skulked, hid, or retreated without orders would be “instantly shot down, as an example of cowardice.”

Washington managed to secure a moderate stock of powder. He called in the local militia, whom he planned to have occupy his fortifications while the troops were out fighting. He recruited nurses and had two thousand bandages prepared. His council of officers had ruled that several days of preparatory bombardment should weaken the enemy and divert their attention from Dorchester, so the guns opened up on the city of Boston from the northern side of the line at about midnight on March 2. After many months of almost unbroken quiet, the sounds were shocking. Abigail Adams rushed to her door in nearby Braintree and ascertained that the firing was from “our army. … No sleep for me tonight!”

“From my window,” wrote Lieutenant Samuel Webb of Connecticut, “[I] have a most pleasing and yet dismal view of the fiery ministers of death flying through the air. Poor inhabitants, our friends! We pity most sincerely, but particularly the women and children.”

Washington counted the shots—only about twenty-five had been authorized because of the need to conserve powder—and was pleased to see that they carried well and seemed to be well aimed. However, there were several extraordinarily bright and loud flashes and bangs, which revealed that his inexperienced artillerymen had overloaded and burst their guns. Eventually the British artillery answered. Their guns did not carry far enough to reach the American barracks. There was little call for the two thousand bandages.

The next night the patriots staged a similar bombardment, but the British responded more actively, making the roaring more formidable.

On the third night—it was March 4—the American batteries really opened up. Webb thought he heard from Boston “the cries of poor women and children.” Washington was too busy for such hallucinations. As soon as darkness laid its sooty hands across British telescopes, movement throbbed through the American camp.

Regiments were paraded and only then were they told their specific missions (spies had to be frustrated). Safety, the officers pointed out, would depend on the enemy seeing no light and hearing no shout or accidental musket shot before the fortifications on Dorchester were completed.

Off the men went, under a fine moon. The riflemen, who led the advance across the neck, spread out along Dorchester’s shore in the direction from which glowed the lights of Boston. They stared below those lights, scanning the little gray and silver waves lapping the shore for the possible black forms of enemy prows.