Providence Rides a Storm


Now file after file of soldiers carried tools and muskets across the neck and up to the heights. Intermingled with them came hundreds of wagons: wagons loaded with fascines, with chandeliers, with tight bales of hay, with barrels filled with stones that could be rolled down the slopes onto invaders. After eager hands had unloaded them, the wagons turned; later they appeared again. More than a thousand men carried the portable ramparts into position; others scratched up with their sharpened spades a little earth to hold them down.

All was shadowy, but the moon, “shining” (as Washington wrote) “in its full luster,” cast enough glimmer to enable the men to see what they were doing and to ascertain that the tall figure on a dark horse—riding everywhere, it seemed—was General Washington.

His nerves were tensed for any accidental burst of noise from Dorchester that might warn the enemy, but he heard only the creak of wheels, the soft clopping of horses’ hoofs, the rustle of men, the thud of axes as fruit trees came down to make an abatis. The real noise came from the far side of the harbor, where American cannon were purposely fixing the attention of the British with their continuous roar. At one moment, Washington could have seen the awesome sight of seven shells in the air at once.

At three o’clock there began an eerie movement of silent bodies along the exposed causeway to and from the mainland. Three thousand tired, work-stained men marched toward their barracks through the half-mile-wide neck, while about three thousand fresh men came in to man the fortifications that had taken shape on the two highest hills and the tableland between.

The moon sank. The dark tightened. Then dawn infused a wan light into the clinging ground mist. The firing at the far end of the lines ceased. Finally, the fog lifted to reveal the half circle of bay. On Dorchester Heights there was the morning singing of birds. Away and below, Boston seemed quiet, since the patriots could not discern the newly awakened enemy officers staring back up toward them out of windows.

The British commanders had still been drinking toasts the night before when they received a report that the enemy was active on Dorchester Heights. However, the officers had gone to sleep content, certain that whatever the yokels were up to could easily be handled the next day. But when the mist rose, they saw revealed such a fortification as they had not believed possible. The engineering officer, Archibald Robertson, wrote that this was a “most astonishing night’s work, and must have employed from 15 to 20,000 men,” while a more poetic redcoat, identified only as “an officer of distinction,” felt that the defenses surely had been “raised with an expedition equal to that of the Genii belonging to Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.”

The first step in Washington’s plan had been sensationally successful. Now for the second and what he considered the more important step! Four thousand fresh men waited on the banks of the Charles to invade Boston, waited only for a major part of the British garrison to get into boats and sail away to assault Dorchester Heights.

Surely, Washington must have stared through his military glass from a convenient hill. What Boston streets he could distinguish were filled with gaping soldiers and civilians. He knew that if an attacking British force wished to avoid a long wade through mudflats, they would have to take advantage of the high tide at noon. However, there was little hustle on the wharves. Instead, cannon were being wheeled out, pointed at Dorchester, elevated, and fired. The balls struck the hills below the forts. The gun crews then labored to get more height by burying the rear wheels. There were more reports, but the balls still did not reach high enough. After some hours the effort was abandoned; by this time it was too late to achieve anything on the noon tide. In the meantime, the patriots had been strengthening their fortifications on Dorchester Heights by planting six twelve-pounders and by bringing up field pieces.

Finally, increasing activity on the waterfront must have made Washington’s heart leap with anticipation: troops—there seemed to be several thousands—were getting into small boats and were being rowed out, with field pieces, to transports. The transports sailed down to Castle William, a fortified island well situated to be the jumping-off place for an attack on Dorchester.

All was going according to Washington’s plan. The next high tide, which would be at about midnight, would surely float the British to the peninsula. General John Thomas would keep his 3,000 Americans in their fortifications awaiting the advance up the hillsides, which could be expected at dawn. By then, the officers in charge of the American attacking force would have their men in the boats on the Charles, ready to move toward Boston as soon as the battle raged on Dorchester. The future of the continent seemed up for grabs.