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
But before the fateful night was due, the sky created its own unnatural night and there swooped down from overhead a majestic storm. “A wind more violent than anything I ever heard,” was the verdict of a British soldier. “I never before felt such cold and distress,” wrote an American rifleman, Daniel McCurtin. On Dorchester Heights, Lieutenant Isaac Bangs lay under an apple tree: “What I suffered this night, I shall ever bear in mind.” But no one suffered at dawn. The British had not even tried to land on Dorchester.
The storm blew itself out at about eight the next morning, leaving behind a cerulean, translucent, windswept sky, but also leaving huge waves that made any amphibious landing still impossible. And, indeed, when the troops left Castle William, it was to return to the inner harbor. From bobbing small boats, the expeditionary force disembarked into town. Boston was again too well defended to be successfully attacked.
Homer would have been sure that some god had ridden with that storm. Washington, as we have seen, considered the storm “a remarkable interposition of Providence.” His philosophy did not permit him to doubt that Providence had intervened “for some wise purpose. … But,” so he continued, “as the [principal] design of the manoeuvre was to draw the enemy into an engagement under disadvantages, as a premeditated plan was laid for this purpose and seemed to be succeeding to my utmost wish, and as no men seemed better disposed to make the appeal than ours did upon that occasion, I can scarce forebear lamenting the disappointment.”
Howe might have felt different had he known what Washington had planned, but, as he understood matters, he was grateful for the storm. He had ordered an assault on Dorchester not because he believed it wise militarily, but, as Washington had correctly foreseen, because he “thought the honor of the troops [was] concerned.” Now he could blame everything on the weather, a force obviously beyond the army’s control, and one which had given the enemy time to make their position impregnable.
Although the great storm of March 5–6, 1776, gets little attention in the American historical saga, surely it was one of the most crucial events in the entire American Revolution. Had rain and wind and thunder not intervened, there would have been on Boston Neck such a battle as the Continental Army actually was to fight only once, at Fort Washington in upper Manhattan, where the entire American force that was engaged fell to the enemy. In all other battles, the patriots had access to escape routes through which, if they found they could not stand up to the trained European regulars, they could scuttle to safety. But the troops Washington had intended to land in Boston could never have regained their boats. They would have been trapped, forced either to annihilate the British or to face total defeat themselves.
In planning this assault, Washington assumed (it was long to be his fault as a strategist) a precision in the synchronization of his different attacking groups that was almost impossible to realize in actual combat. Yet it must be remembered that the British, any one of whose officers might have been considered demented for devising such a plan, had not the slightest inkling of what Washington intended. The surprise would have been complete, and the British would not have discovered the planned assault until they actually saw the patriot boats approaching. This would have been Washington’s greatest hope: regular-army minds—British or any other—were not at their best when improvising reactions to what their training told them could never happen. Yet the odds would have been greatly against the American assault. The patriots would have had to cross a mile of open water into the mouths of British cannon. Had all succeeded in getting ashore, they would have been 4,000 against the 3,600 that Howe had left to garrison Boston. Only if the columns, driving toward different points, had succeeded in joining up according to plan and then, together, had actually managed to break down the British barrier at the neck of the Boston peninsula, would the patriots have had any real numerical superiority. And, as was to be proved again and again in the next few years, raw Americans were no match in close combat for professional foes trained to the bayonet and accustomed to maneuvering under fire.
At Dorchester Heights, the situation would have been very different. The patriots had demonstrated at Bunker Hill how deadly they could be when they had protecting walls from which to fire on an exposed enemy. Since then they had become a better disciplined and officered force. At Bunker Hill they had been outnumbered, but at Dorchester the two sides would have been equal, at about 3,000 men each. Thus, the chances were excellent that even if the enemy had finally taken the heights, the British would have suffered many more casualties than their army could have afforded.