Rebels And Redcoats

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The flame of civil war is now broke out in America, and I have not the least doubt it will rage with a violence equal to what it has ever done in any other country at any time. You are sensible also by this time of the determined resolutions of Government to persevere in vigorous measures, and what will keep them firm in this determination is that they act as (at least) four-fifths of the people would have them, they so resent the outrage offered to them in the destruction of the tea….

You must also know, I think that the people have gone too far to retract and that they will adopt the proverb which says, “When the sword of rebellion is drawn, the sheath should be thrown away.” And the Americans have it in their power to baffle all that England can do against them. I don’t mean to ward off the evils attendant on civil war, but so far as never to be subdued, so that oceans of blood will be shed to humble a people which they never will subdue. And the Americans, from the idea that England would not act against them, have tempted its power to the extreme and drawn all its weight of rage upon them, and after they have, with various success, deluged the country in blood, the issue will be that the Americans will be a free independent people.

John Singleton Copley understood his former neighbors. On the outskirts of Boston a miracle was in the making. From several thousand amateur citizen-soldiers who poured into the camp around Boston, General Ward was creating an army. Regimental organization, where it existed at all, was crude; leadership was largely incompetent and in the hands of men of local prominence rather than ability; and no strong authority prevented men from coming and going at will. Yet the conscientious, Bible-quoting militia general from Shrewsbury steadily increased and strengthened his force.

Ward’s heterogeneous assemblage derived much of its inspiration from the vibrant presence of Dr. Warren. John Hancock, Sam Adams, and Sam’s younger cousin, John, had set out for the Congress at Philadelphia, leaving to Warren almost sole management of Massachusetts civil affairs.

On the twentieth, Warren established headquarters at Jonathan Hastings’ house in Cambridge with General Ward. The Provincial Congress, through its Committee of Safety, maintained iron control over the military as well as the civil situation. And as chairman of the Committee of Safety and then as president of the Provincial Congress, Warren labored endless hours to bring order to the undisciplined troops at hand and to call more into the field.

The rude rebel army lacked supplies of all kinds. Most of the men carried their own arms, every variety of musket and rifle, but few had much ammunition--at most, a flask or horn of powder and a pocket or pouch of balls—and fewer still had blankets, tents, utensils, or provisions. Despite the old Crown militia requirements, there were practically no bayonets, and uniforms did not exist. The public supply of gunpowder was only a few score barrels, and in cannon, that most essential article for a siege, the Army was weakest of all: a mere handful of guns was assembled.

It was a New England volunteer force with its good and its bad and its rock-ribbed individualism, but it doggedly cut off Boston from all communication with the rest of the country and forced a military stalemate. It had no way to drive into Boston, but it kept General Gage from breaking out. As long as British ships could move freely in and out of the harbor, Gage was not truly besieged, but he was dependent upon the country around for food and fuel, and that he could not reach by water. “The rebels certainly block up our town and cut off our good beef and mutton…” moaned Captain Harris of the 5th Regiment. “At present we are completely blockaded and subsisting almost on salt provisions.”

General Gage promptly increased the guards and sentries at the posts around town, enjoined his officers “to lay at their barracks” for easy accessibility in case of alarm, and expanded his fortifications. The weather turned fair and mild for the next few days. Construction progressed rapidly.

While Gage peered fearfully from Boston’s forts toward the growing rebel lines, Ward’s troops toiled manfully building entrenchments and redoubts, and Dr. Warren’s committee set afoot a secret expedition in the northern wilderness of New York in the hope of obtaining heavy guns for the siege. It was an odd adventure that had started in Connecticut when Israel Bissel, the post rider, had aroused New Haven. There an ambitious, bustling 34-year-old apothecary and merchant named Benedict Arnold commanded the local militia company, an elite outfit called the Governor’s Foot Guard, smartly uniformed in scarlet, white, and black. On the morning of the twenty-second, a shining Saturday, the short, swarthy captain led his fifty-odd men swinging up the road toward Cambridge.

On the road, Captain Arnold met Colonel Samuel Parsons, returning from Cambridge to Connecticut to recruit more men. Colonel Parsons expressed concern over the lack of cannon on the lines at Cambridge, and at once Arnold thought of a source of supply. On trips to Canada, where he often had traded in horses and merchandise, he told Colonel Parsons, he had become familiar with the rotting old British-held fort, Ticonderoga, at the southern end of Lake Champlain. It contained, he guessed, eighty pieces of heavy cannon, twenty brass guns, and ten to twelve mortars with small arms and other supplies in proportion, and its peacetime British garrison was insignificant.