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Providence Rides a Storm

May 2024
16min read

Had a tempest not thwarted his plans, George Washington might have lost the Revolution in the first major operation he commanded

That George Washington drove the British out of Boston in early March 1776 is known to almost every schoolboy who has studied the American Revolution, but a disturbing aspect of this crucial event is not recognized even by most of the experts. One may read biographies of Washington, and military histories of the Revolution, without coming on more than a stray hint. This omission has undoubtedly occurred because the story flies in the face of the traditional Washington legend. But a thorough study of the facts makes abundantly clear how innocent Washington was of military know-how in the early stages of the war, before he taught himself in the school of experience to be a soldier vastly superior to his professional opponents.

The maneuver that succeeded in driving the British out of Boston was only the first, and to Washington the less important, step in his strategic plan. The second half of the plan was aimed at nothing less than the annihilation of the British army. However, what Washington intended was so badly thought out and so foolhardy that it might well have resulted in the destruction of his own army, it is doubtful that in this early stage of the war, well before American independence had been declared, the patriot cause could have survived such a blow.

Everything was ready for the potentially disastrous effort when the unforeseeable intervened: the move was blocked by what lawyers call “an act of God”; Washington himself described it—ruefully, in disappointment—as “a remarkable interposition of Providence.”

Ever since Washington had taken over the command of the Continental Army almost a year before, the war had been a stalemate. (The battles at Lexington and Concord and the one at Bunker Hill had been fought before Washington’s arrival.) The British occupied two paddle-shaped peninsulas that stretched out into Boston Harbor: Boston Neck, on which the city of Boston stood, and Charlestown Neck, the broad end of which was separated from the city only by a minor channel. The narrow isthmuses where the two necks joined the mainland were so heavily fortified that no force could move across them in either direction, except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Along the jagged shore line of the intervening bay, Washington’s army was encamped in defensive positions. He himself kept his headquarters in the university town of Cambridge, which was three miles back from the bay.

Such had been the situation when Washington joined his army. He had strengthened fortifications and drilled men and recruited and gathered supplies, but shortages of everything had plagued his efforts, and he had never been able to do anything toward advancing the cause. This was as anguishing to him as to anyone else. He had hoped to bring the matter to a conclusion and be back at his Virginia plantation by the fall of 1775, but winter arrived with nothing definite accomplished.

With the winter came snow, snow such as Washington had seldom encountered in Virginia. It imposed silence and seemed to dim out the world; yet as he lay sleepless in the dark, Washington felt “the Eyes of the whole Continent fixed with anxious expectation” upon him. He knew that he was being criticized for allowing a large and expensive army to sit motionless month after month. Although he did not put the whole blame on Congress for the chronic shortages he had suffered of money, arms, tents, gunpowder, and engineers—”I dare say the demands upon them are greater than they can supply”—he nonetheless found it discouraging that Congress seemed “to look upon this as the season for action, but will not furnish the means.”

When morning came, he would go to the bay and jump up and down on the ice. There were times when he judged that it was strong enough to carry his army all the way to the British. Shortages or no, surely this presented an opportunity to be seized!

Accordingly, in mid-February, 1776, Washington notified a council of his general officers that their army had, or expected soon to have, 16,077 men. His spies reported that the enemy had only 5,000 fit for duty. These would be kept so busy by a “bold and resolute push” across the ice that the Americans would have to leave only a skeleton garrison to protect their camp and could bring virtually their whole force to bear, overwhelming the British. The battle might well “put a final end to the war and restore [the] peace and tranquillity so much wished for.”

As he argued for such a battle, Washington scanned the faces of his generals without seeing any kindling of enthusiasm in their eyes. The reply came that with Tory irregulars the British numbered many more than 5,000 (this was correct); that 2,000 of the patriots lacked arms; that, in fact, a strong force would have to be left to hold the American lines. And, in any case, an assault should be preceded by several days of bombardment. Washington then asked whether the bombardment could be begun “with the present stock of powder.” His officers voted to wait for an adequate supply, and the General concurred.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It thus seems reasonable to contend that the plan Washington drew up with his council of officers and hoped to put into effect should never have included an attack on Boston itself, but should simply have been limited to the fortification and subsequent defense of Dorchester Heights. The history books, indeed, indulgent to the conception of Washington’s infallibility, have tended to make out that in placing cannon on Dorchester he had completed his total objective. Praising the move that sent the British scurrying out of Boston, writers have suppressed or played down Washington’s further intention of trying to win the war then and there with a second engagement in which the odds would have been greatly against him.

To survey the situation as a whole, not only what actually happened but also what had been planned, is to recognize the tempest as a piece of marvelous good fortune. It prevented Washington’s fool-hardy optimism from costing him anything; kept the cause from being grievously or perhaps fatally damaged as it might well have been. Did the genius of America ride in that storm, delaying action until her amateur commander in chief had time to become more proficient in the art of war?

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