Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So we left off last time with Britain and her American colonies more or less on the brink of war. And indeed, over the winter of 1774-75, there were multiple opportunities for the war to break out. But being civilized 18th century gentlemen, everyone decided it was best to wait for spring to really get down to business.
The various opportunities for the war to break out, and indeed the one that finally did the trick, were all related to General Thomas Gage’s attempt to bring all the guns and powder in New England under his control. Town militias would often store their guns and ammunition in collective caches. And the winter of 1774-75 was basically a race to see who could withdraw the powder from those caches first without provoking the other side to start shooting.
So prior to Lexington and Concord, there were three big incidents of this type. The first, known as the Powder Alarm, occurred on September 1, 1774. So this is actually just before the First Continental Congress met. The British regulars were able to secretly and peacefully secure what was left in the powder house northwest of Boston. The next day, thousands of militiamen turned out, fueled on by exaggerated rumors that the war was on. But when the rumors didn’t pan out, they all dispersed.
The second incident, known as the Portsmouth Alarm, involved the colonial militiamen actively seizing the cash at Fort William and Mary in mid-December, with shots fired in the process, arguably the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War. Finally, we have the Salem Alarm in February 1775, which ended when the British regiment sent to lock up the Salem powder, ran into a wall of militia that forced them to turn back empty handed. Like I say, any one of these could have turned ugly enough to have really marked the beginning of the war. But in the end, the piece held until April 1775, when the conquered powder was next on the list.
Which brings us to Lexington, Concord and the shot heard round the world, which I am not going to talk about right now. As some of you know, in the interim between the end of the History of Rome and the beginning of Revolutions, I was in grad school, where I took a documentary filmmaking class, the final project for which wound up being a video about Lexington, Concord and the shot heard around the world. So in lieu of talking about it here, I have embedded that video at revolutionspodcast.com. But before you watch it, here is what you need to know. First, the video functions as a pilot episode for a proposed series called Legend Has It that compares historical myth to historical reality. So that’s the thematic framework. Second, it is in every way a student film. The production values are low, particularly when it comes to the audio. Third, there are a few little flubs along the way, like when at one point I accidentally referred to Longfellow as Wadsworth. Fourth, as the sleep deprivation mounted, the tone became increasingly silly and there will be, I’m sure, things that either come too fast to be caught or just make no sense at all. It will, for example, help if you’ve seen the old 1970s Incredible Hulk series, and I’m not kidding about that. Fifth, I think that’s it. So enjoy! It’s all in good fun, so let’s say we don’t take too critical of sledgehammer to it, but that’s where you need to go for all of the endlessly fascinating details about Lexington, Concord and the shot heard around the world.
For our purposes right now, though, what you need to know is that the quote unquote “battles” at Lexington and Concord marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, or, if you prefer, the American War of Independence.
Now, these skirmishes were easily packaged by colonial leaders as purely defensive engagement, which was important to keep moderate patriots from falling into the loyalist camp. But unfortunately for those concerned with such optics, the initiative taken by a couple of hundred zealous militiamen in upstate New York could enjoy no such packaging. I am talking here about Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.
Fort Ticonderoga had been built on the southwest side of Lake Champlain by the French in 1755, but it was seized by the British a few years later. By 1775, the fort was in a sorry state, garrisoned by two officers, 48 soldiers and some dilapidated walls. Early in May, the hulking, boisterous but surprisingly intellectual Ethan Allen got it into his head to make a play at the fort as it lay on the most direct route for a possible British invasion from Canada, or, conversely, might serve as a useful staging crown for any invasion by the Americans into Canada.
Ethan Allen was originally from Connecticut, but in the years before the Revolution, he had made a name for himself as the leader of independent minded settlers in the New Hampshire Grants, what is today the state of Vermont. New York claimed the territory, but the settlers refused to recognize their authority. Colonel Allen, as he was then popularly known, actually carried a price on his head by the government of New York for his work leading the Green Mountain Boys, a well organized militia focused almost exclusively on convincing New York that it wasn’t worth the trouble to try and govern them.
So when the fighting broke out in Massachusetts, the Green Mountain Boys, though small, were one of the most experienced and disciplined of the colonial militias, and Allen aimed to turn their skills now against the British.
But Ethan Allen was not the only one who had his eye on Ticonderoga. The other man who was at that same moment itching to take the fort was the now infamous Benedict Arnold. Also originally from Connecticut, the 34 year old Arnold came from wealthy Rhode Island stock. He was athletic, charming, and pretty uniformly successful at whatever he put his mind to. He was an early and active supporter of colonial resistance. And when the storm clouds really started brewing, he was elected to the Connecticut militia in March 1775. After Lexington and Concord, he approached the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, which had been set up as a sort of patriot shadow government, and asked for a commission to go organize and capture Ticonderoga. A commission he was granted. Arnold then struck north, and on May 10, he came across Ethan Allen and Allen’s 200 odd troops and promptly declared himself in command. Allen, of course, scoffed at this, but luckily both men wanted the same thing and wanted it as soon as possible. So they agreed to immediately attack the fort.
Now, there is no such thing as a battle of Ticonderoga. The garrison was literally surprised in their beds and outnumbered four to one, put up no resistance. The garrison commander quickly negotiated the surrender and safe passage for his men and the 24 women and children living with them. So, without firing a shot, the fort was secure.
Though its strategic value was never quite what it might have been. The capture of Ticonderoga was absolutely critical to the early days of the war for one very important reason: When Allen and Arnold took stock, they discovered that Ticonderoga held a fairly enormous cache of artillery, including small four pound guns, mortars, howitzers, and huge 24 pound guns, plus ammunition for all of it. As we are about to see, these are the guns that Washington will use to fortify Dorchester Heights and drive the British out of Boston.
Coincidentally enough, May 10 also happened to be the day that the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. Now, as you will recall, the First Congress had disbanded back in October 1774, set on a plan of economic resistance. The Second Congress was probably planned to do nothing more than check back in and get geared up for the non-exportation phase of the plan that would begin in September. But of course, fate had now dealt them a very different hand.
Many of the delegates at the Second Congress were holdovers from the first, but there were now a few new faces, including John Hancock, the recently returned to America, Benjamin Franklin, and before too long, the young Virginia intellectual Thomas Jefferson. The Second Congress had to deal first and foremost with the question of how to respond to the fighting in Massachusetts. It was almost universally agreed that they should help organize and armed defense of the colonies. But to what end, was now the great question. Is this merely to secure a just reconciliation, or are we embarked on the road to independence? This, for example, is where John Dickinson morphs from radical to conservative, not because he changed, but because the times changed, and he is about to become the leading opponent of American independence.
The Congress spent the first few weeks of his life debating what it meant by armed defense. Are we simply going to coordinate action by the militias or are we going to form an independent, let’s call it, a continental army? In the midst of this news from Ticonderoga arrived, which made it harder to argue that the colonies were just defending themselves and helped introduce some friction, as Ticonderoga was in New York, and no one from New York had even been told about the operation that was, oh, by the way, led by a man they were trying to throw in jail. But they all mostly got over it. And by the end of May, a consensus was forming around the idea of creating and supplying an independent continental army to first augment and then hopefully supersede the local militias. There were a few men present who had their eye on commanding this new army, most famously John Hancock. But there wasn’t really any question who the commission would go to. It absolutely had to be George Washington, who knew enough about the role providence had ordained for him to show up at the first session of Congress in full military uniform.
Okay, so George Washington. George Washington was born in Virginia in February 1732, into a gentry family of the middle tier, doing well, but not in the upper crust of the Virginia plant or aristocracy. His father died when he was a teenager, so it fell to his older brother Lawrence to become his main guiding influence. It was Lawrence’s connection to the enormously powerful Fairfax family that got Washington his first job as a county surveyor at the age of 17. I must, of course, mention that, yes, this is the same Fairfax family as our old friend Sir Thomas Fairfax, whose title had passed to a cousin after his death in 1671. And then it was handed down to the line to the now sixth Earl of Fairfax, who pretty much owns more land in Virginia than anyone. This same Fairfax clan will also provide young George with his first love, Sally Fairfax. So connections between our revolutions abound. Anyway, when Lawrence died in 1752, George inherited his estate, including a spot on the Potomac called Mount Vernon.
Young George soon developed a passion for the two things that would come to dominate his life: land speculation and military service. He finagled a commission as a Major in the Virginia militia and as tensions with France mounted, he wound up being the guy assigned to head a small expedition in 1753 into the Ohio Valley to politely tell the French to get the hell out. The next year, he was ordered back into the valley with vague instructions to defend the frontier and he wound up encountering and getting whipped pretty badly by a mix of French and Indians. The small but thoroughly, let’s call it, instructive battle of Fort Necessity. When the French and Indian War finally broke out, Washington was present at, but managed to survive Braddock’s disastrous march 1755 despite the bullets flying every which way – a lucky habit Washington would enjoy his entire life.
Tales of his various adventures, though they were not all that successful, circulated through the colonies, and Washington became the closest thing America had to a military hero. This earned him a commission as a Colonel, though critically, this was all still within the ranks of the militia, not the regular army. And it was around this point that he really started to chafe under the presumed superiority of regular officers. Like when, for example, some captain tried to give him orders. He spent the rest of the war leading a thousand militiamen defending the Virginia frontier, a period during which he developed his rather intense loathing of militiamen, who he would forever consider unreliable, undisciplined, insubordinate and cowardly, because he spent as much time tracking down deserters as he did fighting the French.
After the war, Washington married the enormously wealthy widow Martha Custis, which is how he pole vaulted from the middling rank to one of the richest men in the American colonies and how he became the owner of well over 200 slaves.
As the pre-revolutionary pressure built, Washington was focused mainly on running his estates, acquiring new property and keeping his creditors at bay, because, like all good Virginia planters, he ran on borrowed money. He also took up his place in the Virginia House of Burgesses. And long dissatisfied with British arrogance, both militarily and economically, he soon fell in with the more radically inclined leaders. And as you’ll recall, he was a prime mover behind the non-importation response to the Townshend Acts.
As the crisis reached its boiling point, he was appalled by the Intolerable Acts, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress and is now a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, though he will soon be leaving for Boston, as the Congress duly bestowed upon America’s most famous soldier the title of Commander in Chief of all colonial forces.
In the meantime, the so-called triumvirate of reputation had already arrived in Boston. Three men who will wind up leading the British campaigns during the revolutionary war: Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne, who we will deal with in turn as they each move to center stage. For the moment, however, General Thomas Gage is still in charge. And after Lexington and Concord, Gage, in consultation with his new military advisors, had studied the options and by the end of May determined that they would fortify the heights around Boston and plan to begin in earnest in mid June. But word soon leaked to the Committee of Safety and they ordered Artemas Ward, farmer and veteran of the French and Indian War and the man now leading the combined New England militias stationed in Cambridge to go occupy Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights, which command to the north and south of Boston respectively. There is a map of colonial Boston posted at revolutionspodcast.com so you can follow along at home.
Now, Dorchester Heights will remain, for the moment, off the board, but on June 16, Ward ordered William Prescott to take just over 1,000 men from Cambridge over to occupy Bunker Hill, which, if you don’t have the map in front of you, was located on a peninsula that hangs out over Boston that also contains the now empty city of Charlestown. The men weren’t ready to go until 9:00 p.m., and so this all winds up being a night operation. When they got out to the peninsula, Prescott decided to fortify Breed’s Hill instead. It was slightly lower, but better situated to repel a British advance. The men spent all night digging, and when dawn broke, they had a pretty nice redoubt in place. When the British navy caught sight of the rebel fortifications the next morning, they opened fire, but the angle was all wrong, and they did minimal damage. That said, by noon on June 17, the militiamen were exhausted and discouraged that they had not been relieved yet. And despite their good work on Breed’s Hill, all likely flanking routes were still perilously unguarded, and Prescott begged Ward to send more men.
Meanwhile, General Gage, awoken by the navy blasts, selected the east side of the peninsula as the best place to land, which was all well and good, except that meant waiting for the tides, and the 1,500 Regulars, led by William Howe, didn’t put to shore until around 1:00pm. More shelling of the rebels followed, as did further reinforcements for both sides. Howe then divided his troops, now numbering over 2,000, into three columns designed to envelop the defenses on Breed’s Hill, with the left serving as a diversion to allow the main flanking move to come over from the right. But unfortunately for the British, not only was the ground more difficult than they were prepared for, but the 200 militiamen guarding the hastily fortified fence line guarding the right, waited until the approaching regulars were just 50 yards away and then started blasting, killing at least 100 pretty much instantly, and the British were forced to fall back.
This would be where I mentioned the most famous order given in the battle, that the militiamen ought not fire until you can see the whites of their eyes to protect their limited ammunition. But this order has been variously attributed to different officers at different points in the battle and was probably never even said at all. So, there.
A second attempt soon followed, again aiming simultaneously at the fence line and the redoubt. But again, the approaching regulars, marching smartly, were wide open targets for the colonials, as Howe elected not to go by the book and attack in a narrow column, because, man, this is not supposed to be that hard. Anyway, the second attempt also failed, but by now, Prescott and his men were basically out of ammunition. So a half an hour later, reinforced by another 400 men, Howe ordered the third assault. No more messing around, just a strong push right up Breed’s Hill. It was a grizzly business, but it did the trick, especially since the Americans were now officially out of ammunition. The regulars poured into the redoubt and the militiamen scrambled back to Bunker Hill to regroup. As the redoubt was taken, the Revolution gets its first martyred war hero, as Dr. Joseph Warren, author of The Suffolk Resolves and serving as a common soldier because his officer’s commission hadn’t come through yet, was shot and killed.
Unfortunately, again, for the British, the taking of the redoubt had broken up their ranks, and by the time they were organized enough to press on, the remaining militiamen had elected to withdraw from the peninsula altogether. Which meant that the British won the battle, always and forever, erroneously called the Battle of Bunker Hill. But the body count soon told a somber story: 200 regulars killed with another 800 wounded. Henry Clinton noted riley in his diary that a few more such victories would have surely put an end to British dominion in America.
After the battle, the two sides settled back into their respective positions. A few weeks later, July 2 to be exact, Washington arrived to take on overall command of the army, which now numbered about 16,000, though only about 14,000 were fit for duty. The British, meanwhile, now have at the moment about 6,000 in Boston, a number that would grow to 9,000 by early 1776.
But although the colonial turnout was pretty good, it was also composed entirely of Washington’s arch enemy, the local militia company. These guys were just generally disrespectful of normal army life. They came and went as they pleased and they elected their own officers, so good luck keeping anyone in line. The irony, of course, is that these guys pretty much embodied the kind of freedom and liberty the war was supposed to be about, and Washington had no time or patience for any of it. He started issuing all kinds of orders against things like drinking and gambling and swearing, and any officer or enlisted man who failed to live up to his standards was simply summarily dismissed. As he beat this army into shape (I mean literally beat, lashings were an everyday occurrence), Washington also strengthened the fortifications around Boston, which were at that point, frankly embarrassing.
As Washington got to work up in New England, the Congress down in Philadelphia continued work on building a justification for their actions, though they sent out somewhat mixed messages, despite the fact that they were drafted by the same two men: John Dickinson and the newly arrived Thomas Jefferson. Passed at almost the same time, we have, on the one hand, the Olive Branch Petition, a last attempt at peacefully negotiating away the economic underpinnings of the conflict, and on the other we have the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, which is hopefully pretty self explanatory. In the former Jefferson’s draft was softened by Dickinson, who still clung to the dream of reconciliation, while in the latter, Dickinson actually made Jefferson’s draft blunter and more direct because he may have been worried he was about to lose all influence if he didn’t do something to prove that his heart was still in this thing. And he did technically believe that the colonists were right to defend themselves, just not the independence was the aim.
But whatever hope of negotiated reconciliation still lingered, died, when King George refused to even receive the Olive Branch Petition, and Parliament officially declared the colonies in rebellion.
Back up in Boston, by now both sides were well dug in and both firmly under the command of their new respective leaders: General Washington for the Americans and William Howe for the British, who took over from the now thoroughly discredited General Gage in late September 1775.
Now, William Howe is a pretty interesting dude. He was one of three brothers, all of whom had distinguished military careers. And indeed, his older brother is Admiral Richard Howe, who will serve as the Supreme Naval commander during the war. So really, for the next couple of years, the British war effort is in the hands of the Howe brothers. And the Howe brothers were, wait for it, entirely sympathetic to the American colonies. They were pretty staunch Whigs who opposed most of the Ministry’s policies in America and really super opposed the Intolerable Acts. In fact, Admiral Richard Howe had initiated last minute back channel dealings with Benjamin Franklin to try to avert war. But when war came, neither could refuse the service they had been called to. And so when William Howe took over for Gage, his aim was to win the war. But as we will see, there will be more than a few missed opportunities along the way, which some have attributed to Howe’s preference for comfortable inaction, some to his unwillingness to waste troops, especially after what he saw at Bunker Hill. But what I sometimes suspect is that there was a desire in Howe not just to win the war, but also the peace that would follow the inevitable British victory and waging to brutal a war would unjustly punish the colonists for defending a cause that Howe himself was entirely sympathetic to.
As the autumn of 1775 set in, everyone was still staring at each other and occasionally chatting with each other across the lines. But by now, Washington faced a great problem that would plague him for the entire war: all those militia enlistments that were due to expire on January 1. And none of those guys had even hinted that they plan to stick around. The general feeling being that we’ve done our bit, now it’s time for somebody else to take over. So as he’s trying to hold the siege together, Washington is also about to have to completely swap out his army and, of course, lose whatever training may have sunk in with all those lashings.
As the Commander in Chief stared down this problem, one of his new subordinates was staring down a problem of his own, one that would be just as critical to winning Boston as the problem of refilling the American ranks. In November 1775, Washington sent the, let’s call him plump, Henry Knox, 25 year old bookseller, but now self taught artillery expert up to Fort Ticonderoga to figure out how to move the guns to Boston, a problem made nearly unsolvable because of the fact that there were no roads linking the two. But on December 5, Knox set off into the snowy wilderness with 44 guns, both light and heavy, 14 mortars, one howitzer and all the ammunition to run them, totaling some 60 tons of material. It has gone down in history as ‘the noble train of artillery’, and over the next ten weeks, Knox’s men used first barges and then oxen pulled sleds to literally drag the guns south, finally arriving in the American camp on January 27. It was a bona fide miracle.
In the meantime, Washington was busy reforming his army. Spirits were still pretty high at this point, and the militias had managed to recruit and/or retain 7,000 men, while the first batch of official continental soldiers showed up, totaling some 9,000 men, which was good, though it fell well short of the target, 20,000.
Washington was utterly sick to death of the siege at this point, and soon proposed an audacious attack on the unsuspecting British. But his war council talked him down and suggested instead tightening the noose by fortifying Dorchester Heights with the recently arrived guns, because inexplicably neither side yet controlled this all important high ground. But trying to occupy the Heights was not without its own risks. The job would have to be done silently and all in one night, or the Americans would be wide open for an attack by the British. Not only that, but the ground was too frozen to dig into, so how would they even defend themselves once they got there? After working through the logistics of the thing, Washington and his officers finally determined that yes, it was doable, and yes, they were going to go for it.
On the night of March 2, 1776, they let fly a short bombardment to give the British something to think about. The next night, both sides started shelling each other. And the night after that, March 4, the shelling went into overdrive, just as Washington hoped, because as this artillery skirmish was playing out, 1,200 workmen and 800 infantrymen hurried up the Heights and got to work. Now, they had already constructed above ground fortifications and worked furiously but silently through the night, successfully constructing two redoubt and mounting the biggest guns before dawn. According to the old legend, when Howe woke up the next morning, he was amazed and said, “My God, these fellows have done more in one night than I could make my army do in three months.” It’s doubtful that he actually said it, but the sentiment feels about right.
With the American artillery looming over them, the British position in Boston became untenable. But in the end, this was all possibly more embarrassing and annoying to Howe then it was a devastating strategic blow, and many historians suspect that he had already decided to evacuate Boston. So what the fortification of Dorchester Heights really meant was that he could no longer leave on his own terms. Indeed, Howe now concluded that he couldn’t leave without a fight, and he planned a full scale assault of the American position on the Heights, but a debilitating blizzard canceled the operation at the last minute, and Howe took the hint. On March 17, all the British troops were out of Boston and loaded onto their transports, where they sailed away for Halifax. Washington led a triumphal procession into the city to wild jubilation in the streets.
So, all things considered, it had been a pretty great year for the American patriots. They had proven their resolve at Lexington and Concord, proven their courage at Bunker Hill, and now forced the British out of Boston completely. But, of course, 1776 will not prove nearly so glorious, nor was 1775 so uniformly successful. So next week, we will backtrack a little and cover the debacle that was the invasion of Canada, and then head into the auspicious year of 1776, which will see the colonies boldly declare independence and then get trounced repeatedly in the field, making some doubt whether they could back up their lofty rhetoric.
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