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Di Leo: George Washington at the Siege of Boston, and the Dark before the Dawn

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George Washington taking command of the Continental Army at Cambridge 1775

By John F. Di Leo - 

On January 13, 1776, General Washington sat down to write a letter to the Massachusetts state legislature, reporting how dire their situation was. 

Such letters were unfortunately to become the norm throughout America’s long War of Independence; the General felt that the civilian legislature needed to be kept apprised of the state of the fight, and in particular, they needed to know how much more material support the troops required from their government.  

In January of 1776, the Continental Army had been conducting the Siege of Boston for eight months. That’s eight months of sitting, encamped outside the most important city in New England, doing nothing, just presenting as fierce and solid a front as they could to the British Redcoats who had held Boston under martial law for the past eight years. 

Yes, eight years.

When we remember the American Revolution today, we think of a long five year war, imagining it lasting from the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776 until the victory at Yorktown in October, 1781.  But that’s a false memory. 

The British had been treating the city of Boston as occupied territory – with soldiers quartered in people’s homes, and marching down the streets every day, to keep the public in fear – since 1768.  The first battles for the Glorious Cause were finally fought in the spring of 1775, and the war lasted two years past Yorktown, as a complicated peace was negotiated.  So, while some would have called it an eight year war, to the people of New England, it was fifteen.  

Shortly after those momentous battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress decided it was time to acknowledge reality: we were already at war, and had been for some time; we may as well admit it and get to work. 

So, in May, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington of Virginia to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and sent him to take command at Boston.  At this time, Washington was a longtime member of the Virginia House of Burgesses who had some experience from working alongside the British in the French and Indian War, but he was primarily a legislator and businessman.  He had long been a leader in the community of colonial opponents of Britain’s tyranny, however, and was known up and down the coast, respected outside his own colony in a way uncommon for the time. 

General Washington arrived at Cambridge that summer, ready to take command of a small and green army, with no illusions that it would be anything close to combat-ready yet… but he had no idea how green they were. Many were farmers and city folk who had never held a gun; the traditional image of our militiamen charging the enemy with pitchforks isn’t as fanciful an exaggeration as one might expect. You use what you have, and many simply didn't have guns.

Washington found himself needing to produce a somewhat theatrical performance, leading his soldiers in drills during the day, presenting as professional and fierce an image as he could, while limiting marksmanship practice as much as possible. They simply didn’t have the gunpowder or ammunition to waste. 

Imagine keeping up such a ruse for a year.  Imagine trying to keep the British nervous enough about their strength that they would remain in town, just as afraid of starting something as the colonists were.  The British wanted to avoid bloodshed again, unaware that the American force was so weak it could hardly have put up much of a fight. 

General Washington had been spending that year working with supporters to acquire more weapons and more ammunition. Sewing circles were making gunpowder at home; housewives were melting down utensils to make bullets… there was a level of patriotism in those days that we can hardly imagine today.  But it wasn’t enough.  By the time we crossed into the new year in 1776, we barely had enough ammunition for one shot per soldier… and our soldiers were hardly expert enough to fell their targets on the first try. 

The General had a number of irons in the fire. Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen had captured Fort Ticonderoga, 300 miles to the north, earlier in 1775, but these irascible soldiers couldn’t agree on a method to bring the fort’s wonderful cache of cannons to the front, so they left them there and departed.  Yes, they left them there. 

In November, a young Boston bookseller, Henry Knox, devised a plan to retrieve the guns of Ticonderoga in the middle of winter, by traveling with a crew to build sleds, carts and boats along the way, through snowy mountains and icy rivers and lakes.  By mid-January, he had been gone two months on this impossible errand, and Washington still didn’t have the artillery he so desperately needed to provide cover for single volley of rifle fire he would launch when battle came. 

By January 13, in fact, Henry Knox had made amazing progress. His team had made it across mountains, through forests, and across rivers and lakes, battling rain and cold, snow and ice, and had just crossed into Massachusetts… but they were still two weeks away from General Washington’s camp, and the General had to try to sleep every night worried that the next day might be the day that a final battle would put a premature end to our honorable contest with the United Kingdom. 

So on January 13 – not a particularly important day in world history, other than the facts that our fortunes seemed lowest then, and the General’s letter of that date survives – George Washington wrote to the Massachusetts legislature to be sure they knew how bad things were:

 

To the Massachusetts General Court,

Cambridge, January 13, 1776. 

Gentlemen: 

It is exceedingly painful to me, to give you so much trouble as I have, and am like to do, in the support of our Lines and arrangement of the New Army. But my difficulties, must in their consequences, devolve trouble on you. 

To my very great surprise, I find that the whole number of Arms, which have been stopped from the discharged Soldiers, amount to no more than 1620; and of that number, no more than 120 are in store, the rest being redelivered to the Recruits which have come in. I also find, from the Report of the recruiting officers, that few Men are to be enlisted, who have Arms in their hands, and that they are reduced to the Alternative, of either getting no Men, or Men without Arms. Unhappy Situation; what is to be done, unless these Governments will exert themselves in providing Arms from the Several Towns, or in such other manner, as to them shall seem speedy and effectual. 

To account for this great deficiency, would be tedious and not much to the purpose,— Suffice it generally to say, that it has arisen from two causes;—the badness of the Arms of the old Army, which the Inspectors and Valuers of, did not think fit to detain; and to the disobedient Regiments, which in spite of every order I could Issue to the Contrary, (even to solemn threat of stopping the pay for the Months of November and December, of all those who should carry away their Arms) have, in a manner by stealth borne them away. 

I am glad to hear, by a Gentleman. of your Honorable Body, who does me the Honor to be the bearer of this Letter, that you have for some time past been Collecting Arms at Watertown, whilst a good deal of dispatch has been used in making them elsewhere. I beg to know how many I can rely upon, as the recruits now coming in from the Country, will be useless without. It is to no purpose I find, to depend upon Imported Arms; what you can furnish, I must take in behalf of the Continent, and will upon Notice, send some Gentleman to receive them. Will it be prudent to apply to such of the Militia, as are going away, for their Arms? leaving It optional in them, cannot be amiss, but will the Necessity of the case Justify the policy of detaining them; I ask for Information.  

Being with great truth etc., 

G. Washington  

 

Imagine having to write such letters, as a commanding general, facing, of all possible opponents, the mighty British army, the most singularly powerful military force on earth at the time. 

General Washington knew enough about his own forces, and about the power that Britain could bring to bear if they chose to, to know that we had virtually no chance without immense luck and the favor of Divine Providence.

So far, our luck had held out.  The Redcoats believed enough of the apparent show of strength to stay safe and secure in Boston, and to not push their own luck, perhaps fearing, as the Colonists certainly hoped, that American patriotic fervor might make up for the obvious deficit in quality arms and troop strength. 

Washington hoped to hold out until the Guns of Ticonderoga arrived… and he did.  He hoped to hold out until the politicians got them some more guns, and he did.  He hoped to hold out until the ladies of the sewing circles and coffee clubs produced enough handmade bullets, cannonballs and barrels of gunpower to actually put on a battle royale.

Two weeks after this letter was sent, Henry Knox finally arrived from the north, with dozens of sleds, oxen and men, hauling those marvelous 120,000 lbs of cannons, 59 in all, including 4 pounders and 24 pounders, howitzers and mortars.  Washington's men hid this wonderful artillery well for a month, as they could finally get to work planning the eventual assault.

At long last, the Continental Army made good use of this excellent equipment, transforming an arc from Cambridge to Roxbury on the night of March 2, 1776, enabling the Continentals to win a magnificent victory known as the Battle of Dorchester Heights, driving the British out of Boston after eight years of occupation. It was a victory sure to win respect from the world capitals across the Pond.

But all that was still in the future, on that cold, long-ago January 13, when George Washington, without the benefit of hindsight, knew only that he had thousands of soldiers, practically unarmed and certainly untrained, whom he had to keep alive until the tide might turn.

That dangerous January was indeed the dark before the dawn. Everything was to change for our side, for the better, then for the worse, and back and forth many times during that long war.

Thanks to the blessings of Divine Providence, and the greatness of Americans like Washington and Knox, we made it through those dangerous days.  We are in dark times again today, for different reasons; let us pray that noble patriots, and the critical blessings of Divine Providence, help us to make it through this time as well.

copyright 2021 John F Di Leo

John F Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor. His work has been regularly published in Illinois Review since 2009; a collection of his only somewhat fictional Illinois Review stories of vote fraud, The Tales of Little Pavel, is available on Amazon as an eBook or paperback.

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