Sunday, October 14, 2018

Episode 066: British Take Bunker Hill




Last week, I discussed how the provincial army decided to occupy Bunker Hill, then actually occupied Breed’s Hill on the night of June 16-17, 1775.  The next morning, the British under the command of Gen. William Howe crossed the harbor to land a force in Charlestown.  They expected to push the inexperienced colonists off the hill and off the Charlestown peninsula.  It took Howe all day to get his forces across the water and prepare for attack.  He held back his forces until all of them, including his reserves, were across.  Gen. Howe sensibly wanted to hit hard with all of his forces at once.

Provincial Defenses

The delay, however, gave Massachusetts Col. William Prescott, in command of the provincial forces on Breed’s Hill, more time to entrench and expand his defenses.  He also had time to call for reinforcements, though those never came. Also frustrating was the fact that that Prescott really did not have command of all the forces.  Prescott controlled the contingent on Breed's Hill where his Massachusetts militia had, build the main defenses.  New Hampshire Colonel John Stark used his colonial militia to build a defense of the provincial’s left flank, but did not really coordinate his work with anyone else.  Connecticut General Israel Putnam spent most of his day yelling at infantry and artillery on Bunker Hill, but not accomplishing much of anything else.

"Bunker Hill Flag" flown by the
provindials (from Wikimedia)
The three separate groups, however, did manage to create a rather formidable defense.  Each leader seemed to see the weaknesses left by the others and tried to fill in the gaps.  Prescott held a strong fortification in the center.  Stark built a surprisingly impregnable defensive line on the left flank, defending the line all the way to the water line.  Putnam got the forces on Bunker hill, primarily artillery, to prevent an easy path for the British around Prescott’s right flank.

British First Assault

By mid-afternoon, some time between 3:00 and 4:00 PM on June 17th Gen. Howe was finally ready to make his first advance on the provincial lines.  Howe divided his force in half, leaving his second in command, Gen. Robert Pigot to begin a direct assault on Breed's Hill.  Howe would lead the other half of his army against the right flank where General Stark and Captain Knowlton had thrown up breastworks.

While the British had disembarked, Putnam had sent militia into Charlestown village where they took up positions as snipers in the building.  Pigot’s men lining up for the assault took casualties from the harassing fire in the village. Howe approved Admiral Graves’ request to destroy the town.  Graves opened up on Charlestown with hot shot (iron balls heated to the point where they would set wooden buildings on fire when they came into contact) and carcasses (combustible materials fired from cannon, designed to set buildings on fire).  Graves also deployed a team of sailors with torches to complete the destruction.  The effort quickly burned the entire village of several hundred buildings to the ground. The provincial snipers either burned or retreated back up the hill.  The fire also contributed to the oppressive heat for everyone in the area.

British Grenadiers on Bunker Hill by E. Moran (1909)
(from Britanica)
Howe, advanced at the front of his line toward the provincial’s left flank.  Meanwhile Pigot advanced his troops directly against Breed’s Hill.  Howe also sent several light infantry companies along the beach, trying to get around the provincial lines and attack from the rear.

Howe’s planned attack quickly fell apart.  The 330 light infantry sent along the beach should have been able to push through the 50 militia defending the beach.  General Howe had requested that Admiral Graves position a ship to fire on the beach, but by late afternoon Graves could not move anything there to be of use that day.  Militia typically would panic and fire early before the enemy was in range.  Regulars could then charge their position and destroy them with bayonet.  Col. Stark, however, had carefully instructed his men not to fire until the British reached a marker on the beach that he had laid out.  In doing so, the militia held their fire until the British were close enough to take a devastating volley.  The British staggered back, attempting several more assaults, but given the thin strip of land, had to climb over their dead comrades, thus slowing their charges.  They never were able to break the provincial line.  Nearly a third of the British force lay dead or dying on the beach, with many more wounded.  Stark’s American left flank held.

Meanwhile, Howe and Pigot had their own problems advancing the main force up the hill.  The fields around Breed’s Hill had a number of low lying fences, which farmers used to mark property boundaries.  The soldiers stumbled to cross these fences in the face of enemy fire.  Like Stark’s men, Prescott got his soldiers to hold their fire until the regulars were well within range, then unleash devastating volleys.  He also used sharpshooters to pick off enemy officers at an alarming rate.  Meanwhile, Putnam had found the cannons abandoned by his artillery, grabbed a few infantrymen, and gave them a quick on the job training in artillery fire.  Soon, provincial artillery was firing into the advancing British lines with pretty effective results.

Howe realized his right flank on the beach had failed to break the enemy lines.  He now knew his main assault had to succeed.  But the fire against the regulars as they attempted to get over the fences and reform their lines was too much.  The regulars kept trying to fall back and reform lines before advancing again, but could not force their way into the redoubt.  Soon hundreds of regulars lay dead and wounded all over the field, creating even more impediments for future assaults.  Howe tried to order his field cannon closer to break the enemy lines, but the cannon got stuck in the muddy fields and could not get into position.

Pigot’s direct assault on Breed’s Hill took fewer casualties, but also failed.  Once he saw Howe’s line begin to retreat, he also pulled back to prevent the wholesale slaughter of the British left.

Provincial Lines Hold

Once the infantry pulled back, the artillery renewed its largely ineffective barrage of the provincial defenses.  Meanwhile, Prescott’s men were exhausted.  Most had been awake for nearly 36 hours, having built their defenses the night before.  They were beginning to run out of ammunition, having only what they carried in their cartridge boxes.

Prescott had maintained good firing discipline in the redoubt.  The entrenchments had protected most of them from enemy fire.  But desertion had reduced the redoubt to about 150 men.  Most of them were out of ammunition.  The officers found a few artillery shells and broke them open to use the powder in the muskets.  Still, there were not enough musket balls.  Defenders experimented with shooting small rocks or anything else they could fit down their barrels.

Colonial defenders at the rail fence
(from British Battles)
Prescott kept waiting for reinforcements.  The few companies that crossed Charlestown Neck, seemed content to observe the battle from Bunker Hill.  They did not even bother to start a second line of entrenchments on that larger hill, in the event that the British overran Breed’s Hill.  Only a single company of Connecticut militia serving under Captain John Chester joined Prescott in the main redoubt.  This supplemented the line with only about 20 more men.

The other person able to join Prescott was Major-General Joseph Warren, who had recently received his commission from the Provincial Congress while serving as that body’s President.  Warren had spent the morning in Cambridge suffering from a terrible migraine headache.  But he was determined to join the fight, despite the fact that everyone thought he was too valuable to risk on the battlefield.  But Warren said he could not ask other men to risk their lives if he would not do the same.  He wanted to be where the fighting was most dangerous.  He acquired a musket and joined Prescott in the redoubt.  Again, although he outranked Prescott, he left Prescott in command.

Despite the abysmal performance by provincial artillery, they did provide Prescott with a little support. Captain Samuel Trevett was the only artillery officer that day to make a pretty good account of himself.  He disobeyed Col. Gridley’s orders to remain off the Charlestown Peninsula and fire at the navy from the relative safety of Cobble Hill.  Instead, Trevett brought two field cannon across Bunker Hill, past the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, and set up in the defensive fletches just to the east of the redoubt.  From there, his crews could bring effective fire against the regulars trying to storm the redoubt.

According to some accounts, General Putnam also convinced another artillery crew to move down from Bunker hill and set up in a defensive location just to the west of the redoubt.  Although the inexperienced crews could not fire quickly, they did contribute to the fire against the regulars trying to take Breed’s Hill.

Second Assault

As soon has the regulars staggered back to the shore, Howe began almost immediately reforming his ranks for a second assault.  The regulars began their second assault right away, in hopes that the enemy would not have time to reinforce or reposition.

Battle of Bunker Hill
(from Reddit, used with permission)
The officers reformed the lines and made their second charge up Breed’s Hill.  Because ammunition was running low, Prescott ordered his provincials to wait until the British were within 30 yards of the redoubt.  Later retellings give the famous line “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”  But given these accounts came much later, it is unclear if Prescott ever really spoke those words.  Whatever words he did use though, Prescott got his men to hold their fire until the regulars were almost upon them.  He then unleashed what became some of the most brutal and devastating fire of the day.

The regulars tried to hold their ground and storm forward.  But the provincials kept up a three line volley fire, meaning a line fired about every ten seconds, while the other two reloaded.  Some British companies took 90% casualties.  By one account, some regulars began stacking up their own dead to use as a defense against the withering fire.

One American sharpshooter in a tree above the redoubt did his best to pick off officers with deadly accuracy.  He had several men below him reloading and passing him a loaded rifle, allowing him to take shots with great rapidity.  It is estimated that this one shooter alone took out about twenty officers before the enemy dispatched him.

After about thirty minutes of brutal fighting, the British staggered back in retreat for a second time.  One of the few regulars still standing on Breed’s Hill was Gen. Howe, who somehow found himself amazingly alive as everyone around him had fallen.  Stunned by the repulse, Howe remained standing.  The then slowly picked his way back down the hill, stepping over the hundreds of bodies that littered his path.

Third Assault

General Howe had to accept that his first two attempted assaults were complete failures.  The provincials had held their ground, contrary to all conventional wisdom.  Further, his own regulars had been unable to keep lines or withhold fire until within range.  He decided to make a few changes for the third assault.  First, he finally got his artillery within range of the enemy lines.  British grapeshot tore into many of the provincials outside and around the redoubt.  Howe also organized his men into five columns rather than lines.  Normally, marching columns into battle is a bad idea since a single cannonball could rip through most of the column.  But the provincials did not really have any effective artillery.  The few they did have were off to the sides.  The columns left gaps between the soldiers so they could more easily get around impediments while advancing.  He ordered his remaining exhausted and overheated regulars to remove their packs and any other encumbrances.  Howe also ordered his soldiers not to load their guns.  He did not want them stopping to fire and breaking stride.  This would be a bayonet assault only.

Inside the provincial redoubt, Prescott had more men now, but these were the men who had been protecting his flanks  They had moved inside to get away form the deadly British artillery fire. This time, Prescott ordered his men to withhold fire until the enemy was within 15 yards.  The regulars got so close that many thought the provincials had finally retreated and had abandoned the redoubt.

Death of Maj. Pitcairn
(from British Battles)
Instead, the provincials gave the regulars another deadly volley.  The British took heavy casualties but continued forward, storming the redoubt shouting “fight, conquer, or die!”  The provincials had killed most of the British officers, so confusion reigned.  Regulars got pinned down behind the final wall as both sides continued to fire.  One of the field commanders at the lead of the regulars was Major John Pitcairn, the same marine who had commanded the regulars on Lexington Green a few months earlier.  Pitcairn desperately charged his marines into the withering fire, taking a mortal wound to the chest.

Soon though, provincial fire slacked as they had no more ammunition.  The regulars swarmed the redoubt, expecting the provincials to surrender or flee.  Those provincials who had not deserted though, were the toughest of the lot.  They continued fighting hand to hand, using their guns as clubs.  Finally, Prescott and Warren called for a retreat.  General Warren used his sword to fight hand to hand as the soldiers pulled out.  Warren was determined to be the last man out of the redoubt.  As the men retreated, Warren called for one last volley.  At that moment a British officer’s aide pulled a pistol and fired, shattering Warren’s skull, killing him instantly.  Just to be sure, a group of grenadiers bayoneted his body repeatedly.  The regulars, angry at the high price they paid to take the hill, were in no mood to accept any surrenders, even if anyone even tried.

The provincials took most of their casualties for the day during the retreat.  The British fired repeated volleys as the survivors ran across an open field, escaping Breed's Hill and moving up Bunker Hill.  On Bunker Hill, Putnam attempted to rally a second line.  But even he could not stem the panicked retreat over Bunker Hill and back across Charlestown Neck.

Having captured the defenses on Breed’s Hill.  Howe decided not to pursue the retreating provincials.  His army was in disarray and most of his officers dead or wounded.  It was now near evening.  Gen. Clinton had  crossed into Charlestown without orders, bringing even more reinforcements.  But they were too late to engage.  The remaining provincial forces retreated across Charlestown Neck back toward Cambridge, leaving the peninsula completely in British control. The battle was over.

Bunker Hill Aftermath

Bunker Hill is considered a British victory because the regulars successfully took the hill and took control of the Charlestown peninsula.  But it was a costly victory.  The British suffered more than 1000 dead and wounded.  British officers took a big hit, with over 80 killed or wounded.  If you don’t count Clinton’s late arrivals, that is nearly a 50% officer casualty rate.

Generals Howe and Pigot, both of whom led chargers survived unscathed, though all of Howe’s 12 aides who marched alongside him were killed or wounded.  While the British won the battle, they learned that the provincials would stand and fight.  Like British leaders before them, the new generals now understood taming the American rebellion would be no easy task.  In a letter following the battle, Gage wrote “The loss we have sustained, is greater than we can bear.  Small Armys cant afford such losses, especially when the Advantage gained tends to little more than the gaining of a Post.

The Americans took about 450 casualties that day.  Only about 30 were taken prisoner, and 20 of those died in captivity, likely due to serious wounds before capture.  Although over 3000 provincials claimed to participate in the battle in some way, there were never even 1000 men opposing the British assault at any point in the battle.  So as a percentage, casualty rate for the Americans who actually fought on Breed’s Hill was pretty high as well.

Death of General Warren by J. Trumbull (1786)
(from Wikimedia)
Gen. Gage had planned to take Dorchester Heights following the capture of Bunker Hill.  But the casualty rates from the battle changed his mind.  His army would occupy and entrench Bunker Hill, but would not attempt to take any more land from the Provincial Army.

The most painful loss for the provincials was the death of Gen. Warren.  James Warren would replace Joseph Warren as President of the Provincial Congress.  James was no close relation to Joseph.  He was married to Mercy Otis Warren, the sister of the famous James Otis.  The man who had played such a large role over many years in the events leading to the fighting in Boston.

The British guards on Charlestown Neck, eventually put up artillery to prevent any attempted counter attack.  The provincials fortified entrenchments between the Neck and Cambridge, to stem another British assault.  They also fortified their defenses in Roxbury, still expecting a British attempt to take Dorchester Heights.  Col. Gridley oversaw the new defenses, but received assistance from a new source, a Boston bookstore owner named Henry Knox.  Knox had long been a Son of Liberty and active in pre-war Boston.  Despite having no actual military experience, Knox had read all about military engineering and artillery.  He was ready to put his learning to work.

On the British side, General Gage had decided against any further assaults for now.  Both armies buried their dead and treated their wounded, a larger percentage of which would die over the next few weeks, given the state of military medicine.

Many British officers blamed their defeat on the poor performance of the regulars.  That poor performance, many argued, reflected poor training and drill, which in turn reflected on the officers.  Ultimately, Gage was to blame and would lose his command as a result of the losses at Bunker Hill. But that decision was still months away.  Instead, the American commander would be the next one replaced, when the Americans get a new Commander in Chief, General George Washington.

- - -

Next Episode 67: Washington Takes Command (Available Oct. 21, 2018)

Previous Episode 65: Provincials Occupy Bunker Hill


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Further Reading:

Websites:

Ketchum, Richard "The Decisive Day Is Come" American Heritage Mag. Aug 1962, Vol. 13, Iss. 5: https://www.americanheritage.com/content/%E2%80%9C-decisive-day-come%E2%80%9D

John Stark http://www.seacoastnh.com/framers/stark.html

Samuel Gerrish http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/06/samuel-gerrish-first-officer-of.html

Bunker Hill Courts Martial:
Capt. Callender: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/callender-court-martial
Maj. Gridley: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/maj-gridley-court-martial
Capt. Gridley: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/capt-gridley-court-martial

Samuel Gerrish Court Martial: http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/06/samuel-gerrish-unworthy-officer.html

VIDEO: Nathaniel Philbrick discusses his book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, C-Span, 2013: https://www.c-span.org/video/?312873-1

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Bolton, Charles (ed) Letters of Hugh, Earl Percy, from Boston and New York, 1774-1776,  Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902.

Dana, Elizabeth Ellery (ed) Barker, John John Barker diary - The British in Boston, 1774-1776, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press 1924.

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: CC Little & J. Brown, 1851.

Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.

Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Swett, Samuel History of Bunker Hill Battle: With a Plan, Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826.

VIDEO: Uhlar, Janet Dr. Joseph Warren: Early American War Hero (1 hr) Bedford TV,  2016.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Fleming, Thomas Now We are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, St. Martin’s Press, 1960.

Forman, Samuel Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, Pelican Publishing, 2011.

Lockhart, Paul The Whites of Their Eyes, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Nelson, James L. With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011.

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2013.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Episode 065: Provincials Occupy Bunker Hill





In the last episode, Congress voted to authorize a Continental Army and chose George Washington to lead it.  Before word of Congress’ decision reached Boston, the Provincial Army would clash with the regulars at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

British Want to Seize the High Ground

The Massachusetts Provincial Army had been besieging the regulars in Boston since the evening of April 19, 1775, when they chased the regulars back from Lexington and Concord.  In Boston, Gen. Gage had assumed a defensive posture.  With the arrival of Generals Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton and their reinforcements, the British decided it was time to go on offense again.

On the southern side of Boston Harbor sat Dorchester Heights.  This high ground would give the Provincials the ability to bombard both Boston and the fleet in the harbor.  Similarly, on the northern side of the harbor on the Charlestown Peninsula, Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill provided attractive high ground which could threaten both Boston and the fleet.

Bunker Hill, artist's conception (from Smithsonian)
For months, the British had kept the provincials from occupying either high ground by threatening to attack if they dared attempt such an occupation.  So far, those threats had worked, but there was no guarantee that would continue.  The three new generals who had arrived recently were eager to prove that their leadership could put the militia on the run and that Gage was simply too timid to get the job done.  In early June, Gage held a council of war at which his officers agreed on a plan to capture both of these key locations.

Gen. Howe, the senior officer below Gage, would lead the attack.  On Sunday June 18th, British artillery on Boston Neck would open up on the provincials in Roxbury.  Gen. Howe then would lead an infantry attack across the neck taking Roxbury and then Dorchester Heights behind it.  From there, several regiments would move north to Cambridge, chasing off the Provincial Army command, then moving onto the Charlestown Peninsula where they could occupy Bunker Hill.  The new officers assumed that the provincials would simply break and run in the face of the British regulars’ well-organized assault.

I can almost hear Gen. Gage thinking to himself: Yeah, good luck with that guys.  These provincials fight a lot harder than you think.  Still, Gage approved the plan.  In truth, the provincials had not actually held any ground against the British at Lexington or Concord. They simply used a series of hit and run attacks to make life miserable during the march.  It was not unreasonable to assume that even if there was a firefight, the British force would not have a problem capturing the unoccupied high grounds at both Dorchester Heights and Bunker Hill.

Occupying Breed’s Hill

Nothing in Boston stayed secret very long.  Provincial leaders soon learned of the planned attack, and prepared a preemptive strike of their own.  On June 15, General Artemas Ward convened his own council of war.  The provincial officers voted to occupy Bunker Hill.  This was the highest point on the Charlestown Peninsula, the farthest from the village, and the closest to the neck where they could call on reinforcements, or retreat if necessary

The Council gave field command to Massachusetts Colonel William Prescott for the occupation of the hill.  Prescott had seen action in both King George’s War and the French and Indian War.  His leadership in the assault of Nova Scotia in 1755 resulted in an offer of a commission with the British regulars, an offer he declined.  After the French and Indian War, Prescott lived as a country farmer and an officer in his local militia.

William Prescott at Bunker Hill
(from American Military History Podcast)
His militia unit had marched to Concord after hearing the alarm on April 19th, but living way up on the New Hampshire border, about 40 miles from the battle, arrived too late to see any action that day.  Prescott and his militia had participated in the ongoing siege ever since.

On the evening of June 16, Prescott led about 1000 Massachusetts militiamen onto the Charlestown Peninsula.  He had orders to set up a defensive line on Bunker Hill.  Joining the Massachusetts militia were about 200 Connecticut militia.  Connecticut General Israel Putnam joined the Connecticut militia assigned to the mission.  Although he outranked Colonel Prescott, Putnum did not assume command. Prescott remained in charge of the mission.  Lt. Col. Richard Gridley, an engineer and head of artillery provided guidance on how best to fortify the hill against an attack.

For some reason, once the men arrived on the site, they fortified Breed’s Hill instead of Bunker Hill.  Breed’s Hill was not as elevated.  It also stood closer to Charlestown Village and the harbor.  The Provincial’s presence there would present a threat to the British army and navy since heavy artillery could hit Boston from there, as well as ships in Boston Harbor.  Breed’s Hill also made an easier target for British artillery.  The new location made any retreat more difficult as defenders would have to retreat up Bunker Hill before they could cross the Charlestown Neck back to the main army.  There is no good record why they made this last minute location adjustment.  It may have been Gen. Putnam who encouraged the more aggressive position.  That certainly seems in keeping with his character.  In any event, the men began digging entrenchments and fortifications on Breed’s Hill around midnight.

If they hoped to go undetected until morning, they would be disappointed.  In Boston, Gen. Clinton went for a late night walk, and heard the digging and construction taking place across the harbor.  He alerted Generals Gage and Howe.  The Generals, though, decided to wait for daylight when they could see for certain what was happening.  Even if the provincials were up to something, no one wanted to consider a spontaneous nighttime attack without any preparation or planning.

Morning Artillery Assault

At dawn on June 17, the British saw the provincials hard at work fortifying Breed’s Hill.  Admiral Graves positioned eight naval vessels and soon opened up an artillery barrage.  But solid shot at that distance was pretty ineffective in taking out soldiers.  Almost all of the balls simply sunk into the mud of Breed’s Hill.  The men soon realized how ineffective it was, and got back to work.  One lucky shot did manage to decapitate one unlucky militiaman, but that was it.  The officers quickly and unceremoniously buried the solder on the hill, mostly so his comrades would not become unnerved by having to look at his decapitated body all day.  Of course, if they had been fortifying Bunker Hill instead of Breed’s Hill as ordered, they would have been much more difficult targets for the naval artillery.

Charlestown Peninsula (from Wikimedia)
With the defenses mostly in place by late morning Col. Gridley left the field, before any combat started.  Many of the militiamen also left the hill before things got too dangerous.  All day, Col. Prescott would have to deal with a slow trickle of desertions.

Around 9 AM, Prescott called for reinforcements, expecting an all out attack.  His men, who had been digging all night, were exhausted.  Most also did not have provisions and were getting pretty hungry and thirsty as well.  In Cambridge, Gen. Ward received a request for reinforcements at around 10 AM, but decided not to send any.  Gen. Putnam, who had been on the hill all night, personally went to plead with Ward for more troops.

Ward was still worried that the British would begin their main assault against Roxbury on the provincial’s right flank.  Gen. Percy had begun an artillery barrage across Boston Neck.  This could have been a prelude to an assault on the still unoccupied Dorchester Heights.  It was, however, simply a feint to keep the provincials occupied so they would not send more reinforcements to Bunker Hill on their left flank.  It worked.  Ward kept his reinforcements around Cambridge, in the center of the provincial line.  From there he could deploy his forces south toward Roxbury or north toward Bunker Hill depending on what the enemy did.  Putnam persuaded him to send another 200 New Hampshire militiamen, not even enough to replace the overnight desertions.  The bulk of the more than 10,000 man provincial army simply sat around waiting in reserve.

Col. Prescott’s men continued to work on their defenses all morning.  Around mid-day, several provincials arrived with cannons to place in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill.  Unfortunately the defenders had made no provisions for cannons.  Prescott had already sent his digging tools back to Bunker Hill.  He did not want to send more men to bring them back.  Those who took them away used the opportunity to flee the field and not return.  If he sent more to collect them, those soldiers would likely flee as well.  The men tried to dig holes in the mud by hand, but made little progress.  Finally, they simply loaded a cannon and fired a ball through the mud embankment, thus creating a gun hole.

Breeds Hill Redoubt
(from Media Storehouse)
So far, the provincials had to face only a few cannon balls lobbed their way.  At daylight, back in Boston, British Gen. Gage convened another council of war to decide how to respond to the Provincials.  After some debate, the council agreed that Gen. Howe would lead about 1500 regulars across the harbor,  to a point just south of Breed’s Hill and near Charlestown Village.  From there, the main force would assemble and directly assault the unfinished entrenchments.  A secondary force would make a flanking maneuver on the right against the undefended portion of Breed’s Hill.

Assembling the men would take time, and it would be difficult to land them at low tide.  With high tide at around 3PM, they planned to land the men during the early afternoon, for a late day assault.

Throughout the early part of the day, the navy continued its fire on the provincials.  The army would also fire from Copp’s Hill in Boston, too far to do much damage.  British cannons kept up a constant, if relatively ineffective barrage against Breed’s Hill.  Admiral Graves also maneuvered several gondolas mounted with cannons into the shallow waters just south of Charlestown Neck.  This gave the navy a position to fire on any advancing reinforcements or retreating enemy who tried to cross the neck.

British Army Lands

By mid-afternoon, Gen. Howe had landed most of his force of 1600 east of Charlestown village, at Moulton Hill, just southeast of Breed’s Hill.  His troops landed safely out of range of musket fire.  By this time, he saw that his planned assault on the Provincial left would have to get through the defensive barrier that Prescott had spent the day building.  Howe felt confident his men could take the defenses.  To make certain though, he decided to bring over another 700 reinforcements so that he could hit the Provincials with overwhelming force.  The regulars settled down to have an early dinner while they awaited the reinforcements.

Israel Putnam (from Wikimedia)
Meanwhile Prescott’s provincials continued to dwindle.  Militiamen, hungry, tired, or just plain scared slipped away before battle even began.  The extra time did give Prescott even more time to improve his defenses.  But he needed reinforcements if he wanted to have any hope of standing up to the ever-growing army of regulars making their way across the harbor to Charlestown.

Howe’s landing showed Prescott that he was vulnerable on the provincial army’s left flank.  Howe could simply march his men across the field to the east of Breed’s Hill, come around from behind, and capture the entrenchments.  Prescot deployed Captain Thomas Knowlton of the Connecticut militia to set up a defense on the left flank. Knowlton began building up a breastwork around a rail fence. Even so, Knowlton did not extend his defenses all the way to the edge of the Mystic River.  He left a pass open along the shore where Howe could send his grenediers and move up behind Prescott’s lines.  Eventually though, Col. John Stark, who commanded the New Hampshire reinforcements that Ward had approved, saw this weakness and built a breastworks along the beach and used his infantry to protect against any British flanking maneuver.  This would later prove critical to protecting the provincial lines.

Prescott also ordered Lt. Col. John Robinson and Maj. Henry Woods to take several companies forward on the American right.  They advanced toward Charlestown, with orders to harass the British troop landings from there.

On Bunker Hill, Putnam found his artillery commanders, Captain Callender and Captain Gridley nephew of Lt. Col. Gridley, the engineer who had set up the entrenchments on Breed’s Hill the night before and then left the field.  The officers had almost no experience firing their weapons.  Upon finding their powder charges too large to fit down the barrels, they simply gave up on firing.

Troop positions at the beginning of the Battle
(from British Battles)
Putnam argued with them, showing them how they could ladle the powder into the cannon, then fire.  Yes, it took a little longer, but better than doing nothing.  He ordered them onto the field in front of Bunker Hill, where they could fire at the British landing. The artillery crews fired a few rounds but were horribly inaccurate.  They eventually gave up again and tried to pull back.  Putnam, angry at the unauthorized retreat, demanded they go back and fight.  They succeeded in drawing away British artillery fire from Breed’s Hill and towards themselves.  One British round hit and destroyed one of the Provincial cannon, killing several of its crew.  That was enough for most of the artillerymen, who either slipped away to join the infantry, or deserted altogether.

Captain Callender tried to retreat with his guns, but ran into Gen. Putnam again.  Callender first claimed he was out of ammunition.  But when Putnam opened his ammunition boxes and found them full, he angrily demanded Callender return to the field.  Then Callendar told him that as a Massachusetts militia officer, he had no obligation to obey the orders of a Connecticut officer.  At that point, Putnam threatened to kill Callender unless he returned.  The shamed Callender agreed to return, but as soon as Putnam rode off, Callender and his men abandoned their guns and fled from the field.  Both Captain Callender and Captain Gridley would later face courts martial and leave the army.

Gridley was found not guilty, but apparently soon afterward resigned his commission  The court martial found Callender guilty and dismissed him from the army.  As a side note, after losing his commission, Callender continued to serve as a volunteer and hoped to redeem himself.  He fought bravely the following year in New York, refusing to retreat.  He was nearly killed by the enemy on Long Island. A British officer, noting his brave defense, prevented his troops from killing him. Callender spent more than a year as a prisoner of war in hellish conditions before being exchanged.  After that ordeal, he had his commission and honorable reputation restored.

Provincial Reinforcements

By early afternoon, Gen. Ward realized a British assault on Roxbury looked less likely and decided to commit more provincials to Bunker Hill.  However, as companies attempted to pass over Charlestown Neck, they felt the impact of the British navy’s gunboats that Graves had deployed to attack anyone attempting to cross the neck.  Two larger ships also had cannons within firing range of the neck.

John Stark (from Wikimedia)
Units attempting to cross would take casualties.  The inaccurate cannons would not kill many, but a few beheadings by chain shot was enough to intimidate most unseasoned militia from risking the crossing.  As a result, many companies simply waited on the mainland side hoping they would not receive orders to march through the field of fire from the enemy cannon.  Among those was a company commanded by Major Gridley, the son of Col. Gridley and cousin of Captain Gridley.  Showing the same level of coolness under fire as the rest of his family, Major Gridley refused to cross Charlestown Neck and later faced a court martial for breach of duty and refusal to obey orders.

New Hampshire Colonel Stark, returning with more New Hampshire troops had to push his way around other companies too scared to make the crossing.  Around the same time Joseph Warren also walked over the neck. Warren, who had been suffering from a migraine all morning, was determined to join the fight.  The Provincial Congress President had recently been appointed a major general in the Provincial Army, and while retaining his appointment as President.  His colleagues begged him not to go, but Warren insisted he would not demand others take risks that he would not.  He met up with Prescott on Breeds Hill, insisting he would serve only as a volunteer soldier and would not take command.  Other companies would also cross, but almost none joined the actual battle.  Instead, most of those who crossed onto the Charlestown Peninsula watched events unfolding on Breed’s Hill from the relative safety of Bunker Hill.

Even Bunker Hill was too scary for some.  Col. Samuel Gerrish took one look at the enemy from Bunker Hill and ordered his men to retreat.  When Putnam attempted to force his men forward.  Gerrish literally threw himself on the ground and claimed he was too exhausted.  He would soon retreat with most of his men.  Amazingly, Gerrish was not court martialed for his cowardice on this day, but would be court martialed a few months later for similar actions.

Aside from Stark’s reinforcements of the left flank, Prescott would receive almost no reinforcements on Breed’s Hill itself, other than the arrival of General Warren.  In fact, his force on the hill had dwindled to about half its original size due to desertions.  About 500 defenders on Breed’s hill had been there all night building the defenses, with little food, drink or rest.  They now faced a force of over 2500 British officers and men, as well as 125 field artillery, not counting the artillery still firing from Copp’s Hill in Boston and from the fleet in the harbor.

- - -

Next Episode 66: The British Take Bunker Hill

Previous Episode 64: The Second Continental Congress Begins


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American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Also, see the very bottom of this page to see how you can support this podcast by making purchases you would make anyway on Amazon.  Thanks, Mike Troy



Visit http://www.amrevpodcast.com for a list of all episodes.

Visit https://pod.amrevpodcast.com for free downloads of all podcast episodes.


Further Reading:

Websites:

Ketchum, Richard "The Decisive Day Is Come" American Heritage Mag. Aug 1962, Vol. 13, Iss. 5: https://www.americanheritage.com/content/%E2%80%9C-decisive-day-come%E2%80%9D

John Stark http://www.seacoastnh.com/framers/stark.html

Samuel Gerrish http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/06/samuel-gerrish-first-officer-of.html

Bunker Hill Courts Martial:
Capt. Callender: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/callender-court-martial
Maj. Gridley: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/maj-gridley-court-martial
Capt. Gridley: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/capt-gridley-court-martial

Samuel Gerrish Court Martial: http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/06/samuel-gerrish-unworthy-officer.html

The Battle of Bunker Hill American Military Podcast, another podcast version of the same story: http://americanmilitaryhistorypodcast.com/the-battle-of-bunker-hill-part-i

VIDEO: Nathaniel Philbrick discusses his book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, C-Span, 2013: https://www.c-span.org/video/?312873-1

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Bolton, Charles (ed) Letters of Hugh, Earl Percy, from Boston and New York, 1774-1776,  Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902.

Dana, Elizabeth Ellery (ed) Barker, John John Barker diary - The British in Boston, 1774-1776, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press 1924.

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: CC Little & J. Brown, 1851.

Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.

Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Swett, Samuel History of Bunker Hill Battle: With a Plan, Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826.

VIDEO: Uhlar, Janet Dr. Joseph Warren: Early American War Hero (1 hr) Bedford TV,  2016.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Fleming, Thomas Now We are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, St. Martin’s Press, 1960.

Forman, Samuel Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, Pelican Publishing, 2011.

Lockhart, Paul The Whites of Their Eyes, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Nelson, James L. With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011.

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2013 (Book recommendation of the week).

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Episode 064: The Second Continental Congress Begins




On the morning of May 10th, 1775, just hours after Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen stormed Fort Ticonderoga, and three weeks into the Siege of Boston, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia.

Getting Organized

The First Continental Congress, which I looked at back in Episode 48, had set this date to meet when it disbanded at the end of October in 1774.  At that time, its purpose was to decide was steps to take next if the King and Parliament refused to take acceptable action on their petitions.  Well, not only had London refused to consider the petitions, but now war had broken out. Congress had to play catch up with what was now a shooting war.

Many of the representatives were returning from the First Congress.  There were some new faces though who would have major roles.  John Hancock had joined the Massachusetts delegation.  Benjamin Franklin, returned from London and sat with the Pennsylvania delegation.  Thomas Jefferson joined from Virginia, replacing Peyton Randolph a few weeks into the session.  Georgia had not sent a delegation to the First Congress, This time, one Georgia parish, sent a single delegate, Lyman Hall.  A full delegation would arrive a few months later.

Congress met in Pennsylvania's legislative hall,
later known as Independence Hall. (from General Atomic)
The Second Congress seemed more willing to take more radical action than the First Congress. Part of that was the fact that several prominent Tories who had gone to the First Congress now decided that further participation could be seen as treason.  Part of it also was that many moderates had seen intervening events and recognized that the outbreak of war required a new response.

Congress essentially broke down into three factions.  The most conservative faction led by men like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, still wanted to return to the relationship that the colonies had with Parliament at the end of the French and Indian War.  Parliament held authority over the Empire, but essentially respected the rights of the colonies to govern and tax themselves.  Even these most conservative delegates would be considered radicals by Parliament’s standards though.

Most delegates probably fell into the middle moderate category. They believed that Parliament could not be trusted to govern the colonies.  They still hoped to fashion a compromise with London that would allow the colonial legislatures to govern and tax themselves, but still operate as loyal subjects to the King.  They wanted a new power sharing arrangement that would keep them within the protection of the Empire.  Most of the southern delegates fell into this category, as well as some from other regions.

Finally, the most radical faction accepted the idea that with war having come, there really was no option other than full independence.  John Adams and a few other New Englanders had reached this conclusion, but they dared not express it openly in Congress yet.  They realized they needed the moderates to bring the other colonies into the fight.  They could not afford to scare them away.  As events progressed, they hoped others would accept that nothing would work but independence.

Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who had presided over most of the First Continental Congress, received unanimous reelection to the Second.  Randolph a lawyer from one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Virginia was a well respected moderate.  Within weeks, he had to return home though.  Congress then elected John Hancock to preside over Congress.

The first few weeks of Congress were a scene of chaos and confusion for the delegates as they received the depositions from Lexington and Concord.  The siege of Boston involving tens of thousands of armed militia was only one issue.  Congress soon began to receive reports about the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.  All over the Continent, colonists rose up, formed armies, and confiscated arms and ammunition from public armories.  They forced royal governors, and even outspoken Tories, to flee for their lives.  The small contingent of British regulars in New York were stuck on navy ships in the harbor.  The soldiers dared not set foot on land.

Royal governors up and down the continent found their positions completely untenable.  Absent arrival of British Regulars, each governor realized his options were becoming limited to being asked to leave, being taken prisoner, or joining the Patriot cause.  No governor with a royal appointment took the third option, not even Gov. William Franklin of New Jersey, who split permanently with his father Benjamin, now in the Continental Congress.  Only the elected Governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull transitioned to the patriot leadership.

More Negotiations or War?

One of Congress’ first decisions was whether their goals had changed.  Were they seeking independence?  Were they supporting an armed rebellion? Or were they simply trying to get the King and Parliament to move back to the status quo.

John Dickinson gave a lengthy speech urging Congress not to go too far too fast.  His views really had not changed much since he wrote the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania years earlier to stir up opposition to the Townshend Acts.  Dickinson thought they had three options.  One was to stop talking to London and simply fight the war.  Dickinson raised fears of British-incited slave revolts in the south, using the French and Indians against New England and devastation by regular army and navy as making this option far too dangerous.

John Dickinson
(from American History Central)
His next option was to continue military opposition while petitioning the King and Parliament once again.  Although previous petitions fell on deaf ears, now that Lexington and Concord had shown the colonists would fight, perhaps London would be more amenable to petitions.  The third option would be to send negotiators to London to work out a solution in person.  To Dickinson, this seemed like the best option.

Dickinson’s position requesting that Parliament simply restore the status quo put him squarely within mainstream patriot thought from five years earlier. Others though, had moved on.  Most delegates realized that they could never trust Parliament to support their best interests.  They wanted complete autonomy over domestic affairs, with only a shared loyalty to the King.  A few did not even want that, but they were keeping quiet, at least for now.  Several delegates spoke in opposition to Dickinson, including Patrick Henry.  Even that outspoken Virginia radical did not propose Independence.  John and Samuel Adams both opposed Dickinson’s ideas in letters written afterwards.  They did not want to appear too radical to the rest of Congress in the debates quite yet.  The Massachusetts delegation still feared, the rest of the colonies saying you guys are nuts and leaving them to fight a war on their own.

The Dickinson debates resulted in four votes, the first three nearly unanimous, referring to themselves as “his majesty’s most faithful subjects” had been put in a precarious situation that unfortunately resulted in the battles at Lexington and Concord, that all the colonies would work toward defending their fellow citizens in Massachusetts, and that they hoped for a restoration of harmony between the colonies and the mother country, though they stayed away from any specifics about what that “harmony” might entail.  The fourth vote passed only narrowly, to submit another petition to the King calling for negotiations to work out an acceptable power sharing plan.

The fact that the last vote was so controversial says that most delegates accepted that the time for talk really was over.  Based on the next few weeks, it seems clear that even many of those who supported another petition, did not see much coming from it.  They would prepare for war, but if you want to send another document to the King, knock yourself out.

The final votes on the debate took place on May 26, just one day after the HMS Cerberus landed in Boston, bringing the first military reinforcements from London.

News of Fort Ticonderoga

During the debates on a petition, word reached  Congress about Allen and Arnold capturing Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.  Unlike Lexington and Concord, which could be portrayed as self defense against British aggression, capture of these forts clearly constituted an aggressive act of war.  For the moderates and conservatives still looking for a negotiated peace, this was a nightmare.

John Adams
(from Journal of Am. Rev.)
Although Allen claimed his capture in the name of the Continental Congress, no one in Philadelphia heard of the attack before it was over.  It is almost certain Congress never would have approved it ahead of time.  Not only did it create a divide between the war factions and negotiation factions in Congress. It started a big colonial dispute as well.

New York was probably the most pro-loyalist colony among those attending the Congress.  The fact that extra-legal committees from Massachusetts and Connecticut approved an invasion into New York without notice or consent did not sit well with many New Yorkers.  The fact that Ethan Allen was involved only made things worse.  Many NY delegates considered the man a terrorist.

To keep New York happy and prevent any further conflict, Massachusetts agreed to turn over the Fort to New York, but asked that the cannon be shipped to Boston for use in the Siege.  There is actually very little in the Congressional records about Ticonderoga.  Apparently most of the discussions were done in committee and without much written record.  What we do know though, shows that Congress simply was not ready to start managing a war before it even decided to create an army.

Creating an Army

With the Dickinson debates over, Congress in early June finally turned to the matter of creating an army.  It was clear that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was in over its head.  The Massachusetts delegation had been pushing all along to get the other colonies more involved in the fighting.  When Benjamin Church arrived with news from Boston and Joseph Warren’s request that Congress take control of its army, Congress got down to business.

After a few days of debate, Congress agreed to support a 10,000 man army in Massachusetts and a 5000 man army in New York.   The Army in Massachusetts already far exceeded 10,000 men, so I guess not all of them would be able to go on the Continental payroll.  Many of those besieging Boston were happy to stay in their militia and not join this new Continental Army.  The New York Army would need to incorporate New York militia, which had not flocked to Boston in significant numbers.  But with the capture of Crown Point and Ticonderoga, New York would likely have to defend against a British invasion from Canada.  Congress also made an effort to ensure some of the middle colonies at least got involved in the conflict.  It called for six companies of riflemen to be raised in Pennsylvania, still one of the most reluctant Colonies to commit to the cause.  Maryland and Virginia would also raise two companies of riflemen each.

Spanish Silver Dollar broken into pieces of eight
(from the2nomads). 
To pay for all this, Congress authorized raising $2 million Spanish dollars.  This act alone probably needs explanation on multiple levels.  First, why are we now using Spanish dollars instead of pounds?  The spanish silver dollar had become common currency throughout the Americas.  Spanish colonial gold and silver mines sent their product to mints, also in Latin America, meaning that lots of this hard money circulated all over the western hemisphere. A shortage of British hard currency in America caused colonists to turn to spanish dollars. About four Spanish dollars was worth about 1 British pound.  Spanish dollars were often broken into eighths.  They literally broke the coin into pieces.  This is where we get the term “pieces of eight” sometimes used in pirate movies.  The pieces were often called “bits” which is why today we still call a quarter of a dollar “two bits”.  Calculating the authorization in Spanish dollars, meant that no single colonial currency would be involved and that the authorization would likely hold its value, unlike colonial currencies which often sank with inflation.

Where did Congress get the authority to do this?  The Continental Congress really was just a meeting of colonial delegations to discuss foreign policy.  It had no authority to raise taxes or spend large sums of money.  Congress simply decided to act on its own.  It called upon each of the colonies to pony up the necessary funds.  Success in collecting that money was mixed at best, and would prove an ongoing problem for the next decade or so.  But for now, Congress would issue paper notes, essentially IOUs promising to pay the bearer in Spanish hard currency, at some point, when they could get their hands on it.  For now, we cannot worry about the money, we’ve got a war to fight.  Maybe we’ll all be dead before the bills come due anyway.

Picking a General

Having approved the creation of an army, Congress next had to select someone to lead it.  Doing this was no easy task.  First, there were no experienced Generals in America, unless you count militia generals who may never have seen combat, or those guys in Massachusetts who the Provincial Congress made Generals a few weeks earlier.  This new leader would have to create a whole new army and put it into battle against British regulars almost immediately.

But military ability was only one consideration.  Another was loyalty to Congress.  Next to defeat, The greatest fear of many delegates was that they would create a successful General who would become the next Cromwell, the Puritan General who overthrew King Charles I and then Parliament a century earlier.  Armies had a way of turning into dictatorships.  Any military leader could not have anything even hinting at such an inclination.

Another consideration was diversity.  Political leaders wanted to make sure the new commanders would represent many different colonies.  If all the colonies were going to participate in the fighting, they simply could not be seen to be joining a Massachusetts army.  The Continental Army had to be truly continental, with leaders from North, south, and middle.

Congress considered a number of people.  Although this debate did not make it into the records, we know from letters and other recollections what delegates were debating among themselves, probably mostly in evening discussions at taverns over a few beers.

One of the top military leaders allied with the patriot cause was Charles Lee, who had served as at Lt. Col. in the British Army.  He had seen combat in America and Europe during the Seven Years War, and had served in the Polish and Portuguese armies to get more battlefield experience when Britain was a peace.  Unable to secure a full colonelcy, Lee retired from the Army and moved to Virginia in 1773.  Now, he was in Philadelphia, offering his services to Congress.  Despite his battlefield experience, Lee was a professional soldier, and a bit of a mercenary, having served in several foreign armies.  Congress was not ready to hand over command to someone who might not be completely dedicated to the political cause.

Charles Lee
(from Wikimedia)
Artemas Ward, the Commander and Chief of the Massachusetts Provincial Army was another top contender, since he was essentially already doing the job.  But Ward was old, and had already proven sickly on several occasions.  Besides, Congress really wanted to look outside of Massachusetts.  Not even the Massachusetts delegation was pushing for Ward.

John Hancock had been the titular commander of the Massachusetts militia at one point.  But he really had not commanded men in combat.  Besides, he seems to have taken the political route, becoming the President of Congress. He was from Massachusetts at a time when everyone seemed to be looking for someone from another colony.

Horatio Gates also got serious attention.  Like Lee, he had served for many years in the British Army, rising to Major, and eventually retired to Virginia.  Gates was old enough to have fought in the War of Austrian Succession.  He followed Gen. Braddock to America at the beginning of the Seven Years war, marching alongside fellow officers Thomas Gage and Charles Lee, along with militia officer George Washington, at the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755.  He served throughout the war and as a peacetime officer through the 1760’s.  Eventually, however, he realized he did not have the money nor influence for further promotions and retired to a farm in Virginia.  Again, Congress liked his experience but was not sure about his dedication to the cause and Congress to make him overall commander.

Finally, there was George Washington.  The delegate from Virginia, in a classic case of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have, began attending Congressional sessions in his Virginia Militia uniform.  Although Washington had experience from the French and Indian War, he had done little to distinguish himself during the war.  He lost most of the battles in which he fought.  He had tried to get a commission in the regular army and failed.  He had been commander of the Virginia militia, but had been primarily a ceremonial leader for the past decade, pursuing instead the life of a gentleman farmer and part time politician.  He had not even taken up arms when Virginia had fought Lord Dunmore’s war against the Indians a year earlier.

All that said, Washington seemed to meet all the criteria.  He had decent military experience.  He was from Virginia, which would help bring the south into the war.  He seemed dedicated to the idea of civilian rule and to Congressional authority.  According to some, the tall silent Washington just looked like a military commander.  Perhaps it’s not the best reason to choose a commander based on looks, but it seems like it was a factor.

Congress select George Washington as Commander in Chief
(from Wikimedia)
John Adams rose on June 15 to propose a new Commander in Chief.  Evidently, he had not discussed his choice even with the members of the Massachusetts delegation.  As he began his speech, according to several witnesses, John Hancock thought he might be the nominee.  After a few minutes, he realized Adams was talking about Washington, which his change of expression made known to everyone in the room.

Washington immediately left the room so delegates could debate without him present.  After surprisingly little debate, Congress unanimously selected Washington.

There is no evidence that Washington wanted or sought the position directly.  Some historians have argued it would have been unseemly to campaign for the job, which is true, and that Washington was subtly jockeying for it by wearing his uniform to Congress and working on all the military committees there.

Washington did see himself as a military expert, and probably expected to get some high ranking commission.  But his reaction immediately following the appointment indicates that even he questioned his own ability to serve as commander.  In his acceptance speech, he said that he did not seek the job and questioned his own capacity and experience to fulfill its duties.  Perhaps this was false modesty, but Washington repeated his own self doubt in numerous letters, including to his wife in the days following his appointment.  Still, he accepted the job, and spent the next few days getting his affairs in order and preparing to make the trip to Boston.  Washington further endeared himself to Congress by refusing to take the proposed $500/month salary, and instead agreeing to seek only reimbursement for his expenses.

Unlike the First Continental Congress, which sat for less than two months, the Second Continental Congress continued in session for the next six years.  It then morphed into the Confederation Congress.  We will leave it now in June 1775 and come back later to discuss its ongoing debates.

- - -

Next Episode 65: Provincials Occupy Bunker Hill

Previous Episode 63: Buzzard's Bay and Machias


Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Also, see the very bottom of this page to see how you can support this Podcast by making purchases you would make anyway on Amazon.  Thanks, Mike Troy



Visit http://www.amrevpodcast.com for a list of all episodes.

Visit https://pod.amrevpodcast.com for free downloads of all podcast episodes.



Further Reading:
Resources to learn more about today’s topic.

Web sites:
LOC: Washington’s Commission as Commander in Chief: http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/commission.html

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Journals of Congress, Vol 1, (contains minutes of First Continental Congress and first year of the Second Continental Congress.

Dickinson, John The Political Writings of John Dickinson, Wilmington: Bonsol and Niles, 1801.

Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Lodge, Henry Cabot George Washington, Vol. 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1898.

Morse, John T. John Adams, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912 (original 1889).

StillĂ©, Charles The Life and Times of John Dickinson, Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.

Van Doren, Carl Benjamin Franklin, New York: Viking Press, 1938.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Chernow, Ron Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

McCullough, David John Adams, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Morgan, Edmund Benjamin Franklin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.