Sunday, September 9, 2018

Episode 061: Battle of Chelsea Creek

For the last few weeks, I tackled some more general issues about slavery and the army, and then the Patriot’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain.  Today I want to turn back to Boston, where the provincial army had laid siege to Gen. Gage and the regulars.  Today we look at several skirmishes between the two armies in the first weeks of the siege of Boston.

Boston Siege in Chaos

In the days and weeks following Lexington and Concord, the thousands of provincials besieging the British garrison in Boston looked more like a mob than an army.  The Massachusetts Provincial Congress commissioned Artemas Ward as Commander in Chief on May 19, 1775 and promoted him to full General.  Ward, of course, had already been running things for a month. He assumed command of the army on April 20, the day after Lexington.

The Provincial Congress initially called for a New England army of 30,000 men, with Massachusetts providing about half that.  Supporting that large a standing army though, proved impossible.  The numbers surrounding Boston sat between 10,000 and 15,000, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.  With no central command or enlistment procedure, militiamen came and went at will.  Entire units would get bored and go home.  They often decided on their own that nothing was happening.  They might as well get back to planting or taking care of business back on their farms.

Gen. William Heath
(from Wikimedia)
Over time, leaders convinced most of the militia surrounding Boston to agree to serve for the remainder of the year, which reduced, but did not eliminate, the problem of soldiers simply coming and going at will.  Gen. William Heath took command of 2000 soldiers in Roxbury on the right flank of the American lines.  Heath also conveniently lived on his family farm nearby. Nothing like fighting on the front lines but still going home to sleep in your own bed each night.  Heath, a long time Massachusetts militia officer, had proven an effective commander during the attack on the British column returning from Concord.

His position immediately in front of Boston Neck was a critical one.  If the British did not want to conduct a water landing, they would have to force their way across Boston Neck.  This would probably be the only way they could seize Dorchester Heights.  Therefore, Heath’s position was what kept regulars from marching out of Boston.

British Gen. Thomas Gage and Admiral Samuel Graves warned provincial leaders not to occupy Charlestown, threatening to bombard the town if occupied.  Similarly, they warned colonists not to occupy Dorchester Heights or face British wrath.  Provincial leaders, many still believing a political compromise might avert further bloodshed, complied.  Charlestown stood empty, and Dorchester Heights unoccupied.

Another big problem was that units from outside Massachusetts did not feel any obligation to take orders from anyone from Massachusetts.  The New Hampshire, Connecticut, or Rhode Island militia considered Massachusetts officers to be members of a separate army.  They might be convinced to agree to instructions, but felt they were under no obligation to do so.  These separate colonies were cooperating, but they did not recognize Gen. Ward, or any other leader from another colony as having any authority to command them to do anything.

It was not just soldiers who refused to follow Massachusetts’ lead.  In early May, Connecticut Governor John Trumbull sent a delegation to meet with Gen. Gage and see if they could not work out a political solution.  Unlike most colonial governors, Trumbull was elected, meaning he could not simply be written off as a royal appointee who had more loyalty to London than the colonists.  His decision to work out a political compromise without Massachusetts would fall right into Gen. Gage’s plan to divide and conquer.

The Massachusetts Congress went nuts over this. They would lose about a third of their army if Connecticut decided to leave. Massachusetts President Joseph Warren sent Gov. Trumbull several letters about this, pointing out the dangers of not showing a united front. Trumbull’s delegation met with Gage, but in the end decided to remain with the provincials. After Gage had promised to let Bostonians leave the city then reneged on that promise, Trumbull decided he could not trust Gage.  Connecticut stayed with the Patriots and the provincial army.

As spring moved toward summer, men sat around camp with little to do.  They refused any orders they found unreasonable.  Thousands of men in such a confined area soon led to health problems.  Failure to dig proper latrines made things worse.  Typhus and other illnesses spread through the camps, eventually killing hundreds of them over the summer.  Disease also killed many regulars in Boston as well.  Disease would kill far more men than battle deaths over the course of the war.

The Provincials apparently also annoyed the British officers by flying the Union Jack in Cambridge and referring to themselves as the King’s Army.  They referred to the Regulars in Boston as the Parliament Army, an obvious comparison to the divisions in the English Civil War.  No one still considered this an independence movement.  Colonists still thought that Parliament was out of control and that appeals to King George would eventually convince the crown to order Parliament to stop infringing on colonial rights.

After a few weeks, both sides started pushing the other side with provocations that could possibly reignite active warfare.

Charleston Taunt

On May 13, Connecticut Gen. Israel Putnam, for no good reason, led 2000 men onto the no man’s land on the Charlestown Peninsula.  The battalion marched across Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill, through the town and down to the water’s edge.  There, they shouted at the Naval vessels with cannon pointed at them, then eventually marched back out of Charlestown.

It was a dangerous move for no good purpose since the navy might have opened fire on them.  Putnam felt it was important to give the soldiers something to do.  An idle army is a dangerous one.  It also gave them a chance to test the enemy and see how trigger happy they were. British officers aboard the Somerset said they would have opened up on the provincials if any of the men had fired a single musket in their direction.  Everyone on both sides held their fire though.  Putnam and his brigade marched back off the Charlestown peninsula and back to the continental lines in Cambridge.

No one ordered him to do this. Putnam did not inform any other general officers about his plans. This was just another chaotic event that shows just how disorganized the provincial leadership was.

Battle of Grape Island

The British soon grew concerned about their access to fresh food.  The siege cut off trade with local farmers.  They lacked meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as hay for the horses and bedding.  Several small islands dotted Boston Harbor, where locals grew crops and grazed animals.  With the British navy in control of the harbor, Gage figured he could make use of these resources.

Gen. Israel Putnam
(from Wikimedia)
On May 21, Gage sent four small sloops over to Grape Island on the south side of the harbor, just a few hundred feet from the mainland.  The island’s Tory owner gave Gage permission to collect the harvested hay on the island and bring it back to Boston.

The site of regulars moving out of the city caused some locals along the coast to flee, fearing a surprise landing.  Gen. John Thomas, serving with Gen. Heath on the right flank of the Provincial line, deployed three companies of Massachusetts militia from Roxbury to engage the soldiers.  Provincial Congress President Joseph Warren joined them.  The Provincials fired at the island from the coast, but were too far away to hit anything.  The regulars went about loading the hay onto their ships, largely ignoring the provincials.

Like much of Boston Harbor, the water around Grape Island was too shallow for most boats, but the water and muddy bottom made it too difficult to wade out to the island either.  Provincials could not get to the island from the coast a low tide.

By early afternoon the tide came in enough that the provincials were able to launch a few boats.  They rowed out to confront the regulars. The two sides exchanged fire as the regulars retreated.  The regulars boarded their ships on one side of the island just as the provincials landed on the other. Neither side inflicted any casualties.

I have read two different sources, one saying the fleeing British burned the hay still on the island to deny it to the provincials.  Another said the provincials burned the hay after chasing off the regulars in order to prevent them coming back for more.  In either event, the crops remaining on the island burned so no one else could use them.

A few days later on May 25, the British landed a crew on another island, Long Island, in the harbor to obtain more hay.  This raid, further away from the coast, went without incident.

Battle of Chelsea Creek

The raids on Grape Island and Long Island raised provincial concerns over resources.  They needed to remove or destroy any crops or livestock on islands or near the coast that would provide potential resources to the Boston garrison.

Hog Island and Noddle Island, both sat near the north shore, separated from the mainland only by Chelsea Creek.  The two islands lay just east of Charlestown. Chelsea Creek was large enough to keep animals on the island from wandering away, making it an ideal location to graze livestock.  The islands were easy enough to access from the mainland.  The creek separating Hog Island from the mainland and the one separating Hog Island from Noddle Island were only knee deep at low tide, meaning soldiers could easily ford the water to get to the islands.

Gen. Gage received intelligence and warned Admiral Graves that the provincials might be planning an island raid.  Graves, told Gage to deploy soldiers to the island, but Gage decided the navy could defend the islands.  He was not going to take orders from the navy.  When Gage did not act, Graves deployed a small contingent of 40 marines to Noddle Island.  The navy had relied on the island for access to food supplies.  Of greater concern for Graves, the navy kept a large supply of wood materials on the island which was used for ship repairs.

Boston Harbor - See Hog and Noddle Islands near the top.
(from Wikiwand)
Gage’s intelligence proved correct.  The Provincials acted to remove the crops and animals for their own use, and to deny them to the enemy.  At dawn on May 27, The Committee of Safety ordered Massachusetts Col. John Nixon to lead several hundred soldiers onto Hog island to herd the animals onto the mainland.  They kept quiet and went unnoticed for most of the day.  Then, after moving onto Noddle Island, they set fire to a barn full of hay around 2:00 PM.  This fire alerted the navy to their activity.

Graves promptly ordered more marines to land on Noddle Island in support of the one company already responding to the incursion.  He also ordered his nephew, Lt. Thomas Graves, commander of a small sloop, the Diana to sail up Chelsea Creek to cut off the enemy retreat. With the Diana’s cannon cutting off their retreat and the marines attacking them on the island, the British hoped to surround and capture the provincial force.

The Diana’s gun’s though could not get close enough, the provincials continued to drive the livestock off the island, while a few of them formed a rearguard action at the creek between Hog and Noddle Islands. The provincial rearguard action effectively stopped the British marine advance, killing several of them and forcing a British retreat.

The Diana, in an attempt to get closer to the provincials, sailed a little too far up the creek into shallow waters, with the tide receding.  They attempted to tow the ship back down the creek, but took fire from the provincials as they did so.  The tow ships fled, and the wind died down, preventing the Diana from escaping under her own power.  The British ship was stuck in the mud as evening fell.

Adm. Samuel Graves
(from Wikimedia)
News of the grounded ship flew through Provincial camps around Cambridge. Gen. Israel Putnam and President Joseph Warren brought more men and cannons to the coast where they could fire on the now stranded Diana.  The ship attempted to fight back, supported by marine cannons firing from a hill on Noddle Island.  An overly excited Putnam led some of his soldiers hip deep into the water attempting to get closer to the ship with only their muskets.

Admiral Graves deployed at least two cannons to Noddle Island and the ship Britannia to provide further cover for the Diana.  The Provincials brought two smaller cannons, and about 1000 men to the site in an attempt to capture the ship.  This marked the first time the Provincials fired cannons in battle since fighting began.

The firefight lasted well into the night.  As the tide continued to flow out, the Diana, not only stuck to the bottom, but began to tilt to one site, making it impossible to fire her cannons.  Eventually the crew could not stand on the deck as the ship was almost on its side. Patriot fire had wounded several of the crew, who Lt. Graves ordered removed to the Britannia.

Around midnight. Lt. Graves had to accept the impossible situation and ordered his men to abandon ship.  They escaped on longboats.  The Provincials then stormed the abandoned ship.  Still under fire from Noddle Island and the Britannia, they looted anything of value, including four cannons and several swivel guns. They then set the ship on fire.  In the pre-dawn hours of May 28, the ship’s powder magazine exploded, leaving only a burning wreck by dawn.  Although it was a small ship, the Provincials saw the destruction of an armed naval vessel as great victory.

The Provincials only reported a few wounded, none killed.  Graves reported two sailors killed and several wounded.  However, according to other sources, Graves deliberately underreported the battle casualties.  A witness in Boston reported at least ten sailors were buried the day after the battle, with other dead from the battle buried elsewhere.  Some estimates report as many as thirty sailors and marines killed.  British officers frequently undercounted battle deaths when trying to minimize the failures on the battlefield.  The lost soldiers could easily be counted later as deaths from disease.

Israel Putnam’s bravery under fire at at Chelsea Creek, as well as the leadership of Provincial President Joseph Warren only enhanced the already good reputations of both men.  After the battle, Putnam and Warren met with Gen. Ward to discuss the day’s events.  Putnam, who had waded into the water, waving his sword as the Diana fired at his men repeatedly and missed, commented that he wished they could do that every day, if only to teach the men how little danger there was from cannon balls.  Gen. Ward still looking to end the conflict without an all out war chastised him, warning that he was going to provoke a British attack that they could not defeat.  Warren did not seem to want to disagree with either, simply said to Putnam: “I admire your spirit and respect Gen. Ward’s prudence.  Both will be necessary for us, and one must temper the other.

Several days later, the provincials crossed over to the islands again to remove any remaining animals.  The navy fired a few cannons at them but made no further efforts to engage the enemy.  The provincials also burned several more buildings on the island, including the mansion of the island’s owner Henry Howell Williams.  Mr. Williams supported the patriot cause, but the army deemed the home in danger of being of use to the enemy.  Williams would have to wait more than a decade to receive compensation for his losses.

In June the provincials made a third raid, destroying a warehouse, the last building on the island, and removing or destroying the last few items of value.  After that, neither side made much use of the islands for the remainder of the siege.

Provincial Congress Seeks Help

The civilian leaders of the Provincial Congress remained divided on how to resolve the current crisis.  The also grew concerned that their own provincial army could pose a danger.  As with any army, soldiers began muttering about the incompetence and imbecility of the politicians supposedly running the show.  These soldiers showed little deference, even to their own officers.  Soon the age old fears of standing armies threatening civilian government took hold.

Provincial Congress President Joseph Warren, was one of the few men who seemed to have a handle on how to keep control.  In addition to getting involved personally whenever there was a firefight.  Warren spent much of his time wandering through the camps, talking to the soldiers.  He not only got a good feel for what the men were thinking, he was able to squelch rumors and provide explanations for what was happening.  This went a long way toward keeping the men’s discontent from boiling over into desertion or mutiny.

Joseph Warren
(from Wikimedia)
On May 22, the Provincial Congress passed a law essentially declaring open season on all Tories who remained in the colony.  Any who had not already sought shelter in Boston or left the colony altogether had to go into hiding or have a sudden change of heart about their political views.

Congress also petitioned the Continental Congress in Philadelphia for guidance on how to proceed.  The Provincial Congress really had no legal authority to do anything.  A year earlier, the First Continental Congress ordered Massachusetts not to form any sovereign civilian government, which would be considered treason.  As such, Massachusetts was not sure how far it could go and still retain the support of the other colonies.  Mostly to ensure continued cooperation of other colonies, the Provincial Congress asked the Continental Congress to take command of the Provincial Army and make it part of a larger Continental Army.

President Warren entrusted the delivery of the petition to Benjamin Church.  It is not entirely clear why, he chose Church.  Some historians speculate that Warren suspected Church’s loyalty to the cause and guessed correctly that he might be providing intelligence to Gen. Gage.  Whether by luck or suspicion, Warren’s mission sent Church out of the colony for the three weeks before the battle of Bunker Hill, leaving Gage without one of his best sources for information.

- - -

Next Episode 62: Three Headed Cerberus Arrives in Boston

Previous Episode 60: Securing Lake Champlain

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Further Reading:

Web sites:

Brown, Craig, Victor Masone, and Christopher Maio "The Revolutionary War Battle America Forgot: Chelsea Creek, 27-28 May 1775", The New England Quarterly Vol. 86, No. 3 (2013), pp. 398-432: (free to read online, requires registration).

Hsiung, David C. "Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War for Independence, 1775-1776" The New England Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 4 (2007), pp. 614-654: (free to read online, requires registration).

Bell, J.L. "The Rev. David Avery on the Fight off Chelsea" 2018:

Documents Related to Henry Howell Williams's Property Losses on Noddles Island:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Abbatt, William (ed) Memoirs of Major-General Heath, New York: William Abbatt 1901 (originally published by William Heath, 1798).

Allen, Gardner W. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

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.

Green, Samuel (ed) Three Military Diaries, Cambridge: John Williams & Sons, 1901 (Diary of Lt. Amos Farnsworth covers his participation in the Siege with the Massachusetts Provincial Army, including the raid on Hog and Noddle Islands).

Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, with an appendix, containing the proceedings of the county conventions-narratives of the events of the nineteenth of April, 1775-papers relating to Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and other documents, illustrative of the early history of the American revolution, 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 - a 1 hr video Bedford TV 2016.

Books Worth Buying
(links to 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 (book recommendation of the week).

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

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 George Washington’s Secret Navy, New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.

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.

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