Sunday, December 9, 2018

Episode 074: Occupied Boston, 1775

Last week I talked about the American lines around Boston during the fall of 1775.  Today I want to discuss the British regulars in Boston during that same time.

Gage Goes Home

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, London recalled General Thomas Gage after receiving word of the battle of Bunker Hill.  They sent the letter in early August, but Gage did not receive it until September 26.  He turned over authority to General William Howe on October 10, and set sail for London, never to return.

Howe Takes Command

As you may recall from earlier episodes, General Howe had arrived shortly after Lexington and spent most of his time criticizing General Gage to superiors in London.  He also led the attack on Bunker Hill.  There were more than 100 generals more senior than Howe who could have taken the command. However, the prospect of crushing British subjects in the colonies did not appeal to many of them.

General Howe himself had promised his constituents during the last Parliamentary elections that he would not serve in the colonies.  Yet when the ministry called for service, General Howe felt he could not refuse. He indicated that he would aggressively suppress the rebellion.  But as we will see, his actions over the next few years suggest otherwise.

British Army Suffers Under the Siege

After taking command, Howe did not seem in any hurry to make any immediate major changes. He had been living over in Charlestown near Bunker Hill since the battle.  On Gage’s departure, Howe moved into Boston and turned over command of Charlestown to the next most senior general in theater, Henry Clinton. He sent back a letter on the same ship that returned Gage to London, informing Lord Dartmouth that the army should not remain in Boston, that they should evacuate by sea and land to Rhode Island where they would have more room to maneuver.

Gen. William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
Howe also locked down Boston even tighter, ordering that no one could leave the city on pain of death and that the remaining Bostonians would have to join in the defense of the city.

As with the Continental army, the real threat to the British army did not come from a potential military assault.  It came from hunger and disease. Over the winter, disease killed 20-30 soldiers per day.  More soldiers died in any one month over that Boston winter than died from bullet or bayonet on the battlefields of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill combined.

Fatal disease was an inevitable part of almost any army, especially one stuck in a city.  It did not help health matters that food and firewood became increasingly scarce.  The patriots did not have any ships that could face a British ship of the line, or even many of the medium sized navy ships.  But British ships for transporting supplies, and even small naval vessels that found themselves separated from the fleet, became targets for New England whaleboats or schooners armed with cannons or swivel guns.  The navy grew increasingly frustrated as local self-appointed privateers harassed British shipping, and prevented the flow of food and firewood to Boston.

Admiral Samuel Graves informed the Admiralty in London that landings had become too dangerous and that the army would have to rely on supplies shipped from Britain rather than obtained locally.  Even British deliveries had their risks. In October, a transport carrying flour to Boston accidentally entered Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Locals took the ship.  The crew became prisoners and the flour went to the Continental Army.

Meanwhile the regulars and civilians in Boston lived on ever smaller rations, mostly of salted meat.  One officer had his horse stolen, only to find it butchered and sold for meat in the market.

Feeling the pressure to provide more supplies, Graves ordered his ships to get more aggressive in acquiring food from local towns.  He also put his officers on notice to take prisoner any rebel officers, radical leaders, or members of the Continental Congress that they could capture.

Attack on Bristol

Graves had stationed part of his fleet near Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.  A squad of several ships commanded by Captain James Wallace on the HMS Rose continually demanded locals sell them necessary food.  The local patriots grew more resistant.  Under the guns of the navy, they often insisted they had no food available.  On October 7 during one frustrating search for food, Wallace ordered his fleet to open fire on the town of Bristol, Rhode Island.  After the town sent a local official out to the ship to beg for a ceasefire, Wallace demanded 200 sheep and 30 cattle.  Again the local pleaded that they had no animals.  Finally the parties bargained down to 40 sheep, which the town supplied in order to avoid destruction.

Burning of Falmouth

A few days later, Graves sent a fleet from Boston to the north looking for towns to loot and destroy.  He deployed the fleet under the command of Lt. Henry Mowat, an experienced officer who had confronted patriots before.  Mowat had commanded the deployment that Graves had sent to Portsmouth New Hampshire in December 1774.  This was part of the mission to secure Fort William and Mary.  It also ended up sparking a local militia attack on the fort before Mowat could arrive.

Burning of Falmouth (from: Legacy-America)
In the spring of 1775, Mowat had sailed to Falmouth (modern day Portland, Maine) to protect a loyalist who was trying to repair and launch a ship there in violation of the colonial boycott.  The work took several weeks, during which time Lexington and Concord set off patriots everywhere.  A group of several hundred militia attempted to capture Mowat’s ship, the HMS Canceaux.  The ship was prepared to fight any attempt to take it, but the militia did capture Mowat himself, who had the misfortune to be ashore during the raid.  Mowat’s second in command threatened to level the town unless they militia released Mowat, which they did after a short time.  This event is sometimes called “Thompson’s War” after the militia commander who led the raid.

Months later in October, Mowat was tasked with making examples of some rebel towns along the coast.  He could think of not better target than Falmouth.  On October 17, He brought his fleet back to the town. He sent an officer ashore to announce to the townspeople that they had two hours before he would open fire and destroy the town.  The locals in  town hoped Mowat was bluffing.  They tied to buy their way out of destruction by providing supplies.  Mowat, however, was bent on destruction.  As it was getting late, he agreed to withhold fire until the following morning if the town turned over its arms.  The town came back with less than a dozen muskets, but it was enough to get Mowat to delay until morning.

The following morning, after a short delay to remove some women and children still in the town, the fleet opened fire.  Falmouth consisted of only about 200 buildings, but as they were far apart, burning each building took time.  The fleet spent about nine hours firing on the town and completely destroying 75% of the buildings.

Although Mowat had authority to destroy multiple towns up and down the coast, he decided that Falmouth was a good enough example.  The attack, however, did not inspire fear so much as it angered New Englanders, who supported the patriots even more as a result.

American Navy & Privateers

Congress had recently approved a Continental navy and a few colonies, such as Rhode Island had launched ships to attack and capture British ships.  But in late 1775, the threat to British shipping came primarily from privateers.  These were privately owned ships with private crews.  They essentially acted as pirates.  They would capture a ship, bring it to harbor, and sell the ship and its cargo to the highest bidder.  The ship’s owner, captain, and crew would divide up the profits as they saw fit.

Later in the war Congress would grant Letters of Marque to privateers authorizing them to attack British shipping.  But in 1775, before such letters existed, the only thing separating privateers from pirates was that they chose only to attack British ships, and that they had the support of most New Englanders when they brought their prizes back to port.

American Privateer Vessel (from MassMoments)
Since privateer efforts would have been prosecuted for piracy had the British won, there are not many records, especially early in the war, about the numbers of prizes captured or who exactly was involved.  But we do know that the British knew their ships were always at risk and that many would be lost if left without the protection of a well armed navy schooner or ship of the line.

To add to the privateers, Washington launched four ships in November working directly for the army.  The benefit of this first unofficial fleet was that captured prizes would benefit the army rather than get sold at market.  Ship crews, of course, would keep a percentage of any prize, just like the Royal Navy tradition, in order to keep them motivated.

The privateers and Washington’s squadron proved effective in keeping Boston from receiving provisions.  They also helped feed Washington’s army.  The most successful capture came when the Lee, named for Gen. Charles Lee, captured a large incoming supply ship the Nancy.  As the Nancy approached Boston, the captain spotted the Lee and signaled, thinking it was a pilot ship that would guide into the harbor.  The captain of the Lee sent over a crew in a longboat, hiding their muskets until they boarded and took the startled crew without a fight.

The patriots guided the Nancy to a nearby patriot controlled port where they took possession of a huge cache of arms and ammunition: 2,000 muskets, 8,000 fuses, 31 tons of musket balls, 3,000 cannonballs, one 13 inch cannon, 100,000 flints as well as other supplies.  The Continental Army, which was desperately short on muskets and flints, celebrated the capture as one of the most important successes that fall.  Meanwhile the British garrison at Boston suffered a critical loss of arms and ammunition, and received another reminder about how tenuous their position in Boston really was.

Phipp’s Farm

While the army in Boston largely had to rely on the Navy for food and supplies, it occasionally saw an opportunity of its own.  Phipps Farm sat just next to Charlestown Neck inside the patriot lines, but also just along the northern coast of Boston Harbor.

Siege of Boston, 1775
(from Wikimedia, original Marshall's Life of Washington)
The British regularly had transport ships in the harbor, moving soldiers between Boston and Charlestown, or loading men and equipment on and off navy vessels, so it was not unusual to see several longboats milling about.  As a result, the Continental sentries were not on high alert when they saw several boats full of soldiers near shore on November 9.

Then, using a prearranged signal, several boats turned at once and rushed ashore.  They captured one sentry and sent a few others scattering.  The patriots fired a few shots as the Regulars rounded up a field full of cattle and herded them across Charlestown Neck and into the British lines. I’ve seen differing accounts on how many cattle they got, but it ranged from about 10 to 45.  The army certainly ate well for a few days and no one got killed.

After the raid, Washington mounted entrenched artillery on top of Copp’s hill, overlooking both Charlestown and Phipp’s farm.  It served as a deterrent to future raids and also posed another potential threat to the British in Charlestown and Boston, that is if Washington ever got enough gunpowder to use his cannons against them.

Cold and Hungry Winter

As autumn turned to winter, the situation in Boston became worse.  Soldiers were surviving on one-third rations, and full rations were not that generous to begin with. Firewood, necessary both for warmth and cooking, became non-existent.  Early in the siege, Regulars had cut down the liberty tree and other trees in Boston Common.  Now pretty much all the trees were gone.  Howe condemned about 100 wooden buildings, including the North Church, to be used for firewood.

Over the winter, Britain sent a fleet of 36 supply ships to bring food to Boston.  Storms and privateers took out most, so that only 13 made it to Boston.  Of those, some found that up to 90% of the food supplies had spoiled in transit.

More and more, Howe and his generals accepted that their position was untenable.  It only reinforced the decision to abandon Boston.  Although Howe originally considered Rhode Island, he now favored New York City.  The large harbor would accommodate the naval fleet, and most thought the population in New York would be friendlier to the army than anywhere in New England.

British Soldiers riding in Old South Meeting House
(from Boston Tea Party Ship)
London continued to send reinforcements over the winter, but death from disease subtracted almost as many soldiers as the reinforcements added.  In November, Howe kicked out about 300 impoverished and sick civilians to eliminate a few hungry mouths.  Many of those removed had smallpox, which nevertheless continued to spread through the city.  Some of those civilians, however, reached Continental lines and helped spread smallpox to the Continental Army as well.

British officers in Boston attempted to keep up morale.  Soldiers turned the South Church into an indoor riding stable for horses, having already burned all the pews and other furniture.  Gen. John Burgoyne, now third in command behind Howe and Clinton had almost nothing to do.  He took to writing plays for the Army to perform, as he had done in London.  This may have been more offensive to Boston sensibilities than burning churches or turning them into stables.  Since the founding of the colony, live theater had been banned and was considered a grievous sin.  Burgoyne was not content to be morale officer anyway.  By fall, he was petitioning London to return home.  He finally received approval and left Boston on Dec. 5, 1775.

By the end of the year, it was clear to everyone that nothing was going to happen until spring.  The primary occupation of the army was searching for food and fuel.  There was always the chance that the Continentals might spring a surprise winter attack, which I suppose is why Howe did not begin shipping his army and loyalist civilians to another location, such as New York or Halifax, over the winter.

Admiral Graves Recalled

Another reason may have been that the navy had also deteriorated.  Unlike the army, the navy had not received many reinforcements during 1775.  A few ships had arrived, but not with more sailors for ships already there.  Crews had thinned, mostly due to disease and desertion, over the year. This left many ships at a questionable level of readiness.  Since the army had taken control of the marines, they did not have forces to conduct any sizable raids against towns either.  Graves also was the victim of cost cutting in London.  He had little funds to keep his ships in good repair.  Running ships at sea caused harm that required expensive repairs.  He did not have the men, money or material to use his ships aggressively.

Adm. Samuel Graves
(from Wikimedia)
Other than ordering the destruction of Falmouth and a few raids, Graves did rather little to further the cause since his promotion in early 1775.  He must have decided that hanging out and waiting to support the army if it ever decided to do anything was his main goal.  Gen. Gage wanted him to keep a substantial artillery presence in Boston Harbor in order to deter any attacks on the town.  Even so, one would expect an active officer to be running convoys and working more aggressively to find food for the army.  In August, Burgoyne wrote a scathing letter to Lord Germain in London essentially saying that Graves was doing nothing: not supplying the troops, not defending islands in the harbor, not engaged in communication and intelligence, and not inspiring fear among the rebels.  I don’t think anyone would describe Graves as aggressive.

Part of the problem may have been that Graves did not respect, nor even like Gen. Gage.  Graves seemed to consider Gage incompetent.  There was also a social dispute between their wives which did not help.  Graves seemed to care little about assisting the army in any way.  I already mentioned how Graves charged a fee to let starving soldiers fish in the harbor.  Graves also rejected several attempts by Gage to send army authorized vessels in search of food or fuel.  Not only would the navy refuse to find food, Graves made it difficult for the army to get its own food.  When Gage received his recall papers in September, Graves and his officers held a small celebration aboard ship.  Graves, however, did not get along any better with the new commander, General Howe.

In fact, Graves did not seem to get along with much of anyone.  His subordinate officers obeyed his orders, but seemed to quietly object to the fact that he favored his nephews for good assignments and promotion.  In August, Graves got into a fist fight in the streets of Boston with Customs Commission Benjamin Hallowell after Graves refused to give Hallowell a permit to harvest his own hay on an island in the harbor for the benefit of the army.

In September, just about the time Gen. Gage was receiving his orders to return to London, the Admiralty decided to recall Graves.  They ordered Rear Admiral Molyneux Shuldham to take over for him.  Shuldham did not arrive until late December, when he had the uncomfortable task of informing his superior officer that he was taking charge.  Graves, who apparently thought he was doing a wonderful job was surprised by the recall.

He left for London in January 1776, arriving a few months later.  The Admiralty offered him the command of the fleet in Plymouth, England, which he refused.  He remained in active service but without a command, receiving two more promotions in later years.  He would never return to America.

Meanwhile the British army in Boston shivered through the rest of the winter winter, cold hungry and dying of disease.

- - -

Next Episode 75 Continental Congress, Autumn 1775

Previous Episode 73 Siege of Boston, Autumn Edition

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Further Reading


Thompson's War and the Buring of Falmouth

Liberty Threatened: Maine in 1775:

Privateers of the Revolution:

The Lee Captures the Nancy:

Lee Captures the Nancy:

The Hallowell-Graves Fisticuffs, 1775, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Third Series, Vol. 63 (Oct., 1929 - Jun., 1930), pp. 22-51, (free to read online, requires registration).

Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War for Independence, 1775-1776, by David C. Hsiung, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 4 (2007), pp. 614-654: (free to read online, requires registration).  Draft copy available without registration at

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Clark, William Naval Documents Of The American Revolution, Vol 1, Washington: US GPO, 1964.

Dana, Elizabeth Elery (ed) 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.

Neeser, Robert (ed) The despatches of Molyneux Shuldham, vice-admiral of the Blue and commander-in-chief of His Britannic Majesty's ships in North America, January-July, 1776, New York: Naval Historical Society, 1913.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek The War Before Independence: 1775-1776, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2016.

Gratwick, Harry The Maritime Marauder of Revolutionary Maine: Captain Henry Mowat, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015.

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

Nelson, James L. George Washington’s Secret Navy How the American Revolution Went to Sea, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008 (book recommendation of the week).

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.

Smith, David Whispers Across the Atlantick: General William Howe and the American Revolution, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017.

Wahll, Andrew J. Voyage of the Canceaux 1764-1776. Abridged Logs of H. M. Armed Ship Canceaux, Heritage Books, 2003

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