Sunday, March 3, 2019

Episode 086: Evacuation of Boston

Last week, the Continental Army took Dorchester Heights.  The British could not retake the heights by force, and put their entire force under risk of attack of bombardment from the heights.

Decision to Evacuate

Now months earlier, British General William Howe had planned to evacuate Boston.  Secretary of State Germain had even sent communications authorizing evacuation months earlier, but Howe felt a winter evacuation would be to difficult.

He had planned to move his army down to New York and make New York City his base of operations in the spring.  London was sending large numbers of reinforcements in a few months.  Howe was mostly awaiting their arrival.

Howe Evacuates Boston (from Mt. Vernon)
Gen. John Burgoyne was deploying to Canada, where he would reassert control there.  Burgoyne would then move down the Hudson as Howe moved up the Hudson.  With this, the two armies would cut off New England and isolate the most troublesome part of the continent.  New England colonists would suffer under a British blockade while the regulars pacified and reasserted control over the middle and southern colonies, where they thought patriot sentiment was not as universal.

It seemed like a good plan. The problem was Washington and the Continental Army had pushed up Howe’s timeline.  Howe’s reinforcements from London were not there yet.  He did not want to take his relatively small force to New York.  Part of the Continental Army, along with New York militia was already building defenses around New York.  The last thing Howe wanted was to land his relatively small force and possibly face an attack under possibly worse circumstances than the one he just left.  Howe wanted to invade with overwhelming force there to make sure they could overcome any resistance.  That could not happen for a few more months.

Admiral Shuldham made clear he was not going to leave his ships in the harbor under rebel guns.  Without the navy, Howe could not stay.  He would lose his already difficult access to food and supplies.  The regulars had to leave now.  So, Howe decided to move everyone up to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada.  Halifax remained under Royal control and would not be a combat zone.  Howe would wait there until he could coordinate his much larger invasion of New York with the reinforcements coming from Britain.

Evacuation Logistics

By March 7, 1776, Howe had made the decision to evacuate to Halifax.  Putting that plan into effect was a major task in itself.  First, there were over 8000 soldiers in Boston, some sources say nearly 9000, about a quarter of whom were sick.  Some sources say it was closer to 11,000, but I think that is including the estimated 2400 camp followers, wives and children of the soldiers who could not be left behind.  Some say records say the number of camp followers was smaller, but that is because records exist for only about half the regiments being evacuated.  In addition, there were more than 1100 Tory colonists who could not be left behind to face patriot vengeance.  It total, Howe had to board an estimated 12,000 people, along with all their belongings aboard ship under enemy fire, all the time worried that the patriots might attack while the regulars were in the process of evacuating.

The British had about 125 ships at their disposal, enough to carry all the people, though there was an uncomfortable amount of crowding aboard ships. There was not enough room for all the equipment, supplies, and personal effects of the colonists trying to move with the army.  Even worse, the navy had been losing sailors to disease and desertion all winter.  They did not have enough sailors to man all the ships they had at their disposal.  They ended up destroying several ships that they could not take with them.

Informal Agreement

In an attempt to make the evacuation easier, Howe sent out a notice to the patriots on March 9.  The Notice declared that the British had decided to evacuate Boston.  If the rebels fired on them while evacuating, they would burn the city.  If left alone, they would leave the city intact and allow the Continentals to take control.

Howe could not seek a direct agreement with Washington.  The problem was that Howe refused to address Washington as “General” or any other title conferred on him by the Continental Congress.  Doing so would have legitimized the authority of Congress, something he could not do.  Washington refused to accept any communication from the British which failed to address him as General.  Instead, Howe had several Boston Selectmen sign a note stating Howe’s position and had that note carried under a flag of truce out to the patriots.

Washington did not respond formally, but apparently agreed to the deal and did not fire on the regulars as they packed their ships for departure.  He did not want to waste ammunition nor see the destruction of Boston.  If the regulars would pack up and go, that was good enough for Washington.

Battle of Nook Hill

But that is not to say Washington simply sat and waited for the British to leave.  Washington had already begun deploying soldiers under the command of General Charles Lee to New York, thinking that would be where the regulars would be headed.  Lee had been hard at work setting up defenses in and around New York City.  Now Washington prepared to deploy more of his army to New York, to greet any British landing there.

But Washington also could not be sure that Howe’s planned evacuation was a trick.  He could be stalling for time as he waited for expected reinforcements to arrive.  Or, he could load up the ships, carry his men a few miles up or down the coast, land them and march back toward Boston and attack the Continentals from the rear.

Continental Artillery
(from Boston 1775)
So, Washington continued work on his defenses.  Nook Hill was a smaller hill on Dorchester Heights closest to the Harbor and well within range of British artillery at Boston Neck.  On March 9, the Continental Army began construction of a fort on Nook Hill.  They began work after nightfall in hopes of erecting a fortification by morning.

But the workers could not see enough to work and lit a fire to help them see.  The regulars immediately spotted the fire on Nook Hill.  The regulars were not ready to march out of Boston to attack, but they unleashed an artillery barrage against Nook Hill.  One report indicates the Patriots later collected over 700 cannonballs fired at them that day.  For all the firing, the regulars killed only five Continentals on Nook Hill.  That was enough to discourage the construction of the fort.  The Continentals evacuated Nook Hill.

This repeated itself over the next few days, as Continentals attempted building more fortifications in plain view of the regulars.  The British would fire artillery and the Continentals would back away.

Finally, on the night of March 16, the Continental successfully established a fortification on Nook Hill during the night.  Washington wanted the fortification in case the Regulars really were not leaving, he could be in a better position to attack the town.  By that time though, the British were so close to leaving, that they did not put up much resistance.  They fired a few cannons that they still had in place, old ones that they planned to spike on their way out of town.  Under much reduced fire, the Continentals held their occupation of the fort on Nook Hill and mounted cannons aimed directly at Boston.

Looting and Leaving Boston

While Gen. Howe had agreed not to burn Boston, he also did not want to leave anything of use in the city that could be used by the enemy to further their rebellion.  At first, Howe ordered that citizens turn over all woolens and linens.  These were apparently in short supply in the Continental Army, but also would probably be needed when the regulars arrived in Halifax.  Later, he extended the order to salt, sugar, flour, furniture, and any remaining weapons.  Soldiers looted houses looking for such goods, and taking whatever else of value they happened to find.  Howe ordered that looters be shot on site, but that didn’t happen.  No one in the army was in much mood to fight about protecting colonist property.

One of the notable looters was a man named Crean Brush, an Irish born Tory.  Brush had moved to New York back in 1762.  He had settled in the Green mountains.  That put him in direct conflict with Ethan Allen who had been fighting New York’s control of the region.  Brush had been on the committee that declared Allen an outlaw to be shot on sight.  After fighting started, Brush went to Boston to get authority to raise a Tory regiment tasked with hunting down and killing Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.

Crean Brush (from Boston 1775)
Instead, Gen. Gage had put him to work in Boston, finding housing for his soldiers, which often meant kicking locals out of their homes.  Brush later worked for Gen. Howe trying to find supplies for the army by taking control of warehouses and confiscating whatever the army wanted.  As you might guess, this did not make him many friends.  To top it off, Howe put Brush in charge of searching all the houses and confiscating everything the army wanted during the last days of the occupation.  Brush loaded up one of the ships leaving with the British fleet loaded with anything of value that he could carry.

Unfortunately for Brush, his ship, the Elizabeth was the one ship in the fleet captured by a patriot privateer and returned to patriot controlled Boston.  The patriots tried him, but amazingly could not convict him.  Still, they just kept him in jail because, you know, regardless of any trial, the guy was a Tory and a looter.  After 19 months, near the end of 1777, his wife came to visit him.  Using her clothes, he snuck out of prison dressed as a woman and fled to British controlled New York.  He could not get any help from the army getting compensated for all the property he lost.  He died the next year, allegedly from suicide.

At the risk of getting really off topic here, I should also mention that Brush’s humiliation did not end with his death.  Years, later Ethan Allen, the man who for years he had tried to kill, married his stepdaughter.  Ironically, Allen then took up the family claims from New York on Brush’s confiscated properties, putting him against the New Hampshire claims he had fought for all his life.

Map of Boston during Siege, 1776 click to zoom (from Reddit)
Anyway, back to the evacuation: On March 16, Howe ordered all Boston civilians not leaving with the fleet to remain confined to their homes, to ensure the soldiers would not have any problems and to keep the streets free for the military.

Despite their efforts, the British left behind a great many things. They spiked dozens of cannons and threw tons of food and other supplies into the Harbor.  They even had to scuttle a few ships that did not have enough sailors to take with them.  Even so, they left tons of supplies for the Continentals to capture when they re-entered the city, including stables with at least 110 horses.  Later, Washington estimated the Continentals captured supplies worth at least £30,000.

For the next week, the British Army made every effort to strip everything of value from the city, either destroying it or loading it aboard ship.  Finally, on the morning of March 17, they had packed everything they could, made their final boarding, and sailed out of Boston Harbor for the last time.

One of the last tasks fell to Cap. Jesse Adair, who you may recall was the marine lieutenant who had ordered the regulars to confront the militia on Lexington Green a year earlier rather than continue marching past them.  Howe tasked Adair with covering Boston Neck with crows feet, little spikes that would pierce a soldier’s foot unless they walked very slowly to avoid them.  The point was to slow down any entry into Boston as the last ships were leaving.  Adair started at the British entrenchments and worked his way toward the Continental lines, spreading them as close as he could until he came under enemy fire.  Brain trust that he was, he then realized he had to run back over the ground he just covered with crows feet in order to escape the enemy.  He was nearly captured, but managed to pick his way back across the neck and get back into Boston safely.

Howe was one of the last officers to board a ship and depart Boston.  He knew many in London would not understand his fleeing the city without a fight.  He had been writing letters for months saying there was no way the Continentals could ever attack Boston without being slaughtered.  Now he had to flee to save his army.  But there really was no other option.  To this day, Boston celebrates March 17 as Evacuation Day.

Continental Army Enters Boston

As the fleet sailed away, the Continental Army moved into the city.  Washington gave the honor of retaking the city to Generals Ward and Putnam, both New Englanders who had been at the siege since it began 11 months earlier when the militia chased the regulars from Lexington and Concord back into Boston.  Ward and Putnam took a select force of about 1000 soldiers into the city.  All of the soldiers selected had already survived smallpox and were therefore immune from the disease that was still ravaging Boston.

As the troops entered the city, they halted upon seeing that there were still regulars manning some of the fortifications a Boston Neck and on Bunker Hill.  On closer examination though, it turned out the defenders were simply scarecrows wearing old uniforms.

John Hancock House (from Col. Society of Mass)
The Continentals began recovering anything the British had left behind or attempted to destroy.  They were surprised by how much they could recover, including guns, ammunition, as well as other supplies.  Also, almost as soon as they entered the town, they began building fortifications to defend the harbor should the British decide to return.

Washington himself entered the city a few days later to take command.  While the British had looted most houses, Washington was pleased to report to John Hancock that his mansion was surprisingly intact.  Gen. Clinton had lived in Hancock’s home during much of the occupation, and had made an effort to protect the personal items of his unwilling host.  Washington also took note of the defenses that the regulars had built through the city, and realized that if he had attacked by water if planned, his men would have run into almost impregnable defenses.

The Departing Fleet

Although the British had left Boston, most of the fleet remained just off the coast, waiting for favorable winds.  Admiral Shuldham sent messenger ships to London to inform the ministry of the evacuation and to the other colonies to warn British ships headed for Boston to head to Halifax instead.

All of those leaving were crammed into crowded quarters.  Benjamin Hallowell, a member of the Board of Customs, left with the fleet.  He reported sharing a cabin with 36 other people, all crammed together and sleeping on the floor.  Roughly 100 of the Tories fleeing Boston with the fleet were government officials.  Most of them would settle in Canada, England, or somewhere in the Caribbean.  The other 1000 or so were private citizens, many without much of anything in the way of assets.  They had to make new lives for themselves having left the only home they ever knew.  Most of them would find themselves on lists permanently barred from ever returning to Massachusetts on pain of death.  For now, they found themselves stuck on crowded ships going nowhere.

On March 20, the final garrison at Castle William on Castle Island, blew up the walls of the fort, then burned all wooden structures on the Island, leaving nothing for the enemy.  They also boarded ships and joined the fleet in open waters.  Everyone sat miserably in crowded ships listening to Boston patriots celebrate their victory.  It would be another week before favorable winds allowed the fleet to set sail for Halifax on March 27.

Continental Army to New York

Until the fleet actually left, Washington had to keep his forces on alert in case the enemy returned.  He had to hold off on sending most of his forces to New York, where he still thought the fleet might be headed, in case of an attack.  Once the fleet definitely set sail for Halifax, he began deploying almost all of the Continental Army to New York, leaving only a small garrison in Boston.  Washington himself left to catch up with his Army on April 4.

Reproduction of the Congressional Medal (from CoinCommunity)
Among those left behind in Boston were Gen. Artemas Ward and Col. Richard Gridley.  Ward, the first Commander in Chief, and Gridley the first Chief of Artillery and Chief Engineer did not make the cut to remain with the Continental Army.  Both men were old and had health issues.  Ward submitted his resignation to Washington before the Army moved south.  Washington forwarded the resignation to Congress, which rejected it.  Instead, Ward remained in Boston as commander of the “Eastern Army” which consisted of only a few hundred Continentals.  The fighting had left New England and there just wasn’t that much to do there.  Ward finally resigned the following year and went into retirement.

Gridley had already given over command of the Artillery to Henry Knox.  Following the Evacuation of Boston, Gridley also passed over Command of the Engineering Corps to Rufus Putnam, who had designed defenses for Dorchester Heights.  Gridley remained in Massachusetts where he used his forge to manufacture locally made howitzers and mortars for the Continental Army.

The Continental Congress praised Washington for his success in the Siege of Boston.  It ordered a gold medal struck in his honor.

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Next Episode 87: Canada Spring, 1776

Previous Episode 85: Dorchester Heights

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Further Reading

Resources to learn more about today’s topic.


What forced the British to Leave Boston?

Letter from Boston Selectmen to Washington, March 8, 1776:

Crean Brush vs. Ethan Allen: A Winner’s Tale, by John Duffy and Eugene Coyle (PDF):

Bell, J.L. Crean Brush in Very Distressed Times, March 2008:

Jolley Allen Missed Evacuation Day in 1776 and it Cost Him Everything:

Richard Gridley, the Nearly Forgotten Patriot, by Steven Baule, Journal of the American Revolution (2013):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Brooks, Noah Henry Knox, a Soldier of the Revolution, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1900.

Buell, Rowena (ed) The Memoirs of Rufus Putnam, Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Company, 1903.

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

Drake, Francis The Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox, Boston: Samuel B. Drake, 1873.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 4, Washington 1837.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 5, Washington 1837.

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

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

Martyn, Charles The life of Artemas Ward, the first commander-in-chief of the American Revolution, New York: Artemas Ward, 1921.

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.

Stark, James H. The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the other side of the American Revolution, Boston [self-published], 1910.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

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

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975 (book recommendation of the week).

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

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

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

Puls, Mark Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010.

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

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