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The Siege of Boston and the Occupation of Dorchester Heights
 A brief description of the occupation of Dorchester Heights appears below. For a much longer and illustrated telling of the story, you can open the pdf version of Dorchester Heights: Prelude to Independence by Charles H. Bradford, MD. by
clicking here.


Dorchester Heights is now a small park atop a high hill lost in the side streets of a great city that grew up and expanded around and beyond the location that hosted a great moment in American history. The site functions now as any park in the city does. It is a place to enjoy the fresh air, to walk the dog or to jog around.

But in 1898 the General Court of Massachusetts, i.e, the legislature, commissioned a monument of white marble in Georgian Revival style to commemorate a Revolutionary War victory. So, what was the story that was so compelling as to construct a major monument? Well, some people think it was simply a very expensive way for an overwhelmingly-Irish city to make St. Patrick?s Day an official holiday by calling it Evacuation Day. The real story may be just as interesting.

Why is there a place called Dorchester Heights in South Boston? Until 1804 all of what is now South Boston was a subsection of Dorchester. In the earliest European settlement of Dorchester in the 1630s, the South Boston peninsula was used as the Cow Pasture. Later some of Dorchester families constructed homes there, and at the time of the Revolution there were perhaps 10 to 20 families living there.

It might be a good idea to provide a little of the context of colonial life leading up to the Revolutionary War. The colonies were under the rule of the King and Parliament, and all the people considered themselves English citizens. It was part of normal life that everything was English, including the security forces comprised of English soldiers and sailors who defended the colonies from foreign invasion.

Over the course of the 18th century, there were negative reactions among colonial residents over the various taxes imposed by the British Parliament without representation from the colonies in the New World. Until the 1770s the result was mostly grumbling without action. But emotions rose to a fever pitch following the so-called Boston Masscacre on March 5, 1770. The event that provoked an increasingly high level of British forces in Boston occurred on December 16, 1773, when the Sons of Liberty costumed themselves as native Indians and dumped the tea into Boston harbor.

Boston became a city under occupation. The surrounding towns prepared for possible conflict by stockpiling arms, training their inhabitants and setting people to watch for signs aggression. Their embankments and camps in a ring around the city figured prominently in the Siege of Boston, an attempt by the colonials to take back their city. The British were increasingly concerned about rumors that the colonial forces were stockpiling munitions in the countryside, and this led to forays outside the city beginning the night that Paul Revere and others alerted the countryside to the marching of British forces to Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, when the first shot was fired.

The next battle in what we now call the American Revolution was the Battle of Chelsea Creek, the first naval action, on May 27-28, soon followed by the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17th.

Fortifications were quickly thrown up to defend the county against further incursions from the British, and the Siege of Boston had truly begun.

On June 16th, George Washington had accepted his post as head of the Continental Army, and on July 3rd, 1775, he assumed command in the field in Cambridge, Massachusetts.





One of Washington?s early actions was to authorize Henry Knox, a young man twenty-one years old and a bookseller by trade to travel to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve cannons and other artillery pieces and drag them to Boston with oxen. Knox?s determination was the reason for the success of that venture, and he arrived in Framingham with the guns on January 20, 1776. Knox sledged, dredged, skidded and sledded across freezing lakes and rivers, up and over the precipitous slopes of the Berkshires and through the unplowed snowdrifts that covered western Massachusetts. The train included 55 guns: cannon, howitzers, cohorns and mortars. They thought this was a large enough number to meet though not to equal British firepower. Some of these pieces are still mounted on Cambridge Common, bearing the royal monogram GR (George Rex) and with the motto ?ultima ratio Regis? the last argument of Kings.

Washington was in favor of a direct assault, and various plans were considered, including
1. an attempt to break through the strong defenses at Bunker Hill and enter Charlestown
2. a surprise at Boston Neck
3. a beach landing on the river shore approaching by rowboat down the Charles River.

Washington?s advisers were very cautious and seemed never to be ready to commit to the idea of a direct assault. Boston was connected to the mainland by a very narrow neck of land called Boston Neck, making any approach very visible. In the unusually extreme cold of that winter of 1775-1776, it seemed possible that the shallow part of the Charles River near Boston might become solid enough to land on, but that approach was as visible as any other. The Neck itself was guarded by a British Fort at its narrow section, so the likelihood of taking Boston via that route seemed low.

Washington?s orders from Congress required him to discuss any major move with his eight general officers. These eight officers had not previously held any high rank in any professional army, nor had any of them with the exception of Israel Putnam ever served in anything other than frontier battles against native Americans. The General staff met at Washington?s headquarters in the house we now call the Longfellow House.

The group included two Major Generals: Artemas Ward and Israel Putnam. Artemas Ward was the senior of the group in rank, having formerly served as commander-in-chief until Washington?s arrival. Ward is considered to have been calm, cool and thoughtful, and he deserved credit for holding the army together. He is credited with opposing Washington?s hoped-for assault on Boston.

In contrast Israel Putnam was a fiery genius, a man whom troops might love but not a strategist nor a tactician. This 58 year old first came to join the army on hearing the Lexington Alarm, leaving his yoked oxen standing in the field.

Among the brigadier generals, John Sullivan had been Washington?s colleague in the Continental Congress where they both served. He was loyal and could be relied on to lead in battle.

Horatio Gates who had been born in England had been a professional officer in the British military. He was well-acquainted with army routine, and as adjutant-general, he managed to bring some order out of the total chaos that prevailed.

Joseph Spencer had served in the French and Indian War, but had little to recommend him. He was jealous that Putnam had been promoted over his head, but he never accomplished any distinguished service, so it seems that he hadn?t deserved higher appointment.

William Heath, was agreeably and honestly outspoken but cautious. For those of us looking back, we must appreciate him because he left a book of Memoirs that gave eyewitness accounts of his experiences.

John Thomas was a key officer. He served in the French and Indian War and retired to practice medicine. At the start of the siege of Boston, he brought troops that he raised himself and assumed command of the army?s right wing in defense of Roxbury. To intimidate the British he once marched his command around a hill in Roxbury over and over again to give the impression of more manpower than he actually had. Thomas was the first officer that Washington himself nominated for a major generalship. At the siege he served under Artemas Ward with direct, personal command of the troops who occupied Dorchester Heights.

The last of the six brigadier generals was Nathaniel Greene, the most gifted of them all. He was 32 years of age and had begun as a Quaker and school teacher. But he realized the importance of the patriots? cause and joined the militia, engaging in intensive study of military theory and science.

On February 16th, these generals met with Washington to discuss his desire for a direct assault on Boston. Their discussion referred to the crushing news that had arrived from Quebec. In January, Montgomery and Arnold had tried a direct assault on the city of Quebec and met with disaster. Direct assaults on fortified garrisons were shown to be unsuccessful. The generals now argued that Washington had underestimated the strength of the British garrison in Boston.

At this meeting the generals proposed the alternative maneuver of occupying the Dorchester peninsula. This would provoke the British because the position would be highly visible and would have the advantage of being a defensive position that would afford an opportunity of directly bombarding the Boston waterfront. General Ward is credited with the proposal, which makes sense due to his position on the right wing, where he would have been most familiar with the territory in Dorchester. Washington had appeared indifferent to the fortification of Dorchester.

As yet neither army had occupied Dorchester. Both armies had felt they did not have sufficient resources to maintain the position. The Point or Dorchester Neck lay across the Bay at a distance of only a half mile or so from Boston Neck and three-quarters of a mile from the docks along the Boston waterfront. (Neck is a word that can mean the narrow piece of land that connects a larger peninsula to the mainland as in the case of Boston or can mean the whole peninsula as in the case of Dorchester Neck). Three hills merged into conjoined summits, an area known as Dorchester Heights. The heavily fortified Castle Island or Castle William occupied by the British stood a half-mile off shore.

Washington had reconnoitered this area on Feb. 11th and 12th. He rode out over the causeway accompanied by Generals Ward, Putnam and Thomas along with Gridley, chief engineer Lt. Col. Rufus Putnam and Henry Knox who was in command of artillery. The offices continued to the end of the peninsula and left their horses with orderlies and strolled along for about a half mile. At this point someone noticed that British forces were riding furiously toward their batteries on Boston Neck. If the guns opened up, Washington?s return over the causeway would be cut off. This danger sent them all scampering for their life to get back to their horses and out of reach of possible fire. The success of the American Revolution depended on such tenuous moments.

British General Howe received reports that the rebels might be planning to fortify the Dorchester peninsula, so he decided to eliminate any possibility by a surprise raid on Feb. 14th that would scorch the earth. The operation was a complete success except for the fact that they found no fortification. The British burned ten or so houses with barns and sheds to the ground in full view of the citizens who had lived in them. As inconsequential as this raid may appear, it gave Howe an enhanced sense of security and he only increased his batteries on Boston Neck where he felt the British guns could easily dislodge any rebels who might attempt to annoy the British from Dorchester.

So on in Washington?s council of war on Feb. 16th when the suggestion of occupying Dorchester again came up, the question became how to obtain a foothold once they moved troops to Dorchester. The causeway and the hills were fully open to sweeping British artillery fire, since the whole peninsula was exposed.

A large combat labor force would be secretly assembled by nights and would march to the peninsula, taking the British by surprise and being prepared to fight the next morning.

Superficial parapets could be made up of fascines. These were bundles of sticks laid parallel and bound together. The bundles could then be laid end-to-end and side-to-side in a breastwork that could stop a musket ball. Still these constructions were unstable.

More substance could be obtained from gabions, which were wicker bags or baskets that could be carried onto the field empty, then filled with surface stones or gravel. They could be interspersed throughout the fascines to provide greater stability.

Huge numbers of fascines and gabions would be required, but it was just this type of work that an army of farmers, aided by a local population, could and would do.

There was still a need for even greater stability. By luck Rufus Putnam was visiting General Heath and noticed a copy of Muller?s Military Field Manual. He borrowed it and came across a description of chandeliers. These were skeleton-like frames of light timbers nailed together to from cribs or cradles for fascines or gabions thereby giving strength. These too were manufactured by the amateur army along with local woodcutters, carpenters, mechanics and handymen.

Still the only approach to the peninsula was over the causeway with exposure to British guns. For the moment the ground was frozen, so the road could be widened. To answer the question of how stay hidden while carting fortification material over the road, they came up with hay ? at that the time there were no machines for baling hay, but instead the farmers would take strands or skeins of long hay stalks and twist them rapidly together with a spiral motion to form ropes of hay that could be bound together. These were called screwed hay. These were to be laid on the side of the causeway facing Boston Neck to shield the road from the eyes of the British. The greatest quantity of hay came a long distance from across the Mystic and Charles Rivers, even all the way around from Chelsea.

Washington would need one more trade to complete the mission, the teamsters. To transport all this material in a single night seemed nearly impossible, but men like James Boies of the upper mills in Dorchester (Mattapan Square) brought three hundred and sixty teams or horses and oxen to Dorchester and Roxbury. Schedules were worked out for the timing and number of trips.

The operation began on March 2nd on Lechmere Point?in an act of drawing the British attention elsewhere, some of Knox?s guns fired on the west part of Boston. Heavy guns from Roxbury?s high fort were moved closer to fortifications on Boston Neck to offer another barrage.

All the troops and the civilian volunteers, numbering in the thousands were quartered in the homes and barns of the local population. These men had to be fed and so did their animals. Some had to take what they could get in vacant houses and old cellars.

All the able men from Dorchester took part including Captain Lemuel Clap, Colonel Sam Pierce, Captain James Swan, and the aforementioned James Boies among many others.

March 4 was chosen as the date to fortify Dorchester because the next day would be the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, when emotions would be at their maximum. On March 4th a full moon was shining and at 7 pm Gen. Thomas gave the word to move. From every lane and roadway, from every square, from every shed and barn and stable, men and teams issued forth. At the same time the artillery thundered from all around the rest of Boston to give the British something to think about elsewhere. The roar of the cannon and the light could be seen by Abigail Adams from the top of Penn?s hill in Quincy.

The teams kept up a semi-continuous circuit, some of them returning three or four times, bringing the prefabricated fortress across the marsh to the tops of the hills. The day had been mild so there may have been a couple of inches of surface dirt that thawed out so that it could be shoveled. To keep as quiet as possible the wheels of the carts were wrapped in straw. They were covered the sounds of the bombardment from elsewhere, especially as the British returned the fire they received.

By 3 am the workers would ordered to lay down their tools, and they were replaced by a contingent of 2500 fresh men, carrying muskets and powder and shot. They completed the fortifications and reinforced them.

At some time during the night twenty or so 12-pounder cannon arrived.

So it was that when dawn broke on March 5, 1776, the British were surprised. General Howe said that the rebels had done more in one night than his whole army could do in a month. He though it must have taken the work of ten thousand men.

The British intended to dislodge the patriots, but their tardiness in preparing boast to embark gave Howe more time to consider his position. Coincidentally by late afternoon, the storm that had been rising became a serious factor, tossing ships at their moorings and swamping smaller boats. Thus the evacuation of Boston was decided by the evening of March 5th. Extricating an army with all its goods and stores takes a bit of effort, but by March 17th the British embarked on their way to Nova Scotia. They did stay within the outer harbor for 10 days, and Abigail Adams counted 127 ships.

The success of the venture
1. crystallized public opinion throughout the colonies by demonstrating that the immense power of the British could be defeated

2. gave the countries of Europe notice that provincial Americans were worth their consideration

3. brought a change in thinking ? no longer was the argument over rights or representation within the British government, it was now about Independence.


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Here are some images from the Atheneum archive related to this topic. Click on any of these images to open a slideshow of all 1499 images.
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Created: April 10, 2009   Modified: April 10, 2009