Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2: The Soldier of America; Victory at Boston (September 1774 to April 1776) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 2: “The Soldier of America”; Victory at Boston (September 1774 to April 1776) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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“The Soldier of America”; Victory at Boston (September 1774 to April 1776)
Colonel Washington appointed commander-in-chief of the American forces.—Arrives at Cambridge.—Strength and disposition of the army.—Deficiency in arms and ammunition.—Falmouth burnt.—Measures to form a continental army.—Difficulty of re-enlisting the troops.—General Lee detached to New York.—Possession taken of the heights of Dorchester.—Boston evacuated.—Correspondence respecting prisoners.
Sep. 1774Colonel Washington took a decided part against the claims of supremacy asserted by the British parliament; and was elected a member of the first congress. He was soon distinguished as the soldier of America, and placed on all those committees whose duty it was to make arrangements for defence. When it became1775 necessary to appoint a commander-in-chief, his military character, the solidity of his judgment, the steady firmness of his temper, the dignity of his person and deportment, the confidence inspired by his patriotism and industry, and the independence of his fortune, combined to designate him in the opinion of all for that important station. Local jealousy was suppressed by the enthusiasm of the moment, and, on the 14th of June, 1775, he was unanimously chosen “general and commander-in-chief of the armies of the united colonies, and all the forces now raised or to be raised by them.”
On the succeeding day, when this appointment was communicated to him, he modestly expressed his high sense of the honor conferred upon him, and his firm determination to exert every power he possessed in the service of his country and of her “glorious cause.” Declining all compensation for his services, he avowed an intention to keep an exact account of his expenses, which he should rely on Congress to discharge.
He hastened to the American army, which was encamped around Boston, in which place the British troops commanded by General Gage were besieged. It consisted of fourteen thousand five hundred men, but several circumstances combined to render it less effective than its numbers would indicate.
In the hope of avoiding open hostilities, the time for preparing to meet them had passed away unemployed, and this neglect could not be remedied. In the essential article of ammunition, it was discovered, soon after the arrival of the General in camp, that the magazines1 would furnish only nine cartridges2 for each man. Powder was to be obtained, not from officers under the control of Congress, but from committees and other local powers, who had collected small parcels for local defence. Arms, too, were deficient in number, and inferior in quality. The troops were almost destitute of clothing, and without tents. A siege was to be carried on without engineers, and almost without intrenching tools. In addition to these defects, many were discontented with the general officers appointed by Congress: and the mode of appointing regimental officers, in some of the colonies, where they were elected by the soldiers, was extremely unfavorable to discipline.3 Yet, under all these disadvantages, the General observed with pleasure, “the materials of a good army.” There were “a great number of men, able-bodied, active, zealous in the cause, and of unquestionable courage.” Possessed of these materials, he employed himself indefatigably in their organization.
The commander-in-chief felt the full importance of destroying the army in Boston, before it should be reinforced in the spring. The result of his assiduous inquiries into the situation of the enemy, seems to have been a strong inclination to the opinion that, to carry their works by storm, though hazardous, was not impracticable; but, a council of general officers being unanimous against making the attempt, it was abandoned.
To relieve the wants of his army, produced by the rigorous blockade of Boston, the British general frequently detached small parties by water, in quest of fresh provisions. The task of repelling their incursions became so burdensome to the inhabitants of the sea-coast, that the several governors pressed for detachments from the main army, for their protection; and the manifest danger of granting the request did not appease the irritation excited by refusal. Congress was at length induced to pass a resolution, declaring that the army before Boston was designed solely to oppose the enemy in that place, and ought not to be weakened by detachments. At Newport, in Rhode Island, the committee sought security by entering into a stipulation with the officer commanding the ships of war on that station, to furnish the requisite supplies on condition of his sparing the place. General Washington thought it necessary to remonstrate against this dangerous measure.
While the blockade of Boston was thus perseveringly maintained, other events of considerable importance occurred elsewhere.
In July, Georgia joined her sister colonies, and chose delegates to represent her in Congress; after which, the style of “the thirteen United Colonies” was assumed.
After a recess of one month, Congress reassembled at Philadelphia.
Sept. 6The scarcity of arms and ammunition, and the importance of a maritime force, engaged their immediate attention. It was more forcibly attracted to the latter object, by an event which, at the time, excited no ordinary degree of resentment.
Orders had been issued to the commanders of the British ships of war to proceed against those seaport towns in which any troops should be raised, or military works erected, as in the case of actual rebellion. Under color of these orders, a small naval force, commanded by Captain Mowat, was detached against Falmouth, a flourishing village on the coast of Massachusetts. After reducing the town to ashes, an attempt was made to penetrate into the country; but the militia and minute-men soon drove the party back to their ships.4 This measure was immediately followed by a resolution of the Convention of Massachusetts for issuing letters of marque and reprisal;5 and by an addition of some ships of war, on the part of Congress, to the existing naval force.
The re-enlistment of the army, next to the supply of arms and ammunition, was the subject most deeply interesting to the American government.
On the 29th of September, at the earnest solicitation of General Washington, a committee had been appointed by Congress, with directions to repair to the camp at Cambridge, there to consult with the commander-in-chief and the governments of New England, “on the most effectual method of continuing, supporting, and regulating a continental army.” On the return of this committee, Congress determined that the new army should consist of twenty thousand three hundred and seventy-two men, including officers. Unfortunately, an essential error was committed in constituting this first military establishment of the Union, the consequences of which ceased only with the war. The soldiers were enlisted for the term of one year, if not sooner discharged by Congress. This fatal error brought the American cause more than once into real hazard.
Other resolutions accompanied that for raising the new army, which exhibit the perilous condition of the country. The arms of those who refused to re-enlist, though private property, were detained at a valuation; two dollars were offered to every recruit who would supply himself with a blanket; clothes for the privates, (the price to be deducted from their pay,) were purchased without regard to color; and they were required to furnish their own arms, or to pay for the use of those which might be supplied by government.
That enthusiastic ardor which had brought such numbers into the field after the battle of Lexington, was already beginning to dissipate; and though the orders of the day contain the most animating exhortations to the army, and the strongest appeals to its patriotism, an ominous hesitation in forming new engagements was displayed.
At length, with much labor, the officers were arranged, and recruiting orders were issued; but the sufferings of the army had been so great, that this service advanced slowly.
General Washington had earnestly urged Congress to offer a bounty;6 but this expedient was not adopted till late in January; and, on the last day of December, when the old army was disbanded, only nine thousand six hundred and fifty men had been enlisted for the army of 1776.
The General viewed with deep mortification the inactivity to which he was compelled to submit. His real difficulties were not generally known; his numbers were exaggerated; his means of acting on the offensive were magnified; the expulsion of the British army from Boston had been long since anticipated by many; and those were not wanting who insinuated that the commander-in-chief was desirous of prolonging the war, in order to continue his own importance.
Congress having manifested dispositions favorable to an attack on Boston, the general officers had been again assembled, and had again advised unanimously against the measure. Supposing that fear for the safety of the town might restrain the assault, Congress resolved, “that if General Washington and his council of war should be of opinion that a successful attack might be made on the troops in Boston, he should make it in any manner he might think expedient, notwithstanding the town and property in it might be thereby destroyed.”
1776Considering this resolution as indicating the desire of Congress, the General continued to direct his utmost efforts to that object. In January, a council of war, at which Mr. John Adams, a member of Congress,7 and Mr. Warren, President of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts,8 assisted, resolved, “that a vigorous attempt ought to be made on the ministerial troops in Boston, before they can be reinforced in the spring, if the means can be provided and a favorable opportunity should offer;” and for this purpose that thirteen regiments of militia should be required from Massachusetts and the neighboring colonies.
The colonies complied with this requisition; but such was the mildness of the early part of the winter that the waters continued open, and of course impassable.
Early in January, the commander-in-chief received intelligence that an armament was equipping in Boston, to sail under General Clinton9 on a secret expedition. Believing its object to be New York, he detached General Lee10 with orders to raise a body of volunteers in Connecticut, and proceed with them to that city, where he was to take command of the American troops, and was instructed to put the fortifications in the best state of defence, to disarm the justly suspected, and to collect their arms and ammunition for the use of the American army.
The volunteers were raised, and Lee commenced his march to New York at the head of twelve hundred men. The inhabitants of that place were alarmed at his approach. Captain Parker, of the Asia man-of-war,11 had threatened to destroy the city, should the provincials enter it. A committee of safety, exercising at the time the powers of government, addressed a letter to General Lee expressing astonishment at the report that he designed to enter their city without consulting them, and urging him not to pass the confines of Connecticut.
Lee continued his march, and represented so strongly the impolicy of leaving the military arrangements for New York under the control of the local government, that Congress appointed three of its own members to consult with him and the committee of safety concerning the defence of the place.
General Clinton arrived almost at the same instant with General Lee, but without troops. He said openly, that none were coming, that no hostilities were contemplated against New York; and that he was proceeding to North Carolina, where he expected to be joined by five regiments from Europe.
Late in February, appearances among the British troops indicated an intention to evacuate Boston. But as these appearances might be deceptive, General Washington, who had lately received a small supply of powder, determined to prosecute a plan which must force General Howe12 either to come to an action or to abandon the town.
Since the allowance of a bounty, recruiting had been more successful, and the regular force had been augmented to fourteen thousand men. The commander-in-chief had also called to his aid six thousand militia. Thus reinforced, he determined to take possession of the heights of Dorchester and fortify them. As the possession of this post would enable him to annoy the ships in the harbor and the soldiers in the town, he was persuaded that a general action would ensue. Should this hope be disappointed, his purpose was to make the works on the heights of Dorchester preparatory to seizing and fortifying Nook’s hill, and the points opposite the south end of Boston which commanded the harbor, a great part of the town, and the beach from which an embarkation must take place in the event of a retreat.
To facilitate the execution of this plan, a heavy bombardment and cannonade were commenced on the British lines on the 2d of March, which were repeated on the succeeding nights. On the last of them a strong detachment under the command of General Thomas13 took possession of the heights, and labored with such persevering activity through the night, that the works were sufficiently advanced by the morning nearly to cover them.
It was necessary to dislodge the Americans or to evacuate the town, and General Howe determined to embrace the former part of the alternative. Three thousand chosen men commanded by Lord Percy, embarked, and fell down to the Castle, in order to proceed up the river to the intended scene of action, but were scattered by a furious storm. Before they could be again in readiness for the attack, the works were made so strong that the attempt to storm them was thought unadvisable, and the evacuation of the town became inevitable.
This determination was soon known to the Americans. A paper signed by some of the select-men, and brought out by a flag, communicated the fact. This paper was accompanied by propositions said to be made by General Howe, relative to the security of the town, and the peaceable embarkation of his army.
The advances of the American troops were discontinued, and considerable detachments were moved towards New York before the actual evacuation of Boston. That event took place on the 17th of March; and, in a few days, the whole fleet sailed out of Nantasket road, directing its course eastward; immediately after which the American army proceeded by divisions to New York, where it arrived on the 14th of April.
During the siege of Boston an altercation concerning prisoners took place between the commanders of the respective armies, which was viewed with great interest throughout America. The irritations General Gage14 had received as governor of Massachusetts, seemed to influence his conduct as commander-in-chief. He regarded the Americans as rebels, and viewed the great national resistance they were making, as the act of a few turbulent individuals who would soon be quelled. In this spirit he threw some distinguished gentlemen of Boston, and the American officers and soldiers who fell into his hands, into the common jail of felons, and treated them, not as prisoners, but as state criminals.
General Washington remonstrated very seriously against this unjustifiable measure, and declared his determination “to be regulated entirely towards the prisoners who should fall into his hands, by the treatment which those in the power of the British General should receive.” To this letter a haughty answer was returned, retorting the complaints concerning the treatment of prisoners, and affecting to consider it as an instance of clemency, that the cord was not applied to those whose imprisonment was complained of. To this answer, General Washington made a dignified reply, which was, he said, “to close their correspondence, perhaps forever;” and which concluded with saying, “if your officers, our prisoners, receive from me a treatment different from what I wished to show them, they and you will remember the occasion of it.”
On the recall of General Gage, the command devolved on General Howe; and this rigorous treatment of prisoners was relaxed.
Not long after this correspondence, Colonel Ethan Allen15 was captured in a rash attempt on Montreal. Under the pretext of his having acted without authority, he was put in irons and sent to England as a traitor. While he was in Canada, the commander-in-chief, at the request of Congress, addressed a letter to Sir William Howe, assuring him that General Prescot, who had been taken in Canada, and was understood to have contributed to the severities inflicted on Colonel Allen, should receive exactly the fate of that officer.
General Howe not holding any authority in Canada, declined entering into the subject, and Congress ordered General Prescot into close jail.
[1. ]Stores of arms and ammunition.
[2. ]A tube containing gunpowder for a musket or rifle; if “fixed” ammunition, the cartridge included both powder and bullet.
[3. ]The general officers of the Continental or United Colonies’ forces were appointed by the Continental Congress; they comprised field officers of high rank (general, lieutenant general, major general, brigadier general, colonel) and high-ranking officers assigned to the commander in chief in headquarters. Regimental officers were those in the distinct regiments—those bodies of the army commanded by a colonel and lesser officers (lieutenant colonel, major, captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant). Their appointments were made at the level of the states, in various modes.
[4. ]See chapter 1, note 12. The militia were under state, not Congressional, authority, and are thus distinguished from regular or Continental troops. Within the militia themselves, however, there arose in 1774 in Massachusetts a distinct group called Minutemen, a select group (up to a third) to be constantly ready to assemble on a minute’s notice, and this organization spread to some other New England colonies. Thus the Minutemen often drilled more regularly and were continually prepared for battle, as is evident from their famous contributions to the battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill (1775), and these more skilled and seasoned troops became the nucleus of the regular troops of the Continental army.
[5. ]Papers authorizing the operations of privateers, armed vessels privately owned and commissioned by a government (under a letter of marque) to carry on operations of war.
[6. ]A reward (money, goods, land) to induce voluntary enlistment, since neither Congress nor the states had the authority to draft soldiers.
[7. ]John Adams (1735–1826) of Massachusetts, lawyer, author, revolutionary patriot, signer of the Declaration; later, ambassador to France and Holland, drafter of the 1779 Massachusetts Constitution, peace negotiator and ambassador to Britain, Vice President and President of the United States.
[8. ]James Warren (1726–1808) of Massachusetts, merchant, political leader, Massachusetts Provincial Congress (1766–78; President, 1775–78), Paymaster General of Continental army (1775–76), Major General in Massachusetts Militia (1776–77), Massachusetts House of Representatives (1778–79 and 1787–88; Speaker, 1778, 1787), Democratic-Republican; Governor’s Council of Massachusetts (1792–94), Presidential elector for Massachusetts 1804; husband of historian Mercy Otis Warren.
[9. ]Sir Henry Clinton (1738?–1795), Commander in Chief of British forces in North America during the War of the Revolution from 1778 to 1782; in January 1776, he has just been promoted to the rank of full General and is second in command of the British army in the American colonies.
[10. ]Charles Lee (1731–82), English-born British soldier, then soldier of fortune, and ultimately resident of Virginia; from 1775 Major General in the Continental army.
[11. ]An armed vessel, particularly one serving in a government’s navy.
[12. ]Sir William Howe (1729–1814), Commander in Chief of the British army in the thirteen colonies during the War of the Revolution, 1775 to 1778; younger brother of Admiral Richard Howe.
[13. ]John Thomas (1724–76) of Massachusetts, Brigadier General in the Continental army during siege of Boston; later Major General.
[14. ]Thomas Gage (1719?–87), Commander in Chief of British forces in North America from 1763 to 1775 and Royal Governor of Massachusetts from 1773.
[15. ]Ethan Allen (1738–89), “colonel commandant” of the Green Mountain Boys, a military force seeking the independence of the territory disputed by New York and New Hampshire, which later became Vermont.