Boston Garrison

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Boston Garrison

BOSTON GARRISON. 1 October 1768–17 March 1776. The British imperial government had sent troops to Anglo-America on prior occasions to suppress disorder and support royal authority, but the dispatch of regular soldiers to Boston in the wake of the Townshend Acts raised an unprecedented set of thorny issues involving civil-military relations and the utility of using soldiers to enforce political obedience. The royal governor of Massachusetts, Francis Bernard, had long wanted regulars in Boston to counter the threats and intimidation the radicals were using to resist imperial control. He was reluctant to make a formal request for troops because he was unwilling to accept responsibility for a decision that was certain to exacerbate an already incendiary situation. He wanted Major General Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief in North America, to send troops on his own initiative, but Gage refused to act without orders from Britain or a request from the governor.


Five days after a Boston mob attacked the customs commissioners in the Liberty affair (10 June 1768), the terrified commissioners wrote to Gage, who was headquartered at New York City, and asked for protection. They also appealed directly to Colonel William Dalrymple, commander of the garrison at Halifax, the closest troops to Boston, and to Commodore Samuel Hood, the local Royal Navy commander. Gage ordered Dalrymple to alert two regiments, and asked Hood to ready transports, but he cautioned them not to act until Governor Bernard requested their aid. Bernard attempted to get Gage to send the troops on the pretext of a routine administrative movement to get better quarters for the regulars. Gage, quite properly, refused to comply with this subterfuge. In late August 1768 Gage received orders from London (dated 8 June) to send at least one regiment to Boston. News of the Liberty affair had reinforced the resolve of imperial leaders to use force. In a letter of 30 July, Gage was told that the 64th and 65th Regiments were to be sent from Ireland to Boston.

Transports carrying Dalrymple's force of 800 men (most of the Fourteenth and Twenty-nineth Regiments and an artillery company with five guns) sailed from Halifax on 19 September 1768, convoyed by a powerful Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Hood (a ship-of-the-line, seven frigates, and two tenders). This armada reached Boston Harbor on 28 September, and found a tense situation awaiting it. Some Boston radicals wanted to mobilize the town mob and forcibly resist the landing of the regulars from Halifax. The leaders in surrounding towns refused to support the radicals, and James Otis, Jr., who opposed mob violence, reminded them that the other colonies would probably condemn them if their actions started a war. Otis's views prevailed. On 1 October, when the regulars landed under the guns of the Royal Navy to establish a garrison that would be in Boston for seven and a half years, "they were greeted with cold silence rather than hot lead" (Alden, p. 163). The contingent from Ireland started arriving in mid-November, but a large portion of the Sixty-fifth Regiment, with its commander, Colonel Alexander Mackay, was driven off the coast by a storm. After taking refuge on Nevis, in the West Indies, it reached Boston on 30 April 1769.

The British had trouble procuring quarters and provisions for four regiments in Boston. Gage had sent an engineer, Captain John Montresor by land from New York City to assess the availability of quarters and to repair the barracks at Castle William, the fort on an offshore island that guarded the harbor. Dalrymple and Bernard wanted to billet the Halifax regiments in town and quarter the regiments from Ireland at Castle William. But, in outright defiance of the requirements of the Quartering Act, Boston's leaders refused to provide quarters in town as long as the barracks on Castle Island were empty, and turned down all requests to furnish provisions. Gage reached Boston on 15 October, and in the next six weeks (before he returned to New York City on 24 November) he managed to arrange makeshift billets and find supplies.

The town permitted some of the troops to use Faneuil Hall temporarily, but the rest of the British troops had to camp on the Common. Gage and Bernard got reluctant authority from the provincial council to use the Manufactory Building, which belonged to the province, but this, too, caused unrest. Other persons had been authorized to use the building, and they sued to stop Gage and Bernard from evicting them. Gage then decided to rent property at the crown's expense. A Tory named James Murray had already made several buildings available (4 October). An adaptable patriot named William Molineux rented the army several warehouses on Wheelwright's Wharf (28 October) and a week later made available another building, as well. Part of the Irish contingent went to Castle Island and the rest was billeted in Boston.

Gage understood the seriousness of the problem he faced in Boston. He told Hillsborough on 26 September 1768 that the people of Boston had displayed "mutinous behavior" and that their actions had been "treasonable and desperate" (Carter, p. 196). His remedy was intelligent and, had it been implemented, was probably the best way Britain had of using military force as part of an integrated plan to quash the incipient rebellion in Boston:

I know of nothing that can so effectually quell the spirit of sedition, which has so long and so greatly prevailed here, and bring the people back to a sense of their duty, as speedy, vigorous, and unanimous measures taken in England to suppress it. Whereby the Americans shall plainly perceive, that it is the general and determined sense of the British nation, resolutely to support and maintain their rights, and to reduce them to their constitutional dependence, on the Mother Country. (Carter, p. 197)

In the event, imperial leaders did not follow Gage's advice.


Colonel Dalrymple commanded the Boston garrison from its establishment on 1 October 1768 until Colonel John Pomeroy arrived in November with his Sixty-fourth Regiment. Mackay, who had the local rank of major general, succeeded to the garrison command when he arrived on 30 April 1769 with the portion of his Sixty-fifth Regiment that had taken refuge at Nevis. Pomeroy then went on leave. Mackay left Boston on 18 August 1769 for leave in Britain, and Dalrymple resumed command of the garrison. Before the end of July 1769, the Sixty-fourth and Sixty-fifth Regiments were transferred to Halifax, leaving only the Fourteenth and Twenty-nineth Regiments in Boston.

Reducing the garrison left enough troops in Boston to remind the town of its grievances, but too few to cow the radicals. Renewed agitation, some of which was directed by radical leaders like Samuel Adams, led to confrontation, the most serious of which was the Boston "Massacre" on 5 March 1770. Responding to threats from the radicals that the continued presence of British troops in Boston would lead to large-scale conflict, Governor Hutchinson and his council wanted Dalrymple to withdraw the Twenty-nineth Regiment to Castle William and keep the soldiers of the Fourteenth Regiment in their barracks. "Dalyrmple, although he had only six hundred men fit for duty, suggested that a threatened insurrection was a powerful argument for keeping the troops in the town" (Alden, p. 176). But Dalyrmple allowed himself to be persuaded by the civilian authorities, and thereby gave the radicals another demonstration of how threats and intimidation could trump the rule of law. The 29th Regiment was ordered to New Jersey in April 1770, leaving only Dalyrmple's 14th Regiment at Boston. Two years later the 14th was relieved by Lieutenant Colonel Leslie's 64th Regiment.

Gage returned to Boston on 17 May 1774 to implement the British government's punitive policies against the city. What had heretofore been a "garrison" soon was built up to the largest British troop concentration in America. By early July 1774 Gage had brought in four regiments from Britain, one from New York, and a few artillerymen. In October, the 10th and 52nd Regiments arrived from Quebec, part of the 18th and the 47th arrived from New York, and two companies of the 65th came from Newfoundland. Excluding the 64th Regiment on Castle Island, this gave the British commander almost 3,000 troops stationed in Boston. On 12 December the warships Asia and Boyne arrived from Britain with about 400 Royal Marines that could also be used in land action.


At the start of 1775 Gage had about 4,500 combat troops, including five artillery companies and 460 marines from ships that now included the Scarborough and Somerset, plus frigates, sloops, and many transports. By the middle of June his strength in rank and file (not including officers) has been estimated as between 6,340 and 6,716 troops. By the end of June 1775 the following foot regiments were in Boston or on the way: 4th, 5th, 10th, 23rd, 35th, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 49th, 52nd, 59th, 63rd, 64th (at Castle William), and 67th. An "incorporated corps," consisting of three companies of the 18th Regiment, had come from New York in October 1774, along with two companies of the 65th Regiment from Newfoundland. Four more companies of the 65th arrived in the spring of 1774, at about the same time the contingent of marines was increased to 600 men. The 17th Light Dragoons, numbering fewer than 300 troopers and counting on picking up their horses in America, reached Boston late in May.

Even as the number of troops under his command increased, Gage grew more despondent about his ability to enforce imperial edicts in Massachusetts or even to keep the peace. When he sent 250 regulars on 1 September 1774 to bring 125 barrels of gunpowder belonging to the colony from Cambridge to Boston, he sparked an enormous outpouring of American minutemen and militia ready to resist by force of arms. Two days later, he began fortifying Boston Neck and building more barracks. On 26 February 1775, he sent Leslie with his 64th Regiment to confiscate cannon at Salem, but this display of armed force did not cow the increasingly self-confident and well-organized radicals. When he sent 900 men to seize military stores at Concord on 19 April 1775, the resistance of the countryside demonstrated the final failure of Britain's attempt to use troops to secure the political obedience of the colonies. The British garrison's principal attempt to break the American encirclement of Boston failed at Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, and although reinforcements arrived during the remainder of the siege of Boston, no further major combat took place. When the British evacuated the city on 17 March 1776, their total strength in army and navy personnel was about 11,000 men.

SEE ALSO Boston Massacre; Boston Siege; Bunker Hill, Massachusetts; Lexington and Concord; Liberty Affair; Montresor, John; Otis, James; Powder Alarm; Quartering Acts; Salem, Massachusetts.


Alden, John Richard. General Gage in America, being Principally a History of His Role in the American Revolution. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1948.

Carter, Clarence Edwin., ed. The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage with the Secretaries of State, and with the War Office and the Treasury, 1763–1775. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1933.

Fortescue, Sir John William. A History of the British Army. Vol. 3. 2d edition. London: Macmillan and Company, 1911.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Boston Garrison

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