Boston Siege

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Boston Siege

BOSTON SIEGE. 19 April 1775–17 March 1776. By the evening of 19 April 1775, several thousand well-armed militiamen from Massachusetts had driven the British regulars sent to raid Lexington and Concord back into Boston and had invested the city. The opposing sides were in direct contact only at Boston Neck; Charlestown peninsula to the northeast and Dorchester peninsula to the southeast were occupied by neither side.


The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had already taken steps to create and direct armed forces to resist the British. On 26 October 1774, the first Provincial Congress had urged the towns to take control of their militia companies, authorized the enlisting of minuteman companies, and established the Committee of Safety as its executive agent during recesses. The next day it appointed three general officers (Jedediah Preble, Artemas Ward, and Seth Pomeroy) to command the militia should it be called into active service. On 9 February 1775, the second Congress had confirmed these arrangements and added two more general officers (John Thomas and William Heath). On 8 April "it resolved in general terms to raise and establish an army," and in response to inquiries from Connecticut and Rhode Island, sent delegations to the assemblies in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to acquaint them with its intention to raise an army and to ask them to contribute men and material to the projected army. Thus it was that Massachusetts was prepared both to respond effectively to the British raid on 19 April and thereafter rapidly to form an army to besiege Boston.

Starting on the evening of 19 April, the Committee of Safety, under the chairmanship of Dr. Joseph Warren, took the lead in bringing order out of the chaos left by the day's events. The Provincial Congress reconvened on 22 April at Concord and immediately adjourned to Watertown, from where it formally put into motion on the 23rd the plans it had earlier laid for a provincial army. It recommended that 30,000 men be called to arms in New England, 13,600 of them to be raised immediately in Massachusetts. It confirmed Artemas Ward as commander in chief of the Massachusetts troops, headquartered at Cambridge, and named John Thomas to organize a force at Roxbury, facing the British earthworks on Boston Neck. The Massachusetts army took shape slowly, as the militiamen who had turned out on short notice on 19 April decided whether or not to enlist immediately, return home temporarily before enlisting, or return home permanently. More than half of the new army was composed of veterans of 19 April, led in most cases by the officers under whom they had turned out; the remainder were newly enlisted. Arranging companies into regiments also took time, and it was not until the third week of May that commissions were issued to confirm arrangements that had been in place, in some cases, for nearly a month. Ultimately, twenty-seven regiments formed, some as late as mid-July, with strengths varying from 475 to 700 men each.

The Rhode Island Assembly voted on 25 April to send a brigade of three regiments, fifteen hundred men under Nathanael Greene, to reinforce the siege. The Rhode Islanders arrived in late May and took station with Thomas in the camp at Jamaica Plains. The leaders of the New Hampshiremen who had turned out on 19 April and remained at Cambridge met on 26 April to advise the men to stay in service and place themselves under Colonel John Stark. The New Hampshire Congress voted on 20 May to set a quota of two thousand men and place Nathaniel Folsom in command, but he did not arrive in camp until 20 June. The two regiments under Stark were stationed at Medford and Charlestown Neck. The Connecticut General Assembly voted on 26 April to enlist six thousand men in six regiments and appointed David Wooster as its major general and Joseph Spencer and Israel Putnam as brigadier generals. The regiments of Spencer and Putnam arrived in early May, joining Thomas and Ward respectively; eventually, four Connecticut regiments served at Boston.

By early June 1775, the "grand American army" in the camps around Boston numbered about 16,000 men, 11,500 from Massachusetts, 2,300 from Connecticut, 1,200 from New Hampshire, and 1,000 from Rhode Island. About one-third were stationed at Roxbury and Jamaica Plains under Thomas; the right wing included four thousand men from Massachusetts, Greene's Rhode Island regiments, most of Spencer's Connecticut regiment, and three or four artillery companies. The center, at Cambridge under Ward, comprised nine thousand men in fifteen Massachusetts regiments, four Massachusetts artillery companies under Major Samuel Gridley, Putnam's Connecticut regiment, and the rest of Spencer's. On the left were three companies of Samuel Gerrish's Massachusetts regiment at Chelsea, John Stark's New Hampshire Regiment (the largest in the army) at Medford, and James Reed's smaller New Hampshire Regiment near Charlestown Neck.

Although nearly all men carried a personal firearm, either their own or one supplied by their town or colony, this improvised army was short of all other matériel, particularly gunpowder. Ward was in direct command of all Massachusetts troops, who constituted the bulk of the "Boston army," and of the New Hampshire contingent, which had been directed to take orders from him. The Rhode Island and Connecticut contingents took formal orders only from their own officers at this time, but they cooperated effectively with Ward. After the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June, Connecticut put its troops under Ward's direct command.

For two and a half weeks after the British raid on Lexington and Concord, the Americans worked feverishly to organize their army and the British, stunned by the militia's spirit and prowess, wondered what to do next, especially how to keep themselves fed now that traditional sources of supply had been cut off. As early as 27 April, Warren advocated an attack on Boston, an impossibility given the disorganization of the American army at that time, but all of the New England commanders recognized the need to keep the men enthusiastic and focused on the task at hand. Putnam was the first to help the American army shake off its lethargy. On 13 May he led his regiment on a grand excursion around Charlestown peninsula, in full view of the British army in Boston and the Royal Navy's warships floating offshore, in an effort to taunt the enemy and embolden his own army. Major General Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief in North America, launched his first foraging expedition, to Grape Island in Boston Harbor the next day, inaugurating a series of skirmishes and raids that soon encompassed all of the important islands in the harbor: Noodle's, Hog's, Pettick's and Deer's. Skirmishing also occurred at Boston Neck, where the lines were in contact.


A new phase in the Boston siege began on 25 May 1775, when British Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne arrived in Boston with reinforcements for the Boston garrison. By mid-June the British had about sixty-five hundred rank and file stationed in a city of less than seventeen thousand people, Gage having allowed some civilians (mainly women and children) to flee to the American lines. Although Howe carried a dormant commission to replace Gage, all four senior British officers seem to have worked together on a plan to suppress the rebellion by force of arms. They decided, first, to strengthen their defenses by taking unoccupied Dorchester Heights, the key to the British position in Boston; should American artillery be placed on the heights, it could force the Royal Navy from the harbor. That accomplished, they planned to march out across Boston Neck and make for the American headquarters and supply depot at Cambridge, keeping their right flank close to water and confident that well-trained British regulars could brush aside any opposition the Americans might muster. Destruction of the laboriously accumulated supplies at Cambridge, especially the gunpowder, might not deal a death blow to the rebellion, but it would certainly cripple the rebels' ability to mount significant military resistance for the foreseeable future.

Before putting the plan in motion Gage, who had been ordered by London to proclaim martial law in Massachusetts but who also wanted to make a last effort to avoid an escalation of hostilities, issued on 12 June a manifesto that he had asked Burgoyne to draft. "Gentleman Johnny," as the Americans had derisively nicknamed him, thought he had a flair for literary expression. Addressing "the infatuated multitude, who have long suffered themselves to be conducted by certain well known incendiaries and traitors," Gage's proclamation (in Burgoyne's words) offered the king's pardon to all who would lay down their arms, except Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The document was met with derision on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Massachusetts Committee of Safety learned of the British plan on 13 June, five days before the operation was to take place, possibly because Burgoyne had boasted of the thrashing the Americans were about to receive, although information security was so extremely lax on both sides that the information might have come from multiple sources. The Americans ordered a countermove to fortify Charlestown peninsula, hoping to deflect British attention from the occupation of Dorchester Heights. The result was the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June, which left the British in possession of Charlestown peninsula, but at an unacceptable cost in both their own casualties and the enhancement of American morale.


Unknown to the combatants on Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had, three days earlier, voted to adopt the New England army besieging Boston as a "continental army" and had elected George Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, as its commander in chief. He took command at Cambridge on 2 July and did not like what he found. In his letter to John Hancock, the president of Congress, on 10 July, Washington made clear the army's deficiencies. Although he made sure to praise the efforts of the New Englanders, especially the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Connecticut commissary, Joseph Trumbull (the son of the Connecticut governor), he noted the too-great extent of the siege lines, the absence of engineers, the lack of adequate returns (making it impossible to know the true size of the army), the inadequate number of tents, the great deficiency in "necessary clothing" (especially among the Massachusetts troops), and the problems caused when Congress disregarded local seniority in appointing Continental general officers.

Two problems were of even greater concern. "Upon finding the Number of Men to fall so far short of the Establishment, and below all Expectations," Washington wrote, "I immediately called a Council of the general Officers whose opinion as to the Mode of filling up the regiments, and providing for the present Exigency, I have the Honour of inclosing." At the council of 9 July, the generals had recommended sending an officer from each of the Massachusetts companies to recruit in their home areas and "to apply to the provincial Congress of this Province for their assistance in procuring a temporary reinforcement." Washington was not sanguine about the outcome:

From the Number of Boys, [British] Deserters, and Negroes which have been listed in the Troops of this Province, I entertain some Doubts whether the Number required [the council had recommended a total of 22,000 men] can be raised here; and all the General Officers agree that no Dependance can be put on the Militia for a Continuance in Camp, or Regularity and Discipline during the short Time they may stay.

Congress had already (on 14 and 22 June) agreed to pay for a dozen companies of riflemen, to be raised on the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia frontiers and to be sent to reinforce the army around Boston as soon as possible. The first company arrived in late July and the remainder in August, the only reinforcements Washington received from outside New England.

Concern about the discipline of the militia led Washington to describe his greatest problem, the solution for which, he recognized, he bore principal responsibility:

It requires no Military Skill to judge of the Difficulty of introducing proper Discipline and Subordination into an Army while we have the Enemy in view, and are in daily Expectation of an Attack, but it is of so much Importance that every Effort will be made which Time and Circumstance will admit. In the mean Time, I have a sincere Pleasure in observing that there are Materials for a good Army, a great Number of able-bodied Men, active [and] zealous in the Cause and of unquestionable Courage.

The problems Washington enumerated in July 1775 were to remain with him in one form or another throughout the war, along with a whole slew not yet as apparent. It was to the great credit of the commander in chief and his principal subordinates that the new Continental army remained an effective force through early December 1775.

Like Putnam, Washington had served as a senior officer during the French and Indian War, and he, too, understood the need to keep the men active and focused to keep discipline from deteriorating even further. Throughout the summer and fall, Washington worked on numerous plans to attack the British garrison in Boston. On 21 September, for example, he told Hancock that "The State of Inactivity, in which this Army has lain for some Time, by no Means corresponds with my Wishes[;] by some decisive stroke [I propose] to relieve my Country from the heavy Expence, its Subsistence must create." He thought a surprise attack not "wholly impracticable, though hazardous." When his generals rejected his idea, he assured Hancock by writing that "I cannot say that I have wholly laid it aside."

Even though no attack ever materialized, each side was active in skirmishing against the other. Among the more noteworthy were the following encounters. On 21 July, Major Joseph Vose led Massachusetts troops on a raid to destroy the lighthouse on Great Brewster Island; Major Benjamin Tupper led another raid on 31 July to prevent the British from rebuilding it. Gage sent three men-of-war and six transports from Boston on 25 July to raid small islands in Long Island Sound (Block, Fisher's, Gardiner's, and Plumb); on 20 August he reported the capture of eighteen hundred sheep and more than one hundred oxen. Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, who had reached Boston on 1 July to enforce the blockade, sent a force to attack Falmouth, Maine, on 16-17 October. Pennsylvania riflemen and two Massachusetts regiments repulsed a foraging party sent to Lechmere's Point on 9 November.


By November 1775, Washington had seventeen thousand men, all of them reasonably well fed, housed, and healthy. But that was about to change. Because the enlistments of the Connecticut regiments expired on 10 December and those of the rest of the army were about to expire on 31 December, he faced the problem of raising another army in the midst of an ongoing siege. In this critical period, as Congress in Philadelphia debated about how to raise money and place-hunters sought personal advantage from the reorganization of the army, Washington "had to struggle with himself to keep his patience and his faith" (Freeman, p. 570).

Writing to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Reed from Cambridge on 28 November 1775, Washington reported that:

We have been till this time Enlisting about 3500 men. To engage these I have been obliged to allow Furloughs as far as 50 Men a Regiment, and the Officers, I am perswaded, endulge as many more. The Connecticut Troops will not be prevail'd upon to stay longer than their term (saving those who have enlisted for the next Campaign, and mostly on Furlough), and such a dirty, mercenary Spirit pervades the whole, that I should not be at all surprised at any disaster that may happen. In short, after the last of this month our lines will be so weakened that the Minute Men and Militia must be call'd in for their defence; these being under no kind of Government themselves, will destroy the little subordination I have been labouring to establish[;] … could I have foreseen what I have, and am likely to experience, no consideration upon Earth should have induced me to accept this Command.

Five weeks later, he again unburdened himself to Reed:

Search the vast volumes of history through, and I much question whether a case similar to ours is to be found; to wit, to maintain a post against the flower of the British Troops for Six Months together, without [gunpowder], and at the end of them to have one Army disbanded and another to raise within the same distance of a Reinforced Enemy…. The same desire of retiring into a Chimney Corner siez'd the Troops of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts (so soon as their time expired) as had Work'd upon those of Connecticut…. We are now left with a good deal less than half rais'd Regiments, and about 5000 militia who only stand Ingaged to the middle of this Month, when, according to custom, they will depart, let the necessity of their stay be never so urgent. Thus it is that for more than two Months past I have scarcely immerged from one difficulty before I have been plunged into another.

By 14 January 1776, only 8,212 of the 20,370 men authorized by Congress the preceding October had been enlisted, and only 5,582 men were present and fit for duty. Meanwhile, the five thousand Massachusetts militiamen called in to serve from 10 December would end their term on 15 January 1776. Over two thousand of Washington's men lacked muskets, the rest had no more than ten rounds of ammunition each, and the Boston garrison was being reinforced. On 16 January, Washington prevailed on a council of war to accept his view that the British must be attacked before their further reinforcement in the spring made this completely impossible. A call was then made for thirteen militia regiments to serve during February and March to make such an operation possible. The next day Washington learned of the failure at Quebec, and Congress later detached three of the thirteen new militia regiments for service in Philip Schuyler's Northern Department.

On 16 February, before all the new militia units had arrived, Washington proposed, again, to a council of war that the army launch a surprise attack against Boston over the ice of Back Bay; he estimated that the enemy now numbered only five thousand foot troops and believed his own sixteen thousand militia and Continentals had a rare opportunity for success. His generals opposed this plan on various grounds, principally that Washington had underestimated enemy strength and overestimated the offensive power of his own troops. They also insisted that no assault could be undertaken without an artillery preparation of several days; although Henry Knox's "Noble Train of Artillery" had begun arriving at Framingham from Fort Ticonderoga, gunpowder was still in short supply. A less ambitious plan did, however, emerge from this meeting. The generals proposed that while an adequate supply of gunpowder was being assembled, they should, meanwhile, seize some position that would draw the British out of Boston and into an attack on an objective the Americans would have had time to fortify. Although disappointed by the failure of his generals to endorse his assault plan (they were right; the ice lasted only a few days), Washington turned his attention to the plan they proposed. Thus was borne the operation that secured Dorchester Heights for the Americans on the night of 4-5 March 1776.


Since the summer of 1775, the British had considered moving their forces from Boston to the more central, and, they hoped, more loyal, area around New York City. After calling off an attack on American-held Dorchester Heights ordered for the night of 5-6 March, Howe decided on 7 March to evacuate Boston. The transports were loaded by 9 a.m. on 17 March. At 9 p.m. the Sixty-fourth Regiment blew up Castle William as it departed, the last group—out of a total of about eleven thousand British army and navy personnel and nearly one thousand Loyalists (including one hundred civil officials)—to leave Boston. The convoy remained in Nantasket Roads, five miles south of the city, until 27 March, when it sailed for Halifax rather than New York, as the Americans expected. By tacit agreement, the British, in return for being allowed to depart unmolested, did not burn Boston. There was a great deal of looting by departing soldiers and Loyalists, however. A New York Irish adventurer named Crean Bush was authorized by Howe to seize clothing and other supplies that might benefit the Americans, but his loot-laden brigantine Elizabeth was recaptured. The Loyalists were given vessels but were required to raise their own crews.

General Ward entered Boston on 17 March with five hundred men who had immunity to smallpox. Washington visited the town the next day, and the American main body entered on 20 March. The British had left sixty-nine cannon that could be salvaged by the American artillery, and thirty-one that were useless. Miscellaneous ordnance matériel, almost all the enemy's medical supplies, and—most surprisingly and welcome—three thousand blankets and much equipment were found on the wharves, a windfall resulting from Howe's lack of shipping capacity and the failure of subordinates to follow his orders to destroy matériel that could not be evacuated.

The eight-month siege had cost the Americans fewer than twenty men killed in action. Boston and the province of Massachusetts were free of British troops for the remainder of the war.

SEE ALSO Bunker Hill, Massachusetts; Continental Army, Social History; Dorchester Heights, Massachusetts; Falmouth, Maine; Great Brewster Island, Massachusetts; Knox's "Noble Train of Artillery"; Lechmere Point, Massachusetts; Lexington and Concord; Massachusetts Provincial Congress; New York Campaign; Reed, Joseph; Thomas, John; Ward, Artemas; Warren, Joseph.


Abbot, W. W., et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. Vols. 1 and 2. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985–1987.

Freeman, Douglas S. George Washington: A Biography. Vol. 3, Planter and Patriot. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.

French, Allen. The First Year of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.

Frothingham, Richard. History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. 6th ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1903.

Showman, Richard K., et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Vol. 1, December 1766–December 1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Thomas, John. Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

Ward, Artemas. Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

Wroth, L. Kinvin, et al., eds. Province in Rebellion: A Documentary History of the Founding of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1774–1775. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.

                                  revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Boston Siege

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