The Boston Campaign

Research paper for American Military History

The American Revolution was born in Boston, Massachusetts. In the decade prior to the war for American independence, tensions arose between the colonies and the mother country. After the Seven Years War, British colonial policies inspired dissent- particularly in the New England colonies- which eventually led to the siege of Boston. The battles at Lexington and Concord, Breed’s Hill and Dorchester Heights were among the earliest conflicts of the war, preceding even the issuance of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1763, Britain began to tighten its control over its American colonies. Just after the Seven Years War, the British government issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as an appeasement to the indigenous inhabitants of North America and the newly-surrendered French colonies. Disallowing the exploitation of American Indian land west of the Appalachian Mountains, the Proclamation Line fostered resentment among the colonists, who sought to expand west. The Royal Proclamation granted citizens of territories acquired during the Seven Years War rights equal to those of native-born British citizens, rights for which the original colonists had been struggling at length. The Proclamation also established admiralty courts, over which presided naval officers. Cases were often tried as far away as Nova Scotia, and there were no trials by jury.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years War, Britain afforded considerable attention to its North American holdings, much to the chagrin of the reasonably self-sufficient colonists; they had grown accustomed to benign neglect, having been generally left to their own devices for over a century. Parliament passed the Currency Act of 1764, which prohibited the issue of paper money by the colonies. This act forced colonial dependency on Britain as it tightened its control. The Quartering Act of 1765 required that the colonists support the thousands of British troops that remained in America after the Seven Years War- “…hereby required to billet and quarter the officers and soldiers, in his Majesty’s service, in the barracks provided by the colonies…to furnish such noncommission officers or soldiers with candles, vinegar, and salt, and with small beer or cyder, not exceeding five pints, or half a pint of rum mixed with a quart of water, for each man per diem, gratis, and allow to such noncommission officers or soldiers the use of fire, and the necessary utensils for dressing and eating their meat …1” The government argued that the soldiers were stationed in America for the protection of the colonists, and so the colonists should foot the bill.
Post-war Britain found itself in debt and sought ways to improve its financial situation. To this end, Parliament issued the Sugar Act of 1764 which taxed the import of molasses and sugar, hindering the production of rum. Many colonists resorted to smuggling and boycotting goods in protest. The colonists claimed “no taxation without representation,” but the government argued that Parliament represents all people under the rule of the crown, even if no member of Parliament was elected by the colonies. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which taxed all legal documents and printed materials. This act was met with fervent resistance, and the colonists formed the Stamp Act Congress to issued petition to the king. Colonists of both upper and lower classes quickly took action and boycotted British goods. When the boycotts began to hurt trade, the government repealed the Stamp Act. To reassert its authority over the colonists, Parliament issued the Declaratory Act of 1766, which claimed Britain’s rights to tax and legislate in its colonies- “AN ACT for the better securing the dependency of his Majesty’s dominions in America upon the crown and parliament of Great Britain.2”
In an attempt to tax without provocation, Parliament issued a series of taxes on imports, rather than a direct tax. Proposed in 1767 by Charles Townshend, chancellor of the Exchequer, the Revenue Acts were intended to raise funds for administration in the colonies- “…a revenue should be raised, in your Majesty’s dominions in America, for making a more certain and adequate provision for defraying the charge of the administration of justice, and the support of civil government, in such provinces as it shall be found necessary; and towards further defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing the said dominions…3” The colonists revived the boycott of British goods. Some went as far as to issue formal non-importation agreements, as in the case of Boston- “…The merchants and traders in the town of Boston having taken into consideration the deplorable situation of the trade… and the large sums collected by the officers of the customs for duties on goods imported; the heavy taxes levied to discharge the debts contracted by the government in the late war; the embarrassments and restrictions laid on trade by several late acts of parliament… we will not purchase of any factor, or others, any kind of goods imported from Great Britain, from January 1769, to January 1770…4” Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts, reinforcing to the colonists that the boycott was an effective weapon. In a feeble effort to uphold its authority, Parliament retained the tea tax.
Dissention spread from the town meeting to the street, especially in such hotbed cities as Boston. “Boston’s fifteen thousand or so residents were clearly the worst malcontents on the North American continent.5” British troops arrived in Boston in October 1768 for the protection of the Commissioners of Customs, and the townspeople received them inhospitably. A chain of minor altercations ensued between soldiers stationed in Boston and the members of the town, chiefly insults and brawls. Enmity arose between the longshoremen of Boston and the crew of the war ship Romney, which was docked in the harbor for several weeks. The captain refused to free the impressed men in his crew, even when offered replacements. When John Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty, was detained by customs, a crowd threatened customs officers, seized a boat and burned it in the Commons.
On March 5, 1770, civilian-military hostility came to a head. A fray broke out between a sentry near the customs house and a group of boys throwing snowballs and ice at him. A crowd started to gather and, at some point, fire bells were rung. The soldiers thought that the civilians were going to raid the customs house and tried to stave them off with bayonets. The crowd began to chant “fire and be damned” and continued to pelt the soldiers. The commanding officer, Captain Thomas Preston, did not order an attack, but one soldier, purportedly having been struck by a club, fired into the crowd, the other soldiers following suit. Five civilians were killed, but colonial propaganda described the event as the “Boston Massacre.” “Moreover, it gave fiery emotional content to a dispute that had until then been economic and theoretic.6”
The Tea Act of 1773 initiated an escalation of Boston-centric adversity. Parliament permitted the British East India Company to sell its surplus of tea to the colonies tax-free, which undercut local merchants in the colonies and effectively gave the British East India Company a tea trade monopoly. Again, colonists resorted to boycott. Many port cities turned the tea ships away, sending them back to Britain. In Boston, the royal administration would not permit the ships to leave, but the colonists would not allow the cargo to be unloaded. On December 16, 1773, a group of men, disguised as Naragansett Indians, secretly boarded three ships and destroyed 342 chests of tea and dumped them into Boston harbor. No other property was damaged, and the protestors swept the decks before leaving.
Despite the decisively peaceful nature of this protest, the Boston Tea Party was perceived as “the boldest stroke which had yet been struck in America.7” Parliament retaliated with a severe string of legislation, called the Punitive or Coercive Acts. The Quartering Act of 1774, similar to that of 1765, applied to the colonies in general. The Quebec Act, though separate from the Punitive Acts, was an affront to the American colonists as it restored to the French in Quebec their traditional private law and granted the freedom to practice the Catholic faith. In securing the loyalty of the Quebec territory, Britain ensured that Canadians radicals would not support the American colonists.
The majority of the acts, popularly called the Intolerable Acts, were targeted directly at Boston. The Administration of Justice Act eliminated the local justice system and imparted jurisdiction on less rebellious British authorities- “…an indifferent trial cannot be had within the said province, in that case, it shall and may be lawful for the governor… to direct, with the advice and consent of the council, that the inquisition, indictment, or appeal, shall be tried in some other of his Majesty’s colonies, or in Great Britain…8” The Massachusetts Government Act abolished elections for administrative and judicial positions and made them royal appointments- “the appointment of the respective governors had been vested in the general courts or assemblies of the said colonies, hash, by repeated experience, been found to be extremely ill adapted to the plan of government established in the province of the Massachuset’s[sic] Bay… Be it therefore enacted… so much of the charter… which relates to the time and manner of electing the assistants or counsellors for the said province, be revoked…9” In response to the Boston Tea Party, The Boston Port Act closed the ports of Boston to all shipping and receiving until duties had been paid to the royal government and the British East India Company had been compensated for its losses.
The First Continental Congress was established from September 5, 1774, to October 26, 1774, in order to draft the Articles of Association, which addressed the grievances of the American colonies and called for a “non importation, non consumption, and non exportation agreement, [if] faithfully adhered to will prove the most speedy, effectual, and peaceable measure…10” The First Continental Congress debated reconciliation with Britain and the creation of a colonial parliament. It also prepared several petitions addressing their concerns to the king, the people of Britain and the Quebecois.
British General Thomas Gage arrived in Boston in May of 1774 to establish martial law and enforce the new policies issued by Parliament, but many of the colonial Whigs (American Patriots) left Boston proper for the surrounding towns. In an attempt to dissuade armed conflict, Gage orchestrated a seizure of gunpowder from the outlying area. On September 1, 1774, Gage’s troops rowed up Mystic River to Winter Hill in Charlestown and confiscated 250 half-barrels of powder. A contingent of troops proceeded to Cambridge and appropriated two field artillery pieces.
Rumors of vicious attack quickly spread, setting off the “Powder Alarm.” Massachusetts colonists scrambled, believing war to be at hand. In the wake of panic, the Provincial Congress advocated that all militias form minute companies, units ready “at a minute’s notice.” In April of 1775, the British Secretary of State ordered General Gage to disarm the colonists and round up their rebellious leaders. Simultaneously, the objective of the Provincial Congress was “immediately forming an American army at Worcester and taking the Field with undaunted Resolution.11” In the next week, the Congress solidified committees of correspondence, established six artillery companies, and resolved to raise a provincial army.
General Gage was aware of the proceedings of the Provincial Congress through one of his informants, Dr. Benjamin Church, a member of the Congress. Gage had already been planning a raid of the munitions stores in Concord when his orders had arrived. He began preparing his troops- “The grenadiers and light infantry in order to learn grenadiers’ exercise and evolutions are to be off all duties until further notice12”- but he never gave reasons for his commands in order to maintain secrecy. Still, his movements were as transparent to his own soldiers as they were to the colonists, who began to move the munitions in anticipation of a conflict.
By April 18, Boston was charged with gossip. Gage had to issue orders that townspeople were not permitted to leave Boston so that the rumors would not spread any further. But by the time the troops launched across the river, Paul Revere and William Dawes had already formulated their plan to warn the stores at Concord or rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington once they knew the timeline and path of the British troops. Dr. Joseph Warren had witnessed a few days earlier Gage’s scouting party tracing both a land route and a water route to Concord. Revere had devised a lantern signal- “one if by land, two if by sea”- to announce the troops’ route.
When Dr. Warren was notified that the troops were on the march, Dawes set off toward Lexington through Cambridge and Revere traveled via Charlestown. The Lexington militia began to muster in anticipation. Dawes and Revere rode to Lexington, warned Hancock and continued toward Concord. On the road, they met Dr. Samuel Prescott of Concord, who offered to accompany them. They were soon set upon by a patrol of British officers. As the officers directed them off the road, Prescott escaped toward Concord.
At 11 p.m., 900 British regulars under the command of Colonel Francis Smith boarded boards to cross the Charles River. By 2 a.m., they had begun their 17-mile march to Concord. Smith became aware that their secrecy had been compromised and sent the light infantry under Major Pitcairn ahead at a quick march. Smith then sent a dispatch back to Boston requesting reinforcements. When Pitcairn arrived at Lexington at sunrise, seventy-five militiamen under Captain John Parker were waiting on the village green. Both Pitcairn and Parker commanded their men to hold- “Let the troops pass by, and don’t molest them, without They begin first13”- but a shot came from an unknown source off the field. The infantry began firing without orders and the militiamen tentatively began to return fire. Eight militiamen were killed and ten wounded, though only one regular was wounded. Colonel Smith and his main force arrived and the infantry rejoined the ranks for the march to Concord.
After much debate, the militiamen of Concord and Lincoln, under Colonel Barrett, surrendered the city without conflict. The regulars destroyed or seized any armaments they found in Concord. When the regulars began burning gun carriages, the militiamen thought they were firing the town and began to advance. From across the Old North Bridge, intermittent shots came from the regulars. When the militia had advanced to fifty yards from the regulars, only separated by the river, they opened fire. In this first volley, the British suffered sixteen casualties, including half of their officers. The regulars fled, and the militia degenerated into chaos over its success. Barrett eventually regained control, as Smith, having heard of the skirmish from town, was advancing toward the bridge. After a lengthy standoff during which no shots were fired, the regulars retreated back to town and had left Concord by noon.
The return march, though, proved a hazardous one. The regulars met militia fire at Miriam’s Corner, Brook’s Hill, Bloody Angle, Hartwell’s Farm, Fiske Hill and Concord Hill before reaching Lexington. Both Smith and Pitcairn sustained injuries, and many regulars had fled. At 2 p.m., on the verge of their surrender at Lexington, the British were joined by reinforcements under Brigadier Lord Hugh Percy. When the artillery opened fire, the full regiment of militia that had been pursuing Smith scattered. From Lexington to Charlestown, the regulars continued to meet resistance, but the militiamen were cautious of the artillery and resorted to guerilla tactics, firing long rifles from a distance beyond the range of the British muskets. Once reaching Menotomy, British regulars began to ransack and burn homes and execute the inhabitants. The militia attacked in formation at Cambridge, and Percy returned artillery fire. At Charlestown, the regulars evaded an ambush and gained the high ground, while the militia retreated to Cambridge. After twenty-one hours and forty miles of fighting, April 19, 1775 drew to a close. But Boston fell under the siege of 10,000 militia commanded by Artemis Ward, until May, when British General William Howe arrived with 4,500 reinforcements.
The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10 and created the Continental Army in time to confront General Howe on the Charlestown peninsula on June 17. The evening before, the troops of Colonel William Prescott began digging a fortification at Breed’s Hill. At 4 a.m., the HMS Lively discovered the fortification and ineffectively opened fire along with the HMS Somerset. It took until 10 a.m. for General Howe to assemble his troops in longboats and another four hours to organize 2,600 British regulars at the northwest corner of the peninsula to face the 1,400 Continentals. The regulars took heavy losses as they advanced on the fence. The defenders sniped from within their fortifications. The ninety-minute battle culminated when British regulars climbed the redoubt. “The close proximity of regulars and colonists ruled out the use of the musket on either side. Prescott, a superb swordsman… cut his way out with a rapier, clearing a way for several of his men…14” The British navy and artillery laid siege to the city, but the Continentals withdrew with minimal casualties. The British sustained over 1000 casualties to the Continentals’ 600, but General Howe was the only member of the commanding field staff not injured or killed. Howe’s forces were too exhausted to pursue the Continentals into Cambridge.
George Washington arrived on July 3 to assume command of the Continental Army and reoccupied the Charlestown peninsula without resistance. On July 8, the Second Continental Congress issued the Olive Branch Petition as its final attempt at reconciliation. The king rejected the petition outright and issued a proclamation naming all acts of rebellion as traitorous and commanding all loyal subjects to bring the traitors to justice- “we do accordingly strictly charge and command all our Officers, as well civil as military, and all others our obedient and loyal subjects, to use their utmost endeavours to withstand and suppress such rebellion, and to disclose and make known all treasons and traitorous conspiracies which they shall know to be against us, our crown and dignity…15”
As winter came and 1775 drew to a close, General Howe decided to withdraw from Boston in the spring, and so he resolved to avoid conflict until then. Concurrently, Colonel Henry Knox, chief artillery officer of the Continental Army, transported on sledges sixty tons of heavy artillery from Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga across the Connecticut River to Boston. The haul included twenty-six iron cannon, thirteen brass cannon, eight brass mortars, six iron mortars and two iron howitzers. Starting on March 2, 1776, and continuing for several days, Washington bombarded Boston from Roxbury as a diversion from his plans to capture and fortify Dorchester Heights. The evening of March 4, General John Thomas occupied Dorchester Heights with 2,000 troops. By cover of night, the Continentals erected two fortifications. Despite General Howe’s shock at the forts- “‘The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month,’ is said to have been General Howe’s remark…16”- he resolved to maintain honor and muster a force of 2,400 men. As both sides itched for a fight, torrential rains and impassable surf delayed conflict for days, while the bombardment continued. By March 17, General Howe ended the occupation of Boston, and his forces withdrew to Halifax, Nova Scotia. General Washington allowed Howe’s army to leave with opposition and took most of the remaining Continental Army to New York.
Boston was the source of much revolt in the period between the Sevens Years War and the war for American independence. Resistance to Parliamentary legislation bred discord in Boston and gave it a reputation for rebellion. Before America had even declared itself an independent nation, New England militiamen had been fighting for more than a year. The siege of Boston played a vital role in American history.
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2 Independence Hall Association.
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5 Boston Massacre Historical Society.
6 Tourtellot, Arthur Bernon. William Diamond’s Drum. Doubleday: Garden City, NY, 1959. pp. 66.
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11 Martyn, Charles. The Life of Artemis Ward. Artemis Ward: New York, 1921. pp. 85.
12 Tourtellot. pp. 89.
13 French, Allen. The Day at Concord and Lexington. Little Brown and Company: Boston, 1925. pp. 99.
14 Birnbaum, Louis. Red Dawn at Lexington. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1986. pp. 249.
15 Independence Hall Association.
16 Frothingham, Richard. History of the Siege of Boston. Da Capo Press: New York, 1970. pp. 298.

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