After an overland journey from Philadelphia, that partook of the nature of an ovation, Washington arrived in Cambridge two weeks after the Bunker Hill battle, mid the next day, beneath the shade of a great elm tree that still stands as a living monument of that heroic age, he formally assumed command of the Continental army. The new commander was warmly welcomed by the army. The local officers yielded gracefully to his superior authority. Some of them were men destined to achieve abiding fame in the coming war. By far the ablest man among them was Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. As a farmer boy, and later a blacksmith, he had lacked the means of a classical education, but being fond of books, he acquired much knowledge by private study. He read law, general literature, and especially military tactics. He was a born soldier, and before he knew that he was to spend a portion of his life in the field he was thoroughly familiar with the theory of warfare. He was in most of the battles of the war, and was implicitly trusted by Washington, to whom he was scarcely inferior in generalship. Greene was a man of rare sweetness of character and purity of morals. In the later years of the war he became the savior of the Southern states; and after peace had come to the newborn republic, he left his native state to spend the evening of his days among the people of Georgia, who, in grateful remembrance of his services, had presented him with a fine plantation. From the hills of New Hampshire had come two men, opposite in characteristics, both of whom have left a permanent name in the annals of their country--John Sullivan, who represented wealth, refinement, and culture, and John Stark, who had shown his mettle at Bunker Hill, and whose dashing vigor, undaunted courage, and almost fierce patriotism mark him as one of the most heroic figures of the war. Here also was Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller, a corpulent man with a winning smile and a jolly laugh, who soon won his way into Washington's heart, and who many years later became a member of his first Cabinet. But the most picturesque figure of all was Daniel Morgan, the leader of the Virginia sharpshooters. Morgan was a giant in size, genial and affable, but fierce and recklessly daring in battle. In youth he had received five hundred lashes for insulting a British officer, but his spirit was unsubdued. He had escaped a murderous band of Indians on horseback after a musket ball had passed through his neck. He now joined the army of Washington and did valiant service for liberty throughout the war. These and many other Sons of Liberty now made the acquaintance of the commander in chief on the Cambridge Common.
Sir William Howe had succeeded Gage as commander of the British army, and his brother, Lord Richard Howe, was made admiral of the fleet. The contempt that Gage had felt for the Americans had worked to their benefit at Lexington and Bunker Hill. Howe seemed now to entertain the opposite opinion of his enemy; he remained inactive during the summer and autumn, and this again proved a great advantage to the Americans, for Washington needed the time to drill and reorganize his army and to secure an adequate supply of ammunition. The new-made soldiers soon grew tired of warfare, and as their terms of enlistment expired they departed for their homes by hundreds. ReŽnlistments were slow, and it was with great difficulty that Washington kept an army about him. He practically disbanded one army and another--all within musket shot of the British regiments.
Within this period a remarkable expedition to Canada had been undertaken by General Richard Montgomery. From Ticonderoga Montgomery pressed northward in September with two thousand men, and two months later he had possession of Montreal. The expedition promised succes. To join this army in Canada Washington had dispatched eleven hundred men under Benedict Arnold, who, after a march of incredible hardships through the Maine wilderness, reached the valley of the St Lawrence in November. Arnold, whose name in our history was to become famous, then infamous, was a man of military skill and intrepid courage. With Arnold on this perilous journey was another whose name, like his, was yet to be honored, then dishonored, by his countrymen. The fragments of the two armies met in the valley of the great Canadian river, and together they made a desperate and fruitless assault on Quebec,1 on the last day of the year 1775. Montgomery was shot dead, and Arnold was wounded; Ethan Allen had been taken prisoner and sent in irons to England; hundreds of the brave Americans perished through cold and hunger and the ravages of smallpox; and, on the whole, the expedition ended the following spring in disastrous failure.
Washington was severely criticised for his long delay before Boston; but he was wiser than his critics. He spent every day in perfecting his army and preparing to strike a blow. By the 1st of March, 1776, a great many of the cannon captured at Ticonderoga the year before had been drawn on sledges all those hundreds of miles to the Continental army at Cambridge. The commander now determined to wait no longer. He sent two thousand men on the night of the 4th of March to fortify the peninsula south of Boston, known as Dorchester Heights, which commanded the city and harbor even better than did Bunker Hill. During the night the Americans kept up an unceasing cannonade from Roxbury and other points for the purpose of drowning the sound of the pick and the hammer, the noise of the moving wagons, and of the dragging of siege guns; and Howe, all unwittingly, aided him in the good work by replying with his cannon.
At the dawn of day the British general opened his eyes in astonishment upon the work that had been wrought in the night on the heights of Dorchester. What could be done? Washington could now destroy every ship in the harbor with shells. Howe determined to storm the works; but his men remembered Bunker Hill, and the memory left them spiritless. Yet something had to he done, and Howe in desperation set apart three thousand men under Lord Percy to undertake the perilous business; but a terrific storm swept over the harbor and delayed the project until the morrow. Then it was too late: for the American works had been made so strong that only suicidal folly would attempt their reduction by storm. There was but one thing left for the English to do--to abandon Boston and the Boston harbor; and ere the end of the month General Howe, with all the British ships, bearing eight thousand soldiers and nearly two thousand American loyalists, launched out upon the deep and sailed away to Halifax. Thus the old Bay colony, the home of the Pilgrims and the Purtans, the scene of the opening acts of the Revolution, after six years of incessant annoyance,2 was set free from the enemy; and never again, from that day to the present, has a foreign army trod the soil of Massachusetts.3
This was Washington's first stroke in the war, and it was one of his most brilliant. With little loss he had cleared New England of the enemy, and had sent a thrill of joy over the whole country. In their haste the British left behind more than two hundred cannon and great quantities of muskets and ammunition, all of which became the property of Washington's army. Furthermore, the news of Howe's departure did not reach England for several weeks, and meantime vessels were being sent to Boston to supply the wants of the army--and so they did, but not of the British army. They sailed innocently into the harbor, and were captured, and their contents went to increase the stores of the Continental army.
1The city was defended by Sir Guy Carleton. Return
2It was exactly six years (March 5) since the Boston Massacre. Return
3Except in the district of Maine in the War of 1812. Return
History of the United States of America, by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XII p. 247-250
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh
The Revolution--War and Independence
Created September 15, 2000
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