Authored by J. L. Bell for the National Parks Service
669 pages. This publication is free and available here.
J. L. Bell
George Washington’s Headquarters and Home
Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters
National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
29 February 2012
The siege of Boston does not lend itself to a tidy, stirring narrative. The biggest, most deadly event of those eleven months—the Battle of Bunker Hill—came toward the beginning rather than as a dramatic climax. The British won that battle, a Pyrrhic victory, and nonetheless lost the campaign. The leader of the force that succeeded, Gen. George Washington, was not even on the scene during that decisive fight.
As a result, popular historians have struggled to find a narrative shape for that stretch of time from April 1775 to March 1776. One solution has been to focus on isolated events, such as the Battle of Lexington and Concord, or Col. Benedict Arnold’s march through the Maine wilderness. Alternatively, some historians widened the lens to include rest of 1776, ending with Washington’s redemptive victories at Trenton and Princeton. But for the siege alone, this is the basic popular narrative that has developed:
George Washington, already the national hero though few people recognized it, arrived in Cambridge in July 1775 to find an undisciplined army under superannuated leadership. He imposed discipline on those troops and inspired them to think of themselves in new, national terms. With his keen eye for talent, Washington edged aside overrated generals and plucked out bold, intelligent, young men who would bring vital victories, such as Benedict Arnold, Nathanael Greene, and Henry Knox.
Knox’s journey to bring heavy cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, working against great odds and dire warnings, offers the emotional climax of this narrative. That artillery empowered Washington’s daring, decisive move to mount cannon on Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to give up their grip on Boston at last.
At least, that’s how the story goes. Washington himself helped to shape that narrative in his reports to the Continental Congress. Authors happy to praise Washington and his chosen protégés have amplified it.
In fact, the history is far more complex, and full of awkward ironies:
- The British commanders were ready to leave Boston in the summer of 1775. They stayed until 17 March 1776 because of bureaucratic inertia, the length of time it took to communicate across the ocean, and the weather. The guns on Dorchester Heights made the British leave a few weeks early at most.
- For Washington, the move onto Dorchester Heights was a second choice, and the British army’s departure without a major fight a disappointment. Throughout the siege he proposed ways to bring on a large battle that might have forced the enemy out of Boston—or might well have ended in a discouraging defeat for his own army.
- The New England army was not unusually undisciplined. In many ways those soldiers and Washington simply had different understandings of social and military bonds. He saw their regional customs as lack of discipline, but they were fervently committed to the cause and effective when needed.
- Three of Washington’s subordinate generals—Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, and Horatio Gates—were at different times rivals for his authority, and their relationships with the commander became strained. Many American historians have exalted Washington by emphasizing those men’s faults. However, Ward was in command during the decisive battle of the campaign and formulated the plan that brought it to an end. Lee and Gates worked closely and well with Washington during the siege, offering him the benefit of years of professional military experience.
- Conversely, younger officers like Greene, Knox, and Arnold took terrible risks in the early years of the war, sometimes escaping just by luck and keeping their positions because of Washington’s favor.
- Many of Washington’s most important actions during the siege, such as launching schooners, approving the enlistment of black soldiers, and encouraging French agents to meet with the Continental Congress, were afterthoughts or minor decisions. Some of his major initiatives, such as plans to attack Boston, bore no fruit.
This study attempts to view Washington’s activity in the siege of Boston based on what he and his colleagues knew in 1775-76, not through the hindsight of later developments. Most of the chapters, organized by themes rather than chronologically, lay out an alternative narrative of the general learning on the job.
When George Washington came to Boston, he was forty-three years old. He had never led more than a few hundred soldiers, participated in a large siege, or been the commander-in-chief of an army. The campaign was therefore a learning experience for him. Because of the British commanders’ lack of aggression, Washington’s situation was actually much less risky than he feared. He was able to make mistakes and gain experience, whether the challenge was picking the right staff or maintaining strict secrecy on intelligence.
As the siege of Boston began, the British army had several clear advantages: trained soldiers; weapons, gunpowder, and other military supplies; hard currency; and the support of a much stronger, larger navy. The Americans, on the other hand, had more men (though Washington did not always realize just how big his advantage was, and his army’s numbers dipped low at the turn of the year); far better access to food, forage, and firewood; and enthusiastic civilian support. Each army’s strengths corresponded to the other’s weaknesses.
The classic strategy for conducting a siege was to cut off the enemy troops’ resources from outside while gradually hemming them into a smaller area. Both goals were close to impossible for the new American military. The strength of the Royal Navy and the resources of the royal government, once London bureaucrats learned that war had begun, meant that the British garrison inside Boston was relatively well supplied. Furthermore, that royal army had excellent natural and manmade defenses because it was situated on two narrow-necked peninsulas and a well-fortified island. The Continental Army was necessarily at a distance; short of heavy guns and powder, it could do little damage.
Washington was eager to do something to win the campaign because of his active temperament, his desire to please the Continental Congress, and his hope for a decisive early victory that would convince the government in London to back down. But he could see only one basic strategy available: forcing a battle. Much of the general’s activity during the siege was directed toward that goal. In 1775-76, Washington had not yet learned the value of simply keeping the Continental Army together until it wore out the enemy, a strategy that did not bring him many glorious battlefield victories but in the end won the war.
Review Of Sources Used
This study relies mostly on primary sources, particularly the correspondence of Gen. George Washington and other documents from his headquarters. In addition, it quotes from the letters and diaries of other people in the siege lines surrounding Boston, from selected sources within the town, and from memoirs and local traditions that preserve details not available anywhere else.
Many myths and traditions have stuck to Washington over the years. The hunger for details about his personal and domestic life in the nineteenth century led authors to repeat traditions that had little evidence behind them. Stories of meeting Washington or—even better—receiving a visit from him are legion in nineteenth-century family lore. This study attempts to peel off some of the myths about Washington’s life in Cambridge, particularly those that circulated in nineteenth-century Cambridge itself. At the same time, it tries to focus on individuals who did cross paths with the general, from his household servants to the many people who came to headquarters on official business.
Where possible, quotations have been traced back to their earliest printed sources rather than later reprints or quotations. The internet has made that approach far easier than before—indeed, this study might have been impossible without online digital databases to provide early sources and leads to them. In some cases, that work reveals that the original sources are not as old or reliable as authors have believed; some secondary sources have distorted original meanings or left out crucial information. On the other hand, the same techniques have made it possible to document unlikely events and make unforeseen connections.
This study was prepared when the standard Washington corpus is in flux—but it has almost always been in flux. Jared Sparks, working at times in Elizabeth Craigie’s Cambridge boarding house, prepared the first collected edition of George Washington’s letters in 1834-37. Out of admiration, Sparks altered Washington’s punctuation, spelling, and even wording to fit what he considered the best taste. Scholarly standards have grown considerably since then, and every generation or so a larger group of researchers have assembled to create a new, longer, and more accurate edition of Washington’s papers. The latest version, Papers of George Washington, ongoing at the University of Virginia, includes letters to Washington as well as from him and his staff, and transcribes the letters actually sent from the general’s headquarters rather than the (often slightly different) transcripts created during the war. However, that project is not yet complete, and does not contain some information published in earlier references, which therefore remain useful.
Another major recent development is the digitization of such collections, in various forms. Google Books has made many public-domain editions (with their limitations and faults) easily available. Northern Illinois University put Peter Force’s monumental American Archives volumes from 1837-53 online. The Online Library of Liberty has posted the 1889-93 edition of the Writings of George Washington by Worthington Chauncy Ford while the Library of Congress offers the transcripts of the 1930s John C. Fitzpatrick edition along with images from its microfilm, including reams of documents never transcribed and published. With support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Founders Early Access project of the University of Virginia will provide digital editions of the Papers of George Washington, the Adams Papers, and other documentary collections from the U.S. founding. Digitization widens access to the Washington papers well beyond the large research libraries able to purchase the printed editions for their visitors. It also allows for faster searching and quoting, and often offers a look at handwritten documents.
As to secondary sources, while there have been many histories of the two battles at the start of the siege of Boston, there have been far fewer histories of the full siege. The two major studies are still Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston (4th edition, 1873) and Allen French’s The First Year of the American Revolution (1934). Similarly, there have been many biographies and studies of Washington, but none focused on his command in Massachusetts. In fact, because he did so much else, biographers tend to treat the siege of Boston quickly before moving on to greater challenges and victories of the later war. This report therefore relies most on studies of Washington in his formative years, such as Paul K. Longmore’s The Invention of George Washington and John Ferling’s The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon, both eye-openingly iconoclastic. Among the full biographies, that by Douglas Southall Freeman (1948-57) appears the most thorough and reliable, if never the most dramatic.
669 pages. This publication is free and available here.