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haps the irksomeness of my situation led me to undertake more than could be warranted by prudence. I did not think so, and I am sure yet that the enterprise, if it had been undertaken with resolution, must have succeeded; without it, any would fail.”
His proposition was too bold for the field-officers assembled in council (February 16), who objected that there was not force, nor arms and ammunition sufficient in camp for such an attempt. Washington acquiesced in the decision, it being almost unanimous; yet he felt the irksomeness of his situation. "To have the eyes of the whole continent," said he, "fixed with anxious expectation of hearing of some great event, and to be restrained in every military operation for want of the necessary means of carrying it on is not very pleasing, especially as the means used to conceal my weakness from the enemy, conceal it also from our friends and add to their wonder."
In the council of war above mentioned, a cannonade and bombardment were considered advisable, as soon as there should be a sufficiency of powder; in the mean time, preparations might be made for taking possession of Dorchester Heights and Noddle's Island.
At length the camp was rejoiced by the arrival of Colonel Knox with his long train of sledges drawn by oxen, bringing more than fifty cannon, mortars, and howitzers, beside supplies of lead and flints. The zeal and perseverance which he had displayed in his wintry expedition across frozen lakes and snowy wastes, and the intelligence with which he had fulfilled his instructions, won him the entire confidence of Washington. His conduct in this enterprise was but an earnest of that energy and ability which he displayed throughout the war.
Further ammunition being received from the royal arsenal at New York and other quarters and a re-enforcement of ten regiments of militia, Washington no longer met with opposition to his warlike measures. Lechmere Point, which Putnam had fortified, was immediately to be supplied with mortars and heavy cannon, so as to command Boston on the north; and Dorchester Heights, on the south of the town, were forthwith to be taken possession of. "If any thing," said Washington, "will induce the enemy to hazard an engagement, it will be our attempting to fortify those heights, as, in that event taking place, we shall be able to command a great part of the town, and almost the whole harbor." Their possession, moreover, would enable him to push his works to Nook's Hill, and other points opposite Boston, whence a cannonade and bombardment must drive the enemy from the city.
The council of Massachusetts, at his request, ordered the militia of the towns contiguous to Dorchester and Roxbury, to hold themselves in readiness to repair to the lines at those places with arms, ammunition and accoutrements, on receiving a preconcerted signal.
Washington felt painfully aware how much depended upon the success of this attempt. There was a cloud of gloom and distrust lowering upon the public mind. Danger threatened on the north and on the south. Montgomery had fallen before the walls of Quebec. The army in Canada was shattered. Tryon and the tories were plotting mischief in New York. Dunmore was harassing the lower part of Virginia, and Clinton and his fleet were prowling along the coast, on a secret errand of mischief.
Washington's general orders evince the solemn and anxious state of his feelings. In those of the 26th of February, he forbade all playing at cards and other games of chance. "At this time of public distress," writes he, "men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality. . . . It is a noble cause we are engaged in; it is the cause of virtue and mankind; every advantage and comfort to us and our posterity depend upon the vigor of our exertions; in short, freedom or slavery must be the result of our conduct; there can, therefore, be no greater inducement to men to behave well. But it may not be amiss to the troops to know, that, if any man in action shall presume to skulk, hide himself, or retreat from the enemy without the orders of his commanding officer, he will be instantly shot down as an example of cowardice; cowards having too frequently disconcerted the best formed troops by their dastardly behavior."
In the general plan it was concerted, that, should the enemy detach a large force to dislodge our men from Dorchester Heights, as had been done in the affair of Bunker's Hill, an attack upon the opposite side of the town should forthwith be made by General Putnam. For this purpose he was to have four thousand picked men in readiness, in two divisions, under Generals Sullivan and Greene. At a concerted signal from Roxbury, they were to embark in boats near the mouth of Charles River, cross under cover of the fire of three floating batteries, land in two places in Boston, secure its strong posts, force the gates and works at the Neck and let in the Roxbury troops.
THE AFFAIR OF DORCHESTER HEIGHTS
AMERICAN AND ENGLISH LETTERS RESPECTING IT A LABORIOUS NIGHT REVELATIONS
HOWE IN A PERPLEXITY -A NIGHT ATTACK MEDITATED STORMY WEATHER -THE TOWN TO BE EVACUATED NEGOTIATIONS AND ARRANGEMENTS PREPARATIONS TO EM
BARK EXCESSES OF THE TROOPS -BOSTON EVACUATED SPEECH OF THE DUKE OF MANCHESTER ON THE SUBJECT MEDAL VOTED BY CONGRESS.
THE evening of Monday the 4th of March was fixed upon for the occupation of Dorchester Heights. The ground was frozen too hard to be easily intrenched; fascines therefore and gabions and bundles of screwed hay were collected during the two preceding nights with which to form breastworks and redoubts. During these two busy nights the enemy's batteries were cannonaded and bombarded from opposite points to occupy their attention and prevent their noticing these preparations. They replied with spirit, and the incessant roar of artillery thus kept up, covered completely the rumbling of wagons and ordnance.
How little the enemy were aware of what was impending, we may gather from the following extract of a letter from an officer of distinction in the British army in Boston to his friend in London, dated on the 3d of March:
"For these last six weeks or near two months, we have been better amused than could possibly be expected in our situation. We had a theatre, we had balls, and there is actually a subscription on foot for a masquerade. England seems to have forgot us, and we have endeavored to forget ourselves. But we were roused to a sense of our situation last night, in a manner unpleasant enough. The rebels have been for some time past erecting a bomb battery, and last night began to play upon us. Two shells fell not far from me. One fell upon Colonel Monckton's house, but luckily did not burst until it had crossed the street. Many houses were damaged, but no lives lost. The rebel army," adds he, "is not brave, I believe, but it is agreed on all hands that their artillery officers are at least equal to ours." 1
1 Am. Archives, 4th Series, v., 425.
The wife of John Adams, who resided in the vicinity of the American camp, and knew that a general action was meditated, expresses in a letter to her husband the feelings of a patriot woman during the suspense of these nights.
"I have been in a constant state of anxiety, since you left me," writes she on Saturday. "It has been said to-morrow, and to-morrow for this month, and when the dreadful to-morrow will be, I know not. But hark! The house this instant shakes with the roar of cannon. I have been to the door, and find it is a cannonade from our army. Orders, I find, are come, for all the remaining militia to repair to the lines Monday night, by twelve o'clock. No sleep for me to-night."
On Sunday the letter is resumed. "I went to bed after twelve, but got no rest; the cannon continued firing, and my heart kept pace with them all night. We have had a pretty quiet day, but what to-morrow will bring forth, God only knows."
On Monday, the appointed evening, she continues: "I have just returned from Penn's Hill, where I have been sitting to hear the amazing roar of cannon, and from whence I could see every shell which was thrown. The sound, I think, is one of the grandest in nature, and is of the true species of the sublime. 'Tis now an incessant roar; but oh, the fatal ideas which are connected with the sound! How many of our dear countrymen must fall!
"I went to bed about twelve, and rose again a little after one. I could no more sleep than if I had been in the engagement; the rattling of the windows, the jar of the house, the continual roar of twenty-four pounders, and the bursting of shells, give us such ideas, and realize a scene to us of which we could scarcely form any conception. I hope to give you joy of Boston, even if it is in ruins, before I send this away."
On the Monday evening thus graphically described, as soon as the firing commenced, the detachment under General Thomas set out on its cautious and secret march from the lines of Roxbury and Dorchester. Every thing was conducted as regularly and quietly as possible. A covering party of eight hundred men preceded the carts with the intrenching tools; then came General Thomas with the working party, twelve hundred strong, followed by a train of three hundred wagons, laden with fascines, gabions, and hay screwed into bundles of seven or eight hundred weight. A great number of such bundles were ranged in a line along Dorchester Neck on the side next the enemy, to protect the troops, while passing, from being raked
by the fire of the enemy. Fortunately, although the moon, as Washington writes, was shining in its full lustre, the flash and roar of cannonry from opposite points, and the bursting of bomb-shells high in the air, so engaged and diverted the attention of the enemy, that the detachment reached the heights about eight o'clock, without being heard or perceived. The covering party then divided; one half proceeded to the point nearest Boston, the other to the one nearest to Castle Williams. The working party commenced to fortify, under the directions of Gridley, the veteran engineer, who had planned the works on Bunker's Hill. It was severe labor, for the earth was frozen eighteen inches deep; but the men worked with more than their usual spirit; for the eye of the commander-in-chief was upon them. Though not called there by his duties, Washington could not be absent from this eventful operation. An eloquent orator has imagined his situation "All around him intense move ment; while nothing was to be heard excepting the tread of busy feet, and the dull sound of the mattock upon the frozen soil. Beneath him the slumbering batteries of the castle; the roadsteads and harbor filled with the vessels of the royal fleet, motionless, except as they swung round at their moorings at the turn of the midnight tide; the beleaguered city occupied with a powerful army, and a considerable non-combatant population, startled into unnatural vigilance by the incessant and destructive cannonade, yet unobservant of the great operations in progress so near them; the surrounding country, dotted with a hundred rural settlements, roused from the deep sleep of a New England village, by the unwonted glare and tumult.” 1
The same plastic fancy suggests the crowd of visions, phantoms of the past, which may have passed through Washington's mind, on this night of feverish excitement. "His early training in the wilderness; his escape from drowning, and the deadly rifle of the savage in the perilous mission to Venango: the shower of iron hail through which he rode unharmed on Braddock's field; the early stages of the great conflict now brought to its crisis, and still more solemnly, the possibilities of the future for himself and for America - the ruin of the patriot cause if he failed at the outset; the triumphant consolidation of the Revolution if he prevailed."
The labors of the night were carried on by the Americans with their usual activity and address. When a relief party arrived at four o'clock in the morning, two forts were in
1 Oration of the Hon. Edward Everett at Dorchester, July 4, 1855.