The encounters at Lexington and Concord thoroughly aroused the American people. The news rang through the land that blood had been spilt – that already there were martyrs to the great cause. Mounted couriers galloped along all highways. Over the bustle of the market-place – in the stillness of the quiet village church – there broke the startling shout, “The war has begun.” All men felt that the hour had come, and they promptly laid aside their accustomed labour that they might gird themselves for the battle. North Carolina, in her haste, threw off the authority of the King, and formed herself into military companies. Timid Georgia sent gifts of money and of rice, and cheering letters, to confirm the bold purposes of the men of Boston. In aristocratic and loyal Virginia there was a general rush to arms. From every corner of the New England States men hurried to Boston. Down in pleasant Connecticut an old man was ploughing his field one April afternoon. His name was Israel Putnam. He was now a farmer and tavern-keeper – a combination frequent at that time in New England, and not at all inconsistent, we are told, “with a Roman character.” Formerly he had been a warrior. He had fought the Indians, and had narrowly escaped the jeopardies of such warfare. Once he had been bound to a tree, and the savages were beginning to toss their tomahawks at his head, when unhoped-for rescue found him. As rugged old Israel ploughed his field, some one told him of Lexington. That day he ploughed no more. He sent word home that he had gone to Boston. Unyoking his horse from the plough, in a few minutes he was mounted and hastening towards the camp.
Boston and its suburbs stand on certain islets and peninsulas, access to which, from the mainland, is gained by one isthmus which is called Boston Neck, and another isthmus which is called Charlestown Neck. A city thus circumstanced is not difficult to blockade. The American Yeomanry blockaded Boston. There were five thousand soldiers in the town; but the retreat from Concord inclined General Gage to some measure of patient endurance, and he made no attempt to raise the blockade.
The month of May was wearing on, and still General Gage lay inactive. Still patriot Americans poured into the blockading camp. They were utterly undisciplined, and wholly without uniform. The English scorned them as a rabble “with calico frocks and fowling-pieces.” But they were Anglo-Saxons with arms in their hands, and a fixed purpose in their minds. It was very likely that the unwise contempt of their enemies would not be long unrebuked.
On the 25th, several English ships of war dropped their anchors in Boston Bay. It was rumoured that they brought large reinforcements under Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton – the best generals England possessed. Shortly it became known that Gage now felt himself strong enough to break out upon his rustic besiegers. But the choice of time and place for the encounter was not to be left with General Gage.
On Charlestown peninsula, within easy gun-shot of Boston, there are two low hills, one of which, the higher, is called Bunker Hill, and the other Breed’s Hill.
When General Gage looked out upon the heights next morning, he saw a strong intrenchment and swarms of armed men where the untrodden grass had waved in the summer breeze a few hours before. He looked long through his glass at this unwelcome apparition. A tall figure paced to and fro along the rude parapet. It was Prescott. “Will he fight?” asked Gage eagerly. “Yes, sir,” replied a bystander; “to the last drop of his blood.”
It was indispensable that the works should be taken, and a plan of attack was immediately formed. It was sufficiently simple. No one supposed that the Americans would stand the shock of regular troops. The English were therefore to march straight up the hill and drive the Americans away. Meanwhile reinforcements were sent to the Americans, and supplies of ammunition were distributed. A gill of powder, to be carried in a powder-horn or loose in the pocket, two flints and fifteen balls, were served out to each man. To obtain even the fifteen balls, they had to melt down the organ-pipes of an Episcopal church at Cambridge.
At noon English soldiers to the number of two thousand crossed over from Boston. The men on the hill-top looked out from their intrenchments upon a splendid vision of bright uniforms and bayonets and field-pieces flashing in the sun. They looked with quickened pulse but unshaken purpose. To men of their race it is not given to know fear on the verge of battle.
The English soldiers paused for refreshments when they landed on the Charlestown peninsula. The Americans could hear the murmur of their noisy talk and laughter. They saw the pitchers of grog pass along the ranks. And then they saw the Englishmen rise and stretch themselves to their grim morning’s work. From the steeples and house-tops of Boston – from all the heights which stand round about the city – thousands of Americans watched the progress of the fight.
The soldiers had no easy task before them. The day was “exceeding hot,” the grass was long and thick, the up-hill march was toilsome, the enemy watchful and resolute. As if to render the difficulty greater, the men carried three days’ provision with them in their knapsacks. Each man had a burden which weighed one hundred and twenty pounds in knapsack, musket, and other equipments. Thus laden they began their perilous ascent.
While yet a long way from the enemy they opened a harmless fire of musketry. There was no reply from the American lines. Putnam had directed the men to withhold their fire till they could see the white of the Englishmen’s eyes, and then to aim low. The Englishmen were very near the works when the word was given. Like the left-handed slingers of the tribe of Benjamin, the Americans could shoot to a hairbreadth. Every man took his steady aim, and when they gave forth their volley few bullets sped in vain. The slaughter was enormous. The English recoiled in some confusion, a pitiless rain of bullets following them down the hill. Again they advanced almost to the American works, and again they sustained a bloody repulse. And now, at the hill-foot, they laid down their knapsacks and stripped off their great-coats. They were resolute this time to end the fight by the bayonet. The American ammunition was exhausted, and they could give the enemy only a single volley. The English swarmed over the parapet. The Americans had no bayonets, but for a time they waged unequal war with stones and the butt-ends of their muskets. They were soon driven out, and fled down the hill and across the Neck to Cambridge, the English ships raking them with grape-shot as they ran.
They had done their work. Victory no doubt remained with the English. Their object was to carry the American intrenchments, and they had carried them. Far greater than this was the gain of the Americans. It was proved that, with the help of some slight field-works, it was possible for undisciplined patriots to meet on equal terms the best troops England could send against them. Henceforth the success of the Revolution was assured. “Thank God,” said Washington, when he heard of the battle, “the liberties of the country are safe.” Would that obstinate King George could have been made to see it! But many wives must be widows, and many children fatherless, before those dull eyes will open to the unwelcome truth.
Sixteen hundred men lay, dead or wounded, on that fatal slope. The English had lost nearly eleven hundred; the Americans nearly five hundred. Seldom indeed in any battle has so large a proportion of the combatants fallen.
The Americans, who had thus taken up arms and resisted and slain the King’s troops, were wholly without authority for what they had done. No governing body of any description had employed them or recognized them. What were still more alarming deficiencies, they were without a general, and without adequate supply of food and ammunition. 1775 A.D. Congress now, by a unanimous vote, adopted the army, and elected George Washington Commander-in-Chief of the patriot forces. They took measures to enlist soldiers, and to raise money for their support.
When Washington reached the army before Boston, he found it to consist of fourteen thousand men. They were quite undisciplined, and almost without ammunition. Their stock of powder would afford only nine rounds to each man. They could thus have made no use of their artillery. Their rude intrenchments stretched a distance of eight or nine miles. At any moment the English might burst upon them, piercing their weak lines, and rolling them back in hopeless rout. But the stubborn provincials were, as yet, scarcely soldiers enough to know their danger. Taking counsel only of their own courage, they strengthened their intrenchment, and tenaciously maintained their hold on Boston.
From a convenient hill-top Washington looked at his foe. He saw a British army of ten thousand men, perfect in discipline and equipment. It was a noble engine, but, happily for the world, it was guided by incompetent hands. General Gage tamely endured siege without daring to strike a single blow at the audacious patriots. It was no easy winter in either army. The English suffered from small-pox. Their fleet failed to secure for them an adequate supply of food. They had to pull down houses to obtain wood for fuel, at the risk of being hanged if they were discovered. They were dispirited by long inaction. They knew that in England the feeling entertained about them was one of bitter disappointment. Poor Gage was recalled by an angry Ministry, and quitted in disgrace that Boston where he had hoped for such success. General Howe succeeded to his command, and to his policy of inactivity.
Washington on his side was often in despair. His troops were mainly enlisted for three months only. Their love of country gave way under the hardships of a soldier’s life. Washington was a strict disciplinarian, and many a free-born back was scored by the lash. Patriotism proved a harder service than the men counted for. Fast as their time of service expired they set their faces homeward. Washington plied them with patriotic appeals, and even caused patriot songs to be sung about the camp. Not thus, however, could the self-indulgent men of Massachusetts and Connecticut be taught to scorn delights and live laborious days. “Such dearth of public spirit,” Washington writes, “and such want of virtue, such fertility in all the low arts, I never saw before.” 1776 A.D. When January came he had a new army, much smaller than the old, and the same weary process of drilling began afresh. He knew that Howe was aware of his position. The inactivity of the English general astonished Washington. He could explain it no otherwise than by believing that Providence watched over the liberties of the American people.
In February liberal supplies of arms and ammunition reached him. There came also ten regiments of militia. Washington was now strong enough to take a step.
To the south of Boston city lie the Heights of Dorchester. If the Americans can seize and hold these heights, the English must quit Boston. The night of the 4th of March was fixed for the enterprise. A heavy fire of artillery occupied the attention of the enemy. By the light of an unclouded moon a strong working-party took their way to Dorchester Heights. A long train of waggons accompanied them, laden with hard-pressed bales of hay. These were needed to form a breastwork, as a hard frost bound the earth, and digging alone could not be relied upon. The men worked with such spirit, that by dawn the bales of hay had been fashioned into various redoubts and other defences of most formidable aspect. A thick fog lay along the heights, and the new fortress looked massive and imposing in the haze. “The rebels,” said Howe, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”
And now the English must fight, or yield up Boston. The English chose to fight. They were in the act of embarking to get at the enemy when a furious east wind began to blow, scattering their transports and compelling the delay of the attack. All next day the storm continued to rage, and the English, eager for battle, lay in unwilling idleness. The vigorous Americans never ceased to dig and build. On the third day the storm abated. But it was now General Howe’s opinion that the American position was impregnable. It may be that he was wisely cautious; it may be that he was merely fearful. But he laid aside his thoughts of battle, and prepared to evacuate Boston. On the 17th the last English soldier was on board, and all New England was finally wrested from King George.
Even yet, after months of fighting, the idea of final separation from Great Britain was distasteful to a large portion of the American people. To the more enlightened it had long been evident that no other course was possible, but very many still clung to the hope of a friendly settlement of differences. Some, who were native Englishmen, loved the land of their birth better than the land of their adoption. The Quakers and Moravians were opposed to war as sinful, and would content themselves with such redress as could be obtained by remonstrance. Some, who deeply resented the oppressions of the home Government, were slow to relinquish the privilege of British citizenship. Some would willingly have fought had there been hope of success, but could not be convinced that America was able to defend herself against the colossal strength of England. The subject was discussed long and keenly. The intelligence of America was in favour of separation. All the writers of the colonies urged incessantly that to this it must come. Endless pamphlets and gazette articles set forth the oppressions of the old country, and the need of independence in order to the welfare of the colonies. Conspicuous among those whose writings aided in convincing the public mind stands the unhonoured name of Thomas Paine the infidel. Paine had been only a few months in the colonies, but his restless mind took a ready interest in the great question of the day. He had a surprising power of direct, forcible argument. He wrote a pamphlet styled “Common Sense,” in which he urged the Americans to be independent. His treatise had, for those days, a vast circulation, and an extraordinary influence.
1776 A.D. The time was now ripe for the consideration by Congress of the great question of Independence. It was a grave and most eventful step, which no thinking man would lightly take, but it could no longer be shunned. On the 7th of June a resolution was introduced, declaring “That the United Colonies are and ought to be free and independent.” The House was not yet prepared for a measure so decisive. Many members still paused on the threshold of that vast change. Pennsylvania and Delaware had expressly enjoined their delegates to oppose it; for the Quakers were loyal to the last. Some other States had given no instructions, and their delegates felt themselves bound, in consequence, to vote against the change. Seven States voted for the resolution; six voted against it. Greater unanimity than this was indispensable. With much prudence it was agreed that the matter should stand over for two or three weeks.
On the 4th of July the Declaration of Independence was adopted, with the unanimous concurrence of all the States. In this famous document the usurpations of the English Government were set forth in unsparing terms. The divinity which doth hedge a King did not protect poor King George from a rougher handling than he ever experienced before. His character, it was said, “was marked by every act which can define a tyrant.” And then it was announced to the world that the Thirteen Colonies had terminated their political connection with Great Britain, and entered upon their career as free and independent States.
The vigorous action of Congress nerved the colonists for their great enterprise. The paralyzing hope of reconciliation was extinguished. The quarrel must now be fought out to the end, and liberty must be gloriously won or shamefully lost. Everywhere the Declaration was hailed with joy. It was read to the army amidst exulting shouts. The soldiers in New York expressed their transference of allegiance by taking down a leaden statue of King George and casting it into bullets to be used against the King’s troops. Next day Washington, in the dignified language which was habitual to him, reminded his troops of their new duties and responsibilities. “The general,” he said, “hopes and trusts that every officer and soldier will endeavour so to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”
England put forth as much strength as she deemed needful to subdue her rebellious colonists. She prepared a strong fleet and a strong army. She entered into contracts with some of the petty German princes to supply a certain number of soldiers. It was a matter of regular sale and purchase. England supplied money at a fixed rate; the Duke of Brunswick and some others supplied a stipulated number of men, who were to shed their blood in a quarrel of which they knew nothing. Even in a dark age these transactions were a scandal. Frederick of Prussia loudly expressed his contempt for both parties. When any of the hired men passed through any part of his territory he levied on them the toll usually charged for cattle – like which, he said, they had been sold!
So soon as the safety of Boston was secured, Washington moved with his army southwards to New York. Thither, in the month of June, came General Howe. Thither also came his brother, Lord Howe, with the forces which England had provided for this war. These reinforcements raised the British army to twenty-five thousand men. Lord Howe brought with him a commission from King George to pacify the dissatisfied colonists. He invited them to lay down their arms, and he assured them of the King’s pardon. His proposals were singularly inopportune. The Declaration of Independence had just been published, and the Americans had determined to be free. They were not seeking to be forgiven, and they rejected with scorn Lord Howe’s proposals. The sword must now decide between King George and his alienated subjects.
Lord Howe encamped his troops on Staten Island, a few miles from New York. His powerful fleet gave him undisputed command of the bay, and enabled him to choose his point of attack. The Americans expected that he would land upon Long Island, and take possession of the heights near Brooklyn. He would then be separated from New York only by a narrow arm of the sea, and he could with ease lay the city in ruins. Washington sent a strong force to hold the heights, and throw up intrenchments in front of Brooklyn. General Putnam was appointed to the command of this army. Staten Island lies full in view of Brooklyn. The white tents of the English army, and the formidable English ships lying at their anchorage, were watched by many anxious eyes, for the situation was known to be full of peril. Washington himself did not expect success in the coming fight, and hoped for nothing more than that the enemy’s victory would cost him dear.
After a time it was seen that a movement was in progress among the English. One by one the tents disappeared. One by one the ships shook their canvas out to the wind, and moved across the bay. Then the Americans knew that their hour of trial was at hand.
Aug. 27, 1776 A.D. Putnam marched his men out from their lines to meet the English. At daybreak the enemy made his appearance. The right wing of the American army was attacked, and troops were withdrawn from other points to resist what seemed the main attack. Meanwhile a strong English force made its way unseen round the American left, and established itself between the Americans and their intrenchments. This decided the fate of the battle. The Americans made a brave but vain defence. They were driven within their lines after sustaining heavy loss.