Monday, May 19, 2008

A battle that almost was -- Dorchester 1776

First published in Command Magazine No. 32, Jan.-Feb. 1995. The wargame and main artile in the issue was Bunker Hill by William M. Marsh, but I had a small sidebar on the battle that wasn't -- the assault on Dorchester Heights.

Another Bunker Hill Affair — or Worse
By Seth Owen

But for a stormy night, Gen. George Washington might have earned a ranking among the greatest military geniuses of history. A gale on the night of 5 March 1776 may have robbed him of everlasting fame as the brilliant tactician and strategist who won his country’s independence in a single dramatic night. Instead, the Virginian is known for his stoic endurance earned through long years of frustrating campaigns and hard winters.

Washington took command of the army of minutemen besieging Boston in July 1775. He spent the balance of that year bringing some semblance of discipline to the rebel army, and on 1 January 1776 he reorganized and reenlisted the entire force.

Even as he cajoled soldiers, cashiered officers and begged Congress for money, Washington chafed for a chance to strike. In September 1775, he considered an assault on Boston before the army’s enlistments expired, and in January he unsuccessfully urged a council of war to support an attack because of “the indispensable necessity of making a bold attempt to conquer the Ministerial Troops before they can be reinforced in the spring.” The council demurred, because of the obvious weakness of the army, still lacking in troops, powder and artillery.

Washington addressed the latter two deficiencies by detaching his chief of artillery, former Boston bookseller Henry Knox, to bring to Boston the artillery and powder captured at Fort Ticonderoga the previous May. As Knox labored to haul the artillery across the snowy Berkshires, Washington formulated his plan for turning the guns to his decisive advantage.

The Battle of Bunker Hill had shown by example and implication the way to break the siege and drive the British from the town. The Patriot use of a surprise earthwork thrown up overnight on a commanding point provided the example. The Patriots had in fact occupied the heights above Charlestown to preempt a planned British move against the real key to the town and the harbor — the peninsula of Dorchester Neck and its heights.

The Patriots moved first, to seize and fortify Bunker and Breed’s Hill and thus forestall the British move. Their plan succeeded beyond expectations. The British abandoned their plan to fortify Dorchester Neck and instead moved against Bunker/Breed’s Hill. After their Pyrrhic victory, the British contented themselves with fortifying what they had captured and left Dorchester Neck ungarrisoned throughout the fall and winter.

Dorchester Neck in 1776 was a rectangular peninsula, about two miles long and three—quarters of a mile wide, with the long axis running east—west. Like Charlestown, the Neck was nearly an island, connected
to the mainland by a narrow isthmus at its southwest corner. Unlike the isthmus at Charlestown, however, wide mud flats surround Dorchester’s neck. Low tide exposed the flats and the water was far too shallow for the British warships to approach even at the deepest high tide.

In the center of the peninsula was a large, double peaked hill, called the Heights, which shared Bunker Hill’s unusual topography. When the Boston area was scooped from the earth during the last Ice Age a type of feature left by the retreating glaciers was the distinctive hill called a “drumlin.” Shaped like upside-down cereal bowls, the hills have steep sides, making them difficult for attacking infantry. But they are capped with gently rounded peaks suitable for artillery emplacements and redoubts. Boston’s Beacon Hill is a drumlin, as are Bunker and Breed’s Hills in Charlestown. Others surround the town in Cambridge, Roxbury and Dorchester Neck.

Washington’s plan for the move on Dorchester Neck was essentially an improved copy of the original patriot plan for Bunker Hill. Like the Bunker Hill plan, the occupation of Dorchester Neck relied on the surprise erection of a redoubt in a single night. The ground on the neck was stiffly frozen, however, making it unlikely digging alone could do the job. At the suggestion of Col. Rufus Putnam, fascines and gabions were made. Fascines are bundles of sticks wrapped together to form parapets; gabions are wickerwork baskets that are filled with earth to build ramparts quickly. More than 300 wagons were to transport the prefabricated materials to the Neck. To cover the sound of the work, Knox would bombard the town, hoping to provoke counterbattery fire that would mask the sounds of the workers.

At Bunker Hill, Col. William Prescott’s men had fought their battle fatigued, hungry and short of powder, after having built their fort and then manning it without relief. Washington’s plan avoided these flaws. At Dorchester Heights the troops building the redoubt would be relieved by fresh units in the morning. The Bunker Hill line had no support; Washington’s plan had additional troops standing by to reinforce the Heights if needed.

Instead of the half-dozen indifferently manned light field pieces of Bunker Hill, the Heights would bristle with cannon. Unlike the earlier battle, the troops on the heights would also have ample powder.

Washington was not content to merely drive the British from Boston, or provoke them into repeating their folly at Bunker Hill. He aimed at striking a knockout blow that would liberate the town while destroying the British army.

Unless the British drove the Americans from the heights they would have to quit the harbor. Washington expected Howe would not abandon the town without making an attempt to dislodge the Americans. To turn that expected reaction to advantage, Washington also prepared a stunning surprise assault across the Back Bay to seize the town while the British main body fought on the heights.

Some 3,600 troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam stood ready to cross the Back Bay in 45 secretly built 80—man bateaux. Two more boats were outfitted as floating batteries to provide fire support. The force, comprising brigades under John Sullivan and Nathaniel Greene, was to row across the Back Bay while the British were tied up in their assaults and hit the beach on Boston Common. Sullivan’s men would wheel left and capture Beacon Hill and the town, while Greene turned right and took the British fort
guarding Boston Neck from the rear, letting the Roxbury-based troops into the town.

Washington set his plan in motion on the evening of 4 March 1776. If there were a battle, it would take place on 5 March, the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. It seemed an auspicious date.

Washington’s plan unfolded flawlessly. In the darkness 2,000 colonials under the command of Maj. Gen. John Thomas silently moved on to the Neck with their wagonloads of gabions and fascines. About 800 men acted as a covering force, while 1,200 more set to work on the twin forts. Early the next morning a 3,000-man relief force took over as garrison.

Knox’s bombardment provoked the hoped-for British response and the nightlong cannonade masked the sounds of work on the heights. One British sentry in fact reported hearing construction noise from the Neck, but his report went no further than Brig. Gen. Francis Smith, who had received a similar report on the night Prescott fortified Breeds Hill. Incredibly, Smith again ignored the report, failing to either act on it himself or pass it up to Howe.

The morning revealed a new rebel fort overlooking the harbor, to the astonishment of the British army. If anything, the surprise this time was more complete because this fort was such an obviously strong position. The forts, according to one British officer, had been raised with “an expedition equal to that of the genii belonging to Aladdin’s wonderful lamp.”

Howe estimated the work must have taken “12,000 or 14,000 men that night.” Howe also realized the fort made the harbor untenable and resolved to strike quickly to take it before it became too strong. At first the British tried to reduce the redoubt with artillery fire, but found they couldn’t elevate their cannon enough to reach the heights, while the heights gave the rebel gunners extra range in turn. An infantry assault would he needed.

That afternoon boats ferried a strike force of five regiments to Castle William, located about a mile off Dorchester Point. Hoping to avoid another Bunker Hill debacle, Howe planned a night bayonet assault. Later in the evening, apparently concerned the assault force was not strong enough, Howe sent over two more regiments along with the battalions of light infantry and grenadiers as reinforcements Howe also planned a simultaneous assault with 1,200 troops against the American lines at Roxbury.

Howe was playing right into Washington’s hands with this move, and there is no indication the British general had the slightest inkling of Putnam’s planned assault. Aside from the British garrison in Charles-town and the forces based at Boston neck, there were only about 600 men under Brig. Gen. Robert Pigot to protect the city.

Washington and his troops were confident they could hold their positions on the Heights. The redoubt was much stronger than Prescott’s little fort had been. Abattis encircled the position and it was proof against musketry. Cannon covered all the approaches; there was plenty of powder and reinforcements were nearby. The garrison of the redoubt was nearly as numerous as the British assault force and included five large companies of riflemen. Washington himself was on the heights, ready to direct its defenses.

Meanwhile, foreboding about the coming assault filled the British troops. Most expected a much bloodier repeat of Bunker Hill. A Boston resident who saw them embark for Castle Island wrote that “they looked in general pale and dejected, and said to one another that it would be another Bunkers (sic) Hill affair or worse.”

Howe apparently also had second thoughts about the assault, but he couldn’t find a face-saving way to call it off. Several British officers, certain the attack was doomed, lobbied to have it cancelled. In fact, it’s hard to see how the attack could have succeeded. Storming works requires fortitude and elan, scarce qualities that afternoon in the British ranks.

But Howe’s luck changed that evening as a violent “hurrycane” blew in. Locals called it the worst storm within memory, and it made any landing impossible that night.

Work to strengthen the redoubt continued all night despite the storm, and morning revealed any opportunity to take the works by assault had truly passed, if it ever existed at all. Also, sometime during the night, an informant finally got word to Howe of Washington’s planned surprise landing on Boston Common. That news proved too much for Howe, who finally decided to abandon Boston.

British troops and their Tory allies spent the next few days evacuating to the ships of the fleet and on 17 March, St. Patrick’s Day, 1776, Washington’s troops marched in to take possession.


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