Siege of Boston

Siege of Boston

The Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775 – March 17, 1776) was the opening phase of the American Revolutionary War, in which New England militiamen—that later became part of the Continental Army—surrounded the city of Boston, Massachusetts, to prevent movement by the British Army garrisoned within. The Americans, led by George Washington, eventually forced the British to withdraw from the city after an 11-month siege. It was the longest single conflict of the War.

On April 19, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the militia surrounded the city on 3 sides, the only one remaining open being the Atlantic Ocean. The Continental Congress chose to adopt the militia and form the Continental Army, and unanimously elected George Washington as its Commander in Chief. In June 1775, the British seized Bunker and Breeds Hills, but the casualties they suffered were too heavy to break the siege. For the rest of the siege, there was little action other than occasional raids and sniper fire.

In November 1775, Washington sent a 25 year-old bookseller turned soldier named Henry Knox, to bring artillery that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, in a technically complex and demanding operation that ended successfully in January 1776. In March 1776, the artillery was put on Dorchester Heights. The British commander William Howe, realizing he could no longer hold the city chose to evacuate it, departing on March 17 for Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Prior to 1775, the British had imposed taxes onto the Americans, which they did not take kindly to. In response to the Boston Tea Party, 4,000 British troops under the leadership of General Thomas Gage were sent to occupy the city of Boston and to pacify the restive colony. Gage, among other actions, disbanded the local provincial government (led by John Hancock and Samuel Adams), which reformed itself into a Provincial Congress, and continued to store weapons and other military supplies.

When British forces were sent to take military supplies from the town of Concord on April 19, 1775, the Massachusetts Militia opposed them at Lexington and then at Concord. [McCullough, p. 7] At Concord, the British were stopped, forced back, and then were attacked on their retreat to Boston, suffering heavy casualties. All of the New England colonies (and later colonies further south) raised militias in response to this alarm, and sent them to Boston.


Digging in

In the immediate aftermath of the battles of the 19th, the Massachusetts militia, under the loose leadership of William Heath, who was superseded by General Artemas Ward late on the 20th,McCullough, p. 35] formed a siege line extending from Chelsea, around the peninsulas of Boston and Charlestown, to Roxbury, effectively surround Boston on three sides. They particularly occupied the high ground at Dorchester Heights, and blocked Charlestown Neck (the only land access to Charlestown), and the Boston Neck (the only land access to Boston), leaving only the harbor and sea access under British control. In the days immediately following, the size of the colonial forces grew, as militias from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut arrived on the scene. General Gage wrote of his surprise of the number of rebels surrounding the city: "The rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be....In all their wars against the French they never showed such conduct, attention, and perseverance as they do now."Harvey, p. 1]

In the surrounded city of Boston, General Gage turned his attention to fortifying easily defensible positions. In the south, at Roxbury, Gage ordered lines of defenses with 10 twenty-four pound guns. On the peninsula of Boston itself, four hills were quickly fortified. They were to be the main defense of the city. [French, p. 236] Over time, each of these hills were strengthened. [French, p. 237] Gage also decided to abandon Charlestown, removing the beleaguered forces (that had retreated from Concord) to Boston. The town of Charlestown itself was entirely vacant, and the high lands of Charlestown (Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill) were left undefended.

Besieged and besiegers reached an informal agreement allowing traffic on the Boston Neck, provided no firearms were carried. Residents of Boston turned in almost 2,000 muskets, and most of the Patriot residents left the city.Chidsey, p. 53]


The British were surrounded on land north, west, and south of Boston, but the harbor side of the city remained open for the Royal Navy under Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to sail in supplies from Nova Scotia, Providence, and other places. Colonial forces could do little to stop these shipments due to the naval supremacy of the British fleet and the complete absence of a Continental Navy in the spring of 1775. Nevertheless, the town and the British forces were on short rations, and prices rose quickly. In addition, the American forces generally had information about what was happening in the city, but General Gage had no effective intelligence of rebel activities.McCullough, p. 118]

During this period of time, many Loyalists who lived outside of Boston left their home and fled into the city. Most of them felt that it was not safe to live outside of the city, because the Patriots were now in control.French, p. 228] The ones who did not leave, stayed, generally because they did not wish to leave their homes and go to Boston. Some of the men, after arriving in Boston, joined the British army.French, p. 234]

On May 10, a company of militia under the joint leadership of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, the latter of whom was there under instructions from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, captured Fort Ticonderoga near the southern end of Lake Champlain in the Province of New York. The provincial Congress had authorized this expedition in order to acquire British armaments at the lightly-defended fort. (The Vermont militias under Ethan Allen had had the same idea independently.) They recovered over 180 cannon, as well as other weaponry and supplies that the nascent Continental Army would find useful in ending the siege of Boston.Chidsey, p. 60]

Gage had no supply of fresh meat, and many horses needed hay. On May 21, he ordered a party to go to Grape Island, in the harbor, and bring hay to Boston.French, p. 248] When the Americans heard of this, they took alarm, and the militia came out. As the British party arrived, they were under fire from the American militia. The militia set fire to the barn, destroying 80 tons of hay, and prevented the British from taking more than 3 tons.

Throughought May, British reinforcements continued to arrive, until they reached a strength of about 6,000 men. On May 25, three Generals arrived on "HMS Cerberus": William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Gage began plans to break out of the city.French, p. 249]

On May 27, American forces strengthened the siege during the Battle of Chelsea Creek by removing British supplies of livestock from the islands of Boston Harbor. American fire prevented British Marines from landing to recover the animals, and the British schooner "Diana" ran aground and was destroyed.In an attempt to help quell the rebellion, on June 12, Gage offered to pardon all of those who would lay down their arms except John Hancock and Samuel Adams.French, p. 251] Instead of quelling the rebellion, it ignited anger amongst the Americans, and more people began to take up arms.

Breeds Hill

On June 15, the Committee of Safety learned of Gage's plans to attack at Breed and Bunker hills at the Base of the Charlestown Peninsula. They sent word to General Ward to fortify Breeds Hill and the heights; he assigned Colonel William Prescott the Breeds Hill task. [French, p. 256]

On June 17, as the result of the Battle of Breeds Hill, British forces under General Howe seized the Charlestown peninsula. [French, p. 288] The British did take their objective, after two failed charges, but did not break out of Boston because the Americans held the ground at the base of the peninsula. With some 1,000 men killed or wounded, including 92 officers killed, the British losses were so heavy that there were no more direct attacks on American forces.French, p. 284] From this point, the siege essentially became a stalemate.


On July 3, George Washington arrived to take charge of the new Continental Army. He set up his headquarters at a house in Cambridge. By this time forces and supplies were arriving, including companies of riflemen from as far away as Maryland and Virginia.Chidley, p. 117] Washington began the work of molding the militias into something more closely resembling an army, appointing senior officers (where the militias had typically elected their leaders), and introducing more organization and disciplinary measures to the encamped militias.Chidley, p. 113] He required officers of different ranks to wear differentiating apparel, so that they might be distinguished from their underlings and superiors.Chidley, p. 112]

Washington also ordered the defenses to be improved. Trenches were dug on the Boston Neck, and then extended toward Boston. However, these activities had little effect on the British occupation. [McCullough, p. 10] The working parties, the soldiers who worked on the fortifications on the front lines, were fired on from time to time, as well as the sentries. On July 30, in retaliation for an American attack, the British pushed back an American advanced guard, and burned a few houses in Roxbury.French, p. 337] Four days later, on August 2, an American rifleman was killed, and his body hung up by the neck. In retaliation, other American riflemen marched to the lines and began to attack the British troops. They continued their sharp shooting all day, killing or wounding many of the British, and losing only one man. On August 30, the British made a surprise breakout from the Boston Neck, set fire to a tavern, and withdrew to their defenses.McCullough, p. 39] On the same night, 300 Americans attacked Lighthouse Island, killing several British soldiers and capturing 23 at the loss of one life. On another August night, Washington sent 1,200 men to dig entrenchments on a hill near the Charlestown Neck. Despite a British bombardment, the Americans successfully dug the trenches.French, p. 311]

In early September, Washington began drawing up plans for two moves; one, to dispatch 1,000 men from Boston and invade Canada, and two, to launch an attack on Boston.McCullough, p. 50] Washington felt that he could afford to send these troops to Canada, as he had received intelligence from British deserters and American spies that the British had no intention of launching an attack until they were reinforced.McCullough, p. 51] Washington summoned a council of war, and made a case for an all out amphibious assault on Boston, by sending troops across Back Bay in flat-bottomed boats which could hold 50 men each.McCullough, p. 53] Washington believed it would be extremely difficult to keep the men together when winter came. After discussion, the plan was unanimously rejected, and the decision was not to attack "for the present at least."

In the fall, Washington ordered a party of soldiers to burn a lighthouse in the harbor. The first party was unable to do so, but a second one was able to finish the job.French, p. 319] More expeditions were sent out in an attempt to disrupt the British supply of the city. In early November, the British attacked Lechmere's Point, engaged the Americans, losing some men, and then retreated, having taken a couple of cows.French, p. 338] Sparks, p. 157]

On November 29, Captain John Manley, commanding the schooner "Lee", captured one of the most valuable prizes of the war—the British brigantine "Nancy", just outside Boston Harbor, She was carrying much ordnance and military stores for British troops in Boston.Chidley, p. 133] The arms, powder and ammunition proved invaluable to the Continental Army during the fortification of Dorchester Heights the following March.

As winter approached, both sides faced their own problems. The Americans were so short on gunpowder that soldiers were given a spear to fight with in the event of a British attack.McCullough, p. 60] Many of the American troops remained unpaid and many of their enlistments would be up at the end of the year. On the British side Howe, who had replaced Gage as commander in October, was faced with different problems. Wood was so scarce that they began cutting down trees and tearing down old houses. To add to this, supplying the city had become increasingly difficult because of winter storms and American privateers patrolling the waters outside of Boston. The British troops were so hungry that many were ready to desert as soon as they could. Worst, scurvy and smallpox had broken out in the city.McCullough, p. 61]

Washington again proposed a plan to assault Boston in October, but his officers thought it best to wait until the harbor had frozen over.French, p. 330] In February, when the water had frozen between Roxbury and Boston Common, Washington thought that in spite of his shortage in powder he would try an assault by rushing across the ice; but his officers again advised against it. Washington's desire to launch an attack on Boston arose from his fear that his army would desert in the winter, and how easily he knew that Howe could break the lines of his army in such condition. He had not yet learned how completely he could trust to Howe's inactivity; and he abandoned the dash across the ice with great reluctance in exchange for a more cautious plan, to fortify Dorchester Heights, well suited to the British general's temperament, and which was crowned with success.Fisher, p. 1]

In mid-January, on orders from London, British Major General Henry Clinton and a small fleet were sent to the Carolinas with 1,500 men.McCullough, p. 78] In early February a British raiding party crossed the ice and burned several farmhouses in Dorchester.McCullough, p. 86]

End of the Siege

Fortification of Dorchester Heights

In the winter of 1775–76, Henry Knox and his engineers used sledges to retrieve 60 tons of heavy artillery that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga. Bringing them across the frozen Hudson and Connecticut Rivers in technically challenging and complex operation, they arrived back at Cambridge on January 24, 1776.McCullough, p. 84]

With some of the guns captured from Ticonderoga, the Americans began to bombard the city on the night of March 2.McCullough, p. 91] The British responded with a cannonade. The American guns, led by Knox, continued to exchange fire with the British until March 4. The exchange of fire did little damage to either side, although it did damage houses and kill some British soldiers in Boston.McCullough, p. 92] On March 5, Washington moved artillery and several thousand men overnight to occupy Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. Since it was the middle of winter and the continental army was unable to dig into the frozen ground on Dorchester Heights, rather than entrenching themselves, Washington's men used logs, branches and anything else available to fortify the position overnight. General Howe is said to have exclaimed, "My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months."McCullough, p. 93] The British fleet ceased to be an asset, because it was anchored in a shallow harbor with limited maneuverability, and the American guns on Dorchester Heights were aimed at the fleet.

The immediate response of the British was a two hour cannon barrage at the heights, which had no effect because the British guns could not reach the American guns at such height.McCullough, p. 94] After the failed attempt, Howe and his officers agreed that the colonists must be removed from the heights if they were to hold Boston. They planned an assault on the heights; however, due to a storm the attack never took place.McCullough, p. 95]

On March 8, an letter was sent by some prominent Bostonians to Washington, that if the British were allowed to depart unmolested, they had no intention of destroying the town. Washington was given the letter, but effectively rejected it, as it was not addressed to him by either name or title.Frothingham, pp. 303-304] However, the letter had the intended effect: when the evacuation began, there was no American fire to hinder the British departure. On March 9, after seeing movement on Nook's Hill on Dorchester, the British opened a massive fire barrage that lasted all night. It killed four men with one cannonball, but that was all the damage that was done.McCullough, p. 99] The next day, the colonists went out and collected the 700 cannonballs that had been fired at them.


On March 10, Howe issued a proclamation ordering the inhabitants to give up all linen and woolen goods that could be used by the colonists to continue the war. A Loyalist, Crean Brush, was authorized to receive these goods, in return for which he gave certificates that were effectively worthless.McCullough, p. 104]

Over the next week, the British fleet sat in Boston harbor waiting for favorable winds, while loyalists and the remaining British soldiers were loaded onto the ships. On March 15, the wind became favorable, but before they could leave, it turned against them. On March 17 the wind, once again, turned favorable. The troops were authorized to burn the town if there were any disturbances while they were marching to their ships. The troops began to move out at 4:00 a.m., and, by 9:00 a.m., all ships were underway.

From Boston departed 120 ships, with more than 11,000 people. Of those 11,000 people, 9,906 were British troops, 667 were women, and 553 were children.McCullough, p. 105] As they departed, Howe ordered a 21-gun salute, along with the 50 guns of Howe's flagship, "HMS Chatham".


Americans clean up

Seeing the British fleet sailing away, the Americans cheered. At first, they thought that the British were still on Bunker Hill, but it turned out that they had left dummies in place. Washington let Artemas Ward lead the triumphant entry into Boston because he was from New England. While Washington had essentially acceded to the British threat to burn Boston, and had not hindered their departure from the city, he did not make their escape from the outer harbor entirely easy. He directed Captain Manley to harass the departing British fleet, in which he had some success, capturing among other prizes the ship carrying Crean Brush and his plunder.French, p. 429]

General Howe, when his fleet finally left the outer harbor, left in his wake a small contingent of vessels whose primary purpose was to intercept any arriving British vessels. While they successfully redirected to Halifax numerous ships carrying British troops originally destined for Boston, some unsuspecting British troop ships landed in Boston, only to fall into American hands.French, p. 436]

The British departure ended major military activities in the New England colonies.Washington, fearing that the British were going to attack New York City, departed on April 4 with his army for Manhattan, which would begin the New York and New Jersey campaign.McCullough, p. 112]

Fate of the British Generals

General Howe would be severely criticized in the British press and Parliament for his failures in the Boston campaign. General Gage was never given another command. General Burgoyne would see action in the Saratoga Campaign, a disaster that saw his capture, as well as that of 7,500 troops under his command. General Clinton would command the British forces in America for four years (1778-1782), only to be recalled.French, pp. 437-438]

Fate of the Loyalists

Many Massachusetts Loyalists left with the British when they evacuated Boston. Some returned to England to rebuild lives there, and some returned to America after the war. Many stayed in Nova Scotia, settling in places like Saint John, and many became active in the future development of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.French, pp. 438-439]

Fate of the City of Boston

Boston effectively ceased to be a military target. It continued to be a focal point for revolutionary activities, with its port acting as an important point for fitting ships of war and privateers. Its leading citizens would have important roles in the development of the future United States.French, pp. 441-443]

ee also

*Battles of Lexington and Concord
*Battle of Bunker Hill
*Evacuation Day



*cite book |last=Chidsey|first=Donald Barr|title=The Siege of Boston|city=New York|publisher=Crown Publishers|year=1966 |url= | ref=Chidsey
* (URL is a fairly specific [ Google Books] search -- there are several volumes)

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