Watertown, Massachusetts, 238 Years Ago

Yesterday (April 19, 2013), Watertown, Massachusetts was the searing focus of at least the U.S. news with the killing of the first suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing and the search for, and ultimate capture of, his brother, the second such suspect.

On April 20, 1775 (238 years ago today), Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and his fellow Minute Men from Leicester, Massachusetts marched into Watertown and stayed the night before going on the next day to Cambridge to take part in what became the American Revolutionary War. Here is the original settlers’ map of Watertown:

Watertown, Massachusetts
Watertown, Massachusetts

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of White Plains (New York), October 1776

Immediately after General George Washington’s victory at Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, he and the Continental Army remained at the northern end of York Island (Manhattan).[1]

Twenty-six days later (October 12th) General William Howe made his next move. He had 90 British flat-boats with 4,000 troops row up the East River to Throggs Neck, a narrow peninsula that demarcates the passage between that River and Long Island Sound. There the troops disembarked with the objective of establishing a line across the island to the Hudson River and thereby encircling the Continental Army and preventing their escaping from York Island. The British inland advance, however, was blocked by swamps and some Continental troops.

Howe responded by having his troops return to the boats and go three miles north to Pell’s Point (or Pelham). There on October 18th, the British troops again disembarked with the same objective.  Inland were 750 Continental Army men under the command of Col. John Glover, who positioned his troops behind a series of stone walls and attacked the British advance units. As the British overran each position, the American troops fell back and reorganized behind the next wall. After several such attacks, the British broke off, and the Americans retreated.

This battle or skirmish delayed British movements long enough for Washington to move the main Continental army 18 miles north to White Plains, thereby avoiding being surrounded on Manhattan.

In White Plains by October 22nd Washington established a defensive line near the village anchored by Purdy Hill on one end and Hatfield Hill at the other end. Across the line and the Bronx River was Chatterton’s Hill, which was left undefended.

White Plains Battle map
Battle of White Plains
British soldiers, White Plains (reinactment)
Continental Army soldiers, White Plains (reinactment)

When General Howe and the British troops arrived in White Plains on October 28th, Howe immediately recognized the importance of Chatterton’s Hill and made it the focus of their attack.

Washington’s attempt to mount a defense of that Hill failed, and the British won the battle with 300 Americans killed, wounded and captured. One of those killed on the battlefield was my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown.[2]

The two sides remained in their positions for the next two days. On October 31st General Howe planned to attack the Americans, but heavy rain prevented this move. That night, under the protection of t he rain, Washington withdrew his troops to the north. The next day, November 1st, Howe again found that Washington had eluded his grasp.

Washington continued his retreat to the north and then west over the Hudson River into New Jersey for their further retreat to Pennsylvania in late December. The British returned to Manhattan.


[1] In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from Arthur Merrill, The Battle of White Plains (Analysis Press; Chappaqua, NY, 1975); David McCullough, 1776 at 229-34(New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).  From 1969 through early 1970, I was a lawyer for a Wall Street law firm working for IBM on the IBM antitrust cases and spent a lot of time at a special office for the cases in White Plains. Unfortunately I did not scout out the sites of this battle.

[2]  Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Harlem Heights (New York), September 1776

On the morning of August 30, 1776, it was apparent that the British had totally routed the colonists in the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island). But the British commander, General Howe, did not press their advantage and immediately attack the American forces on the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General Washington at his New York City headquarters obviously knew that the British would be attacking the City and the Island, but did not know where or when.

The Battle of Brooklyn was mentioned in a September 3rd letter from my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, to his wife from New York City. He also said that British ships were now “within ear shot” of the City and that he and the others “expect the [British] Regulars will try to take the City.” Another such letter from him on September 9th said “the Enemy have got a Brestwork [sic] about seven miles above the City [in Brooklyn Heights] on long island and they fire actrost [sic] to a foart [sic] of ours [sic] and our men at them.” He added, “they have wounded two men and kild [sic] one.”[1]

On September 12th (the day after the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference), Washington decided to abandon New York City and ordered the main part of the Continental Army to move north on the island as soon as possible to King’s Bridge connecting the island with what is now the Bronx.[2]

Harlem Heights map

By September 14th most of this American force had reached the Harlem Heights[3] on the west side of the island and King’s Bridge at the northern end of the island. The balance of the forces remained at the southern end of the island.

British ships at Kips Bay

On the morning of the 15th five British frigates sailed up the East River and near Kips Bay (on the east side of Manhattan and just south of the present-day U.N. Headquarters) started a cannon bombardment of the island. Thereafter 13,000 British troops left the ships and invaded the island from the east in flat-boats. Some of the British soldiers immediately marched south to occupy New York City.

Simultaneously the last of the American troops marched north from New York City on the west side of the island to reach their colleagues at Harlem Heights. Perley Brown was in this contingent, and in an October 4th letter to his wife said, “on the 15 of September we left new York and Before we could get out the [British] Regulars Landed on the island and intended to stop our retreat.” Perley continued, “they fired their cannon from there [sic] ships [on the Hudson River] which came very [near] to us.”

Harlem Heights Battle
Harlem Heights Battle

On September 16th 5,000 British troops reached the 1,800 American soldiers on Harlem Heights. The British attacked, and their bunglers sounded a fox-hunting call know as “gone away,” meaning that the fox is in full flight from the hounds. The Continentals, who had been in orderly retreat, were infuriated by this insult. They halted and counter-attacked. The British retreated and withdrew.

 

This battle was mentioned in Perley Brown’s October 4th letter to his wife from “Harlom [sic] Camp.” He reported, “on the 16 they came up to our lines at the upper end of the island at harlom [sic] where our Camp is now.” He added, “we had a sharp ingagement [sic] which lasted about two [h]ours” and had “about 20 kild [sic] and about 70 wounded.”

The British suffered 14 to 90 killed and 78 to 300 wounded. The Americans had 30 killed and 100 wounded.

Troop movements for Battle of Harlem HeightsThe map of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the troop movements leading up to this Battle.

The map to the right of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the movement of troops leading up to the Battle of Harlem Heights.

This victory, minor though it was, was the first victory of the War for General Washington and bolstered American morale.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-25 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

[2]   In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 208-219 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[3]  This area is now known as Morningside Heights, 110th to 125th Streets from Riverside Drive on the west to Morningside Drive on the east. It is the home today of such institutions as Columbia University, Barnard College, Grant’s Tomb, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Union Theological Seminary and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Today’s Morningside Heights

The American Revolutionary War: Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), New York, August 1776

During the summer of 1776, a British military force of 32,000 troops and 10,000 sailors on more than 400 ships assembled in Staten Island and the New York Harbor. They were obviously preparing for an attack on New York City at the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General George Washington at his headquarters in the City obviously knew of the assembling adversary forces and of the approaching battle. But he did not know when or where the attack would come. Therefore, Washington split the Continental Army of 19,000 troops into fortified positions in the City and in Long Island across the East River from the City.

In further preparations for the forthcoming battles, the colonial forces that Spring and Summer constructed Fort Stirling on present-day Brooklyn Heights (Long Island) overlooking New York City and four other nearby forts.

British boats, Staten Island to Long Island

On August 22nd, the British made their offensive, tactical decision. They sent 15,000 troops on boats over three miles of water from Staten Island to Long Island. They landed unopposed on the shore of Gravesend Bay. (The red area in the photo to the right is the Narrows which the boats transversed.)

Brooklyn map, 1776

The troops then marched six miles inland to establish camp at the village of Flatbush. (Two days later these forces were augmented by the arrival of 5,000 Hessian troops from Staten Island.)[1]

Washington was aware of the initial British movement into Long Island, but was told it only involved 8,000 to 9,000 troops. Therefore, he thought this was a diversionary move and that the main attack would be on York Island (Manhattan). As a result, Washington only sent an additional 1,500 troops to Long Island to bring the total colonial force to 6,000 at that location.

Battle of Brooklyn Map

Five days later, August 27th, the British launched their attack. Its apparent major focus was the center of the American fortifications on the Guanus hills southeast of Brooklyn Heights. Despite the heavy colonial fortifications, the British met with little resistance at this site. In fact, however, the main British contingent advanced on the unguarded Jamaica Pass, which was the eastern-most passage through the Guana Heights.

Washington and his exhausted men fell back that day to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, waiting as night fell for a final British assault. Most of the American soldiers were in a trap, facing 20,000 British regulars at their front, and a mile-wide river at their backs. All the British navy had to do was to move a few warships up the East River to prevent Washington’s escape, and the war would be over, the revolution defeated.

But British General Howe did not press the British victory with an immediate pursuit of the retreating colonial forces. Instead, he halted the attack and started preparations for a siege of the American fortifications in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.

On August 29th, the temperature dropped sharply and the rain came in torrents on the unsheltered American army. This storm prevented five British warships from advancing up the East River to encircle the Americans in Brooklyn Heights. That same day Washington ordered his troops to withdraw in the dead of night across the river to Manhattan. The storm threatened this evacuation, but at about 11:00 p.m. the wind shifted and facilitated the evacuation. John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen with every kind of small craft started over the river from New York City to rescue Washington’s army.

Early the next morning of the 30th, many of Washington’s men were still on Long Island. But a fog appeared on the Long Island side of the East River that concealed the final movement of the American troops to Manhattan. The entire maneuver was completed by 7:00 a.m. that morning, having taken 13 hours to ferry 9,000 men, their horses and their equipment across the East River.

Later that morning the British were surprised to discover the colonial forces had escaped. After that discovery, the British occupied the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.

When the last shot was fired, 1,200 Americans were dead and another 1,500 wounded, captured or missing. The British suffered a mere 60 dead and 300 wounded or missing. This was the first major battle of the War and what turned out to be the largest battle of the entire War, and it was a disastrous one for the Americans.

My maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, from Leicester (Worcester County), Massachusetts was stationed in New York City at this time and thus did not fight in this battle.[2]


[1]  In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 122-197 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). From July 1966 through March 1970, my family and I lived in Brooklyn Heights where some of the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island) occurred. As a result, I frequently walked around this area, but unfortunately I did not scout out these historical sites.

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-23(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

The American Revolutionary War’s Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 1776–January 1777

On March 17, 1776, the 11-month colonists’ Siege of Boston ended when the British troops and their dependants evacuated the town of Boston. A fleet of 120 British ships set sail for a British military base in Halifax, Nova Scotia with nearly 10,000 British troops and over 1,000 dependants. This was discussed in a prior post.

New York City, 1776
New York City area, 1776

Both sides’ attention next turned to New York City, which then was a town of 25,000 at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan (then known as York Island). This post will review what is known as the Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 18, 1776, through January 1777.[1]

For the British, the City was an obvious strategic target. It had a large harbor from which the vastly superior British navy could easily command the area and be a base to conquer the middle colonies to the south and west. The terminus of the Hudson (or North) River into that harbor would provide the British with a route north to connect with British forces in what is now Canada and thereby potentially separate New England from the other colonies. Moreover, many British Loyalists lived in the City and thus made it a friendlier host for British troops than Boston had been.

General George Washington

The strategic importance of the City also was obvious to General George Washington. Not knowing that the British troops were going from Boston to Nova Scotia, he was worried that they would instead be sent directly to New York. Therefore, Washington immediately after the British evacuation of Boston sent some colonial regiments from Boston to New York to join the colonial forces already there under the command of General Charles Lee. Thereafter other colonial troops were sent from Boston, including my 5th maternal great-grandfather, Perley Brown, and his brothers William and Benjamin. Perley and his comrades arrived in New York City in late July on a ship from New Haven, Connecticut.[2]

These transfers of troops from Boston were not easy. The men first had to march 100 to 120 miles over five to seven days to the Connecticut ports of New Haven or New London, where they boarded sailing ships to take them via Long Island Sound to New York City.

Archibald Kennedy Mansion

General Washington himself arrived in the City on April 13th and established his headquarters in the Archibald Kennedy Mansion at No. 1 Broadway.[3]

Washington soon discovered that much work still needed to be done to finish the construction of fortifications in Brooklyn on Long Island and on York Island. He was kept busy supervising their continued construction, inspecting the troops and deciding on command assignments and troop deployments.

Another problem faced Washington in the City. The soldiers were growing sickly. Smallpox appeared causing the deaths of several of the men. In the summer heat, “camp fever” became epidemic, and poor sanitation caused dysentery. At least 3,000 to 6,000 men were ill at one time or another, and many died. One of the victims of these illnesses was William Brown (Perley’s brother), who died in a City hospital on August 27th after being sick for eight days. Also sick at this time was brother Benjamin, but his health improved so he could return to active duty.[4]

New York Harbor & Sandy Hook

The long anticipated arrival in New York of the British troops began on June 29th when 120 British ships arrived at Sandy Hook, a barrier spit jutting northward into Lower New York Bay from the New Jersey shore. Three days later (July 2nd) 9,000 British troops from their Nova Scotia base left these ships to establish their new base on the unguarded Staten Island southwest across the harbor from York Island and directly west of the present-day southern part of Brooklyn.

British fleet @ Staten Island, July 1776

And the British ships kept coming with another 15,000 British and Hessian soldiers soon thereafter. On August 13th 96 more ships entered the harbor plus 20 more the next day. That summer more than 400 British ships with 1,200 cannon and 10,000 sailors under the command of Admiral Lord Richard Howe were anchored in the harbor, and more than 32,000 British and Hessian troops under the command of his brother, General Sir William Howe, were on the nearby land. This turned out to be the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century.

Admiral Lord Richard Howe
General Sir  William Howe

The British, however, did not launch an immediate attack.

Instead General Howe, on July 14th sent a messenger from Staten Island to York Island with a letter addressed to “George Washington, Esq.” conveying an offer to meet and discuss ending the rebellion. Washington’s assistant rejected the letter because it was not addressed to “General George Washington” and because there was no one there by the letter’s simple title. Three days later (July 17th) a second letter was sent; this one was addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” which also was rejected for the same reason. The next day (July 18th) the British returned to York Island to ask if General Washington would meet with Adjutant General Patterson, and Washington said “yes.”

On July 20th such a peace conference was held at the Kennedy Mansion on York Island. In the midst of polite formalities Washington said he understood that General Howe only had authority to grant pardons, but that those who had committed no wrongs wanted no pardons. This ended these British peace efforts.

In the meantime, General Washington had 19,000 colonial troops in the area, but did not know where the British planned to attack. Therefore, Washington split the Continental Army into fortified positions in Brooklyn on Long Island and in Manhattan with some held in a reserve so-called “Flying Camp” in northern New Jersey to be deployed when they knew where the British were going to attack.

The fighting phase of the campaign for New York and New Jersey began on August 22nd when the British troops invaded Long Island. Thus began what turned out to be the largest battle of the War (the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn) that lasted until August 30th with a British victory.

Staten Island Peace Conference

Soon thereafter– on September 11th (an ironic date in light of its 225th anniversary falling on the day of  the 9/11 attacks of 2001)–another attempt was made to end the rebellion peacefully at the Staten Island Peace Conference.

The Conference participants were Admiral Lord Howe and Continental Congressmen John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge. The Americans insisted on British recognition of their recently declared independence. Admiral Lord Howe said he could not do that. Howe was also pressed to repeal the Prohibitory Act that authorized a blockade of the colonies, but he said he could not do that either. Instead, Howe offered to suspend execution of the blockade if the Americans agreed to end hostilities and make fixed financial contributions to Britain. This offer was rejected by the Americans. There was no peace agreement. The War continued.

With the exception of an American victory at Harlem Heights on York Island,  the British won all the military encounters of this campaign through Christmas Eve Day (December 24, 1776) and forced General Washington and the Continental Army to retreat from New York into New Jersey and then from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Future posts will review the Battles of Long Island (Brooklyn), Harlem Heights and White Plains.

The British victory in this campaign looked secure at that time. But on Christmas Day (December 25th) Washington and 2,400 of his troops made their now famous “crossing the Delaware River” maneuver. They crossed the partially frozen river from Pennsylvania to return to New Jersey to make their successful surprise attack on British and Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. This was followed on January 3rd with another successful colonial attack at Princeton, New Jersey and Washington’s establishing his winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

Fighting essentially ceased in January 1777 due to winter conditions.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the British won the Campaign for New York and New Jersey and that the British occupied New York City for the duration of the War.


[1]  In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 110-154 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005). See also, e.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). From July 1966 through March 1970, I worked for a New York City law firm with offices in the Wall Street district at the southern end of Manhattan.As a result, I frequently walked around the area where General Washington and the Continental Army troops lived and worked 190 years earlier, but unfortunately I did not scout out where things happened in the Revolutionary War.

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 18-19 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994) (letter, Perley Brown to his wife Elizabeth Brown (Aug. 1, 1776)).

[3]  By July 1776, Washington moved his abode and headquarters to City Hall because it was deemed to be more secure. By the way, No. 1 Broadway now is the location of an office building known as “1 Broadway.” Facing Battery Park, it was built in 1884 and extensively remodeled in 1921.

[4]  Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 7, 20-21, 24-25, 31-32, 210-11 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994) (letters, Perley Brown to his wife Elizabeth Brown (Aug. 1, 1776; Sept. 9, 1776; Oct. 4, 1776).

 

The American Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Immediately thereafter, the colonists commenced a siege of the town of Boston, where the British troops were quartered. For nearly the first two months of the siege, there were only minor skirmishes between the two forces as the British soldiers were confined within Boston.

The British, however, wanted to break out of their confinement and to protect Boston against colonial attacks from the hills overlooking the town.[1]

On May 25th, the immediate events leading to the Battle of Bunker Hill commenced. On that date British generals began developing a plan to break out and protect Boston from attack from the adjacent hills. On June 12th they finalized a plan to take the Boston and Dorchester Necks (narrow strips of land separately connecting the town of Boston and Dorchester Heights to the mainland), fortify the Dorchester Heights to the southeast of the town and then attack the colonial forces stationed in Roxbury to the south of the town.

Boston map 1775
Map of Charleston & Breed’s & Bunker HIlls, 1775

Once the British southern flank had been secured, the British plan called for having troops cross the Harbor north of the town to take the two hills behind the town of Charlestown (Breed’s Hill, 62 feet above sea level, and Bunker Hill,110 feet above sea level). These hills overlooked both Boston and its harbor and thus were critical vantage points. Assuming these objectives were secured, the plan was then to attack the colonial forces in Cambridge. The British attack was set for June 18th.

On June 13th (the day after these plans were finalized), however, the colonial forces received intelligence about the plans. As a result, the colonials decided that additional defenses needed to be erected on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. After a prayer service led by Harvard College President Langdon, 1,200 colonial troops In the dark of the night on June 16th stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and the adjacent lower Breed’s Hill. They constructed an earthen redoubt or wall on Breed’s Hill (not Bunker Hill), probably because Breed’s Hill was closer to where the British ships were positioned allowing the colonists a better attacking position than at Bunker Hill. That night the colonists  also built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

At sunrise the next day (June 17) the British were surprised to discover the new colonial positions on the two hills, and some of the British ships in the Harbor started shelling those positions with little effect. Although Bunker Hill was the original objective of both British and colonial troops and is the name of the battle, most of the actual fighting later that day took place on the shorter hill closer to the Harbor (Breed’s Hill).

British 1st assault,  Breed’s Hill
British 1st assault,         Breed’s Hill (H. Pyle)

The initial British attack did not take place until after 3:00 that afternoon due to a shortage of boats to bring the British troops from Boston, poor navigational maps and tides. They landed east of the town of Charleston. When colonial snipers began firing, the British had the town set afire by cannon shots from their ships. The British continued their assault. The British just expected to march up the hill and scare the colonists away. The British troops advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass.

As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. This resistance and resulting casualties forced the British to retreat.

British 2nd assault, Breed’s Hill
British 3rd assault, Breed’s Hill

The British immediately regrouped and started a second assault. Again they suffered heavy casualties and retreated.

The third assault, however, was successful with the British taking control of both hills. The colonial troops were running out of ammunition and were forced to retreat to Cambridge, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill.This assault and the Battle were over by approximately 6:00 p.m.

While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses: 828 wounded and 226 killed (nearly a third of the deployed forces of 3,000), including a notably large number of officers. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order, having suffered few casualties (115 wounded and 305 killed). Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops.

Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, Benjamin and William Brown–were members of the colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill.[2]

Their regiment left their camp in Cambridge around noon that day and for unknown reasons halted about an hour at Lechmere Point (near the eastern edge of present-day Cambridge). When they arrived later at the northern base of Bunker Hill, they were met by a man who said that additional troops had been ordered to halt. But the regiment’s commander said those were “Tory orders” and instead ordered the men to follow him into combat. They actually arrived at the hostilities just before the colonial retreat was ordered at the end of the battle.

During the colonial retreat, John Brown was shot in the left thigh near the bone and in his right heel, rendering him unable to walk. The regiment’s captain took Brown under one arm and their two muskets under the other and moved Brown out of immediate danger. The captain then found Brown’s brother, Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), who carried John the rest of the way to safety.

John was unable to go to a hospital or home and remained at a nearby residence to recuperate. That October he finally was able to return home to Leicester, Massachusetts. In April 1777 the Massachusetts legislature granted him a pension of 20 shillings per month for his disability, and in 1786 the new nation awarded him a pension. He died in 1821 at the age of 87.

As I was researching for this post, I had three unanswered questions. First, why did the British not execute their plan to take control of the Dorchester Heights? Second, given the obvious strategic importance of Breed’s and Bunker Hills, why had the colonists not constructed fortifications before June 16th and why had they not stationed troops there? Third, given that same strategic importance, why did the British not maintain their victorious positions on the two hills? I would greatly appreciate comments with answers to these questions and any corrections to the above account of the Battle of Bunker Hill.


[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 150 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Four (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) (collection of original documents).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994); Emory Washburn, Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicesterin the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1826); Emory Washburn, Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement (1860.

The American Revolutionary War’s Siege of Boston, April 19, 1775-March 17, 1776

After the April 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the 1,700 British soldiers returned to their quarters in Boston, then a town of approximately 15,500 people in addition to the British troops. The colonial Minute Men, numbering at least 14,000 to 16,000, were gathered four miles to the west in Cambridge.

The stage was thus set for the colonists’ Siege of Boston.

Boston map, 1775
Boston map, 1775 & Today

Geography is the key to understanding this American use of the military tactic of siege, i.e., militarily surrounding a town or other place with the intent of preventing free movement to or from the place or conquering by attrition rather than by attack.

The town of Boston then was located on a peninsula surrounded on virtually all sides by the Charles River and the Boston Harbor and connected to the south mainland only by a narrow strip of land (“The Boston Neck”). (Today landfill has eliminated the Boston Neck.) Although British ships controlled the water and thus were able to resupply the British troops in the town, as they did in May 1775 with an additional 4,300 troops (for a total force of 6,000), these troops essentially were land locked.

Siege of Boston map, 1775-1776

The Americans obviously understood the British predicament, and with the Americans having the larger number of troops and not wanting to wage war in Boston, they imposed a siege of the town of Boston by stationing the militia men in a line starting in Chelsea to the northeast of Boston, going west to Charlestown and then south to Roxbury. This siege line was able to prevent the British troops from leaving Boston and engaging in war against the Americans. The Siege was an American offensive maneuver implemented for defensive purposes until the very end of the siege.

Among those participating in the Siege were Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, William and Benjamin. All four apparently had enlisted for eight months or through the balance of the year of 1775, and all except for John presumably were engaged in the Siege at least until then. John’s service unfortunately ended on June 17, 1775, when he was wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill as we will see in a subsequent post.[1]

For most of the 11 months of siege, there were relatively minor skirmishes between the two forces except for the just mentioned Battle of Bunker Hill.

One of the skirmishes occurred in May of 1775 on Noddle’s and Hog Islands in the Harbor northeast of Boston (near today’s Boston Logan International Airport). Because of their domination of the sea, the British were using the farmers and livestock on the island to supply the British troops with fresh meat. In addition, the British were storing some naval supplies there. The colonists responded by removing livestock and hay from the islands or by killing the livestock and burning the hay and barns. On May 27 and 28, 1775, the opposing forces fought the Battle of Chelsea Creek, which was a creek between the two islands and the mainland.

The colonists without suffering any fatalities were successful in forcing the retreat of the British troops in this battle. In addition, the colonists’ cannons were able to capture and sink the British ship, HMS Diana, the first such accomplishment in the war and a big boost to their morale. One of the colonists in this military engagement was Benjamin Brown.

General George Washington
General Washington’s Headquarters, Cambridge, 1775-1776

Nearly three weeks after the Battle of Chelsea Creek, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress voted to establish the Continental Army for purposes of common defense by incorporating the 16,000 or so militia men already in action in the Boston area plus the 5,000 other men in New York. The next day (June 15th) the Congress unanimously elected George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

On July 3, 1775, General Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the troops in the field. He established his headquarters and abode in a beautiful house in Cambridge that later in the 19th century was owned by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (The house is now open to the public as a National Historic Site.)

On January 24, 1776, the colonists obtained a major strategic advantage with the arrival in Cambridge of over 50 heavy cannons that had been seized eight months earlier (on May 10, 1775) from the British Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain in present-day upstate New York. (The reconstructed Fort is now open to the public.)

The successful capture of the Fort was led by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys and Colonel Benedict Arnold. (Arnold in 1780 defected to the British and thereby became an infamous American traitor.)

Artillery for Boston, 1775

Between November 1775 and January 24, 1776, in a remarkable logistical operation Colonel Henry Knox and a team of engineers used boats, horse and ox-drawn sledges and manpower to transport the heavy cannons nearly 250 miles over poor roads, forest, swamps and the frozen Hudson and Connecticut Rivers to Cambridge.

Once in Cambridge, the canons were moved to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston from the southeast. In early March 1776, the Americans started to bombard Boston with the cannons, killing some British soldiers and destroying some houses. The British returned artillery fire, but their cannons  could not reach the colonists’ weapons.

British Evacuation of Boston, 1776

After a planned British assault on the Dorchester Heights was cancelled due to a storm, the British decided to leave Boston. On March 8th General Washington received an anonymous letter saying the British would not destroy the town of Boston if they were permitted to depart without attack. Washington formally rejected the letter, but on March 17th the British evacuated Boston without hostile fire and without any destruction.

A British fleet of 120 ships with 9,906 British troops plus 1,220 women and children left Boston for the 400 mile northeastern sail to the unused British military base in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Now in Boston March 17th is celebrated as Evacuation Day.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50, 308-12(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994). This account of the Brown brothers’ participation is based upon two secondary sources about the town of Leicester written in the 19th century by Emory Washburn: (a) Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 49-50 (1826); and (b) Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement at 296-99(1860).