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Why Did George Keep His Powder Dry?


Over the holidays I read David McCullough’s new book, 1776. A marvelous account of the first full year of the Revolutionary War, the book is full of information, much of it surprising—McCullough makes clear, for example, that Washington made a thorough bungle of the defense of New York. On one matter, though, the book left me puzzled: Once he had invested Dorchester Heights, why didn’t Washington ever open fire?

The sequence ran as follows:

The British occupied Boston, a seemingly impregnable position, connected to the mainland only by a narrow, easily-defended neck and otherwise surrounded by water, which the British fleet commanded.

Washington approved the audacious plan of Henry Knox to retrieve the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain. (Ethan Allan, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys had captured the fort from the British.) Against all odds, Knox succeeded, supplying Washington with some 20 cannon.

On March 5 and 6, working largely in darkness, Washington invested Dorchester Heights, wheeling his cannon into place and throwing up earthwork defenses. “In less than forty-eight hours,” McCullough writes, “the supposedly invulnerable security of the town [Boston] had dissolved. [British General] Howe’s army and the fleet at anchor were in danger of being destroyed at any time.”

Forced to wait for favorable winds, the British remained in Boston until March 17. “The [British] troops began moving out at four in the morning, more than 8,000 redcoats marching through the dark,narrow streets of Boston, as if on parade. By seven the sun was up and ships thronged at the wharves began lifting sail. By nine o’clock all were under way.”

Why, to repeat, didn’t Washington ever open fire? I can understand his reluctance to fire on the British troops themselve. Doing so would have damaged Boston, possibly starting fires that could have moved through the entire town. But why didn’t he fire on the British fleet? Warships were immensely expensive and complicated pieces of equipment—the aircraft carriers of their day. Even relatively minor damage to the British fleet—fouled rigging, cracked masts—would have forced ships to lay up for costly repairs. It would also have gotten the attention of Parliament, where between a quarter and a third of members of the House of Commons (including Edmund Burke) opposed the war in the first place.

Can Rick Brookhiser help me here? Or a reader of this happy Corner?


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