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Why Washington Kept His Powder Dry


Has anyone in the Corner commented lately on the ennobling effects of studying history? A couple of days ago, I asked why Washington held his fire after investing Dorchester Heights. (As you may recall, I’d just finished 1776, David McCullough’s latest book, and this was bothering me.) Washington could have harassed the 120 or so ships of the Royal Navy that lay anchored in Boston harbor, and he could have badly damaged Boston itself. Instead he permitted the 8,000 British and Hessian troops to evacuate Boston unharmed, simply watching calmly as the enemy troops boarded ships and sailed away.

As of today I’ve received well over a hundred replies. Each is knowledgeable, literate, friendly, and polite. Let’s just say that I’d rather correspond with history buffs than with defenders of Harriet Miers.

What have I learned?

In the first place, the 58 guns that Henry Knox rescued from Fort Ticonderoga failed to give Washington quite the tactical advantage that I’d supposed. Washington faced a chronic shortage of gunpowder. (Rick, you were right about this.) “Every officer that stands an idle spectator, and sees such a wanton waste of powder,” Nathaniel Greene wrote, infuriated at seeing soldiers take potshots at geese, “may expect to be reported.” Cannonballs were also scarce. After British General Howe subjected Washington’s position on the Dorchester Heights to a fierce but futile cannonade—from their position in Boston, which was close to sea level, the British found it impossible to elevate their artillery pieces enough to strike their targets—American soldiers scampered out to retrieve the British cannonballs, collecting some 700.

Washington did indeed fire on Boston, ordering several night barrages. But he intended only to confuse the British while muffing the noise of the work parties that were digging in on the Heights. Noisemaking was one matter. A serious offensive action would have been a different one. Why didn’t Washington attempt a few shots at British ships? I quote a reader:

The range from the Dorchester Heights to the British fleet where it was anchored was appx. 2 miles. This was just at the outer maximum range of 12lb and 18lb (weight of the cannon ball) cannons. Most of [Washington's] artillery was of a smaller caliber and more importantly, none of it was rifled (spiral grooved on the inside of the cannon barrels). Only a lucky hit would have been possible….Also remember that his cannons only fired solid shot cannon balls as opposed to shells which exploded. A large wooden warship can absorb hours of battering at close range by solid shot and still be sea worthy. At two miles range and only the lucky shot striking home, it would have been a useless and extravagant gesture at best.

The most compelling reason for Washington to hold his fire? He was a gentleman. Soon after Washington placed his guns on the Dorchester Heights, making the British occupation of Boston suddenly untenable, a delegation from Boston crossed to the mainland with a message. To quote McCullough:

[O]n Friday, March 8…Deacon Newell and three other selectmen crossed [over from Boston] under a white flag carrying an unsigned paper stating that General Howe had “no intention of destroying the town, unless the troops under his command are molested during embarkation.”

An unsigned document? That struck me as unimportant, a mere gesture. But readers assure me that the conventions of eighteenth century warfare would have required Washington to take it seriously. Neither Howe nor Washington, moreover, had any interest in reducing Boston to ashes. For his part, Howe was attempting to win over American opinion—it would be more than a year before the Declaration of Independence made formal the rupture from Britain—while Washington was attempting to hold together an army that was overwhelmingly made up, at this early stage, of New Englanders, many of whom had Boston ties. When Howe asked for a peaceful out, Washington was happy enough to comply. On this mixture of strategic considerations and gentlemanly behavior, a reader:

The Age of Reason brought to warfare an aristocratic set of gentlemanly expectations including things like mutually understood need for a force to retreat or surrender from an inferior position. The War of Independence ended with another event at Yorktown that was driven in some significant part by such expectations. If Washington had initiated an active firing war, the British would have been free under those conditions to sack and burn Boston if they perceived tactical advantage from doing so. In the absence of a firing war, such an action was way out of bounds.

As yet another reader put it, Washington’s strategic objective was to capture Boston. The General did just that.

A final note.

In my original post, I asked why Washington had kept his powder dry. “[Y]ou are slightly misusing the expression,” a reader wrote.

“Keeping your powder dry” does not mean holding back, it means keeping yourself in a state of readiness. I realize that this may be hair splitting, but one could fire one’s cannon repeatedly whilst still “keeping the powder dry.”

The readers of this happy Corner know everything.