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Re: Why Washington Kept His Powder Dry


To tidy up a few odds and ends regarding Washington and the (non) battle of Boston:

**In my post below, as several readers have noted, I misspoke, or miss-typed, or something: The British withdrew from Boston on March 17, 1776. That was of course only some four months, not a year, before the Declaration of Independence.

**Several readers have pointed out that Washington wasn’t merely a gentleman. He was also an aggressive and determined commander. This is a point worth dwelling upon.

Four times during the winter of 1775 and 1776, Washington summoned his general staff, arguing before this war council that the time had come for a direct attack upon Boston itself. All four times his generals talked him out of it. The fourth and last of these meetings ended with a compromise, the plan to invest the Dorchester Heights. Washington originally had no intention simply of sitting upon the Heights until the British withdrew. Instead, he hoped to draw the British out of Boston, prompting them to attack first. (Gunpowder was in such short supply that Washington had his men haul barrels to the top of the Heights, then pack them with earth. His plan: to blunt the British advance by rolling the barrels down on top of them.)

Howe took Washington’s bait, maneuvering troops into position for an assault on Dorchester Heights. Then the weather turned foul. Forced to delay his attack, Howe watched the Americans use the time by strengthening their defenses. In the end, Howe called off the attack altogether.

From a reader:

Here is part from a letter written by a Dr. Thacher, one of the surgeons of Washington’s army and an eyewitness to events

Cannon-shot are continually rolling and rebounding over the hill; and it is astonishing to observe how little our soldiers are terrified by them. During the forenoon we were in momentary expectation of witnessing an awful scene; nothing less than the carnage of Breed’s hill battle was expected. The royal troops are perceived to be in motion, as if embarking to pass the harbour, and land on Dorchester shore, to attack our works. The hills and elevations in this vicinity are covered with spectators to witness deeds of horror in the expected conflict. His excellency General Washington is present, animating and encouraging the soldiers, and they in return manifest their joy, and express a warm desire for the approach of the enemy; each man knows his place, and is resolute to execute his duty. Our breastworks are strengthened, and among the means of defence are a great number of barrels, filled with stones and sand, arranged in front of our works; which are to be put in motion and made to roll down the hill, to break the ranks and legs of the assailants as they advance. These are the preparations for blood and slaughter! Gracious God! if it be determined in thy providence that thousands of our fellow-creatures shall this day be slain, let thy wrath be appeased, and in mercy grant; that victory be on the side of our suffering, bleeding country.-The anxious day has closed; and the enemy has failed to molest us. From appearanccs, however, there are strong reasons to suppose that they have only postponed their meditated work till another day.

Note the observation that “General Washington is present, animating and encouraging the soldiers, and they in return manifest their joy.” Washington was no McClellan. He had no interest in the empty maneuver. He wanted to fight, and he wanted to win, and his men knew it.

***Many readers have recommended following up David McCullough’s 1776 with David Hackett Fisher’s Washington’s Crossing. I’m adding that book to my list for 2006. (Fisher’s earlier book, Albion’s Seed, is one of the finest works of American history I’ve ever read.) From a reader:

Great discussion on Dorchester Heights –I recently read “1776″ and learned a lot and enjoyed it all. Having since read “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fisher (which deservedly won the Pulitzer for History) I would offer this further thought about Washington’s forbearance in Boston. Fisher argues that the Howe brothers were pretty much put in charge of running the war [one brother, General Sir William Howe, commanded the army; the other, Richard, the Viscount Howe, who had sat in Parliament and on the admiralty board, commanded the fleet], and that their original plan (1776) was to win hearts and minds as they took and held strategic tracts such as NY, NJ and RI. Fisher details William Howe’s dilatory pursuit of Washington as he retreated across NJ after losing Manhattan and the Palisades; it seems Howe did not want to extirpate the enemy in battle, which would cost him men as well and might transform the rebels into martyrs. Instead he wanted to marginalize them by taking control of the country and giving amnesty to the Whigs.