World Civilizations

AMERICA: A Narrative History

From Empire to Independence
Chapter Five



Events were already moving beyond conciliation. All through late 1774 and early 1775 the patriot defenders of American rights were seizing the initiative. The uncertain and unorganized Loyalists, if they did not submit to non-importation agreements, found themselves confronted with persuasive committees of "Whigs," with tar and feathers at the ready. The Continental Congress urged each colony to mobilize its militia units. The militia, as much a social as a military organization in the past, now took to serious drill in formations, tactics, and marksmanship, and organized special units of Minute Men ready for quick mobilization. Everywhere royal and proprietary officials were losing control as provincial congresses assumed authority and colonial militias organized, raided military stores, and gathered arms and gunpowder. But British military officials remained smugly confident. Major John Pitcairn wrote home from Boston in March 1775: "I am satisfied that one active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights."

LEXINGTON AND CONCORD Pitcairn soon had his chance. On April 14, 1775, Gage received secret orders to suppress the "open rebellion" that existed in the colony. Leaders of the Provincial Congress, whom Gage was directed to arrest, were mostly beyond his reach, but he decided to move quickly against the militia's supply depot at Concord, about twenty miles away. On the night of April 18 Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith and Major Pitcairn gathered 700 men on Boston Common and set out by way of Lexington. But local patriots got wind of the plan, and Boston's Committee of Safety sent Paul Revere and William Dawes by separate routes on their famous ride to spread the alarm. Revere reached Lexington about midnight and alerted John Hancock and Sam Adams, who were hiding there. Joined by Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott, who had been visiting in Lexington, Revere rode on towards Concord. A British patrol intercepted the trio, but Prescott slipped through with the warning.

At dawn on April 19 the British advance guard found Captain John Parker and about seventy Minute Men lined up on the dewy Lexington green. Parker apparently intended only a silent protest, but Pitcairn rode onto the green, swung his sword, and brusquely yelled: "Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!" The Americans had already begun quietly backing away when somebody fired a shot, whereupon the British soldiers loosed a volley into the Minute Men, then charged them with bayonets, leaving eight dead and ten wounded. One American patriot, whose wife and son were watching the spectacle, was shot and crawled 100 yards to die on his front doorstep.

The British officers hastily brought their men under control and led them to Concord. There the Americans already had carried off most of their munitions, but the British destroyed what they could--including a Liberty Pole. At Concord's North Bridge the growing American forces inflicted fourteen casualties on a British platoon, and about noon Smith began marching his forces back to Boston. By then, however, the road back had turned into a gauntlet of death as the embattled farmers from "every Middlesex village and farm" sniped from behind stone walls, trees, barns, houses, all the way back to the Charleston peninsula. By nightfall the survivors were safe under the protection of the fleet and army at Boston, having suffered over 250 casualties along the way, and the Americans 93. A British official reported to London that the rebels had earned his respect: "Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken."

THE SPREADING CONFLICT The war had begun. When the Second Continental Congress convened at Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, British-held Boston was under siege by the Massachusetts militia. On the very day that Congress met, Fort Ticonderoga in New York fell to a force of Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen of Vermont and Massachusetts volunteers under Benedict Arnold of Connecticut. The British yielded, Allen said, to his demand "in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress." Two days later the force took Crown Point, north of Ticonderoga.

The Continental Congress, with no legal authority and no resources, met amid reports of spreading warfare and had little choice but to assume the de facto role of a revolutionary government. The Congress accepted a request that it "adopt" the motley army gathered around Boston. On June 15 it named George Washington general and commander-in-chief of a Continental army. He accepted on the condition that he receive no pay. The Congress fastened on Washington because his service in the Seven Years' War made him one of the most experienced officers in America. The fact that he was from populous and influential Virginia heightened his attractiveness. To finance the enterprise the Congress resorted to a familiar colonial expedient, printing paper money.

On June 17, the very day that Washington was commissioned, the colonials and British forces engaged in their first major fight, the Battle of Bunker Hill. While the Congress deliberated, both American and British forces in and around Boston had grown. Militiamen from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire joined in the siege. British reinforcements included three major-generals--Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. On the day before the battle, American forces began to fortify the high ground of Charlestown peninsula, overlooking Boston. Breed's Hill was the battle location, nearer to Boston than Bunker Hill, the site first chosen (and the source of the battle's erroneous name).

The rebels were spoiling for a fight. As Joseph Warren, a dapper Boston physician, put it, "the British say we won't fight; by heavens, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!" He soon got his wish. With civilians looking on from the rooftops and church steeples, Gage ordered a conventional frontal assault in the blistering heat, with 2,200 British troops moving in tight formation through tall grass. Numerous fences obstructed the assault and broke up the uniform lines. The Americans, pounded by naval guns, watched from behind their hastily built earthworks as the waves of brightly uniformed British troops advanced up the hill. Ordered not to fire until they could "see the whites of their eyes," the militiamen waited until the attackers came within fifteen to twenty paces, then loosed a shattering volley. Through the cloud of oily smoke the Americans could see fallen bodies "as thick as sheep in a fold." The Militiamen cheered as they wanted the greatest soldiers in the world retreating in panic.

Within a half hour, however, the British had reformed and attacked again. Another sheet of flame and lead greeted them, and the vaunted redcoats retreated a second time. Still, the proud British generals were determined not to let such ragtag rustics humiliate them. On the third attempt, when the colonials began to run out of gunpowder and were forced to throw stones, a bayonet charge ousted them. The British took the high ground, but at the cost of 1,054 casualties. Colonial losses were about 400. "A dear bought victory," recorded General Clinton; "another such would have ruined us." When Washington arrived to take charge things had again reached a stalemate in Boston, and so remained through the winter.

The Battle of Bunker Hill had two profound effects. First, the high number of British casualties made the English generals more cautious in subsequent encounters with the Continental army. Second, Congress recommended after the battle that all able-bodied men enlist in the militia. This tended to divide the male population into Patriot and Loyalist camps. A middle ground was no longer tenable.

In early March 1776, American forces occupied Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston and brought the city under threat of bombardment with cannon and mortars. General William Howe, who had replaced Gage as British commander, retreated by water to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The last British forces, along with fearful American Loyalists, embarked on March 17, 1776. By that time British power had collapsed nearly everywhere, and the British forces faced not the suppression of a rebellion but the reconquest of a continent.

While American forces held Boston under siege, the Continental Congress pursued the dimming hope of a compromise settlement. On July 5 and 6, 1775, the delegates issued two major documents: an appeal to the king thereafter known as the Olive Branch Petition, and a Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. The Olive Branch Petition, written by John Dickinson, professed continued loyalty to George III and begged him to restrain further hostilities pending a reconciliation. The Declaration, also largely Dickinson's work, traced the history of the controversy, denounced the British for the unprovoked assault at Lexington, and rejected independence but affirmed the colonists' purpose to fight for their rights rather than submit to slavery. When the Olive Branch Petition reached London, the outraged king refused even to look at it. On August 22, he ordered the army at Boston to regard the colonists "as open and avowed enemies." The next day he issued a proclamation of rebellion.

Before the end of July 1775 the Congress authorized an attack on British troops in Quebec in the vain hope of rallying support from the French inhabitants in Canada. One force, under Richard Montgomery, advanced by way of Lake Champlain; another, under Benedict Arnold, struggled through the Maine woods. Together they held Quebec under siege from mid-September until their final attack was repulsed on December 30, 1775. Montgomery was killed in the battle and Arnold wounded.

In the South, Virginia's Governor Dunmore raised a Loyalist force, including slaves recruited on promise of freedom, but met defeat in December 1775. After leaving Norfolk he returned on January 1, 1776, and burned most of the town. In North Carolina, Loyalist Highland Scots, joined by some former Regulators, lost a battle with a patriot force at Moore's Creek Bridge. The Loyalists had set out for Wilmington to join an expeditionary force under Lord Cornwallis and Sir Henry Clinton. That plan frustrated, the British commanders decided to attack Charleston instead, but the patriot militia there had partially finished a palmetto log fort on Sullivan's Island (later named in honor of its commander, Colonel William Moultrie). When the British fleet attacked on June 18, 1776, the spongy palmetto logs absorbed the naval fire, and Fort Moultrie's cannon returned it with devastating effect. The fleet, with over 200 casualties and every shop damaged, was forced to retire. South Carolina honored the palmetto by putting it on the state flag.

As the fighting spread north into Canada and south into Virginia and the Carolinas, the Continental Congress assumed, one after another, the functions of government. As early as July 1775 it appointed commissioners to negotiate treaties of peace with Indian tribes and organized a Post Office Department with Benjamin Franklin as postmaster-general. In October it authorized formation of a navy, in November a marine corps. A committee appointed in November began to explore the possibility of foreign aid. In March 1776 the Continental navy raided Nassau in the Bahamas, and the Congress further authorized privateering operations against British vessels.

Still, the delegates continued to hold back from the seeming abyss of independence. Yet through late 1775 and early 1776 word came of one British action after another that proclaimed rebellion and war. In December 1775 a Prohibitory Act declared the colonies closed to all commerce. The king and cabinet also recruited mercenaries in Europe. Eventually almost 30,000 Germans served, about 17,000 of them from the principality of Hesse-Cassel, and "Hessian" became the name applied to them all. Parliament remained deaf to the warnings of members that the reconquest of America would not only be costly in itself but that the effort might lead to another great war with France and Spain.

COMMON SENSE In January 1776 Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense was published anonymously in Philadelphia. Paine had arrived there from England thirteen months before. Coming from a humble Quaker background, Paine had distinguished himself chiefly as a drifter, a failure in marriage and business. At age thirty-seven he set sail for America with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin and the purpose of setting up a school for young ladies. When that did not work out, he moved into the political controversy as a freelance writer, and with Common Sense proved himself the consummate Revolutionary rhetorician. Until his pamphlet appeared, the squabble had been mainly with Parliament; few colonists considered independence an option. Paine, however, directly attacked allegiance to the monarchy, which had remained the last frayed connection to Britain, and refocused the hostility previously vented on the Parliament. The common sense of the matter, it seemed, was that King George III and the King's Friends bore the responsibility for the malevolence toward the colonies. Monarchy, Paine boldly proclaimed, rested upon usurpation; its origins would not bear looking into. One honest man, he said, was worth more "than all the crowned ruffians that every lived." Americans should consult their own interest, abandon George III, and declare their independence; "The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART."


World Civilizations

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