As 1775 drew to a close, the friends of Congress were faced with a new difficulty. The American army was only a temporary army. They were only engaged to serve out until the end of the year. The object for which they had enlisted in the army for had not yet been accomplished. Every reason which had previously induced the provinces to embody a military force still existed. Therefore, it was resolved to form a new army. The same hopes were indulged, that an army for the next year would accomplish every objective. It was presumed that the spirit for which the men had enlisted for would induce most of the same individuals to enlist for another 12 months.
So many difficulties retarded the recruiting service that on the last day of the year 1775 the whole American army amounted to no more than 9,650 men. Of the remarkable events with which this important year was replete, it was not the least that within musket-shot of 20 British regiments one army was disbanded and another enlisted.
All this time, the British army at Boston were suffering the inconvenience of a naval blockade. They were cut off from those refreshments which their situation required.
Their supplies from Britain did not reach the coast for a long time after they were expected. Several were taken by the American cruisers, and others were lost at sea, including many of the British coal-ships. The need for fuel was particularly felt in a climate where the winter is both severe and tedious. They resorted to the destruction of nearby houses, which they pulled down and used the lumber from them to burn and keep warm. Vessels were despatched to the West Indies to procure provisions. Armed ships and transports were ordered to Georgia with the purpose of procuring some rice; but the state's people, with the aid of a party from South Carolina, so effectually disposed of them that of the 11 British ships sent, only 2 ships safely got off with their cargoes. It was not until the garrison's supplies was nearly exhausted that the British transports entered Boston's port and relieved the garrison.
To be in readiness for an attempt of this kind, a council-of-war recommended to call in 7,208 militia-men from New Hampshire or Connecticut. This number, added to the regular army before Boston, would have made an operating force of about 17,000 men. The provincials labored under great inconveniences from the want of arms and ammunition.
Very early in the contest, the King of Great Britain, by proclamation, forbade the exportation of warlike stores to the colonies. Great exertions had been made to manufacture saltpetre and gunpowder, but the supply was slow and inadequate.
A secret committee of Congress had been appointed, with ample powers to lay in a stock of this necessary article. Some swift-sailing vessels had been dispatched to the coast of Africa to purchase what could be procured; a party from Charleston forcibly took about 17,000 pounds of gunpowder from a vessel near the bar of St. Augustine. Some time later, Commodore ?? Hopkins stripped Providence, one of the Bahama Islands, of a number of artillery and stores; but the whole, procured from all these quarters, was far short of a sufficiency.
In order to supply the new army at Boston with the necessary means of defense, a request for firearms was made to Massachusetts, but upon closer examination, it was found that their public stores afforded only 200 arms. Orders were issued to purchase firearms from private people. Few people had any to sell and fewer would part with them.
In February, there were 2,000 militiamen who did not have any weapons. Powder was equally scarce and yet daily requests were made for the small amount which was on hand for the defense of the various parts threatened with upcoming British invasion.
The eastern colonies presented an unusual sight. The British army safely intrenched in their first city, while a British fleet was ready to transport them to any part of the coast. A large body of townspeople were bent on opposition to the British, but without the necessary weapons and ammunition for self-defense, they didn't have a chance. All eyes were fixed on Gen. George Washington, and from him, it was unreasonably expected that he would free Boston from the British troops. The dangerous situation of public affairs led him to conceal the real situation of the scarcity of arms and ammunition.
Agreeably to the request of the council-of-war, about 7,000 men from the militia had met in February.
Washington stated to his officers that the troops in camp, together with the reinforcements which had been called for and those that were coming in daily, would amount to nearly 17,000 men, that he didn't have enough powder for a bombardment. he asked their advice whether, as reinforcements might be daily expected to the British army, it would not be wise to make an assault on the British lines. A proposition was recommended to take possession of Dorchester Heights. To conceal this plan and to divert the attention of the British garrison, a bombardment of the town from other directions started. This was continued for 3 days.
On March 4, the night was fixed upon for taking possession of Dorchester Heights. A covering party of about 800 men led the way. These were followed by the carts with the intrenching tools, and 1,200 men of a working-party, commanded by Gen. Thomas. In the rear there were more than 200 carts loaded with fascines and hay in bundles. While the cannon were playing in other parts, the greatest silence was kept by this working-party. The active zeal of the industrious provincials finished their defensive lines by morning. The difference between Dorchester Heights that evening and the morning of March 5 seemed to realize the tales of romance.
Gen. William Howe was told that if the Americans kept possession of these heights he would not be able to keep one of his majesty's ships in the harbor. It was determined in a council-of-war to attempt to dislodge them. An engagement was hourly expected. Washington intended to force his way into Boston with 4,000 soldiers, who were to have embarked at the mouth of Cambridge River. They had come forward with great alertness, each bringing 3 days' rations, in expectation of an immediate assault. The men were in high spirits and impatiently waiting for the appeal.
On March 5, they were called upon to avenge the deaths of their countrymen. Howe did not intend to attack until the next day. In order to be ready, the British transports came down that evening towards the castle. During the night, a violent storm moved in. Towards morning, the heavy of rain had come. It was agreed upon by the British, in a council-of-war, to evacuate Boston as soon as possible. Their delay had permitted Washington to strengthen his defenses, knowing that an assault was too dangerous to be attempted.
In a few days, after a flag of truce came out of Boston, with a paper signed by 4 selectmen, informing, "that they had applied to Gen. Robertson, who, on an application to Howe, was authorized to assure them that he had no intention of burning the town, unless the troops under his command were molested during their embarkation, or at their departure, by the armed force without." When this paper was presented to Washington, he replied, "that as it was an unauthenticated paper, and without an address, and not obligatory on Howe, he could take no notice of it;" but at the same time intimated his good wishes for the security of the town.
A proclamation was issued by Howe, ordering all woollen and linen goods to be delivered to Crean Brush, Esq. Shops were opened and stripped of their goods. A licentious plundering took place. Much was carried off, and more was wantonly destroyed. These irregularities were forbidden in orders, and the guilty threatened with death; but nevertheless every mischief which disappointed malice could suggest was committed.
The British, amounting to more than 7,000 men, evacuated Boston, leaving their barracks standing, and also a number of cannon spiked, 4 large iron seamortars, and stores to the value of 30,000 pounds. They demolished the castle, and knocked off the trunnions of the cannon. Various incidents caused a delay of 9 days after the evacuation, before they left Nantasket Road.
This embarkation was attended with many circumstances of distress and embarrassment. On the departure of the royal army from Boston, a great number of the inhabitants attached to their sovereign, and afraid of public resentment, chose to abandon their country. From the great multitude about to depart, there was no possibility of procuring purchasers for their furniture, neither was there a sufficiency of vessels for its convenient transportation. Mutual jealousy subsisted between the army and navy, each charging the other as the cause of some part of their common distress. The army was full of discontent. Reinforcements, though long promised, had not arrived. Both officers and soldiers thought themselves neglected. Five months had elapsed since they had received any advice of their destination. Wants and inconveniences increased their ill humor. Their intended voyage to Halifax subjected them to great dangers. The coast, at all times hazardous, was eminently so at that tempestuous equinoctial season. They had reason to fear they would be blown off to the West Indies, and without a sufficient stock of provisions. They were also going to a barren country. To add to their difficulties, this dangerous voyage, when completed, was directly so much out of their way. Their business lay to the southward, and they were going northward. Under all these difficulties, and with all these gloomy prospects, the fleet steered for Halifax. Contrary to appearances, the voyage thither was both short and prosperous. They remained there for some time, waiting for reinforcements and instructions from England.
When the British navy and army left Boston, several ships were left behind for the protection of ships coming from England. The American privateers were so alert that they nevertheless made many prizes. Some of the British ships which they captured were loaded with firearms and military stores. Some transports, with British troops on board, were also taken. These had run into the harbor, not knowing that Boston had been evacuated.
The boats employed in the embarkation of the British troops had scarcely completed their business when Washington, with his army, marched into Boston. He was received with marks of approbation more flattering than the pomps of a triumph. The inhabitants, released from the severities of a garrison life, and from the various indignities to which they were subjected, hailed him as their deliverer. Reciprocal congratulations between those who had been confined within the British lines, and those who were excluded from entering them, were exchanged with an ardor which cannot be described. Washington was honored by Congress with a vote of thanks.
The Massachusetts council and House of Representatives complimented him in a joint address, in which they expressed their good wishes in the following words: "May you still go on approved by Heaven, revered by all good men, and dreaded by those tyrants who claim their fellowmen as their property."