After the skirmish at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and the Battle of Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) in June, British troops settled in Boston where they remained under siege, awaiting reinforcements. It was up to George Washington to break the stalemate. An outright attack was not feasible; the cost to his forces would have been far too great. In addition, weary colonial troops were without barracks or firewood and yearned to go home for the winter. Of the eleven regiments that had been recruited (10,000 men), fewer than 1,000 had agreed to stay. Even worse, there was no money to pay them, small pox continued unabated, and a November snow brought troop morale even lower.
Both the British command and Washington’s war council understood that control of Dorchester Heights could decide the fate of Boston and its harbor. As historian David McCullough wrote, “Dorchester Heights remained a kind of high windblown no-man’s-land, neither side unmindful of its strategic importance, but neither side daring to seize and fortify it” as the long Boston winter set in.
In January, George Washington informed the Congress of the dire circumstances he and his men faced. He considered it “miraculous” that the British seemed to be so “blind” to the true state of his ragtag army. The only positive news arrived later that month from General Schuyler in Albany who reported that the guns from Ticonderoga were on the way to Boston.
The bitter cold continued: January 27 it was 4 degrees; on January 28, 1 degree; January 30, 2 degrees. Waiting for the stretch of cold weather to form an “ice bridge” that would be strong enough to support troop movements, on February 16 Washington brought his council of war together to discuss a bold move: to take control of Dorchester Heights.
As McCullough tells it, the plan was to occupy the Heights on a single night, before the British realized what was happening. Fortifications would be fabricated out of sight, then, with massive manpower and oxen, they would be hauled, along with heavy cannon, up to the Heights of Dorchester, which were considerably steeper and higher than Bunker Hill.
To bring the army to maximum strength, 2,000 Massachusetts militia were called out, and work details were dispatched to round up wagons, carts, and 800 oxen. Again, according to McCullough, “For miles around Boston everybody seemed to know someone, or someone who knew someone, who was in the know about what to expect….In the surrounding towns tension and fear grew by the day.” It seemed everyone knew something but success depended on secrecy.
The move on Dorchester Heights began after dark on March 4, 1776, and it was completed by first light the morning of March 5, the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. On the Heights, men toiled steadily with picks and shovels, breaking frozen ground and moving cannons into place. All in solemn silence. At three in the morning, a relief force of 3,000 men moved in, and five regiments of riflemen took up positions.
By first light, everything was ready with at least 20 cannons in place, and at daybreak, as the British looked up at the Heights, they were dumbfounded. The British ships in the harbor sent word they could not remain there unless the rebels were removed from their position but striking a target so high was impossible. The British tried to rally and attack but by nightfall, a storm of snow and sleet with hurricane force winds made any attempt futile. British General Howe called off the assault and gave orders to prepare to leave the city. A frenzied evacuation of Boston began; it was completed in a few short weeks. Evacuation Day, March 17, still commemorates this first major American military victory in the American Revolutionary War.
Among those hardy souls who answered the alarm on March 4, 1776 were several men from the South Parish of Dedham. They included:
Benjamin Lewis (1740-1789)
Nathaniel Lewis, Jr. (1731-1790)
Aaron Guild, Jr. (1753-1832) no gravestone
Oliver Guild (1755-1814)
John Morse (1753-1825)
Eliphalet Rhoads (1755-1833)
Captain David Fairbanks (1731-1776) who died a month later on April 10, 1776
They all rest in historic Old Parish Cemetery.