War and Revolution
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A decade before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, few American colonists even considered independence from the Crown. Relations with England, while sometimes tense, were mutually beneficial for both parties, giving the colonies protection and a ready market for their goods, and giving England a source of raw materials and income. Millions of words have been spilled over what caused the quick snowball to war, but it essentially comes down to one: taxes. Even before the French and Indian Wars, the colonies had been curtailed by the Navigation Acts, which prohibited the colonies from trading directly with countries other than England (smugglers carrying molasses from the West Indies, of course, had no trouble circumventing these laws). Another provision that reserved any tree over 24 inches in diameter for use of the Royal Navy rankled northern woodsmen. But it wasn’t until after the war that the British crown levied a tax directly on the colonies in the form of a stamp required for licenses and legal services. The protests against the Stamp Act of 1765 were surprising to the crown in their vehemence—throughout the colonies, citizens fumed about taxation without representation in parliament and took to the streets to show their displeasure. The furor was so great that the law was repealed a year later.
In its place, however, Parliament enacted a series of laws that were even more damaging to the maritime trade of New England—the Townshend Acts of 1767. Named for the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, these acts levied a series of taxes on imports including paint, lead, paper and, most outrageous to the colonists, tea. Merchants in Boston immediately responded with boycotts of British products, convincing their colleagues in New York City and Philadelphia to follow suit. In 1770, Bostonians even sent back thousands of pounds of British goods back to England on a ship owned by rich merchant John Hancock. Eventually Parliament capitulated and repealed all of the taxes except one—the tax on tea.
In this atmosphere of heightened animosity, a simple argument about the payment of a barber’s bill by a British soldier led to a confrontation with an angry mob that left five colonists dead. An early instance of the use of propaganda, the act was dubbed the Boston Massacre by Whig politician Samuel Adams and used to stir up resentment against British troops quartered in the city. Adams was a member of the Sons of Liberty, a radical underground group of activists who sought greater autonomy from the British Empire. After the incident, he scored a victory when British troops were removed from Boston. However, the incident did little to advance the cause of independence. The troops were defended by Adams’s cousin John Adams and acquitted of murder at trial.
Elsewhere in New England, incidents displayed the growing sentiment of the colonists against the British. In Connecticut, the local branch of the Sons of Liberty succeeded in deposing the colonial governor and installing one of their own members, Jonathan Trumbull, in his place. In 1772, a group of patriots in Providence, Rhode Island, raided and set fire to the Royal Navy ship Gaspee. But the road to revolution was by no means sure until the night of December 16, 1773. That year, Parliament passed an even more stringent law on the importation of tea. Colonists fought back by dressing up as Native Americans
and stealing aboard three British ships at night. There they dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor in an act provocatively dubbed as the Boston Tea Party.
British retribution was swift. Upon receiving word of the act, Parliament passed the so-called Intolerable Acts, which set up a blockade of Boston Harbor and consolidated more power over the colonies in the hands of the crown. Sympathetic governments in Rhode Island and Connecticut delivered aid to the residents of Boston during the blockade. The following September, delegates from all of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia in the first Continental Congress and escalated the tension, declaring their opposition to any British law enacted without representation from the colonies. The stage was set for war.
From Lexington to Bunker Hill
After the Boston Tea Party, Sam Adams, rich merchant John Hancock, and the rest of the Sons of Liberty moved quickly to prepare for the eventuality of armed conflict. With Hancock’s money and Adams’s fiery rhetoric, they were able to prepare colonists around the region both physically and emotionally for battle. They also began caching arms and ammunition in various storehouses close to Boston, and helped to organize militia companies that could join battle at a moment’s notice—calling them “minutemen.” For their part, the British army commanders knew that they were severely outnumbered by the colonists if war should break out, and realized that their best hope lay in seizing the caches of arms before the general populace could be whipped up to a war frenzy.
When British troops finally marched out from Boston to capture the ammunition stores in Concord in April 1775, setting alight the Revolutionary War, it wasn’t the first time they had tried. A few months earlier, British General Thomas Gage had ordered a scouting party north of Boston in Marblehead to search for munitions stored in Salem. Despite a tense standoff with local minutemen, that day ended without bloodshed. In response, the Sons of Liberty set up an elaborate warning system to alert the populace should the troops try again. Two months later, on April 16, riders including Paul Revere had already raised the alarm ahead of the 700 soldiers that marched out of the city en route to Concord. At the time, Adams and Hancock were staying with a friend in the nearby town of Lexington. They hastily organized a show of resistance before themselves escaping back to Boston. By the time an advance party of 300 men under Major John Pitcairn marched into town, they found several dozen minutemen and veterans of the French and Indian Wars ranged on the town common warily clutching their muskets. Someone fired a shot, and by the time the smoke cleared eight colonists were dead. The first battle of the American Revolution took only a few moments, but it was only the beginning of a day of increasing bloodshed.
The Battle of Lexington was followed by another battle a few hours later in Concord. There several hundred minutemen had assembled from neighboring towns on the hill overlooking the North Bridge. Seeing smoke rising in the distance, some feared that the British had set fire to the town, and began to march toward the bridge. A British platoon opened fire, killing two of the colonists. As word spread of the casualties to their comrades, minutemen by the thousands began taking up positions behind houses, trees, and stone walls between Concord and Boston. After destroying what they could of the colonial munitions (most had been hidden before British arrival), the tired British began marching back to Boston through a deathtrap. In the long march back, 73 British soldiers were killed, with another 200 wounded or missing. On the rebels’ side, only 49 were dead, with 44 wounded or missing. The implications of the battles, however, went far beyond the actual results. By proving that they could stand up to the most fearsome army in the world and win, the patriots recruited many other colonists to their cause.
Their next test occurred two months later at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The battles at Concord and Lexington were mere skirmishes compared to the bloody confrontation that occurred in Charlestown on June 17, 1775. A few days before, the newly formed Continental Army took up a position in Charlestown, just across the harbor from the British forces in Boston. For General Gage that was too close, and he decided it was time to knock out the colonials once and for all. Due to a last-minute change in plans, the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill actually occurred on Breed’s Hill. Before the battle began, the colonists’ commanding officer Colonel William Prescott, noting that his troops were low on powder, supposedly made the famous statement: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” The ensuing battle succeeded in dislodging the colonists, forcing them to retreat back to Cambridge. But like Concord and Lexington, the battle showed the force of the inexperienced Americans over the superior fighting power of the British. In three assaults up the hill, the British lost more than 1,000 men, while the colonists only lost half that. Perhaps wishing to even the score, the British commander Howe later said that the death of popular American General Joseph Warren was equal to the death of 500 patriots. Nevertheless, the Battle of Bunker Hill showed the world that the American Revolution was definitely on.
The Siege of Boston
After Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British Army found itself in a precarious position, holed up in Boston surrounded on all sides by countryside teeming with hostile colonists. Schooled by the French and Indian War, many of the colonists were skilled fighters and military strategists. One of them, George Washington, now assumed command of the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 1775, and began a tense standoff with British General William Howe, who had replaced Gage as commander. Not eager to risk another bloody battle like the one at Breed’s Hill, Washington commissioned Boston bookseller Henry Knox to drag 59 cannons to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, which had been captured the previous month by a force of Massachusetts and Connecticut soldiers under the command of Benedict Arnold, and Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys of Vermont.
Knox arrived at the fort in December 1775, and took more than two months to complete the journey across more than two hundred miles of snow and ice. On the night of March 14, 1776, Washington’s forces quietly dragged the cannons to the top of Dorchester Heights, where they commanded a deadly vantage over the city. A few days later, on March 17, 1776, Gage evacuated the city by ship to Nova Scotia without firing a shot—leaving much of New England free from British forces on land.
Battles Across New England
After the early successes in Massachusetts, the most important engagements of the war continued in the southern and mid-Atlantic states. However, over the next seven years of fighting, each of the New England states except New Hampshire would see blood spilt on its soil. Before he famously turned traitor, Benedict Arnold took his troops through the woods of northern Maine in an ill-fated attempt to attack Quebec City on December 31, 1776. Undone by hunger and smallpox, Arnold was defeated in his attacks on the city. Most of the fighting that did occur in Maine itself happened off its coast. Even before Dorchester Heights, ships of the fledgling Maine Navy captured the loyalist sloop Margaretta off the coast of Machias in what is regarded as the first naval battle of the war. In response, the British sent a fleet of six ships to bombard Falmouth, Maine (outside of Portland), nearly burning the entire town to the ground. Later in the war, in 1779, Maine saw one of the conflict’s largest naval battles, when more than 20 colonial ships attacked a fleet of British warships stationed in Castine in Penobscot Bay. The campaign ended in disaster, however, in part due to the foolhardy actions of one Paul Revere, who was captaining a ship at the end of the Continental line and broke ranks, foiling the fighting formation. In one of the ironies of history, the commanding officer of the British fleet was General Peleg Wadsworth, the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who years later would immortalize Revere in his poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
Amazingly, even after the Battle of Bunker Hill, colonists were still split on the virtues of declaring full independence from Great Britain. First among the colonies, Rhode Island bit the bullet to declare itself a sovereign nation on May 4, 1776, two months before the Declaration of Independence. The state did not fare well in the ensuing war, however. In December 1776, after a sea battle off the coast of Point Judith, the British fleet blockaded Narragansett Bay, trapping much of the Continental Navy in Providence. For the next few years, they occupied Newport, terrorizing the populace and bringing shipping to a standstill. In 1778, Washington attempted to liberate the port by sending Massachusetts General John Sullivan and 8,000 men to attack. However, a fierce storm prevented allied French ships from landing with reinforcements, and Sullivan was unable to take the city. The British remained in Newport until 1779, when they voluntarily withdrew to aid fighting farther south.
Of all the New England states, the hardest hit during the war was Connecticut, which was an enticing target due to its rich industrial base and its proximity to British strongholds in New York. In April 1777, 2,000 British troops sacked Danbury, defeating 200 militiamen (again led by Arnold), and destroying vast amounts of tents, food, and other stores that would have come in handy for Washington when he was freezing in Valley Forge that winter. To help the troops survive, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull helped round up cattle and drive them down to Pennsylvania for Washington’s troops. Over the next few years, Connecticut was pillaged several more times, at Greenwich, New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk. The most devastating attack took place in September 1781, towards the end of the war, in Groton and New London. There Benedict Arnold—now fighting on the British side—took 2,000 troops and decimated the forts in both cities, burning much of New London to the ground.
The Battle of Bennington
When the war broke out, Vermont wasn’t even yet an independent colony. Much of what would become Vermont was occupied by settlers in land grants from the governor of New Hampshire, who fought competing claims against encroachers from New York. In January 1777, an assembly declared Vermont an independent republic, initially called New Connecticut. (Even so, neither Vermont nor Maine were among the original 13 states. Vermont wasn’t admitted into the union until 1791. Maine remained part of Massachusetts until 1820.) The fledgling republic gained new legitimacy a few months later during the Battle of Bennington, which proved to be the first battle in which the colonials beat the British in combat. The crucial victory led to the turning point of the war a few months later at Saratoga, and helped convince France and Spain to intervene on the side of the Americans.
The battle took place in two parts in August 1777, when, fresh from victory at Fort Ticonderoga, the British General John “Gentleman Johnnie” Burgoyne was marching down the Hudson River Valley to meet up with British troops from New York. The plan was to cut off New England from receiving supplies and reinforcements from the rest of the colonies, thereby setting it up for easy capture. Feeling the pinch of lack of supplies himself, however, the general made a fatal mistake when he decided along the way to capture a large storehouse of food and munitions in the small town of Bennington, Vermont.
Under command of the German Colonel Friedrich Baum, Burgoyne sent some 500 troops—including several hundred of the dreaded Hessian mercenaries—to raid the town. Unbeknownst to him, however, the American Colonel John Stark had previously set off from New Hampshire with 1,500 troops of his own. On August 16, Stark took the battle to the enemy, swarming up a ridge along the Wolloomsac River to attack Baum’s position. In a short but bloody battle, his militiamen killed Baum and captured many of his men. Certain of victory, the excited Americans began pursuing the enemy, when they were surprised by a relief column of another 600 Hessian soldiers under Lieutenant Colonel Von Breymann. Stark was pushed to retreat back towards Bennington. The tide of the battle turned once more, however, with the arrival of Colonel Seth Warner and 300 of his Green Mountain Boys, who had marched from Manchester, Vermont. In the second engagement, the Germans were routed and fled back to the Hudson, while the Americans claimed victory.
The battle was an embarrassing defeat for Burgoyne, whose army suffered some 900 casualties to Stark’s 70. At a time in the war when American morale was low, the battle also proved once again that backcountry farmers and militiamen could defeat the most disciplined troops of Europe. Just two months later, with his forces depleted and short on provisions, Gentleman Johnnie was forced to surrender at Saratoga.
As any history book will tell you, the Revolutionary War was won not by the Americans, but by the French and Spanish, who entered the war after the victory at Saratoga and blockaded American ports against the British, swinging the tide of battle in favor of the newly independent republic. In 1783, a full decade after the Boston Tea Party, British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, leaving 13 newly independent states. Like most of the rest of the country, New England was in rough shape by war’s end, hamstrung by debt from the massive amounts of money needed for the war effort. Because of its unique position, however, it was able to bounce back more quickly than other areas. Since most of the fighting had occurred farther south, New England ended up with its infrastructure intact—in fact, once its blockades were lifted, it even benefited from the lack of competition from New York City and Philadelphia, which were still embroiled in fighting. Initially the region felt the loss of the Tory upper class, which fled once fighting started. In their place, however, rose a new American merchant class who had made fortunes in previous decades smuggling molasses and financing privateers against the British. They quickly assumed control of New England and set about doing what Yankees did best—making money.
© Michael Blanding and Alexandra Hall from Moon New England, 2nd Edition