GENERAL HOWE fully comprehended the perils of his situation in Boston. American officers whom he had affected to despise had outgeneraled him. He over-estimated the numbers of the republican army, and supposed that the work on Dorchester Heights had been done by twelve thousand men. To the minds of his cultivated officers it seemed like the realization of a tale of the Arabian Nights. But it was the work of less than three thousand New England farmers, meanly clad, poorly fed, and inadequately armed and disciplined. To dislodge them was the prime necessity of the British. "If they retain possession of the Heights," said Admiral Shuldham, "I cannot keep a ship in the harbor." It was therefore determined to assault the Americans, and attempt to drive them from their redoubts. Washington was prepared for such an emergency. He had boats and floating batteries that would carry four thousand men into Boston.
Twenty-four hundred picked soldiers--the flower of the British army in the New England capital--were placed under the command of Lord Percy, and ordered to drive the Americans from the intrenched hills. Howe freely declared the expedition to be a perilous one. Percy remembered Lexington and Bunker's Hill, and had no wish to go. His men shared in the consternation which the order had produced among the officers. But British honor, and the safety of the British troops in Boston, demanded the effort. When Percy and his soldiers entered boats to pass over, the Americans were delighted; and Washington reminded them that it was the anniversary of the Boston Massacre--an act yet unavenged. This thought added strength to their resolution, and they were further nerved to the performance of valorous deeds, because the neighboring heights, on that mild, sunny spring morning, were crowded with anxious spectators who looked for a repetition of the dreadful scenes on Breed's Hill. But Percy did not intend to scale the heights before night; and with his men he passed over to the Castle. That afternoon a violent storm of wind and rain came up from the south, and increased to a furious gale before midnight. Some of the British vessels were driven ashore by the storm, and on the morning of the 6th the rain fell so thickly and furiously, that nothing could be done.
Howe, in dismay, now called a council of war. It was evident that the fleet and army were in great peril. The terrified Loyalists demanded of the general the sure protection which he had promised them. It was known that Washington was preparing to bombard Boston; also that the divisions of Generals Greene and Sullivan were ready at Cambridge to be led by General Putnam, in boats covered by floating batteries in the Charles River (which was now clear of ice), to assail the town at two prominent points, at a signal to be given by Thomas guns. The council, therefore, determined to evacuate Boston as soon as possible. This resolution spread dismay among the Tories, for they had reason to fear the retaliation of the Whigs whom they had sorely oppressed for almost two years. They saw the power on which they had confidently learned becoming like a broken reed. The perils of a dangerous sea-voyage and privations in a strange land seemed less fearful to them than the righteous indignation of their abused countrymen, and they prepared to go with the fleet and army.
Howe now began to make ready for leaving Boston. He wished to do so quietly, if Washington would allow it, and threatened to destroy the town in case his troops should be molested at his departure. His war-vessels and transports, one hundred and fifty in number, were drawn nearer the town to be in readiness to convey his troops peaceably away or to spread destruction, as circumstances might seem to require. His determination was communicated to the American commander by the selectmen of Boston, and a tacit assent to the peaceful arrangement was given. But Washington did not relax his vigilance. He planted a new battery, and was ready at any moment to attack the foe on perceiving the least sign of bad faith.
The evacuation was delayed until Sunday, the 17th of March, Howe lingering, no doubt, with a hope of receiving reinforcements. Washington determined to wait no longer for a peaceable departure of his enemy. On Saturday, the 16th, he seized and fortified Nooks' Hill, by which he held the British completely at his mercy. Howe knew this, and at four o'clock the next morning he began the embarkation of his troops and the Loyalists. During the few preceding days Boston had been the theatre of great confusion and alarm. The war-ships and transports were too few to carry much of the effects of the Tories. What they could not take with them they destroyed. The soldiers broke open and pillaged many stores. Crean Brush, a sycophantic New York Loyalist, was authorized by Howe to seize all the clothing and dry goods belonging to Whig merchants, and place them in the vessels. Furniture was wantonly defaced by the soldiers, and valuable goods were cast into the waters. These outrages produced widespread distress. But the fearful drama was ended on the beautiful Sabbath day in March. Before sunset, the great fleet had left Boston, bearing away to Nova Scotia artillery, ammunition, stores, and Loyalists--the latter to the number of about eleven hundred. Then the American troops marched in and took possession of Boston, where General Putnam was placed in chief command. The event gave great joy to the American people, and the Continental Congress caused a gold medal to be struck and presented to Washington with the thanks of the United Colonies.
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