March 17: Evacuation Day

Boston is typically thought of as a quintessential place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  Interestingly though, the celebration in Suffolk County (which encompasses Boston) is officially referred to as Evacuation Day, and the parade that meanders through South Boston is the St. Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day Parade.  Evacuation Day celebrates the evacuation of the British army from Boston that occurred on March 17, 1776.

An Inclusive St. Patrick's Day Parade

Revolutionary War reenactors march in the Boston St. Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day Parade. (Boston Globe photo)

In early March of 1776, General George Washington and his Continental Army had been laying siege to the British occupied city of Boston for almost a year, ever since the first blood of the war had been shed on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord. (read more about this in the new book: “A Single Blow”) The British had been holed up in the city for months as a stalemate ensued.

Over the winter of 1775-1776, Colonel Henry Knox performed an extraordinary feat by hauling 59 pieces of artillery over land and water from Fort Ticonderoga on the Hudson River to the American siege lines surrounding Boston.  Washington hoped this “noble train of artillery” could be used to ultimately break the siege.

After some diversionary artillery bombardments, American soldiers took possession of Dorchester Heights, just south of Boston on the evening of March 4, 1776.  They immediately set up fortifications and hauled many of the Ticonderoga cannons on to the heights.


The author standing on Dorchester Heights in 2014. (Author photo)

The British woke up the next morning amazed to find American artillery bearing down on them from the fortified Dorchester Heights.  British General William Howe famously remarked that “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.”  From his strong position, it appeared Washington was daring the British army to attempt an assault on the heights.  The British, from their position in Boston were not able to fire their cannons on the fortifications on Dorchester Heights because they were in too low of a position.  Howe wanted to launch an infantry assault on the position, and Washington prepared his men to meet one on March 5, the 6th anniversary of the Boston Massacre.  Washington paced among his men entreating them to “remember it is the fifth of March, and avenge the death of your brethren.”


The area circled in red is the location of Dorchester Heights. (New York Public Library)

The British prepared to make an attempt and many of the British officers and men likely feared a repeat of the bloody affair at Bunker Hill that occurred less than a year earlier.  However, a large storm on the night of March 5 convinced Howe to give up the assault.

Unable to push the Americans off of Dorchester Heights and unable stay in the vulnerable city now under possible artillery bombardment, Howe decided to evacuate Boston.  The British had to wait for favorable winds, but finally on March 17, 1776, General William Howe and about 10,000 British troops sailed out of Boston harbor.


Boston, the location of many of the original protests of the Stamp Act in the 1760s, the site of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and Boston Tea Party in 1773, had long suffered under British rule.  This momentous event marked George Washington’s first victory of the Revolutionary War and a huge morale boost for the new patriot army.  Coincidentally, the day of the evacuation fell on a day that was already sacred to the numerous Irish immigrants in Washington’s army, St. Patrick’s Day.


A park and monument now stand up on Dorchester Heights. (Author Photo)

Washington and his men could celebrate, but it was a celebration to be short lived.  Later that year the Continental Army and the American cause would face the greatest test of its existence during the fall of New York and the Ten Crucial Days campaign in 1776 and 1777.  (Read more about this in my new book: “Victory or Death”)  However, the liberation of Boston was instrumental in encouraging patriots in Philadelphia to write and adopt a Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.  So, as you celebrate the Irish holiday of St. Patrick’s Day this weekend, remember also Evacuation Day and the liberation of Boston in 1776.

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An Account of April 19, 1775

“the Country was an amazing strong one; full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls, & c., which the Rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with People who kept an incessant fire upon us…”

From the diary of Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie who was part of the 23rd Regiment–the Royal Welch Fusiliers that survived the ordeal of April 19, 1775. He would keep a diary until the early 1790’s and chronicled his experiences in the American Revolutionary War. His account on April 19, of the retreat from Concord is most descriptive. The British did not just take the brunt of the firing as the marched hurriedly back toward Boston and safety, but;

“as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, as they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them: in this way we marched between 9 and 10 miles, their numbers increasing from all parts…”

The column was led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and had been tasked by General Thomas Gage, British military leader in North America, to root out the military supplies being stored in Concord by the colonials. The mission, albeit supposedly secretive, did not remain so for long, and the colonials got word out to the countryside. After initial firing at Lexington Green and then at the North Bridge in Concord, the British had to march back through the countryside, facing arriving militia and minute men.

“while ours was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and  we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it is impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likewise near expended.”  


Modern-day view along Battle Road, the route the British column retreated back toward Boston on (author collection)

Luckily, for Mackenzie and the other struggling British officers and rank-and-file, on a rise in the ground, outside the town of Menotomy, was a relief column, ready to provide a few moments’ respite.



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General Edward Hand: The Squaw Campaign

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Eric Sterner. 

In February 1778, Brigadier General Edward Hand, commanding Continental forces at Fort Pitt on the American frontier, launched what may be one of the oddest campaigns of the American Revolution, more famous for its fecklessness than any benefit to the American war effort. Born in Ireland, Hand arrived in the colonies with the 18th Royal Irish Regiment as a surgeon’s mate.  He eventually left service in 1774 and set up a medical practice in Philadelphia.  The siege of Boston found him among the besiegers as Lieutenant Colonel of a Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.  He fought under Washington on Long Island, at White Plains, and then Princeton, after which Washington successfully pursued the rank of Brigadier for him before sending him to Pittsburgh.[1]   Hand arrived in June, 1777, finding just two companies of the 13th Virginia.[2]   As was often the case on the frontier, Fort Pitt was under-garrisoned and Continental officers would have to scrounge constantly for troops, largely relying on local militia forces to defend the frontier.


General Edward Hand (courtesy of Ohio History Central)

Hand hoped to conduct a campaign to the west, driving toward British power at Detroit, but was unable to raise sufficient forces that fall.  Instead, he settled for a trip down the Ohio to ensure local garrisons were in proper order.[3]  Around Christmas, Hand received information that the British had established a small magazine on the Cuyahoga River, likely somewhere close to where it empties into Lake Erie in the current city limits of Cleveland.[4]  As December gave way to January and February, Hand resolved to do something about it.  At the beginning of the month, he wrote Colonel William Crawford, formerly of the 13th Virginia, currently of the Pennsylvania militia and a well-respected local leader, entreating the colonel to undertake an expedition:
“As I am credibly informed that the English have lodged a quantity of arms, ammunition, provision, and clothing at a small indian Town, about one hundred miles from Fort Pitt to support the savages in their excursions against the inhabitants of this and the adjacent counties, I ardently wish to collect as many brave, active lads as are willing to turn out, to destroy this magazine.  Every man must be provided with a horse, and every article necessary to equip them for the expedition, except ammunition, which, with some arms, I can furnish.” Continue reading

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George Washington; October 17, 1781

While reading background on the siege and victory at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, I came across the following passage written by historian Jerome Greene.

     “The officer was then quickly escorted to Washington’s headquarters in a nearby house,       where he delivered Cornwallis’s message: “I propose a Cessation of Hostilities for 24             hours, & that two Officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore’s house         to settle terms for the Surrender of the Posts of York & Gloucester.” One can only                   imagine the emotions coursing through Washington’s body as he read these words.”

That last line is what really struck me.

Every image we have of George Washington depicts a stoic expression staring back out of us. Historians have a few instances from a long life of the Washington behind the marble, behind the self-imposed restraint, that he crafted for posterity.

However, he was human, he did have a fiery temper and he was a passionate person. One of the reasons he strove so hard to mask those emotions, to keep them in check, to keep perspective, and to persevere.

Those competing inclinations would have been bubbling at the surface on October 17, 1781, when that written communication was handed to him outside Yorktown, Virginia. What that moment must have been like, for Washington, for the French and American forces, and for all those fighting in favor of American independence.

Jerome Greene wondered about it. I am curious about it. Are you?



Siege of Yorktown 1836

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“If you Fire, You’ll all be dead men” The Salem Alarm


Thomas Gage

As events quickly spiraled out of control in the winter and spring of 1774-1775 around Massachusetts, several armed confrontations between local “Patriots” and the British army heightened tensions. On many occasions, both sides adverted open confrontation and were able to diffuse the situation. Understanding these events and how they made an impression on both sides helps explain what happened on the Lexington Common on April 19, 1775.

As soon as British General Thomas Gage arrived in Boston in the spring of 1774, he set about enforcing the newly passed “Coercive Acts.” In response to these new laws that restricted many of the rights the people of Massachusetts had grown accustomed too, local groups began to arm themselves in opposition to British authority. Even though Gage was once popular in the colonies, he soon became an enemy to those around Boston who believed the Coercive Acts were an overstep of British authority.

Gage, to his credit, had established a decent network of spies and information gathering on local assemblies and the newly formed First Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. This elected body was acting (illegally in the eyes of Gates and Parliament) as the colonial legislature for Massachusetts. The Provincial Congress had passed resolutions to create an armed militia and a highly trained “minute man” force that could respond quickly to British threats. As the Patriots began to arm themselves with not just muskets but also cannon, Gage determined to disarm them. He quickly sought out information on where the Congress was establishing weapon depots.

One such  depot of weapons (and supposedly ship cannons being refitted for field use) was located at Salem, Massachusetts. Located approximately 15 miles northeast of Boston along the coast, Salem previously served as Gage’s provincial capital when he arrived in Massachusetts in 1774. Now he planned on sending 240 men of the 64th Foot under Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie. Leslie was trusted by Gage to have a level head, and he knew how precarious his mission was. On February 26, 1775, this British force arrived via water and waited for the residents to attend their regular Sunday sermon. Soon after, the 64th Foot began to make the five-mile march to Salem. A column of nearly 250 British regulars brought a lot of attention, and soon riders were riding ahead to Salem to warn them of the approaching British. The men in Salem began removing the cannon and hid them in the countryside. The main objective for Leslie was a blacksmith shop on the north side of the North River. Here, is where it was reported that the ship cannons were being refitted for field use.


Salem Alarm Monument (North River in the background

The draw bridge spanned the North River became significant, as it was the only way across. As the British approached, several men raised the drawbridge so the British could not cross. By this time militia was on the opposite banks of the North River; an armed confrontation, one of many this winter, between colonials and Royal troops ensued. Leslie demanded that the bridge be lowered so he could cross, but the militia would not budge. Meanwhile, the cannons Leslie was looking for were being dispersed. Leslie threatened to fire on the militia, but Leslie’s senses got the best of him as he recognized hundreds of townspeople were now turned out and watching. Local townsman John Felt threatened Leslie “Fire and be damned! You’ve no right to fire without further orders. If you fire you’ll all be dead men.” Felt’s words represent just how bold the Americans were becoming in their confrontations with the British army. But Leslie did not want to have blood on his hands this day. Plus, the safety of his own men grew more perilous  as the day grew longer, and he knew he had to extricate himself somehow.

As Leslie pondered his next move, more militia showed up behind his regiment. Now his men became nervous as they were virtually surrounded. The Americans began to taunt the British soldiers. Calling them “Lobster Coats” and “Cowards.” Soon a local minister proposed a compromise, the bridge would be lowered and the British could cross and march to the blacksmith forge just a hundred yards beyond the bridge. If no cannon were found (which by now, they were all removed) then Leslie would turn around and march his men back to the ships on the shore. To Leslie, this was an honorable compromise as his orders were to cross the river and investigate the blacksmith forge and shop.

Soon after the British crossed the North River they reached the forge and complied with their part of the deal and re-crossed the river. Though Leslie was not out of danger yet, as the militia and angry citizens lined the road back to their ships. One famous incident was that of Sarah Tarrant. She openly taunted the British as they marched by her house. She yelled “Go home and tell your master he sent you on a fool’s errand…” Soon a soldier lifted his musket towards Tarrant and her defiance was stiffened. She responded “Fire, if you have the courage, but I doubt it.” The solider chose the wise side of caution and lowered his gun. Open rebellion was again thwarted, but a deadly precedent was set. The militia learned that the British did not intend to fire on them and such the bravery of each militia unit at each alarm was amplified. How soon would it be that the British called the colonial militia’s bluff?

The “Salem Alarm” or “Leslie’s Retreat” was one of many incidents where local leaders were emboldened by the acquiescence of the British military. Leslie and Gage were in a no win situation. To open bloodshed would create a firestorm (as would be seen on April 19, 1775) but avoiding combat also encouraged more defiance of British rule. Each event made each side more on edge. Gage believed his superiors in England were downplaying the events in America. He accurately described the situation in September 1774 when he wrote “…no people are more determined for a Civil War.”


Today a local Salem dog park along the North River is named after the events of February 1775.



Posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, British Leadership, Campaigns, Civilian, Common Soldier, Militia (Loyalist) Leadership, Militia (Patriot) Leadership, Minute Men, Monuments, Northern Theater, Revolutionary War, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fight for Osborne Hill

From a Pennsylvania State Historical Commission marker, one quickly can find out the importance of Osborne Hill to the Battle of Brandywine, fought on September 11, 1777.


Osborne Hill Marker (courtesy of Keith Smith,

The hillside was the site of British General William Howe’s post in which he coordinated and commanded the different components of the British and Hessian forces that day. The battle opened the way for the British conquest of Philadelphia and was the largest, in terms of manpower fighting, of any American Revolutionary War battle.

Now, this important tract of land needs a few more people to fight for its control and preservation. Continue reading

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ERWS: A Single Blow Informational Sheet

All the information on the upcoming release of one of the inaugural volumes of the Emerging Revolutionary War Series (ERWS) from Savas Beatie! 

A Single Blow AI-page-001


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