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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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