On March 4, 1776 the New Englanders under command of John Thomas, began to cart the cannon up the hill to Dorchester Heights. Other people, townsfolk of Roxbury and helpers, had put hay on the streets to muffle the sound of the heavy wagons. These were the cannon brought to Boston by Henry Knox, and his small team from Fort Ticonderoga in New York. As men brought the heavy cannon up the hillside, others were constructing sticks (or fascia) into redoubts to look like an actual fort system built into the hill. The weather cooperated in favor of the Americans, giving them a screen of white, rain and heavy snow to work behind.
General William Howe, commander of the British in America, had observed the Americans gathering on the heights, but he had seen no reason to hurry to take the hill, as it was nearby and easily climbed from the ocean side. On March 5, 1776, (sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre), Gen. Howe woke to the sight of cannon aimed directly at the British fleet in the harbor. He may have suspected the truth, that the Americans had no cannon ball, and their powder was probably as wet as the mud under their feet, but he could not gamble with the ships or the lives of so many men — not for this tiny, wretched town in the beginnings of a small-pox outbreak.
Howe agreed to terms, and surrendered to town to Gen. George Washington. The British evacuated, twelve days later, on March 17, 1776. Saint Patrick’s Day, known in old Boston as Evacuation Day.
Excerpt from Beside Turning Water
Dorchester Heights, March 5, 1776
Suddenly Alex was glad Nina had help enough without him. He had hopes that his role was over for the day, maybe even longer, but he hadn’t counted on an all-out battle at the edge of town. Again, war had a way of interrupting plans.
“Peele, so glad you are here with a wagon. Excellent. These men need transport to the Heights.” Alex turned around. Men were already seated in the wagon, shovels and rifles stacked neatly against the hinged tailgate. They were bundled in their greatcoats and covered with sailcloth tarpaulins. They were ready to leave. Alex took a deep breath, readied himself for another long night, fixed his cloak and hood over his head, and shook the reins. He turned the team and wagon and headed back the way he came, turning south in order to join Henry Knox’s cannon on the hill.
The wind howled. Alex pulled his cloak closer. He could have missed this, back in his small rooms in Boston, completely unaware that the tide of the siege was about to turn. It would have happened that way if that idiot Josh had not appeared with his pistol in a civilized parlor in Boston. Perhaps even General Howe was unaware of what was happening on Dorchester Heights, almost directly over his quarters on Castle Island. He might be hunkered down, riding out the storm, staying warm and slightly drunk on his favorite brandy. As for Alex, he wasn’t missing this important moment. He felt alive and ready.
He had heard snippets of Henry Knox’s project during that one moonlight trip to Cambridge. The night that had been the most frightening of his war, that is until this afternoon, when Nina blocked the bullet meant for his heart. He reminded himself that she was alive, and she had help. He dragged his mind back to the men behind him. Planning for this mission had started last November. Henry Knox was to bring sixty cannon from Fort Ticonderoga in New York, across the long southern border of Massachusetts, and position them on the Heights, the last undefended hill looming over the closed town.
The warm, wet winter caused Knox trouble from the first. In many places, the snow was not thick enough to support sledges carrying the cannon. Roads were not frozen, and then, too often, the ice on the rivers cracked. More than once the men had to drag a cannon out of freezing water. Conditions were so unusual that the mission, predicted to take three weeks, took nearly nine.
Now, with the help of every farmer and militiaman in Roxbury, the materials were ready to be moved up the Heights and positioned on the hill facing the harbor. The goal was to shock the British with cannon aimed at their ships and redoubts built into the hill, manned and ready to repel any assault from the sea. Washington was ready with terms. The British were not to further loot or burn the town, but to hurriedly pack and leave, to simply evacuate. Under the terms, the Americans promised not to blow the masts off or sink the British warships.
The townspeople, men, women and children, had built large numbers of fascia, the bundled sticks that would cover redoubts and make them look deep and permanent. Each redoubt would be armed with a cannon staring down at Howe’s headquarters, or at a Man o’ War anchored in the harbor. The storm that was battering the region would only help the Americans, adding needed cover to the dangerous operation.
Alex pulled the team to a halt at the base of the hill known as Dorchester Heights, in the little farming town of Roxbury. The roads were covered with hay-straw, muffling the racket made by the heavy wagons rumbling through. The George beckoned, and the men went in for orders, an ale and some food before they climbed the Heights to work. Already, men were bringing barrels of heavy sand to the summit to arm the holes built into the side of the frozen hill. These would be ready to roll down on any invading force of Royal Marines should they attempt to take the hill. Alex climbed off the bench and swore at the storm, as his leg buckled under him and he grabbed the wagon for support.
He’d hoped the weeks of semi-rest as a loyalist fop might have hastened the healing, but inactivity had only made the leg weaker. He pushed aside the thought that the leg might never heal and stomped around the wagon, trying to get some feeling back into his cold feet. He looked around to see who might be in charge of the ordered chaos.
After a few minutes he saw the tavern keeper’s daughter, and asked her who might direct him. She pointed to a small shed partway up the steep hill. Hidden in the apple orchard, a small puff of smoke rose from its chimney. Alex wasn’t surprised to find that General Thomas was using the little shed. Out of the back, it had a view of the men working on transforming the hill. He knocked at the door.
“Come in. Oh, Peele, what are you doing out in this weather?” The man had obviously just walked in himself. He was covered with ice and drenched to the bone. He laughed at his quip.
Alex brushed snow off his shoulders and closed the door behind him. “Evening Sir, I ended up in Cambridge due to a small errand, and was sent here with a wagon load of supplies and men. Wondered if there was anything I could do to help.”
Thomas, who had gotten to know Peele slightly from their talks, watched him rubbing the same spot on his leg he had favored months before. “We can always use help, fill in where there is an opening. No digging possible, the frost is two feet thick on that side of the heights. We are camouflaging the redoubts. Move to the forward lines and see if the field commanders need anything.”
“Yes sir, I will.” He made as if to turn and leave, when Thomas’s words stopped him.
“Son, do you mind if I speak out of turn?”
“Peele, I haven’t been a practicing doctor for some years now, but I know a problem when I see one. If it was my choice, I wouldn’t want you in my regiment. I could just about guarantee that you would be trampled in retreat or worse. If we were to send you as a refugee into the next city, doing there what you did for us here, like as not you’d get caught by someone you diced with at the Province House. They’ll happily hang you.
“So go do whatever you can find to do around here tonight. Then take that leg and go build this nation. Leave the fighting to the men who haven’t got shot yet.”
“Yes, Sir, thank you, sir. General Thomas?” the old soldier looked up, “It’s not going to be that easy, is it?” The old soldier nodded acknowledgment as Alex got up to leave.
“No Peele, I imagine someone will need your unique skills again before this war is over. Could be sooner, could be later.”
The General went back to his work. Word was, this engagement would be the last one of John Thomas’s long career, and he wouldn’t leave his Roxbury farm to move on with the Continental Army. Alex left him to complete his victory. It was going to be a hell of a morning for William Howe, and Alex felt an urge to be back in Boston to see it. First, he would do what he could to help here at the Heights, and before dawn he would make his way back to his rooms in the town. As for his skills being unique? He doubted they were, but he was a good observer, a fine rider and could usually find a way to do what needed to be done.