From Battle Road to Bunker Hill
Damn the Rebels, they would not flinch.
–anonymous British officer on Breed’s Hill
Great Britain’s American colonies had travelled a long road from their protest against the Sugar Act of 1764 to the shooting war begun on Lexington Green in the spring of 1775. It was a road of many twists and turns, to be sure, but by reasoned argument, by the conviction of self-interest, by propaganda and provocation, some critical mass of Americans had been persuaded that Great Britain was working a deliberate design against their constitutional liberty. To oversimplify a complex case, liberty was property, and hence taxation without real representation in Parliament was a species of theft. Moreover, Britain’s thievery, many were coming to believe, violated a higher law than the British Constitution: the natural rights of man, an idea–new to the eighteenth century–that defined and made urgent the current political and economic debate. The terms of that debate were made even sharper by a social and cultural transformation difficult to quantify but nonetheless tangible: the growing consciousness of a distinct American national identity. As Crevecoeur had observed, new world experience had produced a new man.
Still, in the decade between the Sugar Act and the shooting war, opportunities for compromise and reconciliation there had been, and thoughtful men and women on both sides of the Atlantic could see that there was room in the British Empire for American liberty, with peace and prosperity the likely and happy consequence for both parties. Yet voices of moderation, British and American alike, had gone largely unheeded. In Great Britain powerful and profoundly conservative forces, aided and abetted by venal, short-sighted, self-serving politicians, carried the day in Parliament, and thus the coercive measures that body enacted served to provoke the very revolution they were intended to repress. As the crisis came to a head in America, the advocates of Whig liberty in the popular assemblies effectively deposed the royal governors and resolved to defend their cause by force of arms. Their cause was not, in the immediate aftermath of Lexington and Concord and for some time to come, American independence but English liberty, constitutional liberty that Parliament had violated. Some American leaders were already referring to the British regulars they had fired on as the “ministerial troops,” nicely if falsely distinguishing the king from the measures of his government. No one, at least publicly, was talking about overthrowing the king in the name of English liberty, though privately some might have argued that nothing was more English than revolution. In the days when English colonists were struggling for a foothold in the North American wilderness, Charles I had after all lost his throne along with his head in 1649, and in 1688 James II, refusing to learn his history lesson, was fortunate simply to lose his throne in the revolution Englishmen called ‘glorious.’
Whether the redcoats now besieged in Boston were properly the king’s or his ministers’ troops was a question for statesmen and philosophers to jaw about later. For the American militiamen the question of what to do about them when the sun rose the day after Lexington was immediate and vexing. Just as immediate and perhaps even more vexing for the Americans was what to do with their own troops, those who had fought on Battle Road and the thousands more arriving daily from throughout New England. In this mass was plenty of energy, to be sure, but precious little order, direction, and common purpose. Dr. Warren, now posted in Cambridge, wrote to the Provincial Congress that the Massachusetts men were “busy as piss-mires on a molehill,” throwing up earthworks. And that effort was probably as good as any just now, for the Provincial Congress was in the process of declaring its militia an “Army of Observation.” Having shot redcoats all the way from Concord to Boston, the militia was now directed to watch them while congress organized and decided on a firmer course of action. Rhode Island to the south had sent men already and was now enlisting a “new service,” but its leadership was at least as uncertain as Massachusetts’. Incongruously, these new enlistments would march “in His Majesty’s Service… for the preservation of the Liberties of America.” The cap plate on the bear hats of the British grenadiers who marched on Battle Road bore the initials GR: George Rex. In the highly charged chaos after Lexington, no one had time to wonder how shooting his grenadiers might serve his royal purpose.
And if in the end aggressive action against the British was what the New England colonies had in mind, this motley mob–half-armed, ill-equipped, unsupplied–now fronting Boston was not much of an instrument to wage war with. Joseph Warren, waiting for his own major-general’s commission to be confirmed, admitted tactfully but candidly that the army was “in such a shifting, fluctuating state as not to be capable of perfect regulation. They are continually coming and going…. They seem to me to want a more experienced direction… it is difficult to say what Numbers our Army consists of. If a return could be had one day, it would by no means answer for the next.” Warren might just as well have reported in the words of “Yankee Doodle”: the men and boys were gathered as “thick as hasty pudding.” (That tune, incidentally, was among the first American spoils of war. First played by the British during the French wars to mock their American cousins, this old tune with new words Americans now claimed proudly as their own.) Loyalists, appalled by the events of April 19, could take some heart from the mess their Whig neighbors appeared to be making of their rebellion. “Here Anarchy before the gaping crowd/ Proclaims the people’s majesty aloud,” wrote the Loyalist poet, Jonathan Odell: “Legions of senators infest the land,/ And mushroom generals thick as mushrooms stand.” Even Patriot Benjamin Thompson had to admit that the New England troops were an army “only if that mass of confusion may be called an Army.” The confusion ran from the ranks up and from the high command down. Strictly speaking, despite what the four New England colonies had framed on paper for their militia organizations, there was no high command just yet.
While militiamen came and went in front of Boston, delegates from all the colonies but Georgia were making their way to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress to commence on 10 May. This body would determine what the Middle and Southern colonies would or would not do to support their New England brethren, but for now it was a New England war–if war it was. In the midst of this uncertainty, however, the Yankees were given an unintended gift by General Gage, and that gift was time. Though he had no clearer idea of actual American strength than Dr. Warren, Gage was sure that his force was considerably outnumbered. For the time being, he would withdraw his lonely outpost from Bunker Hill on the Charlestown Penninsula, fortify the peninsula of Boston, and await reinforcement. And while Gage waited, mushroom generals were springing up in the American camp, and, regardless of Tory sneers, these turned out to be men of ability. Massachusetts chose Artemus Ward to command all its forces. Though older than his years at forty-seven, heavy, “sick of the stone,” and something of a prudent plodder, this farmer turned soldier had seen service in the French and Indian War and was an able administrator. He was seconded by a doctor turned soldier, John Thomas, likewise a veteran of the last French war, but, unlike Ward, he had earned a reputation as an aggressive fighter. In the long American arc running from Chelsea to Dorchester, Ward took immediate command of the Massachusetts men north of the Charles River and delegated the southern sector to Thomas.
Though contemporary newspaper accounts spoke confidently that spring of a “Grand American Army,” in fact the arrival of the New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island contingents made four distinct commands. New Hampshire sent its Provincial Brigade, some 1,200 men, mostly veterans, led by a tall, sinewy frontiersman, Colonel John Stark, an Indian fighter who, ironically enough, admired the native people he fought against. (Taken prisoner by the Indians during the last French war, he was adopted by the chief of the St. Francis tribe.) Connecticut sent a full six thousand men under capable Brigadier General Joseph Spencer, but perhaps the driving force in the Connecticut command was another brigadier, Israel Putnam. Broad, beefy, and belligerent, “Old Put” was, among other things, a hard man to kill. With Rogers Rangers he had fought French and Indians on the frontier, where he had been tomahawked and very nearly burned at the stake. He had survived Abercromby’s bloody failure at Ticonderoga and returned with Amherst to have a share in his victory. Shipwrecked in the Carribean, he later led a regiment of Rangers through musketry and cannon fire in the conquest of Havana, all this before settling down on a prosperous farm in Pomfret. The story that has followed Putnam down the years is that he left his plow in the field to take up his sword in the best tradition of republican virtue, but it is certain that he was quick to answer the alarm of 19 April. The brigadier of Rhode Island’s 1,500 was, however, a most unlikely soldier, Nathanael Greene. A tall, youthful, well-to-do Quaker, he had been read out of the meeting for his enlistment as a private in the Kentish Guards in 1774. He limped slightly on a gimpy knee and wheezed with asthma, and all he knew about soldiering came from books not experience, but there was a quiet and determined confidence about him that men responded to. When he reached the American lines around Boston, it was clear that it would take more than determined confidence to make something effective out of the American host. “The want of government, and of a certainty of supplies,” he wrote, “have thrown everything into disorder.”
So General Ward and the others went patiently to work imposing order as best they could, sorting out commands, organizing them into regiments, and intrenching and fortifying against a possible British attempt to break out of Boston. Fortunately for the Americans, the redcoats continued to rest on their arms. In fact, the two most pointed threats to the American cause at this point came from the American camp. First, with four “foreign” armies gathered, there was no end to wrangling within the officer corps about rank and authority. As one man confided to his diary, a great deal of energy went to “a Strugling with the offisers which shold be the hiest in offis.” (This struggle about rank would not end until the war ended; then a new official struggle broke out about reputation and was fought on the field of memoirs.) Second and more threatening, the militiamen in the ranks did as citizen-soldiers had always done: believing that no real fighting was immediately imminent, the men drifted away home to tend to their shops, farms, and families. It was springtime, most were farmers, and sowing wheat and corn will not wait on revolution. Others, accustomed to the free and easy democracy of the village militia, simply walked off, unwilling to serve under officers not of their own choosing. In exasperation Ward told Congress that unless a more permanent army was enlisted, “I shall be left all alone.” The response of the Provincial Congress was ambitious enough, an act to enlist a volunteer army of thirty thousand, 13,600 of these to be Massachusetts men and the rest from the other New England colonies, all of whom would serve to year’s end. This “Eight-Months Army” would fall well short of the thirty thousand Congress aimed for, but by the middle of June something like ten or twelve thousand were more-or-less organized, though not properly armed, equipped, or supplied. That would have to do until the Continental Congress did something more purposeful to support the effort. The sticky problem of unified command in New England was solved, to the extent that it could be solved for now, by New Englanders: New Hampshire officially put its army under Ward’s command, and Connecticut and Rhode Island instructed their armies to accept voluntarily Ward’s direction.
Lack of deliberate centralized control in a complex enterprise is of course generally a problem, but one of its consequences is sometimes opportunity: opportunity for individual initiative. In May two remarkable Americans, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, stepped forward to seize that initiative. Connecticut-born, Allen was a powerful, hard-drinking, profane lead miner now turned to farming on the New Hampshire Grants. What is today the state of Vermont, the Grants were then much in dispute between New Hampshire and New York, and Allen and his band of like-minded Green Mountain Boys had played a violent part in that dispute. New York had gone so far as to put a price on Allen’s head. Admittedly rough but no primitive, he was something of a thinker and had written, among other works, a deist tract entitled Reason the Only Oracle of Man. Benedict Arnold was a shorter, though sturdily built man sprung from well-to-do Rhode Island merchants. By turns apothecary, bookseller, merchant, and horse trader, he had prospered in business himself in New Haven, Connecticut. This zealous Son of Liberty was intelligent, energetic, and intensely ambitious. Though neither was at first aware of the other, Allen and Arnold’s common object was the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga on the southern end of Lake Champlain. Built by the French as Fort Carillon back in 1755, it had turned back one British attack in ’58 only to fall the following year. By ’75 war, winter, and neglect had reduced the Marquis de Lotbiniere’s massive works to, in the words of a British engineer, “an amazing Useless Mass of Earth.” It was garrisoned now by less than fifty officers and men of the 26th Cameronians under the command of Captain William De La Place. Some of these were disabled veterans of the last war, many were sick, and all seem to have been fairly demoralized by guarding a pile of rubble in the waste of the green dark northern forest. But Americans had excellent reason to covet this pile: commanding Lake Champlain, the entrance to Lake George, and passage to the Hudson River to the west, it was the gateway of invasion from Canada into the heart of the northern colonies. Then, too, if disaffected Canadians made common cause with the Americans–a recurring American daydream–Canada’s forces could move south across the lakes against the British overlords. Perhaps most important just now, however, Ticonderoga’s ruins still bristled with cannon, especially heavy guns, that might be put to use in front of Boston.
Soon after Lexington Arnold approached the Massachusetts’ Committee of Safety with his plan to mount an expedition against the fort where he had fought–and deserted–as hardly more than a boy back in the last French war. After some hemming and hawing, Massachusetts commissioned Arnold to raise 400 troops in western Massachusetts for that purpose. In the meantime, however, Allen had already been authorized by the Connecticut assembly to take his Green Mountain Boys north with the same design. Arnold had in fact just reached Stockbridge in the Berkshire Mountains and had hardly begun recruiting when he learned that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were already in Castleton in the Hampshire Grants and about to jump off for Ticonderoga. Thus, if Arnold wished to take Ticonderoga, he would first have to overtake Allen. In fact, a third expedition against Fort Ti had jumped off ahead of them both. Colonel Samuel Parsons, a New Haven Son of Liberty, seeking authority from no one, raised a handful of men and some money, and started north on his own hook. This little band was already with Allen in the neighborhood of Castleton when Arnold rode in with his Committee of Safety commission–and no troops. What the diplomats call a free and frank exchange of views unfolded: Arnold insisted on the command; Allen stood by his own hard-headed resolve and his Connecticut commission, and, altogether to the main point, his boys stood by him. In the end a disgruntled Arnold, presumptive co-commander, pushed north with the rest. It was a strange enough expeditionary force: a gang of frontiersman from the Hampshire Grants acting on the authority of the extra-legal Connecticut assembly, joined by Parsons’ band of free-booters answering to no one, joined by a Connecticut man with a Massachusetts commission and no troops, all marching to seize a British fort in what New Yorkers at any rate were sure was still the colony of New York.
And if this was a sufficiently strange expeditionary force, what unfolded when it reached Hand’s Cove on the east shore of Champlain and a couple miles north of the fort was almost comic. By the night of 9 May, they numbered two or three hundred men, but enough boats to transport them all to the opposite shore could not be had. Dawn was nearing when Allen decided to load the two boats on hand with all they would carry, eighty-odd men. Across the lake they rowed in the darkness, landed just above the fort, then halted while Allen and Arnold had one more free and frank discussion about who actually commanded. This dispute was resolved rather awkwardly by Allen’s threat to make Arnold the very first prisoner of the campaign. Then, perhaps more awkwardly, off Allen and Arnold went side by side to attack the fort with eighty men at their back. The gate to this erstwhile Gibraltar of the New World, meanwhile, was open, defended by a sleepy-headed sentry who raised a musket and called out a challenge. Allen thrust him aside with a blow of his sword, the Americans rushed in, and Allen and Arnold raced for the officers’ quarters. Allen shouted, “Come out of there, you damned old rat,” and Ticonderoga’s hapless second-in-command, Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham, appeared in the doorway with nothing more warlike than britches in his hand. When De La Place, roused from sleep by the commotion, appeared, Allen demanded the surrender of the fort. De La Place, sufficiently embarrassed, still had the presence of mind to ask by whose authority this demand was made. “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” Allen thundered, giving equal dignity it would appear to Nature’s God and the delegates set to meet this very morning in Philadelphia. Or rather, this is the way Allen himself, not without literary flair, recalled the encounter in aftertime (though neither Feltham nor De La Place nor Arnold remembered it quite the same way). In any case, whether the fort–and its hundred cannon–was now the rightful possession of Connecticut or Massachusetts or the Continental Congress or the Great Jehovah, it was demonstrably no longer King George’s.
Ticonderoga’s conquerors paused to relish their triumph, and, in Allen’s words, “tossed about the flowing bowl and wished success to Congress and the liberty and freedom of America.” Not content to rest on their laurels, two days later a detachment under Seth Warner, Arnold among them but still not in command, moved north and invested Crown Point, wrecked and abandoned by the British in the wake of Ticonderoga’s fall. Shortly after, Skenesboro, at the head of the lake, fell to another detachment, putting in American hands a schooner belonging to the late squire of that place. This Arnold promptly appropriated. With a force of his own at last he sailed all the way north to St. Johns on the Richelieu River and seized the fort and its garrison there, his energy and ambition finally rewarded with a conquest. Soon after, Arnold returned to Crown Point, and with greater conquests in mind, began to gather a make-shift navy for operations on the lakes (an excellent staging area for a possible invasion of Canada). But cautious politicians now overtook the ambitious warrior. As far as Connecticut was concerned, Ticonderoga and Crown Point were properly its conquests, and, after some wrangling, Massachusetts, Arnold’s authority, agreed. Arnold dismissed his troops and returned to Cambridge, the sweet savor of victory now turned to ashes in his mouth. Perhaps it was just as well. When the Second Continental Congress learned after the fact that British forts had been taken in their name, they were as much disconcerted as uplifted. Many held out hopes for a reconciliation with Great Britian, hopes unlikely to be nourished by seizing its possessions. And despite the crucial strategic importance of the northern posts, Congress after sharp debate agreed, at least for the moment, to abandon them. The cannon and other supplies, however, would go to the American camp until British possessions could be properly returned to their rightful owners. Officially Congress still looked for the “restoration of the former harmony between Great Britain and these colonies so ardently wished for by the latter.”