Friday, March 17, 2006

Evacuation Day

Today is a holiday in Boston - yes, St. Patrick's Day, but that's not why county and city government offices, public schools and libraries are closed - although it is seen as a rather convenient coincidental bit of timing. It is Evacuation Day, the 230th anniversary of the beginning of the British Army's departure from Boston, which they'd occupied for the opening months of what would become the Revolutionary War.

The absolutely brilliant (and lucky) strategy by the nascent American military which forced the British out of Boston is one of the best stories of the Revolutionary era. Back on the night of March 4, 1776, Washington had ordered a large contingent his troops to occupy Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston with fortifications, barrels, and cannon hauled overland during the winter from Fort Ticonderoga in extreme upstate New York. Working under a full moon on a warm night (conditions almost exactly like those in Boston last night as I walked home thinking about this anniversary), the ragtag Americans worked on the hills, while a haze obscured the view from Boston and hid them from the view of the British.

As David McCullough writes in his eloquent treatment of the subject in 1776, "At daybreak [March 5], the British commanders looking up at the Heights could scarcely believe their eyes. The hoped-for, all-important surprise was total. General [Sir William] Howe was said to have exclaimed 'My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.'"

The guns on the Heights posed a severe problem for the British Navy vessels stationed in Boston Harbor - they could be fired upon, but could not return fire. Howe decided on an immediate frontal assault upon the Heights, but the weather, being that of Boston, decided to have its way with him. A howling wind grounded troop ships, and driving snow and rain conspired to force Howe to call off the attack. There would be no further opportunities, and Howe, seeing the writing on the wall, began preparations to evacuate British troops, loyalist citizens, and the Navy ships from the city. The winds weren't right until Sunday, March 17. McCullough again:

"The troops began moving out at four in the morning, more than 8,000 redcoats marching through the dark, narrow streets of Boston, as if on parade. By seven the sun was up and ships thronged at the wharves began lifting sail. By nine o'clock all were under way."

The American mainland would be bathed in blood for years to come, as the war ground on from New England to Georgia and beyond. Other cities would be occupied, and others would be evacuated. But it was the psychological (not to mention military) victory of forcing the British out of Boston that made the greatest difference to the continuation of the American cause.

So, Happy St. Patrick's Day, but as you revel, take a moment to enjoy the other significance of March 17.


At 1:50 PM, Blogger Charles Amico said...

Having been born in Boston and living there for my first 25 years, thanks for this post. I love Boston and its rich history.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger The Garlic said...

Nice post on the St. Patrick’s Day ... The “nod-and-a-wink” holiday of Evacuation Day ...

Growing up in Cambridge, we were always envious of our Boston friends having the day off ...

Another funky one is Bunker Hill Day (June 17th) – Same deal ... Some cities tie it in with Flag Day (which, I believe, technically, is June 14th) ..

And, of course, the big one, April 17th, which officially is Patriots Day, but in reality, is Boston Marathon Day (and Red Sox Game at 11AM Day) ... The diehards do the 5AM trip to Lexington for the horse ride and reenactment



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