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HEIGHTS REACHED AND KEPT
N a forgotten and faded part of Boston, somewhat away from the center of the city, rises a hill whose top is green with grass and thick with elms and lindens, and on whose highest point stands a monument of exceptionally fine design; and this monument marks the spot of a great victory, one of the victories of Washington. And although it was a military victory it was bloodless; although it was a victory of immense importance to America it was won without loss. And the hill is still known as Dorchester Heights, just as it was when General Washington made it famous at the time of the Evacuation of Boston.
Before the Revolution the height was a place of pleasant resort, and John Adams mentions in his diary that on one evening in 1769, fifty-nine toasts were drunk at a barbecue and feast here to which three hundred guests sat down, and he adds, evidently thinking that if fifty-nine toasts were drunk so would many of the people naturally be expected to be, that not one person was intoxicated or near it."
After the Revolutionary days this general region was looked upon for a time as holding great possibilities of residence, and wealth and aristocracy were expected to come, and a big hotel was even built here which, however, failed to succeed, for the district failed to attract the expected classes, whereupon the hotel building was taken over by the very opposite of a sparkling hotel, an asylum for the blind, an asylum that gradually became very famous under the name of Perkins – and it is most curious that the wife of the most distinguished of the successive heads of this blind asylum was the author of the stirring lines beginning, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" – for Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, early in her life, lived here, for Doctor Howe, her husband, was long the superintendent. But even the asylum has moved elsewhere, and just recently the building itself, a really good-looking structure, was torn down and its material all sold. It was a satisfaction, however, to learn that a beautiful central stairway was bought by a Bostonian who wished to build it into a house of his own, for it is so sadly general that beautiful parts of fine old buildings are thrown away and burned when the buildings are taken down.
The district at present has not much to attract a visitor, for the streets and buildings are almost all quite commonplace; although even an otherwise commonplace district deserves appreciation for such efforts to save its old trees as this district has made, even to the extent, in places, of encouraging them to live even when surrounded by sidewalk stones.
It was early in the Revolution that Dorchester Heights became famous. When the British held Boston they fortified every place that seemed important to the defense of the city, and then settled down to await developments. Meanwhile, with a large American army so dispersed as to cover every possible line of approach, it was a difficult matter to get needed provisions into the city, and when ships were sent off on foraging expeditions it was not safe for them to make landings anywhere on the New England coast, for the entire countryside was in arms. All this caused much hardship and suffering, for garrison and townsfolk alike, and plan after plan was evolved by the British officers for advancing upon the Americans and defeating and dispersing them; but always the officers remembered Bunker Hill, and put each plan aside in hopes of finding a better one or of receiving such powerful reenforcements as would give to an attack the probability of success. And as they waited and planned and hesitated, General Washington was himself constantly planning and waiting and watching, eager for a chance to drive the British away. Slowly advancing here, patiently strengthening a defense there, ceaselessly studying and watching, steadily putting into the troops the discipline and patience that they needed, he came to see where a possible opportunity lay. And that opportunity was on Dorchester Heights, for from that vantage point he could command the harbor and the city – if he had proper guns. And with incredible carelessness, the British had failed to fortify the spot; had failed even to place troops there.
But although there was no British obstacle, there was the obstacle that lay in lack of equipment. The Americans had no cannon except some minor field-pieces. They had no siege guns of sufficient range and caliber to sweep the harbor even if the height were seized. And there was the further consideration that heavy guns would be needed even in holding the height, for the British could not be expected to make over again the mistake of Bunker Hill and send lines of practically unsupported troops against American entrenchments; the British would so combine heavy cannonading with assault that, unless the Americans should have proper artillery, the heights would be untenable and the Americans would be compelled to retreat; the hill would then be thoroughly entrenched, by the British, against attack from the American side, and the capture of the city would be almost hopeless. So Washington knew that he must wait for big guns before he could dare to seize the heights, and meanwhile he could only hope that the British would continue to be so confident of his getting no big guns that they would not themselves take possession of that vantage point. It seems incredible, looking back at it, that this prominent hill, just at the edge of the city (it is now included within the city limits), should have escaped occupation by either side, when there were thousands of British soldiers within the city and thousands of Americans hemming the city in.
From the first, even before the ultimate seizure of Dorchester Heights was decided upon, the possession of heavy guns had been recognized as of the highest importance to the besiegers. The guns were got; and their getting was a remarkable achievement, one of the most remarkable of any war in history.
The man to whom the task was entrusted was young Henry Knox, afterwards to become the famous General Knox; and his fame and advancement, as the trusted artillery officer, the trusted friend and helper of Washington, began with his selection for this task. Not much of a soldier, one might in those early days have thought, for his occupation had been the peaceful one of bookseller! He had begun business for himself in Boston, in the early 1770's, with an initial importation of books to the value of three hundred and forty pounds, which total was steadily increased until it was over two thousand pounds, and his business became flourishing and his shop was known as a popular meeting-place for the best men and women of the city. Then financial trouble came to him as it came to all the business men of Boston, through the threatened break with England, the closing of the port, and the general disorganization of trade. When the war actually began, Knox put his ruined business aside and promptly joined the American forces. Throughout the war he forgot all about his books – he was General Knox, the great master of artillery. And it is pleasant to know that when the war was at length over, and he might fairly have repudiated all of his debts to English publishers because his financial altogether – from the British Government and because his shop was robbed and looted by British soldiers, he did not like to hold the English publishers responsible, and continued to make payments on these pre-Revolutionary debts long after the war was over.
Knox was extremely handsome and likable as well as capable. In fact, his capacity was recognized from the beginning. He had married the daughter of an aristocrat, in spite of the opposition of her family, and was so highly thought of that strong efforts were made to attach him to the English before he could join the Revolutionists. That he was an active member of the handsomely uniformed local organization known as the Grenadier Guards, and second in command, made him of practical promise as a soldier; and when it was learned that he would not fight for England, General Gage peremptorily forbade him to leave Boston. But his wife quilted his sword into the lining of his cloak and he escaped from the city in disguise and reached the American lines.
From the first, Washington liked him and he liked Washington. Washington needed a man who could be trusted to get cannon. Here was Henry Knox, than whom no man was more dependable. It was a supreme opportunity for both. Crown Point and Ticonderoga had been captured ("In the name of Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"), and there were many cannon, at those two adjacent forts, ready to be used; and Knox was told to go and get them. And although it was a tremendous undertaking he started off without a doubt of success.
On his way to Ticonderoga there was one of the curious meetings of history, for on a stormy winter night, on the border of Lake George, Knox met Major Andre, who was on his way as a prisoner to Lancaster, Pennsylvania – this being, of course, an earlier capture than the later fatal one. The two young men spent a pleasant evening together, for they had tastes in common and were alike bright and agreeable, and in the morning they parted – only to meet again when Andre was once more a prisoner. And it was severe suffering for Knox, long afterward, remembering this pleasant winter meeting beside Lake George, to sit as a member of the court martial that found it inevitable to condemn Andre to death.
Knox reached Ticonderoga and Crown Point and found the cannon there. And we still may read his fascinating inventory. There were 14 mortars and cohorns, brass and iron, from 4 ½" to 13" diameter of bore; there were two iron howitzers; there were 43 cannon, from 3-pounders to 18-pounders. There was thus the formidable number of 59 guns in all, with a total formidable weight of 119,900 pounds! And some of the 18-pounders weighed as high as 5000 pounds each.
This enormous weight of artillery Knox was to convey to Boston without the loss of a single unnecessary hour. He was to take it through miles and miles of wild wilderness, by a rough road which was practically no road at all, in mid-winter; he was to go right across the Berkshires; and those who have motored over those splendid hills in summer on perfect roads, and know what heights and grades there are, will some what appreciate how gigantic was the task confronting Knox, of dragging one hundred and twenty thousand pounds of cannon over the mountain trails, through snow and ice and storm. And it would be hard to find words more brave and confident than those he wrote to Washington; not over-confident, not boastful, for he merely "hoped"; but we may be sure that Washington, reading the message, felt no doubts; Knox wrote, telling of finding the guns, and said: "I hope in sixteen or seventeen days' time to be able to present to Your Excellency a noble train of artillery." And his use of the word "noble" – what a touch it gives! That word, alone, would show the bravely romantic strain in Knox. He did not say "big" or "heavy" or "important" or "much-needed," but instinctively used the delightful word "noble" – "a noble train of artillery!"
Knox had been instructed by Washington as to how many horses to use, but there on the spot he gave up all idea of horses, being the kind of man who could assume the responsibility of altering instructions when it seemed advisable to do so, and he wrote to Washington that he had procured eighty yoke of oxen instead. He wrote from Albany on January 5th, eagerly impatient of a delay through a "cruel thaw" which made it temporarily impossible to cross the Hudson – which, to our amazement, we find had to be crossed "four times from Lake George to this town!" And from the Hudson he at length struck across the country, and over the great heights, from Kinderhook to Great Barrington and thence to Springfield, from which place he went triumphantly on to Boston. It was an amazing achievement.
Day by day Washington had feared that the British would seize the heights of Dorchester. All he could do, as he waited, was to put in readiness bales of screwed hay and fascines of white birch, ready for the making of redoubts – the white birch that even now springs up so freely all over the untillable parts of eastern Massachusetts. The weather continued so cold, and the ground so deeply frozen, that there seemed no chance to intrench on Dorchester, and surface redoubts were therefore all that could be prepared for. And there was moral severity as well as the severity of winter, as shown by General Orders of a winter day early in 1776 positively forbidding not only the soldiers, but the officers as well, to play cards or other games of chance, for "At this time of public distress, men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality."
With the arrival of Knox and the cannon the military situation was changed. It was now but a matter of bravely and cautiously making the final move. And on the night of March 4, the move was made.
It was a moonlight night. The British were unwatchfully asleep, refusing to let more than their pickets and patrols be disturbed by a severe cannonading which was kept up by the Americans from various points about the city to draw attention from the sending of a large number of men and wagons and guns to Dorchester, where the steep height was mounted and defensive preparations instantly begun. It was a literal proving that "the heights by great men reached and kept are not attained by sudden flight," but that they, while their opponents slept, were toiling upward in the night. Throughout the night the Americans worked with intense energy, and when morning came there was a redoubt-crowned hill, with soldiers and guns. The British gazed at it in amazement and soon realized that Washington had decisively outwitted them, for they quickly discovered that his position commanded the harbor and the city.
It has never, I think, been sufficiently understood, in regard to Washington's siege of Boston, that he came to the task, not as a stranger to that city but with a close knowledge of Boston localities. As a young officer, fresh from the campaign of Braddock, a great military movement with whose every detail he had been familiar, he had been sent to Boston, in 1756, on military matters and to tell Governor Shirley the circumstances of the death of Shirley's son on the Monongahela. At that time, Washington stayed ten days in Boston, and not only mingled with the best society of the town, but made it a point, with his military experience and ambitions, to see Boston thoroughly, even to the extent of visiting Castle William, out in the harbor. He could not well have had any definite premonition, twenty years before the Revolution; but none the less, born soldier that he was, he acquired such local knowledge as made Boston and its defenses familiar ground.
And, too, he came to the siege with full understanding of British officers and soldiers, of British methods and ways of thought, of a certain blundering and unwatchful bravery which marked their methods; he had learned all this from his close association with Braddock and his officers, and the knowledge thus gained gave him such an insight into the workings of the English military mind as made it possible for him to plan with success for Dorchester; counting, first, on British inaction, and next on his own preparations to meet their belated activity.
Washington fully expected an attack on his vital position at Dorchester. General Howe fully expected to make one, and Lord Percy was hurried toward Dorchester with twenty-four hundred men. The assembling of this force was witnessed not only by the American army, but by the people of the city, who gathered in massed throngs on the neighboring hills.
It was a steep ascent to the American position; it is steep even now, although much of the ground round about has been graded and leveled; it was too steep for the successful depression of artillery in those early days, and so the Americans made ready, not only with their rifles, but with barrels of stone and sand to roll down on Percy’s men as they should come up the hill. But only a few of Percy’s men reached even the foot of the hill, for a heavy rain and storm came on, with so high a wind and such rough water and dangerous surf that the landing of the English troops to make an attack became impossible. The storm continued all that day, and all the following night and the next day, and when it ceased the Americans had made their position so strong that it was absolutely useless to attack it. And Washington could now at any moment cannonade Boston.
Washington had been specifically authorized by Congress to attack Boston even though the town might thereby be destroyed. General Howe, appreciating to the full the new gravity of his position, frankly threatened to burn the town if an attack should be made. But Howe knew that his position had suddenly become hopeless; he was trapped and was ready for an accommodation; and Washington, for his part, could not bear to have the loyal city destroyed. There was some difficulty in reaching an agreement between the two leaders, for, such being sometimes the absurdities of practical affairs, Howe would not address Washington in those early days as an acknowledged. General, and Washington would not permit himself to be addressed in any other way. However, what may be called a gentlemen's agreement was unofficially arranged, by which Howe was promptly to evacuate the city and Washington was to refrain from using his guns. There was almost two weeks of preparation for the departure, with the Americans watchfully waiting, and on March 17th the British fleet sailed away, dropping out of the harbor in long procession, bearing eleven thousand troops and one thousand Boston refugees; going to Halifax, these refugees, self-condemned and unhappy exiles; and ever since has "Go to Halifax" been an opprobrious term in most of America, just as I have noticed the word "Hessian" still used opprobriously down in Virginia.
What a spectacle must the sailing of the British fleet have been. There were as many as one hundred and seventy ships, so some of the descriptions have it, and soldiers and civilians, men and women and children, crowded every vantage point, every housetop and hill, to see the ships move sullenly away and watch the white sails disappear in the distance.
And that was how Washington won Boston; won it with superbness of victory, completeness of success; won it without loss of life except such as now and then had come from the clashing of outposts; won it, in the final analysis, through discerning the capacity of Henry Knox and the importance of Dorchester Heights. And that is why this hill, situated amid what are now commonplace surroundings, takes on the high aspect of romantic and vital history. But even as thoughts came to me of the contrast between the romantic past and the commonplace present, the picturesque appeared, for, as I walked about the hill, two Roman Catholic nuns suddenly appeared, passing slowly by, each wearing her headdress of white and her kirtle of blue, each with the great, plain, starched-linen headdress pinned tightly about the lines of the face. It was as if they had serenely walked out of Normandy only to walk serenely around the corner into Normandy again, on this American hill.
The height is topped by a shapely, impressive, fitting monument, of white marble, with a steeple-like marble top that in shape is like the steeple of some admirable old American meeting-house; an admirable idea admirably executed. And this hill, with its space of greenery about the monument carefully preserved, is in itself a noble monument to American genius and patriotism. It is seldom seen by Bostonians, although it can readily be reached in less than half an hour from the center of the city, and the reason for neglect is probably that the victory of Dorchester was won without the bloodshed that seems to be needed to make a picturesque appeal to most people. It was a victory of brains, not blood.
There is a splendid portrait of Knox, by Gilbert Stuart, that is proudly preserved in Boston in the Museum of Fine Arts. Few things are better for a country than the possession of admirable paintings of those of its citizens who have done great deeds; and here is the real Knox. As you look at him you see at once that of course he would get those guns! Of course he would do whatever he set out to do. Here he stands, alive and alert, one hand on his hip and the other resting upon a cannon, and thus cleverly, as Stuart meant it, concealing the absence of two fingers, lost not in battle, but in a gunning accident before the war. Knox looks out of the canvas as if still alive; masterful, capable, good-humored, firm, self-controlled, efficient; a handsome man, too, with high and heavy eyebrows and florid face; and he wears his uniform, of the mellowest of buff and the deepest of blue, with an air! Boston is fortunate indeed in her mementoes of Dorchester Heights, for not only has she the Heights themselves, but she has Gilbert Stuart's paintings of the two men to whom the victory was owing – she has his most famous Washington, and this superb portrait of Knox.