American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of New England

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press

"Then and there American Independence was born."

THE American Revolution began in Boston. Different dates are set for the beginning. John Adams says of Otis's speech in 1761 in the Council Chamber of the Old State House, "Then and there American Independence was born." The visitor to Boston should go, very early in his visit, into the Old State House; and when he stands in the Council Chamber he will remember that as distinguished a person as John Adams fixed that place as the birthplace of independence.

But one does not understand the history of the opening of the great struggle without going back a whole generation. It was in 1745 that Governor William Shirley addressed the Massachusetts General Court in a secret session. He brought before them a plan which he had for the conquest of Louisburg in the next spring, before it could be reinforced from France. The General Court (which means the general assembly of Massachusetts) at first doubted the possibility of success of so bold an attempt; but eventually Shirley persuaded them to undertake it. The Province of New Hampshire and that of Connecticut cooperated, and their army of provincials, with some assistance from Warren of the English navy, took Louisbourg, which capitulated on the 17th of June, 1745. Observe that the 17th of June is St. Botolph's day; and that he is the godfather of Boston.

When Louis XV. was told that this handful of provincials had taken the Gibraltar of America, he was very angry. In the next spring, the spring of 1746, with a promptness and secrecy which make us respect the administration of the French navy, a squadron of more than forty ships of war, and transports sufficient to bring an army of three thousand men, was fitted out in France and despatched to America, with the definite and acknowledged purpose of wiping Boston from the face of the earth:

For this Admiral D'Anville
Had sworn by cross and crown
To ravage with fire and steel
Our helpless Boston town."

It was a disgrace to the military and naval organizations of England at the same time, that they had so little information there on the subject.

They found out at last that this immense French fleet had sailed or was sailing. I think that it was the strongest expedition ever sent from Europe to America between Columbus's time and our own. Some blundering attempts to meet it were made by the English Admiralty. But their admiral had to make the lame excuse that seven times he tried to go to sea and seven times he was driven back by gales. Whatever the gales were, they did not stop D'Anville and his Armada, and poor Boston, which was to be destroyed, our dear little "town of hen coops," clustering around the mill pond, knew as little of the fate prepared for it as the British Admiralty. It was not until the month of September, 1746, that a fishing boat from the Banks, crowding all sail, came into Boston and reported to Governor Shirley that her men had seen the largest fleet of the largest vessels which they had ever seen in their lives, and that these were French vessels. Shirley at once called his Council together and "summoned the train bands of the Province." The Council sank ships laden with stones in the channels of the harbor. Hasty fortifications were built upon the islands, and Shirley mounted upon them such guns as he could bring together. The "train bands" of the Province promptly obeyed the call, and for the next two months near seven thousand soldiers were encamped on Boston Common, ready for any movement which the descent of D'Anville might require. Cautious, wise, and strong beyond any of his successors in his office, Shirley put his hand upon the throttle of the newspapers. D'Anville should not learn, nor should anybody learn, that he had an army in Boston or that he knew his danger. And so you may read the modest files of the Boston papers of that day and you shall find no reference to these military movements of which every man and woman and child in Boston was thinking. It is not till his young wife dies that, by some accident in an editorial room, the confession slips into print that the train bands of the Province accompanied her body to its grave.

It was the only military duty which was required of that army of six thousand four hundred. The people of the times would have told you, every man and woman of them, that the Lord of Hosts had other methods for defending Boston.

What happened, or, if you please, what transpired, was this: Among his other preparations for his enemy, Shirley proclaimed a solemn Fast Day, in which the people should meet in all their meeting houses and seek the help of the Almighty, and they did so. Thomas Prince, of the Old South Meetinghouse, tells us what happened there. In the morning, a crowded congregation joined in prayer, and Prince told them of their danger and exhorted them to their duty. In the afternoon the assembly met again. As Prince led them in their prayer, what seemed a hurricane from the southwest struck the meeting house. A generation after, men remembered how the steeple above them shook in the gale, and Prince went on, calmly, in his address to the God who rides on the whirlwind:

"We do not presume to advise, O Lord, but if Thy Providence requires that this tempest shall sweep the invaders from the sea, we shall be content."

And this was precisely what happened: This southwest gale tore down the Bay. This side Cape Sable, just off Grand Manan, it found D'Anville's squadron in its magnificent array. It drove ship against ship. It capsized and sank some of the noblest vessels. It tore the masts out of others. It discouraged their crews and their officers. All that was left of this gallant squadron (which was to burn our "hen coops" here) took refuge in Halifax Bay or crept back under jury masts to France. In the harbor of Chebucto, as they called Halifax, the wrecks of the fleet were repaired as best they might be. D'Anville and his first officer both died, one as a suicide, and the other from the disgrace of the discomfiture. It is said in Nova Scotia that you may see some of the ships now, if you will look down at the right place in the clear sea, off Cape Sable. A miserable handful of the vessels straggled back to France at the opening of the winter.

The colonists of New England had thus learned two lessons, one in 1745, and one in 1746. In 1745 they had learned that without any assistance from their own king they could storm and take the strongest fortress in America. In 1746 they learned that the anger of the strongest prince in Europe was powerless against them. Those who believed in the immediate providence of God thought that He stretched out His arm in their defense. Those who did not, thought that in the general providence of God, a people who were three thousand miles away from the greatest sovereign of the world might safely defy his wrath. Curiously enough, in the next year, 1747, the people of Boston had an opportunity to learn a third lesson by measuring strength with their own sovereign.

In that year Admiral Knowles, in command of the English squadron, rather a favorite till then, I fancy, with the people here, happened to want seamen. He availed himself of that bit of unwritten law which held in England till within my own memory, by impressing seamen from the docks. A memorial of the General Court says that the English government had carried this matter so far that, as they believed, three thousand Americans were at that time in the service of the British navy, having been unwillingly impressed there. But Knowles carried it farther yet. He took on board his fleet some hundreds of ship carpenters, mechanics, and laboring men; and Boston broke out into a blaze of excitement and fury. There followed the first of the series of proceedings which, with various modifications, lasted for thirty years, until General Howe withdrew the British fleet and army from Boston. It was a combination of riots and town meetings, the town meetings expressing seriously what the rioters did not express so well, the rioters giving a certain emphasis, such as was understood in England, as to the intention of the town meetings of Boston. We have the most amusing details of this affair in a very valuable and interesting history just published by Mr. John Noble. The rioters seized Knowles's officers whom they found in the town, and shut them up for hostages. Knowles declared that he would bombard the town. But what with the General Court and the town meetings and the magistrates and the rest, he was soothed down, the people gave up their hostages, and he gave up the men whom he had seized. Boston had measured forces in this affair with King George. Both were satisfied with the result; and, if I may so speak, this first tussle ended in a tie.

Here were three trials of strength in three years. And the Boston people learned in each of them the elements of their real power. When, nearly twenty years after, Otis made his eloquent protest against the Writs of Assistance, he did not succeed. The Court decided that the Province must permit the officers to make the searches in private houses which the Crown asked. But there was a point gained, in the confession that the Crown must ask, and thinking men took note of that confession.

"Sam" Adams, as he was always affectionately called, had graduated at Harvard College in 1740. There is no direct evidence known to me, but without it I believe that almost from that time Sam Adams was the inspiring genius of one or more private clubs in which the young men of Boston were trained in the fundamental principles of independence. On the other side it may be said that from the moment when Quebec fell the home government of England did everything that can be conceived of to disgust and alienate the people of Boston. The disgust showed itself now in grumbling, now in physical violence. In the midst of it all there was one quiet leader behind the scenes. Sam Adams had the confidence of the gentry and of the people both. When he wanted a grave and dignified expression of opinion he had a town meeting called, and then this town meeting heard speeches and passed resolutions of such dignity and gravity as were worthy of any senate in the world. On the other hand, if Sam Adams needed to give emphasis to such resolution, the mob of Boston appeared in her streets, did what he wanted it to do, and stopped when he wanted it to stop. It is fair to say that George III.'s ministers lost their heads in their rage against the riots of Boston. The Boston Port Bill, the maddest and most useless act of vengeance, was aimed at the Boston mob; and yet in the thirty years between Louisbourg and Lexington this riotous mob of Boston never drew a drop of human blood in all its excesses. And this, though once and again the soldiers and sailors of England killed one and another of the people.

Now to follow along step by step the visible memorials of the war, I advise you to go to Roxbury through Washington Street by one of the Belt line cars. The very name, Washington Street, should remind you that Washington rode in in triumph by this highway on the 17th of March, 1776, the day when General Howe and the English troops evacuated the town. Let the car drop you at the Providence railway crossing in Roxbury and take another car to Brookline; or go on foot. All this time you have been on the track of the English general, Lord Percy, who was sent out with his column to reinforce Colonel Smith, who had charge of the earlier column sent against Concord, on the day of the battle of Lexington. You can, if you choose, on your wheel or on your feet, go into Cambridge with this column; but take care not to cross Charles River by the first bridge, but by that where the students' boathouses are, on the road which becomes Boylston Street as you enter Cambridge. You may then go on to Lexington and Concord.

On another day, start from Cambridge at the Law School. This stands on the very site of the old parsonage, General Ward's headquarters. The evening before the battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott's division was formed in parade here and joined in prayer with the minister of Cambridge before they marched to Bunker Hill. Anybody will show you Kirkland Street, which is the name now given to the beginning of "Milk Row," the road over which they crossed to Charlestown. If you are afraid to walk, take your wheel. Two miles, more or less, will bring you eastward to Charlestown Neck. Then turn to your right and walk to Bunker Hill Monument, which you can hardly fail to see.

It is quite worth while to ascend the monument. It gives you an excellent chance to obey Dr. Arnold's rule and study the topography on the spot. You cannot fail to see the United States Navy Yard just at your feet. Here Howe's forces gathered for the attack on Prescott's works on the day of the battle. And to the shore they retired after they were flung back in the first two unsuccessful attacks.

In the mad attack on Prescott's works, General Gage lost, in killed and wounded, one quarter of his little army. What was left became the half starved garrison of Boston. I say "mad attack," because Gage had only to order a gunboat to close the retreat of the American force, and he could have starved it into surrender. But such delay was unworthy of the dignity of English generals, or, as they then called themselves, "British" generals. It is to be remembered that this use of the word "British," now much laughed at, was the fashionable habit of those times.

The date of the battle was June 17, 1775. Oddly enough, this had long been the saint's day of St. Botolph, the East Anglian saint for whom Boston in England was named. It seems probable, however, that this odd coincidence was never noticed for a hundred years. Since the majority of the people of Boston and Charlestown have been Catholics, it has attracted attention.

From that date to March 17, 1776, the date Just now alluded to, Boston and the English army were blockaded by the American troops. They had gathered on the day after Lexington, commanded at first by Artemas Ward, the commander of the militia of Massachusetts, and afterwards by Washington, with Ward as his first major general. The English retained their hold on Charlestown, but once and again the Americans attacked their forces there. They never marched out beyond Boston Neck or Charlestown Neck.

On the south, their most advanced works were where are now two little parks, Blackstone Square and Franklin Square, on the west and east sides of Washington Street, respectively. They had a square redoubt on the Common, where is now a monument to the heroes of the Civil War. A little eastward of this was a hill called Fox Hill, which was dug away to make the Charles Street of today. Farther west, where the ground is now covered with buildings, were two or three redoubts, generally called forts, by which they meant to prevent the landing of the Americans.

At that time Beacon Hill was much higher than it is now. Exactly on the point now marked by a monument, a monument was erected after the Revolution, in commemoration of the events of the year when it began. The present monument - completed lately - is an exact imitation of the first, but that this is of stone, and that was of brick. This has the old inscriptions.

Washington drove out the English by erecting the strong works on what was then called Dorchester Heights, which we now call South Boston. The places where most of these works existed are marked by inscriptions. Independence Square is on the site of one of them.

The careful traveller may go out to Roxbury, follow up Highland Street and turn to the right, and he will find an interesting memorial of one of the strong works built by General Ward. From this point, north and east, each of the towns preserves some relic of the same kind. In Cambridge one is marked by a public square, on which the national flag is generally floating.

At the North End of Boston, where is now, and was then, the graveyard of Copp's Hill, the English threw up some batteries. These are now obliterated, but the point is interesting in Revolutionary history, because it was from this height that Gage and Burgoyne saw their men flung back by the withering fire of Bunker Hill.

Historic towns of New England

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