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“For as I have but one capital object in view, I could wish to make my conduct coincide with the wishes of mankind, as far as I can consistently ; I mean, without departing from that great line of duty which, though hid under a cloud for some time, from a peculiarity of circumstances, may, nevertheless, bear a scrutiny." Thus he held fast to “the great line of duty,” though bitterly tried the while by the news from Canada, where brilliant beginnings were coming to dismal endings, and cheered only by the arrival of his wife, who drove up one day in her coach and four, with the horses ridden by black postilions in scarlet and white liveries, much to the amazement, no doubt, of the sober-minded New England folk.
Light, however, finally began to break on the work about him. Henry Knox, sent out for that purpose, returned safely with the guns captured at Ticonderoga, and thus heavy ordnance and gunpowder were obtained. By the middle of February the harbor was frozen over, and Washington arranged to cross the ice and carry Boston by storm. Again he was held back by his council, but this time he could not be stopped. If he could not cross the ice he would go by land. He had been slowly but surely advancing his works all winter, and now he determined on a decisive stroke. On the evening of Monday, March 4th, under cover of a heavy bombardment which distracted the enemy's attention, he marched a large body of troops to Dorchester Heights and began to throw up redoubts. The
work went forward rapidly, and Washington rode about all night encouraging the men. The New England soldiers had sorely tried his temper, and there were many severe attacks and bitter criticisms upon them in his letters, which were suppressed or smoothed over for the most part by Mr. Sparks, but which have come to light since, as is sometimes the case with facts. Gradually, however, the General had come to know his soldiers better, and six months later he wrote to Lund Washington, praising his northern troops in the highest terms. Even now he understood them as never before, and as he watched them on that raw March night, working with the energy and quick intelligence of their race, he probably felt that the defects were superficial, but the virtues, the tenacity, and the courage were lasting and strong
When day dawned, and the British caught sight of the formidable works which had sprung up in the night, there was a great excitement and running hither and thither in the town. Still the men on the heights worked on, and still Washington rode back and forth among them. He was stirred and greatly rejoiced at the coming of the fight, which he now believed inevitable, and as always, when he was deeply moved, the hidden springs of sentiment and passion were opened, and he reminded his soldiers that it was the anniversary of the Boston massacre, and appealed to them by the memories of that day to prepare for battle with the enemy. As with the Huguenots at Ivry, —
"Remember St. Bartholomew l' was passed from man to man.”
But the fighting never came. The British troops were made ready, then a gale arose and they could not cross the bay. The next day it rained in torrents, and the next day it was too late. The American intrenchments frowned threateningly above the town, and began to send in certain ominous messengers in the shape of shot and shell. The place was now so clearly untenable that Howe determined to evacuate it. An informal request to allow the troops to depart unmolested was not answered, but Washington suspended his fire and the British made ready to withdraw. Still they hesitated and delayed, until Washington again advanced his works, and on this hint they started in earnest, on March 17th, amid confusion, pillage, and disorder, leaving cannon and much else behind them, and seeking refuge in their ships.
All was over, and the town was in the hands of the Americans. In Washington's own words, “To maintain a post within musket-shot of the enemy for six months together, without powder, and at the same time to disband one army and recruit another within that distance of twenty-odd British regiments, is more, probably, than ever was attempted.” It was, in truth, a gallant feat of arms, carried through by the resolute will and strong brain of
The troops on both sides were brave, but the British had advantages far more than compensating for a disparity of numbers, always slight and often more imaginary than real. They had
twelve thousand men, experienced, disciplined, equipped, and thoroughly supplied. They had the best arms and cannon and gunpowder. They commanded the sea with a strong fleet, and they were concentrated on the inside line, able to strike with suddenness and overwhelming force at any point of widely extended posts. Washington caught them with an iron grip and tightened it steadily until, in disorderly haste, they took to their boats without even striking a blow. Washington's great abilities, and the incapacity of the generals opposed to him, were the causes of this result. If Robert Clive, for instance, had chanced to have been there the end might possibly have been the same, but there would have been some bloody fighting before that end was reached. The explanation of the feeble abandonment of Boston lies in the stupidity of the English government, which had sown the wind and then proceeded to handle the customary crop with equal fatuity.
There were plenty of great men in England, but they were not conducting her government or her armies. Lord Sandwich had declared in the House of Lords that all “ Yankees were cowards,” a simple and satisfactory statement, readily accepted by the governing classes, and flung in the teeth of the British soldiers as they fell back twice from the bloody slopes of Bunker Hill. Acting on this pleasant idea, England sent out as commanders of her American army a parcel of ministerial and court favorites, thoroughly second-rate men, to
whom was confided the task of beating one of the best soldiers and hardest fighters of the century. Despite the enormous material odds in favor of Great Britain, the natural result of matching the Howes and Gages and Clintons against George Washington ensued, and the first lesson was taught by the evacuation of Boston.
Washington did not linger over his victory. Even while the British fleet still hung about the harbor he began to send troops to New York to make ready for the next attack. He entered Boston in order to see that every precaution was taken against the spread of the smallpox, and then prepared to depart himself. Two ideas, during his first winter of conflict, had taken possession of his mind, and undoubtedly influenced profoundly his future course. One was the conviction that the struggle must be fought out to the bitter end, and must bring either subjugation or complete independence. He wrote in February : “ With respect to myself, I have never entertained an idea of an accommodation, since I heard of the measures which were adopted in consequence of the Bunker's Hill fight;" and at an earlier date he said: “I hope my countrymen (of Virginia) will rise superior to any losses the whole navy of Great Britain can bring on them, and that the destruction of Norfolk and threatened devastation of other places will have no other effect than to unite the whole country in one indissoluble band against a nation which seems to be lost to every sense of virtue and those