George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Putnam, 11 February 1776

From Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Putnam

Roxbury Camp
11th February 1776

May it Please Your Excellency

You have Inclos’d a Chart, of some, of the most Important Posts and Riseing ground in and near Boston, which is as Exact as I am able to make from the little Leisure I have had to take Surveys of them,1 by this Draught it Appears that the Enemies works on the Neck is nearer the Causway going to Dorchester Point, than Bunker Hill is to the Cover’d way going on Leachmoors Point, therefore if a Cover’d way was Necessary in that case, it will be in this, should your Excellency think proper to order works thrown up on any part of the point, how this Cover’d way will be made is a Question. to procure upland or Marsh Turf at this Season is in my Opinion absolutely Impossible, and nothing short of Timber instead of Turf will Answer the purpose, the Method I have tho’t of is to side or Hew the Timber on two Sides only raising a single Tare on the side of the Causway, raising a Parrapet of Stone and Earth next the Enemy. the Timber to be well Spliced together and if need be a post with a brace in about Fifty feet to support the Timber against the stone & Earth, I know Stone are bad in a Parrapet, but as they are easily Procur’d from the walls at Dorchester, and I think cannot be Driven through the Timber by any shot whatever, I would place them at the bottom and Cover the top with Earth which might be procur’d by opening a Pit for that purpose[.] About 200 Rods is Necessary to be made a Cover’d way which 80 Tons of Timber to Raise one Foot, and so in proportion to every foot, the Parrapet is High; I have been to the Swamp I mentioned to your Excellency the other Day, find it between 12 & 13 Miles from the lines at Dorchester; there is near 100 Tons already got out besides a number of Mill Logs, the Carting from this place will be 12/ per Ton, One Hundred Tons more may be had on these lands if the swamp Does not break and no Doubt but Timber may be had in other Places, what your Excellency may think of so Costly a work, I cannot tell, ’Tis the only method I know of, but wish a better way may be found out, I hope your Excellency will Pardon my Officiousness in suggesting that I think this work may be Carried on with safety to the people Employ’d and to the Cause in general, as the Enemy cannot take Possession of Dorchester Hill at Present. Can we by any means Raise a Cover’d way in this frozen season it will be of no small Consequence in takeing Possesion of this Ground in a favourable Hour, the People who have been Employ’d by Mr Davis in getting the Timber out of the Swamp will get no more unless your Excellency gives Orders for it. I remain Your Excellency’s Most Obedt Hble Servt

R. Putnam


This letter indicates that as of this date GW was seriously contemplating the fortification of Dorchester Heights, the unoccupied high ground that commanded Boston from the south much as Bunker Hill did from the north. The council of war that met on 16 Feb. approved this operation after declining to authorize an assault on Boston, and on the night of 4 Mar. Continental troops began fortifying the heights. The success of their efforts pushed the British into making a hasty evacuation of Boston on 17 March.

GW had rejected earlier proposals to fortify Dorchester Heights because he lacked the necessary artillery and ammunition. See Councils of War, 9 July, 2 Nov. 1775, Artemas Ward to GW, 25 Aug. 1775 [first letter], and GW to Josiah Quincy, 4 Nov. 1775. Those shortages were alleviated by the cannon and mortars recently brought from Ticonderoga by Henry Knox and the shot and shells sent from New York City by Alexander McDougall.

The principal problems that remained were technical ones: how could fortifications be rapidly constructed on the hard frozen ground of the heights? And how could men and equipment be safely moved over an approach route visible to the enemy on Boston Neck and within range of their guns? GW apparently confronted these questions while inspecting the Dorchester area on this date. “His Excellency with Coll Gridley & Col. Knox,” Robert Hanson Harrison wrote to Artemas Ward early today, “will be at your Quarters at 10 OClock this morning in order to view the Causeway to Dorchester Hill, and the necessary Ground there for erecting works. His Excellency desires that you will Inform Generals Thomas & Spencer & Col. Putnam of this that they may not be out of the way, & in readiness to goe with him” (MHi: Ward Papers).

Rufus Putnam seems to have quickly assumed a leading role in advising GW on the technical aspects of the proposed operation. In this letter, which was apparently written after GW’s inspection tour of this date, Putnam addresses the problem of protecting the vital causeway across Dorchester Neck. Putnam also claimed credit for solving the problem of the fortifications on the heights by suggesting that they be initially constructed above ground using prefabricated parts. See GW to Joseph Reed, 26 Feb.—9 Mar., and GW to Artemas Ward, 3 Mar. 1776.

Rufus Putnam (1738–1824) of Braintree, Mass., a cousin of Gen. Israel Putnam, had no formal schooling but was an experienced engineer and surveyor. Putnam served as lieutenant colonel of Col. David Brewer’s Massachusetts regiment during 1775 and at this time was lieutenant colonel of the 22d Continental Regiment commanded by Col. Samuel Wyllys. During the New York campaign later this year Putnam acted as chief engineer of the army, and on 5 Aug. 1776 Congress appointed him an engineer with the rank of colonel. On 1 Nov. 1776 Putnam assumed command of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment, and on 7 Jan. 1783 he became a brigadier general. He left the army in November 1783.

1See fig. 3.

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