George Washington Papers

Plan for Attacking Boston, 18–25 February 1776

Plan for Attacking Boston

[18–25 February 1776]

In Obedience to Your Excellency’s Orders, we have considered the Matters referred to Us, & beg leave to recommend the following Signals to be given from Roxbury, in Case of any Movement of The Enemy to Distress our People at Dorchester Hill:

Signal in Case the Enemy begin to Embarque, a Flagg on Roxbury meeting House; If they Actually Land at Dorchester Two Flaggs, One, over the Other; In case the Number of the Enemy Exceed Two Thousand Men; A Flagg at the East, & another at the West End, of that Meeting House; in Case a reinforcement in Addittion to the Two Thousand are seen Embarq’ing a Flagg on the East, a Flagg on the West, & a Flagg on the Middle of that Me⟨et⟩ing House.

In case the Enemy begin to Retreat; Three Flaggs on⟨e⟩ above the Other:

In case the Enemy Carry the Works The Flaggs are to b⟨e⟩ Struck:

We further beg leave to recommend to Yr Excellency That should it appear from the Signals at Roxbury or in any other way, that an Attack may be made upon Boston, with good probability of Success; We Recommend, that four Thousand Men Embark at the Mouth of Cambridge River.1 Two Thousand of Them to be Furnish’d from Cambridge, & Two Thousand from Prospect, & Winter Hill. One Thousand from each of those Hills; The Two Thousand from Cambridge to be Commanded By Brigadier Genl Sullivan & The Other Two Thousand By Brigr Genl Greene, The whole to be Commanded By Major General Putnam.

Signal for the Embarkation, A Pendant Hoisted on Prospect Hill.

The First Division under Brigadier G. Sullivan to Land at the Powder House.

The Second Division under Brigadier G: Greene to Land at Bartons Point, or rather to the South of it:

Those who Land at the Powder House to Gain Possession of Beacon Hill, & Mount Whoredom.

Those who Land at Barton’s Point, to Gain Possession of Copps Hill,2 & after securing that Post, proceed to Join The other Division, and Force the Enemys Works and Gates at the Neck, by which Means the Troops from R⟨o⟩xbury may be let in to Assist in the Reduction of The Town.

The Two Divisions to Consist of Eight Regiments of Five Hundred Men each, The Men to be Chosen, th⟨e⟩ir Arms well examin’d, & the Officers to be the best, the most resolute & experienced:

The Three Floating Batteries here, to go in Front of The Other Boats, & keep up a Heavy Fire on that part of The Town, where the Landings are to be made.

Israel Putnam

Jno. Sullivan

Nathanael Greene

Horatio Gates

D, in Horatio Gates’s writing and signed by each officer, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. A copy of what seems to be a revised version of this document, signed by Sullivan and Greene only and enclosed in a letter of 4 Mar. 1776 from Robert Hanson Harrison to Artemas Ward, was sold by Thomas Madigan, catalog 56, item 233, 1929, and by Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Inc., item 36, 11 June 1974. For significant differences between the plan abstracted in Madigan’s catalog and the one outlined in this document, see notes 1 and 2.

This undated document was written sometime after 16 Feb. when the council of war approved the occupation of Dorchester Heights and before 4 Mar. when the heights were taken. The speculative dates 18–25 Feb. are taken from Showman, Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:195–97.

Although there is no mention in the minutes of the council of war that met on 16 Feb. of a contingency plan for attacking Boston in connection with the occupation of Dorchester Heights, William Heath says in his Memoirs that the plan was discussed generally by the council and approved over his strong objections. “It was imagined,” Heath writes, “that so near an approach to the British [on Dorchester Heights] would induce them to make a sally, to dislodge the Americans. It was therefore deliberated in Council, that, in case the British should come forth, a strong detachment of Americans from the Cambridge camp, in boats, should proceed down the river, and land at the bottom of the common in Boston. To this our General [Heath] made a most pointed opposition, alleging, that it would most assuredly produce only defeat and disgrace to the American army; that the British General must be supposed to be a master of his profession; that as such, he would first provide for the defence of the town, in every part, which was the great deposit of all his stores; that when this was done, if his troops would afford a redundancy, sufficient for a sally, he might attempt it; but it was to be remembered that, at any rate, the town would be defended; that it was impossible for troops, armed and disciplined as the Americans then were, to be pushed down in boats, at least one mile and a half, open to the fire of all the British batteries on the west side of the town, and to their whole park of artillery, which might be drawn to the bottom of the common long before the Americans could reach it, and be flanked also by the works on the [Boston] neck; that under such a tremendous fire, the troops could not effect a landing; and that he would never give his vote for it. It was, however, carried, that the attempt should be made” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 47).

On 4 Mar. 1776 Robert Hanson Harrison wrote to Artemas Ward regarding this plan: “As a mistake in the Signals which his Excellency gave you today might produce the most fatal consequences to the men who are to be Embarked from Litchmores Point & Cambridge in case they shall be given in particular instances, It is his desire that you appoint one or two Judicious, sensible Officers to make them, in whom you can confide—his Excellency wou’d chuse ’em to be well acquainted with Numbers, that they may not be deceived as to the amount of the Ministerial Troops that may come out—he also desires that the Staffs on which the Signals are to be Hoisted, may be fixed to the meeting House, being apprehensive that If they are not, they might thro Inattention of those who heed ’em, or on the Enemies firing shot or Shells, be dropt which wou’d occasion confusion & disorder” (MHi: Ward Papers).

In a second letter of 4 Mar. to Ward, Harrison writes: “His Excellency having only given you the Signals to be made, without a State of the measures to be adopted on this side on the happening of certain events, by his command I Inclose you the Signals & the plan of Operations which will evince the necessity of your pursuing the directions in the Letter herewith sent, and the circumspection of the Officers appointed to make the Signals. He begs that you will provide them with the best Glasses you can procure that they may be enabled to discover the movements of the Enemy as clearly as possible.” In a postscript Harrison added “You will inform his Excellency of the names of the Officer or Officers & who they are, if you can fix on ’em by the bearer’s return” (Thomas Madigan, catalog 56, item 233, 1929). Harrison enclosed the copy of the revised plan signed by Greene and Sullivan (see above).

When the British failed to attack the American positions on Dorchester Heights on 5 or 6 Mar., this plan was not implemented. See GW to Joseph Reed, 26 Feb.—9 Mar., n. 13, and GW to Hancock, 7–9 Mar. 1776. For Heath’s approval of this turn of events, see Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 50.

1The abstract in Madigan’s catalog reads: “We further beg leave to recommend to your Excellency, that if it should appear from the Signals at Roxbury, or in any other way that an attack may be made upon Boston with a probability of Success. We Recommend that Two Thousand men embark at the mouth of Cambridge River, Two Thousand more at Letchmore’s Point.”

2The abstract in Madigan’s catalog reads: “Signal for Embarkation, A Pendant hoisted on Prospect Hill. Those that embark from Letchmore’s Point to land at the Mill Pond and secure Cop’s Hill. The two thousand that embark from Cambridge to land near Hancock’s house & attack the works there.” The Mill Pond was at the north end of Boston between Barton’s Point and Copps Hill, where the British had an artillery battery overlooking the ferry to Charlestown. John Hancock’s house and the powder house were in west Boston near Mount Whoredom, where the British had recently erected another battery to oppose the American position at Lechmere’s Point.

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