One chilly morning in April, General Howe stepped out of his Boston headquarters and stared in amazement at a hill called Dorchester Heights, to the south of the city. It had been fortified during the night by George Washington’s rebel army. Strong breastworks of ice blocks and brown earth ran along the crest of the bill. Above the steepest slopes, barrels filled with rocks stood balanced, ready to be sent tumbling down the hill in the path of attacking troops.
Studying the hill through his glass, Howe could make out several companies of riflemen and some units with muskets. What disturbed him most were the cannon, all well placed on the top of the hill where they could pound Boston and a good part of the Royal Fleet in the harbour. None of the British cannon, from their low positions‚ could possibly place their shots farther than the bottom of the hill.
Howe made ready to attack, then changed his mind, probably haunted by the horrors of Bunker Hill. The British began making preparations to withdraw from the city. For the redcoats, the act of leaving Boston must have seemed like an escape from a prison city. They had been hemmed in there for many months, overcrowded‚ short of food and fuel. The civilian population had increased steadily, for a constant flow of colonial refugees had poured into the city to seek the protection of the British army. These refugees supported the mother country and called themselves loyalists because of their loyalty to the king. During the winter they had caused serious food and housing problems and greatly endangered the health of all.
WASHINGTON TAKES BOSTON
It may have been one of the loyalists who carried smallpox into the city. The disease had spread rapidly and raged for several weeks. Many had died. During that period Howe had lived in constant fear of rebel attack, for hundreds of his troops lay helpless in their beds.
Now that the British were about to leave Boston, the loyalists were frightened. Many were people of wealth whose property and homes had been taken from them by rebels. They had no place to go. Afraid of falling into the hands of the patriots, who regarded them as traitors, they begged General Howe not to leave them behind. Howe was a kindly man. He crowded them in with his troops and into every seagoing vessel he could find and took them to Halifax, a port in Canada.
Washington did not want to expose his troops to smallpox and organized what was probably one of the most unusual military units of the war. It was a unit of troops with pock-marked faces, troops whose faces had been scarred by smallpox. Having once had the disease, they could be exposed to it again without danger. This unit of about 500 men was the first to enter Boston after the British had sailed away.
Fortunately for the Americans, the British had been in such a hurry that they had left behind much of their military supplies, including ammunition, shot, small arms and thousands of woolen blankets and shoes. Earlier, the Americans had captured the British supply ship Nancy, loaded with muskets, round shot, flints and a brass mortar. All this, together with the cannon from the fallen British fort of Ticonderoga, provided Washington with enough military supplies to continue the war. Where would the British strike next? Washington thought they might try to take New York, the most important city in the colonies. To prevent that, he moved his army to New York and began throwing up breastworks to defend the city.
His success in driving the British out of Boston prompted many patriots to speak out boldly in favour of independence. In Philadelphia, Samuel Adams went before Congress and asked, “Why not declare for independence?” Others were more cautious. “Why all this haste?” asked a delegate from New York. Another said, “Before we are prepared to build a new house, why should we tear down the old one?”
The delegates knew that the people in their home colonies were sharply divided. In almost every American community there were patriots, who wanted independence; loyalists, who did not; and a group who did not take sides. It was not a struggle of poor against rich. People from all walks of life were to be found in each group.
The loyalists were a strange mixture of rich, poor, educated and ignorant. Among them were people educated in England who felt more British than American, people with strong family ties in England, colonial officials who had been appointed by the king and did not want to lose their jobs and people who still believed in good King George. Some were loyalists simply because they wanted peace at any price. Among the loyalists, also, were well-informed persons who realized that the colonies were poorly prepared to fight the powerful British army and timid ones who believed the colonies would be overrun by savage Indians and carved up by other European powers if they lost the protection of the mother country.
Included among the loyalists were settlers on the western frontiers of South Carolina and Georgia. They were in constant danger of Indian attack and wanted the British army to protect them. Other frontiersmen suspected that the fight for independence had been planned by rich people on the eastern coast, who wanted to become rulers of a new American nation.
Among the rich loyalists were businessmen in large eastern cities who had become wealthy by trading with the British. They wanted to continue their profitable trade with the mother country and were afraid that any change would destroy their businesses. They suspected that independence meant government by mob rule and violence, government under which the wealthy would enjoy no special advantages. They might even have their property taken from them and given to the poor.
Many owners of large plantations in the South were loyalists. They admired British manners and culture and tried to create little worlds of British society on their plantations. They educated their sons in England, looked down on ordinary Americans and believed that only people of education and wealth were fit to rule over others. They had always taken a leading part in colonial government and believed their way of life could best be protected by remaining loyal to the king.
In Virginia, the oldest of the colonies, plantation owners felt a little closer to the American way of life. Some had been among the leaders in the light against taxation without representation, but a good number of them were still undecided. Then Governor Dunmore did a number of things which helped them make up their minds. He secretly removed gunpowder stored in Williamsburg and loaded it aboard a British ship. The patriots armed themselves and surrounded the town to prevent the governor’s escape. The governor was frightened. He made the mistake of offering to free all Negro slaves who came to his aid. There were rumours that he held secret meetings by night with Negro leaders, laying plans for a Negro uprising. There was also a rumour that the king himself was behind the planned uprising and that any slave who killed his master would be rewarded with all the property his master had owned.
Panic swept through the colony and the plantation owners no longer had any doubts about the need for independence. They became patriots. Since they still believed that only the upper classes were fit to rule, they looked forward to enjoying powerful positions in the new government.
Virginia became a patriot stronghold, as did New England. The small farmers and merchants of western Massachusetts felt even stronger about independence than did the hot-headed radicals of Boston. Many wealthy New Englanders who had won their fortunes through smuggling became leading patriots.
In the large port cities, where English influence on society and business had always been strong, the people of the upper classes usually remained loyal to the king. So many of New York’s leading citizens sympathized with the British that it became fashionable for a time to be a loyalist. The Quakers and Germans in Pennsylvania refused to take sides. They were more interested in peace than in independence. In the Carolinas and Georgia, the feeling between patriots and loyalists had become so bitter that armed bands were organized to fight each other. The most important of their battles took place on February 27, 1776, at Moore’s Creek Bridge. It ended in a victory for the patriots and gave them control of most of North Carolina.
Congress had no loyalist members by this time, but not all the delegates favoured independence. Even radical Patrick Henry of Virginia felt it would be foolish to break away from England without first knowing what help might be expected from France and Spain. With the country divided against itself, there was little Congress could do except wait and hope for something to happen which might fan the flames of American liberty.