Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter VI - Boston Blockade

WHILE John and Abigail were writing their letters in Philadelphia and Braintree, Boston town was undergoing a winter of discontent indeed. Ever since Bunker Hill and the burning of Charlestown, the British troops had occupied the town, while Washington and his army lay encamped in Cambridge and on Dorchester Heights, west of the city. In October, the British command was transferred from General Gage to General Howe, who proved a more energetic commander. He burned Falmouth (now Portland), and threatened many other places. After the burning of Charlestown, Franklin wrote:

"Britain must certainly be distracted. No tradesman out of Bedlam ever thought of increasing the number of his customers by knocking them on the head, or of enabling them to pay their debts by burning their houses. It has been with difficulty that we have carried another humble Petition to the Crown, to give Britain one more chance of recovering the friendship of the colonies: which, however, she has not sense enough to embrace; and so she has lost them for ever."

The rival armies watched each other closely, meantime passing the time as best they might. Washington, with his newly levied troops, kept them busy enough, marching and counter-marching, drilling and practising; besides, the country was open to them on all sides, and they could come and go as occasion required. The British troops, however, found time hang heavy on their hands. Shut up in narrow quarters amid a bitterly hostile population, often short of provisions and ruled by an iron hand, they were having a forlorn time of it. One feels real compassion for the ancestor of "Tommy Atkins": he was probably a very good fellow at heart, as Tommy (to whom all honor!) is today. He had no personal quarrel with the people of Boston; he did not care whether they were bond or free, so he got his rations, his pint and his pipe. And here he was surrounded by black looks and scowling faces, and could not so much as answer a gibe or—possibly—prod an insulting urchin with his bayonet, without bringing the whole hornet's nest of patriots about his ears. On the other hand, if he were in any way remiss in his duties, he was flogged with a brutality worthy of the Dark Ages. A forlorn winter for Tommy, this of 1775-6. Small wonder that he was ready to lend his hand to any mischief that promised relief from the monotony of daily life.

Obeying orders, the soldiers tore down many fine old buildings for firewood, among them that of John Winthrop; cut down Liberty Tree,[15] which yielded fourteen cords of fine wood; made havoc generally. The grenadiers were quartered in West Church; two regiments of infantry in Brattle Street Church, whose pillars saved it from sharing the fate of the Old South, which was, as we know, used as a riding school by the dragoons.

The British officers fared better than their men. They were quartered in the homes of absent patriots. General Clinton was in the Hancock House, Earl Percy in that of Gardner Greene, Burgoyne in the Bowdoin mansion; while Gage and Howe successively inhabited the stately Province House.

The patriots, those who could afford to do so, had mostly left. Those who remained were of the humbler class, with a sprinkling of physicians, lawyers, and clergymen, who stood by their posts. Among the clergymen was one with whose name I have a pleasant association: the Reverend Mather Byles, pastor of Hollis Street Church. This gentleman was a merry, as well as a devout person; full of quips and cranks, and not always lacking in wanton wiles. John Adams quotes him as saying, when first the British troops occupied Boston, that "our grievances would now be red-dressed!" But my own thought of Mr. Byles recalls a story often told by my mother, which she may have heard in childhood from her grandfather, the old Revolutionary Colonel. It tells how one night the Reverend Mather, returning home very late, passed by the house of a man whom he greatly disliked. A sudden thought struck him; he went up the steps and began to beat and bang on the door and halloo at the top of his lungs. After some delay, the night-capped head of his neighbor was thrust out of the window, demanding what was to do at this time o' night.

"Have you lost a penknife?" asked Mr. Byles.

"No! Have you found one?"

"No, but I feel as if I should any minute!"

Exeunt both parties, one chuckling, the other swearing.

The Tories, rich, prosperous, and loyal to King George, were ready enough to help the officers in making merry. There were sleighing parties, riding parties, parties of every description: no doubt the Tory maidens found the winter a very gay one. Faneuil Hall was turned into a theatre, and General Burgoyne wrote plays for it. A performance of "Zara" was a brilliant success. After another performance, a farce called "Boston Blockade," a "Vaudevil" was to be sung by the characters, of which the following is a part:

Ye Critics, who wait for an End of the Scene,
T' accept it with Praise or dismiss it with Spleen;
Your Candor we ask and demand your Applause,
If not for our Action, at least for our Cause.
'Tis our Aim by Amusement thus chearful and gay,
To wile a few Hours of Winter away:
While we rest on our arms, call the Arts to our Aid,
And be merry in spite of the BOSTON BLOCKADE.

Ye tarbarrel'd Lawgivers, yankified Prigs,
Who are Tyrants in Custom, yet call yourselves Whigs;
In return for the Favors you've lavish'd on me,
May I see you all hanged upon Liberty Tree.
Meantime take Example; decease from Attack;
You're as weak under Arms as I'm weak in my Back,
In War and in Love we alike are betrayed,
And alike are the laughter of BOSTON BLOCKADE.

Come round then, ye Comrades of Honour and Truth,
Experienc'd Age and high-spirited Youth;
With Drum and with Fife make the Chorus more shrill.
And echo shall waft it to WASHINGTON'S Hill.
All brave BRITISH Hearts shall beat Time while we sing,
Due Force to our Arms, and Long Life to the King.
To the Honour of both be our Banners display'd,
And a glorious End to the BOSTON BLOCKADE.

As it turned out, the audience had not the pleasure of listening to these polished verses. The performance was in full swing; a comic actor held the stage, mimicking General Washington and holding him up to ridicule, when a sergeant rushed on the stage, crying, "The Yankees are attacking the works on Bunker Hill!"

The audience, supposing this to be part of the play, laughed and applauded: a happy thought! a capital touch! What were their feelings when the senior officer present rose and called, "Officers to their posts!" The assembly broke up in disorder. The officers summoned their men and hastened to Bunker Hill, where they arrived too late! Major Knowlton, who had fought so bravely in the battle of June 17th, had paid a second visit to the hill, burned some buildings and carried off several prisoners.

Meanwhile the Tory ladies, deprived of their gallant red-coated escorts, scuttled home as best they might through the dark, crooked streets, and their patriot sisters, who had refused to go to the entertainment, made merry over the episode for days afterward.

To lovers of Hawthorne, this story might well be followed by that wonderful tale of "Howe's Masquerade,"[16] which used to thrill me as a child, and which I cannot even now read unmoved. If not true in actual fact, it gives with absolute truth the Spirit of Seventy-Six.

The winter was a mild one: all too mild for Washington. He was eager to cross the ice on the Back Bay and attack the town; but the ice would not bear. Week by week he watched and tested it; all in vain. It was not till February, that "strong little month," that the real cold came. "When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen." Day followed day of keen, dry cold; night by night the ice "made," till a floor of crystal, solid as rock, lay about the peninsula of Boston. Washington called a council of war and urged an assault on the town. Alas! his field officers demurred, shook their heads, would none of it. Reluctantly he abandoned the plan, and determined to seize instead Dorchester Heights and Noddle's Island (East Boston).

On March 2d, Abigail Adams writes to her husband:

"I have been kept in a continual state of anxiety and expectation ever since you left me. It has been said 'tomorrow' and 'tomorrow,' for this month, but when the dreadful tomorrow will be, I know not. But hark! The house this instant shakes with the roar of cannon. I have been to the door, and find it is a cannonade from our army. Orders, I find, are come for all the remaining militia to repair to the lines Monday night by twelve o'clock. No sleep for me tonight. And if I cannot sleep, who have no guilt upon my soul with regard to this cause, how shall the miserable wretches who have been the procurers of this dreadful scene, and those who are to be the actors, lie down with the load of guilt upon their souls?"

The story continues through the following days.

Sunday evening.
"I went to bed after twelve, but got no rest; the cannon continued firing, and my heart beat pace with them all night. We have had a pretty quiet day, but what tomorrow will bring forth, God only knows."

"Monday evening. Tolerably quiet. Today the militia have all mustered, with three days' provision, and are all marched by three o'clock this afternoon, though their notice was no longer ago than eight o'clock Saturday. And now we have scarcely a man, but our regular guards, either in Weymouth, Hingham, Braintree, or Milton, and the militia from the more remote towns are called in as seacoast guards. Can you form to yourself an idea of our sensations?

"I have just returned from Penn's Hill, where I have been sitting to hear the amazing roar of cannon, and from whence I could see every shell which was thrown. The sound, I think, is one of the grandest in nature, and is of the true species of the sublime. 'Tis now an incessant roar; but oh! the fatal ideas which are connected with the sound! How many of our dear countrymen must fall!

"Tuesday morning. I went to bed about twelve, and rose again a little after one. I could no more sleep than if I had been in the engagement; the rattling of the windows, the jar of the house, the continual roar of twenty-four pounders, and the bursting of shells, give us such ideas, and realize a scene to us of which we could form scarcely any conception. About six, this morning, all was quiet. I rejoiced in a few hours' calm. I hear we got possession of Dorchester Hill last night; four thousand men upon it today; lost but one man. The ships are all drawn round the town. Tonight we shall realize a more terrible scene still. I sometimes think I cannot stand it. I wish myself with you, out of hearing, as I cannot assist them. I hope to give you joy of Boston, even if it is in ruins, before I send this away. I am too much agitated to write as I ought, and languid for want of rest.

"Thursday. All my anxiety and distress is at present at an end. I feel disappointed. This day our militia are all returning, without effecting anything more than taking possession of Dorchester Hill. I hope it is wise and just, but, from all the muster and stir, I hoped and expected more important and decisive scenes. I would not have suffered all I have for two such hills. Ever since the taking of that, we have had a perfect calm; nor can I learn what effect it has had in Boston. I do not hear of one person's escaping since."

Abigail need not have suffered even this momentary discouragement, could she have foreseen the outcome of these hours of suspense. The cannonade which so shook the neighboring towns was ordered by Washington to divert the attention of the British, and to drown the noise of carts crossing the frozen ground: carts whose wheels were bound with straw, and before which the road was strewn with straw, still further to deaden the sound. General Thomas was moving from Roxbury to South Boston with twelve hundred men. Silently, under cover of the darkness, and later of a thick white fog, under shelter of that good thunder of the Cambridge guns, they marched; silently, they took their new stand, laid down their arms to take up pickaxe and spade. In the morning, when the fog lifted, the amazed British looked out on a row of formidable entrenchments on Dorchester Heights, just above their heads.

Great was the consternation. Howe summoned his officers, and prepared for a counter-attack; but Dame Nature, apparently in league with the patriots, responded with a furious storm which, lasting several days, made the action from Castle Island which he had planned impossible. During these days of storm, Washington was strengthening his defenses. Howe looked, and realized that the game was up. Others realized it too: the selectmen of Boston quietly intimated to him that if he left the town uninjured, his troops would be suffered to embark undisturbed. Washington gave no sign; waited, his powder dry, his matches burning. Nor did Howe answer the citizens in words; no words were needed for what he had to do. By daybreak on March 17th, the troops began to embark; by nine o'clock the last boat had put off. Boston was evacuated, and Washington and his Continentals entered the city.[17]

"The actors in the scene have vanished into deeper obscurity than even that wild Indian band who scattered the cargoes of the tea ships on the waves, and gained a place in history, yet left no names. But superstition, among other legends of this mansion, (the Province House) repeats the wondrous tale, that on the anniversary night of Britain's discomfiture the ghosts of the ancient governors of Massachusetts still glide through the portal of the Province House. And, last of all, comes a figure shrouded in a military cloak, tossing his clenched hands into the air, and stamping his ironshod boots upon the broad freestone steps, with a semblance of feverish despair, but without the sound of a foot-tramp."[18]


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