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Whilst the American Congress was thus occupied in organizing an army, large reinforcements had arrived at Boston from England, under the command of Generals Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton. The investing force, on the other hand, composed of the Massachusetts levies and of volunteers from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, attempted to seize the neighbouring heights, and to intrench themselves in that position. This led to the battle of Bunker's Hill, in which the American yeomanry first showed that they could contend with British soldiers more equally than had been anticipated; for, although they were ultimately dislodged, and their works carried with the bayonet, it was only after hours of hard fighting, and when they had repulsed repeated attacks, with serious loss to the enemy. The news of this battle reached Washington on his way to the camp, and when, in answer to his eager inquiries, he was informed that the volunteers had stood their ground without flinching, sustained the fire of the English, and reserved their own until they could deliver it at close quarters, he gave a sigh of relief, and exclaimed : “ The liberties of the country are safe!”
It is no part of the plan of the present work to
enter into the details of the American War of Independence. It will, therefore, be enough to state in general terms, that, when Washington arrived before Boston, he found an army, brave indeed, and full of enthusiasm, but half clad, ill-provided, inefficiently armed, and almost wholly undisciplined. One of the first discoveries he made was, that there were but thirty-two barrels of gunpowder in store, and that nearly his whole stock of ammunition was contained in the cartridge-boxes of the men. He had to bring order out of chaos; to reduce a mixed and intractable multitude to subordination; to clothe and arm them, and supply them with everything they required; to create a commissariat and military chest; and, finally, to instruct his officers in their several duties, to obtain for them the respect of the troops, and to inspire them with confidence in himself. No less powerful intellect, no less resolute will, would have sufficed for the task. He was aided in it by an excellent soldier, whose friendship he at this time acquired, and whose faithful and valuable services continued through all the worst periods of the war.
This was Nathaniel Greene, of Rhode Island, who, although the son of a Quaker miller, had early applied himself to the study of military
tactics, had become a self-taught master of the art, and, having taken great pains to discipline the militia of his native colony, had brought to the lines before Boston the best-trained corps in the army. He was now a brigadier-general, and was soon selected by Washington for one of his most trusted advisers.
The siege of Boston lasted nearly a year, with various fortune. But all the efforts of the British failed in breaking the net which Washington had cast around them, and at length, in March, 1776, the Americans obtained and held possession of Dorchester Heights, which commanded a large portion of the town and harbour. Through the exertions of Henry Knox, an artillery-officer, who was destined hereafter to play a distinguished part, they had been supplied with mortars and heavy cannon, as well as powder and shot, and were now in a condition to bombard the place, and render it untenable by the enemy. Under these circumstances, General Howe resolved to evacuate the town, and to embark his soldiers on board the fleet, threatening to destroy Boston if he were molested in his departure. Washington was too wise to afford him any pretext for executing this menace, and contented himself with closely following on his retreat, and immediately securing the abandoned works. The next day, he entered Boston in triumph ; and it was soon noised abroad, through Europe as well as America, that an army of husbandmen, led by militia-officers, had beaten the choice troops and veteran generals of Great Britain, and forced them to surrender the place which had been the first cause of the war. Every one was loud in praise of Washington, the Congress voted unanimously their thanks for his services, and a gold medal was struck in his honour. But he knew better than most men, that the real struggle was only then beginning, and that the time for congratulations and rejoicings was yet far distant. General Howe had sailed for Halifax; but it was merely to await the arrival of his brother, Admiral Lord Howe, who was on his way from England with a fleet and strong reinforcements. It was impossible to say where the next blow would fall. Washington could only guess ; but his prescient sagacity told him, that it was of the utmost importance to secure New York and the Hudson. Thither he hastened, with whatever troops could be spared from the other points of danger, and proceeded at once to fortify the approaches to the city and river. It was not long before the event proved the correctness of his judgment.