Although the English had been final victors at Bunker Hill, the American militia, behind their intrenchments, under Prescott, had repulsed twice their number of the best soldiers of Europe, and retired at last only for want of ammunition. Washington was far from being discouraged by the defeat. His question and comment show his feeling: "Did the militia fight? Then the liberties of the country are safe." It was his first aim to expel the enemy from Boston, where they were practically surrounded by the hastily collected militia of New England, full of enthusiasm and confidence in the triumph of their cause. But these forces had been injudiciously placed; they were not properly intrenched; they were imperfectly supplied with arms, ammunition, military stores, uniforms, and everything necessary for an army. There was no commissary department, nor was any department provided with adequate resources. The soldiers were inexperienced, raw sons of farmers and mechanics, led by officers who knew but little of scientific warfare, and numbered less than fifteen thousand effective men. They were undisciplined and full of sectional jealousies, electing, for the most part, their own officers, who were too dependent upon their favor to enforce discipline.
Washington's first task, therefore, was to bring order out of confusion; to change the disposition of the forces; to have their positions adequately fortified; to effect military discipline, and subordination of men to their officers; to cultivate a large and general patriotism, which should override all distinctions between the Colonies. This work went on rapidly; but the lack of supplies became distressing. At the close of July the men had but nine rounds of ammunition each, and more was nowhere to be procured. It was necessary to send messengers into almost every town to beg for powder, and there were few mills in the country to manufacture it.
As the winter approached a new trouble appeared. The brief enlistment terms of many of the men were expiring, and, wearied and discouraged, without proper food or clothing, these men withdrew from the army, and the regiments rapidly decreased in numbers. Recruiting and re-enlisting in the face of such conditions became almost impossible; yet Washington's steady persistence, his letters to Congress, his masterly hold on the siege of the British in Boston, his appeals for men and ammunition, were actually successful. His army was kept up by new and renewed material. Privateers, sent out by him upon the sea, secured valuable supplies. Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller, whom he had made colonel of artillery and despatched to New York and Ticonderoga, returned to the camps with heavy cannon and ammunition.
The right wing of the American army was stationed at Roxbury, under General Artemas Ward, and the left wing, under Major-General Charles Lee and Brigadier-Generals Greene and Sullivan, at Prospect Hill. The headquarters of Washington were in the centre, at Cambridge, with Generals Putnam and Heath. Lee was not allied with the great Virginia family of that name. He was an Englishman by birth, somewhat of a military adventurer. Conceited, vain, and disobedient, he afterwards came near wrecking the cause which he had ambitiously embraced. Ward was a native of Massachusetts, a worthy man, but not distinguished for military capacity. Putnam was a gallant hero, taken from the plough, but more fitted to head small expeditions than for patient labor in siege operations, or for commanding a great body of troops.
Meanwhile the British troops, some fifteen thousand veterans, had remained inactive in Boston, under Sir William Howe, who had succeeded Gage, unwilling or unable to disperse the militia who surrounded them, or to prevent the fortification of point after point about the city by the Americans. It became difficult to get provisions. The land side was cut off by the American forces, and the supply-ships from the sea were often wrecked or captured by Washington's privateers. At length the British began to think of evacuating Boston and going to a more important point, since they had ships and the control of the harbor. No progress had been made thus far in the conquest of New England, for it was thought unwise to penetrate into the interior with the forces at command, against the army of Washington with a devoted population to furnish him provisions. Howe could undoubtedly have held the New England capital, but it was not a great strategic point. What was it to occupy a city at the extreme end of the continent, when the British government expected to hear that the whole country was overrun? At last Washington felt strong enough to use his eight months' preparations for a sudden blow. He seized the heights commanding the city and his intention became evident. The active movements of the Americans towards an attack precipitated Howe's half-formed plan for evacuating the city, and in a single day he and his army sailed away, on March 17, 1776.
Washington made no effort to prevent the embarkation of the British troops, since it freed New England, not again to be the theatre of military operations during the war. It was something to deliver the most populous part of the country from English domination and drive a superior army out of Massachusetts. The wonder is that the disciplined troops under the British generals, with guns and ammunition and ships, should not have dispersed in a few weeks the foes they affected to despise. But Washington had fought the long battle of patience and sagacity until he was ready to strike. Then by one bold, sudden move he held the enemy at his mercy. Howe was out-generalled, and the American remained master of the field. Washington had accomplished his errand in New England. He received the thanks of the Congress, and with his little army proceeded to New York, where matters urgently demanded attention.
To my mind the most encouraging part of the Revolutionary struggle, until the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, was that period of eight months when the British were cooped up in Boston, surrounded by the Americans, who had plenty of provisions even if they were deficient in military stores; when the Yankees were stimulated to enthusiasm by every influence which could be brought to bear upon them by their families, at no great distance from the seat of war, and when no great calamity had as yet overtaken them.
But here everything like success for two years disappeared, and a gloomy cloud hung over the land, portentous of disasters and dismay. Evils thickened, entirely unexpected, which brought out what was greatest in the character and genius of Washington; for he now was the mainstay of hope. The first patriotic gush of enthusiasm had passed away. War, under the most favorable circumstances, is no play; but under great difficulties, has a dismal and rugged look before which delusions rapidly disappear. England was preparing new and much larger forces. She was vexed, but not discouraged, having unlimited resources for war,--money, credit, and military experience. She proceeded to hire the services of seventeen thousand Hessian and other German troops. All Europe looked upon the contest as hopeless on the part of a scattered population, without credit, or money, or military stores, or a settled army, or experienced generals, or a central power. Washington saw on every hand dissensions, jealousies, abortive attempts to raise men, a Congress without power and without prestige, State legislatures inefficient and timid, desertions without number and without redress, men returning to their farms either disgusted or feeling that there was no longer a pressing need of their services.
There were, moreover, jealousies among his generals, and suppressed hostility to him, as an aristocrat, a slaveholder, and an Episcopalian.