St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish celebration of their patron saint, held annually on the anniversary of his death, March 17. In the United States and other countries, this day has also been turned into a “party day” celebrated by Irish and non-Irish alike, and it usually includes copious consumption of green-dyed beer and corned beef. But March 17, 1776, holds another significance for the history of the United States: it is the day of the British Evacuation of Boston, and in the New England states is commonly referred to as Evacuation Day.
Evacuation Day is the culmination of the story of Boston in the American Revolution, and so the concluding event in my forthcoming book, 1775. After the Americans rose up in battle against the sizeable Boston Garrison on April 19, 1775 (following Paul Revere’s famous ride), the town of Boston was besieged by New England forces. The British tried to breakout of this siege in what became known as the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), but while the British expanded their territory, the American siege remained ever strong. Shortly after, Lt. Gen. George Washington arrived and took command of the American forces. He trained his men throughout the fall and winter as he gathered his strength and supplies, and reorganized the new Continental Army.
With more than eight months at a stalemate, by the beginning of March, 1776, Washington finally had the heavy artillery he needed to force an end to the stalemate.
With these heavy guns, on the eve of March 5, 1776, (the anniversary of the Boston Massacre), George Washington fortified the strangely unclaimed and unofficial neutral ground that was Dorchester Heights, just south of Boston and overlooking the then peninsular town. The noise of their fortification was shrouded by a constant bombardment by American forces in Roxbury, just west of Boston. And so the British awoke on March 5 to an awesome and terrible sight: the American cannon on Dorchester were on terrain too high for the British to bombard, but the Americans could easily rain down on the town. Continental Congress had already given Washington their blessing to destroy the town if need be, whatever it took to rid the town of the British.
The Acting Commander-in-Chief of British forces, Maj. Gen. William Howe, began to amass his troops for an amphibious assault across the bay to Dorchester peninsula, but the weather intervened, turning to gales and driving the British barges from whence they set off. The British postponed the assault for the next day, but the weather grew fiercer. Meanwhile, the Yanks continued to fortify. By the next day, Gen. Howe finally conceded and gave the order to commence preparations for the British Evacuation of Boston.
It took more than a week to accomplish as the British gathered what stores they could and destroyed the rest. British engineer Lt. Archibald Robertson, who played a role in destroying fort Castle William just off shore of Boston, sketched the following picture of his handiwork.
Finally, on March 17, 1776, the last of the British transports pushed off from Long Wharf to join those already set for sail and anchored down harbor, something more than thirty ships total. From my book:
The expelled included over 8000 soldiers and officers, plus ancillaries including staff, commissary department, provost, jailors, sutlers and camp followers of all kinds. An incomplete list gives some 667 women and 553 children as well, these just belonging to the Artillery and six of the regiments. The actual number was more than twice that, at least 2400 camp followers. All these plus some 1100 Loyalists crowded the ships. This does not include the many Loyalists that had quit the town earlier in the siege, perhaps an equal number. Most would never return. Nor would they have a place to return to, had they sought to do so, for the Massachusetts government was to confiscate all Loyalist property shortly after the Evacuation…
As the British finally sailed away, the thousands of Americans soldiers and spectators that dotted the miles of the town’s circumambient entrenchments erupted in huzzas, laughter and cheers.
But the British would regroup in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they would be joined with a massive invasion force. And by summer, they would conquer the city of New York.
March 17, 1776, marked the end of the Battle for Boston. But the war for British America was just beginning… Happy Evacuation Day! (And Happy St. Patrick’s Day!)