Literature Study Guides1776Part 1 Chapter 3 Summary

1776 | Study Guide

David McCullough

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1776 | Part 1, Chapter 3 : The Siege (Dorchester Heights) | Summary



Chapter 3 concludes the story of the siege of Boston with the American occupation of the area known as Dorchester Heights. Located on a peninsula south of Boston, the Dorchester Heights offer a commanding vantage over both the city of Boston and its harbor. Both sides recognize the strategic significance of the location, though neither makes much effort to occupy it. General William Howe, the British commander, is an "easygoing, affable" man from a distinguished family; his brother, Lord Richard Howe, is an admiral. His combat experience contrasts with that of Washington, who is of surprisingly little interest to the British officers. General Howe receives orders to withdraw his forces from the city, but the winter conditions make this impractical until the arrival of spring. The conditions are more taxing for the British forces than for the American troops, and supplying the British navy is ever more difficult as privateers (men who attack supply ships) multiply and storms at sea wreck British navy ships.

In January Washington writes "one of the most forlorn, despairing letters of his life" to Joseph Reed. He laments that there is "too little power, still no money." The troops who have given up and gone home have taken their precious army-supplied muskets, and there aren't enough for new recruits. Washington also finds it miraculous that the British army seems to have no idea how dire the situation is for the American troops. He is so depressed, McCullough writes, that Washington admits that, "had he known what he was getting into ... he would never have accepted the command." Washington is also nervous that the British are preparing to seize New York, which has a sizable Loyalist population. Yet Washington is adamant that moving the troops will require congressional approval, since he is reluctant "of 'stretching' his powers." John Adams formally assures Washington in a letter that he has Congress's approval. Washington also convenes a council of war to agree on making "a bold attempt" to secure Boston.

Meanwhile, Washington learns, to his dismay, the expedition to Quebec has been defeated. However, the mission to secure the guns of Fort Ticonderoga has been successful. This is no easy feat, however, as Colonel Henry Knox labors to transport 120,000 pounds of artillery and is thwarted by unfavorable weather conditions. When the guns finally arrive, Washington is so impressed that he immediately puts Knox in command of the artillery. There is a feeling in the air now that the stalemate at Boston is drawing to an end. Yet Washington privately worries about the deficient strength of his army and acknowledges that he is "obliged to use art to conceal it" from his own officers.

In February, impatient for action, Washington calls his war council to renew the case for an attack on Boston, but he is dissuaded. Instead, the Americans resolve to seize the Dorchester Heights, thereby forcing the British either to leave their fortifications and attack the American position or to withdraw from Boston altogether under the threat of the American guns. The Americans inventively fabricate fortifications of their own out of sight of the British and, on the night of March 4, 1776, surreptitiously occupy and fortify the Dorchester Heights. Even though hundreds, perhaps thousands, understand what is about to unfold, their success depends on secrecy. Though some British officers get wind of the rumors, they aren't taken seriously.

While Washington's army distracts the British with heavy firing noises, 1,200 men begin pushing carts full of guns, cannons, and artillery up the hill. When the British discover the Americans' move the next morning, they prepare to attack, but a storm blows through and impedes the necessary troop movements. Captain Archibald Robertson is privately relieved, as he believes General Howe's decision to attack the Americans is "little short of madness." Meanwhile, the morale of Washington's troops remains high. Frustrated by the storm's interference, General Howe begins preparing to withdraw from Boston. Privately, however, it seems as though General Howe is relieved that he has an "easy out," given how resistant his fellow officers are to his plans of attack.

Evacuating the city is a considerable undertaking: not only does General Howe have to get his entire army—and all their arms, baggage, horses, and other supplies—aboard the ships of the Royal Navy floating at anchor, he has to accommodate the sizable number of American Loyalists who sought refuge with the British army from their rebellious countrymen outside the city walls. General Howe has received no orders or word of any kind from London since October and has no long-standing plan for withdrawal. There is also a sense of humiliation in the hasty retreat. The Loyalists are faced with uncertainty over their fate in Boston, and at the last minute they are given the signal that they can leave with the British. Some of the 1,100 departing Loyalists are the wealthiest and most well-known men in Boston. Before the ships leave, British soldiers plunder the city on orders from General Howe to remove any good that might help the rebels continue their efforts. Finally, on March 17, the British depart from Boston harbor, and the next day the Americans enter the city.

News of the liberation of Boston spreads throughout the colonies, and Washington is celebrated as a hero. Washington and Congress, for their part, realize that the humiliation of the British will not go unpaid for. Privately, some of the Loyalists on board General Howe's ships bound for Halifax begin to realize that the rebellion is not, in fact, failing. Washington's troops begin departing for New York.


Chapter 3 marks a turning point in the American Revolution and finds General Washington emerging from private worry and doubt into assuming a more confident role in his abilities as a commander of his army and leader of Americans. Yet even Washington seems aware that some of his successes are owed to the luck of unforeseen weather and mistakes made by the British army—he even marvels at the "miracle" that the British seem so blind to the predicament the Americans are in. Much is made by Washington and his fellow comrades of the hand of "Providence" and God in the outcomes of their affairs. Washington himself believes the March 5th storm that aided them was due to the "intervening hand of God." This brings up the notion of personal responsibility in the war versus a belief in divine intervention. For a man so committed to strategy and precision, Washington seems comfortable leaving the larger outcome up to fate and the view that "Whatever is, is right," a line from "An Essay on Man," a poem by Alexander Pope (1733–34).

McCullough also highlights some of the private revelations of the remaining Loyalists in Boston who only begin to realize once they are forced to depart that the rebels might win. McCullough points out that some of the Loyalists are not on Britain's side because they believe it is right but because, up until now, they believed the rebels will fail, and it is better to be on the winning side in the aftermath. Yet the fact that they feel they must flee with the British troops shows they know they will be seen as traitors if they remain in Boston. This is a difficult realization for them because the Loyalists have never lived, or expected to live, anywhere else. It's only natural that they might feel a building resentment at what their loyalty has brought them.

The Americans' success in Boston has shown that they just might win the war if they are able to dislodge so mighty and experienced a foe as General Howe and his troops. For his part, General Howe seems also to have drastically underestimated what Washington and his men are capable of, causing him to make the mistake of not moving to seize Dorchester Heights first. General Howe also doesn't seem to have much interest in Washington's military strategy, which hints at a hubris that will ultimately undermine him. His men seem to be privately impressed at how much Washington's troops were able to accomplish so quickly in seizing the post.

While the success in Boston has invigorated the American troops, McCullough also highlights how divided the British troops are along the lines of social class—the dispatches from high-ranking British officers detail extravagant dinners and social activities, while lower-ranking soldiers endure one of the most brutal and food-starved winters Boston has ever faced. One officer writes home that "in the midst of these horrors of war, we endeavor as much as possible to forget them," neglecting to acknowledge that British soldiers are freezing and starving to death. McCullough points out that men like General Howe, whose nonmilitary title is Lord Howe, have come by their rank due to their standing in society rather than military experience, while some of the hardest-working British soldiers will never climb so high. Here, McCullough emphasizes what effect troop morale has on the overall successes of an army. The Americans begin to gain more confidence and feel invigorated to be marching on to New York, while the British face the news of soldiers who are committing suicide by throwing themselves overboard their fleeing ships.

By contrast, the American army seems to run in a much more democratic fashion, with soldiers, captains, and commanders being promoted based on their efforts, successes, and contributions. Washington holds firm in his regard that he be wary "of 'stretching' his powers,'" even if it means an excruciating wait while Congress debates decisions. McCullough notes that "such sensitivity to and respect for the political ramifications of his command were exactly what made him such an effective political general." Washington's leadership style is also portrayed as opposite of General Howe's, who seems to rarely question his own decisions or publicly acknowledge the role others play in making them. Washington, for his part, frequently confides in his friends and his brother his doubts and struggles, which serves to portray him as someone who is self-reflective and open to the advice of those around him. Dorchester would likely not have gone as well as it did, for example, had Washington not heeded the advice of his generals to not invade Boston at large. At the same time, Washington is able to maintain the calm and determined demeanor he knows his troops need to see in order to keep their morale up. It's a difficult line to walk between such public and private dissonance, but it is one Washington is able to maintain with success.

Washington's tactic for defeating the British in Boston is one that assumes a huge risk, since his army is not equipped for a full-on battle with them. They must instead rely on a strategy of wit and chess moves in order to reclaim Boston while shedding as little blood as possible. The fact that his army supports the herculean endeavor of seizing Dorchester Heights shows just how much they believe in his vision and leadership—impressive, given that they have yet to win an actual battle. But he is able to use one advantage he has over General Howe's troops, who admit they could never have pulled off what Americans did so quickly—organization. Every man plays his part to contribute to the whole of seizing Dorchester Heights, and the efficiency and speed with which it is accomplished impresses even the British.

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