The War of Independence
In April 1775 General Gage received orders to arrest some of the leaders of the Massachusetts patriots. Gage decided to go beyond these orders and to seize the military stores his spies had informed him were being assembled in the village of Concord. He neither caught the rebel leaders, nor completely destroyed the military supplies. A troop of 700 British regulars did reach Concord on April 19, 1775 after scattering some slight resistance at Lexington.
And they managed to destroy some of the riffles and ammunition that the colonists had been unable to hide. Then, as the British turned back to Boston, they were set upon by angry Minute Men who peppered them from behind fences and trees. After the raid, the British counted 273 dead, wounded, and missing; the Americans had lost 93. Far more important than the skirmish itself were the propaganda possibilities it dropped into the patriots’ hands. They concocted chilling reports of British atrocities and rapine, and convinced many of the colonists that Britain was thirsting for American blood.
On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. By June, 65 delegates had arrived, representing all 13 colonies. None of them could have imagined that they were to continue in session with only brief recesses for the next 14 years. They were a distinguished group; sitting among them were the men who were to be the first three presidents of the United States. The Congress would support the action Massachusetts had taken, and yet there was no formal resolve that the Continental Congress creates a Continental army, whose existence was recognized only in an off-hand announcement of the Congress.
The Congress was almost unanimous in choosing Washington as commander-in-chief of the American forces. Like many an American leader to come, Washington had some qualities to satisfy every group. The choice of Washington as commander-in-chief was a fortunate one. True, Washington did not turn out to be a brilliant tactician. His courage, tenacity, honesty, and dignity were in the long run more vital to success than was military genius.
Now that a commanding general had been named, the Second Continental Congress turned to the delicate task of defining just what is policy was to be toward Britain. On July 6, 1775, it set forth the reasons for resisting General Gage in a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms”.
At the same time, Congress adopted the “Olive Branch Petition”, which had been drawn up by John Dickinson. Here we have a measure of the wide division of opinion among the delegates. This petition put the blame for the colonial disorders on the King’s ministers, and begged the King to keep Parliament from further tyranny until a plan of reconciliation could be worked out. Apparently the moderates still hoped that Parliament would repeal the Coercive Acts withdraw the redcoats, and renounce its claim to legislate for the colonies. But the petition reached George III in August he refused to receive it, brushing it aside on the grounds that it had been written by a disloyal and illegal group. He responded with a proclamation of his own, announcing that the Americans were to be considered rebels and that all loyal persons should refrain from offering them any assistance.
While the politicians were still debating in Philadelphia, soldiers had thrown themselves into action in the field. After the crippled British troops had made there way from Concord back to Boston, hundreds of American militiamen came streaming in from the countryside to take up positions on the heights overlooking Boston. General Gage strengthened by fresh troops, decided that he would drive the patriots from Breed’s Hill. And in the engagement of June 17, 1775, now known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, he did manage to dislodge the Americans, but at a frightful cost. This was the bloodiest battle of the war. The Americans lost almost 400 men, and the English more than 1,000. Two weeks later, General Washington arrived outside Boston to take command of loosely organized companies he had yet to forge into a fighting army. He had heavy cannon pulled all the way from recently captured fort Ticonderoga in New York, and in March, 1776, he had them mounted on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.
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