The Historical Geography of Boston

Boston ART

Bunker Hill!

Well, Breed’s Hill, actually.

And not really part of Boston, then. It lay across the Charles River on a peninsula that looked like an island. That is where Charlestown was established. Now it is a nice, upscale residential area with the Bunker Hill monument in the middle. The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” (which is really made of wood), lies in the harbor below as though it really could block another landing by the British like the one on June 17, 1775.

The Constitution is a frigate, a sailing ship commissioned as new by the new United States Government in 1797. It fought the British in the War of 1812 and sailed into the legends of our early union by defeating the 38-gun British ship, the HMS Guerriere.

Now I count 28 big guns below deck on the Constitution, 14 to a side. But there are also cannons on the top deck. A different assortment that brings the theoretical armament to 44 cannons. These ships were floating “gun platforms” manned by 500 soldiers, sailors, and marines.

But the British had eight warships in Boston Harbor in June of 1775. Although they couldn’t elevate their guns high enough to bombard the Earthworks atop Breed’s Hill, they did set Charlestown on fire after receiving sniper fire from that village.

Although the brave Constitution could have made a good accounting of itself if it was there at the time, it would not have prevented the landing of the British army. The British attacked the hill in wide, disciplined lines. Maybe that attack with overwhelming force was a good thing. The Patriots had yet to engage in a fierce fight to show their mettle. Lexington and Concord were serious skirmishes, actually. And that resistance brought the

British in force to Boston. The world’s most powerful navy with a long tradition of disciplined, victorious armies. And now one was marching up three sides of Breed’s Hill.

The British first assaulted along the Mystic River and were driven back by the entrenched Patriots. The second attack along the hill’s flank was equally repulsed when the Patriots fired on the advancing British column after they saw “the whites of their eyes.” They didn’t need to wait.

You see, the British wore red, not in the least, so they could recognize their own soldiers in the smoky “fog of battle.” But the British officers had better clothes and brighter dyes than their soldiers. Those fighting men wore inferior clothing with different dyes. Over time, they took on a pinkish hue. So it was not difficult to pick out the officers, even with muskets accurate only within 50 yards. The Patriots waited only for that range.

Both sides were running low on ammunition when British General Lord Howe ordered a full frontal charge with bayonet on the earthworks on the top of the hill. This one succeeded in driving the Patriots back. But oh, what a cost. The British left 40% of their men either dead or wounded on the battlefield. The battle lasted less than two hours, but the British lost more than 90 officers, killed or wounded. That would be their highest loss of officers in the Revolutionary War. Here is what revolutionary General Nathanael Green said of the battle: “I wish we could sell them another hill at the same price we did Bunker Hill.” It was British General Thomas Gage that summed up the battle (and the war) as follows: “The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.”

But this article is about geography. And that is the big business of historic Boston. Landfills. Yup, much of the city now lies on what was under water then. You see, that is why the bay was such a bad harborage for the world’s finest fighting Navy in 1776. It was shallow. In fact, at the time, Boston had to extend out the then longest pier in the world to get to the bigger cargo ships. “Sail into Boston,” said the King. That will teach them a lesson. Not such a good idea. Easier to get troops in than out.

 

And what about the hills? Bunker and Breed’s to the north. Roxbury and Dorchester Hills to the south. And only a thin peninsular neck to march out of the town itself. And the Patriots were thick along the surrounding mainland. So the battle of Bunker Hill was a tactical defeat for the Patriots, but a strategic victory in effectively bottling the British up in Boston.

Soon thereafter, General George Washington arrived with revolutionary troops and cannons brought down from captured British Fort Ticonderoga. Washington fortified the Dorchester Hills, trapping Lord Howe’s soldiers in Boston.

Realizing the futility of holding Boston, the British negotiated safe passage and evacuated Boston with 12,000 soldiers and English supporters. The Boston Patriots and Washington’s new Continental Army had won an outstanding victory.

With that wind at their backs, the Continental Congress courageously published the Declaration of Independence.

So, maybe we owe a little bit⎯or a lot!⎯of our independence to geography. To Breed’s Hill and the shallow Boston Bay.

Here is a drawing of Boston then, and now, with the Harbor filled in.

“Don’t tread on me!”

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