On this date in 1775, British troops billeted in Boston steeled themselves for an attack by a rebel force ringing the city. The 6,500 redcoats, all professional soldiers, had been pinned down by the fledgling Continental Army since April.
Although the Americans were barely trained and poorly equipped, they had a few advantages. For starters, they numbered 15,000 strong. Also, the local men had proved at Concord and Lexington to be highly motivated. They also occupied the high ground. Their biggest edge, however, was that their commanding officer was George Washington.
Still, the expected attack didn't come. Nor did the British try to force the action. In London, the crown had grown impatient with the impasse: Thomas Gage, commander of the British garrison, was replaced by Lord Howe. Still, George Washington bided his time.
Why the holdup? Gage, who had served in combat with Washington when both were young officers in the British Army 20 years earlier, never knew. He revealed as much while putting his thoughts to paper on this date 245 years ago while sailing home aboard a British warship.
By the time George Washington took command of the newly constituted Continental Army on July 3, 1775, the British had recaptured Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill. The redcoats also controlled Boston Harbor. Yet, from the hills above Dorchester, Washington could survey the battlefield -- if that's what he wanted to make of Boston. There were a couple of problems, however. The first was that Washington didn't yet have any artillery. That would come later, from Fort Ticonderoga, thanks to the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont.
Even then, Washington was wary of invading the city to eject the British. The explanation -- the reason that eluded Thomas Gage -- was that Washington had learned from British deserters that Boston was a hotbed of smallpox, a debilitating and often fatal virus that Washington himself had contracted at age 19 while visiting Barbados with his half brother Laurence.
Smallpox killed about 30% of those who contracted it (Washington's infection had laid him low for nearly a month -- and most likely left him sterile for life) and he knew that if the disease took hold in his ranks, his army could be incapacitated. That summer, Washington had assured the Continental Congress that he had quarantined any of his soldiers who showed "the least symptoms" of smallpox, vowing to "continue the utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy."
All autumn and winter, Washington maintained his watchfulness for the microscopic foe. On Dec. 10, 1775, he reminded the Massachusetts legislature: "As this disorder, should it spread, may prove very disastrous and fatal to our Army and the Country around it, I should hope that you will have such necessary steps taken, as will prevent the infection's being farther communicated."
It wasn't until the following spring, in March 1776, that Washington used the cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga to shell the British from the Dorchester Heights, forcing Lord Howe to abandon the city. The siege of Boston was over.
By then, Thomas Gage had long returned to England, where he began rehabilitating his reputation and rebuilding his military career. There was no doubt as to where he cast blame for the British Army's setbacks, and it wasn't some vapid virus. It was those uncontrollable, freedom-loving -- and not entirely trustworthy -- Americans. "I am convinced, that the promoters of the rebellion have no real desire of peace, unless they have a carte blanche," Gage wrote to Lord Dartmouth while crossing the Atlantic on this date in 1775. "Their whole conduct has been one scene of fallacy, duplicity, and dissimulation, by which they have duped many well inclined people."
Maybe that's how he saw it, but to the Americans this was war -- a war for independence -- not some cricket match. The traits Gage dismissed as duplicity quickly came to be seen by the officer who replaced him as bravery, cunning, and industriousness.
On March 4, 1776, when the attack against the dug-in British finally took place, it occurred on two fronts. General Washington ordered his troops in Cambridge to open fire. The redcoats managed to suppress that assault only to find that overnight Washington had checkmated Lord Howe's forces by maneuvering the lethal Fort Ticonderoga cannons to Dorchester Heights. "My God," proclaimed Gen. Howe, as he prepared to evacuate the city, "these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.