Today we’ll continue our discussion on the conditions inside Boston in the days after Lexington and Concord and the attempts by residents to flee from the town.
Understandably, with Boston surrounded by the American army, the situation grew even worse as residents attempted to flee but were turned away by the British army. General Gage had issued orders that barred the residents from withdrawing from the town. The general was fearful that if the residents were permitted to leave, they would provide assistance the American army during the evacuation.
In response, the residents of Boston gathered at a town meeting on April 22, 1775 to address their declining situation. One of the resolutions of the meeting highlighted the level of desperation the residents felt with Boston being shut off from the outside world. “Inhabitants cannot be Supplied with provisions, sewell & other Necessarys of Life by which means the Sick & all Invalids must Suffer greatly, & Imediatly & the Inhabitants in general be distressed espesically Such which is by much the greatest party as have not had the means of laying in a Stock of provisions, but depend for daily Supplies from the Country for their daily Support & may be in danger of perishing unless the Communication be opened.”
Representatives from the town approached Gage to negotiate permission for Americans to evacuate the town. Gage ultimately agreed that residents could withdraw to the countryside on the condition they surrender their weapons. Reluctantly the representatives agreed. Boston minister Andrew Eliot recalled the state of Boston on the eve of the first approved evacuation. “I not impelled by the unhappy Situation of this Town . . . all communication with the Country is cut off, & we wholly deprived of the necessaries of Life, & this principal mart of America is become a poor garrison Town . . . almost all are leaving their pleasant habitations & going they know not whither-- The most are obliged to leave their furniture & effects of every kind, & indeed their all to the uncertain chance of war or rather to certain ruin & destruction--- The last Week I thot myself in comfortable circumstances had a convenient dwelling well furnished, a fine Library made so very much by the munificence of our late most worthy Friend, attended by a large, affectionate, & generous Congregation, happy in a Consort one of the best of Women, & surrounded by a large Number of desirable Children; now I am by a cruel Necessity turned out of my House must leave my Books & all I possess, perhaps to be destroyed by a licentious Soldiery; my beloved Congregation dispersed, my dear Wife retreating to a distant part of the Country, my Children wandering not knowing whither to go, perhaps left to perish for Want, myself soon to leave this devoted Capital, happy if I can find some obscure Corner wch will afford me a bare Subsistence. I wish to God the authors of our Misery could be Witnesses of it. They must have Hearts harder than an adamant if they did not relent & pity us”
Those who chose to leave Boston made their way to Boston Neck. At least four checkpoints were set up by the army. Residents were searched for weapons and carriages and chaises were prohibited from leaving Boston. Some pleaded with family and friends not to leave the “safety” of Boston. However, most pleas were rebuffed as many believed the town would become a killing field once British reinforcements arrived. As the throngs of residents waited to leave, rumors of atrocities committed by soldiers spread. “I saw, & spoke with several fri[ends] near as unhappy as myself . . . while we were waiting . . . there was a constant coming & going; each hinder'd ye other; some new piece of soldiary barbarity, that had been perpetrated the day before, was in quick succession brought in.” Once again panic set in and those residents on the neck pressed harder to get “out of ye city of destruction.” At the height of confusion, many were actually turned away and directed back into the town.
On April 27, 1775, General Gage once again indicated residents who wished to leave Boston could do so. However, in the days after the order, British authorities made difficult for Bostonians who remained behind to actually leave. Passes were now required to cross over Boston Neck and those were handed out sparingly. “Near half the inhabitants have left the town already, & another quarter, at least, have been waiting for a week past with earnest expectation of geting Passes, which have been dealt out very Sparingly of late, not above two or three procur'd of a day, & those with the greatest difficulty. its a fortnight yesterday Since the communication between the town & country was Stop'd, of concequence our eyes have not been bless'd with either vegetables or fresh provisions, how long we Shall continue in this wretched State.”
On May 5th, Gage, for a third time, permitted civilians to evacuate Boston. A large number of passes were issued and residents again attempted to flee en masse. However, the following day General Gage reversed himself, ordered that no more passes were to be issued and those residents who wished to leave were now prohibited from doing so. Once again, civilians were trapped and essentially hostages to British authorities.
By the end of May, Boston more closely resembled a post apocalyptic site than a bustling seaport town. While many had abandoned the town, others barricaded themselves inside their homes and had private guards watching over their property. The Reverend Eliot accurately described the state of Boston on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill. “I have remained in this Town much ag: my inclination . . . Most of the Ministers being gone I have been prevailed with to officiate to those who are still left to tarry . . . Much the greater parts of the inhabitants gone out of the town . . . Grass growing in the public walks & streets of this once populous & flourishing place - Shops & warehouses shut up - business at an end every one in anxiety & distress.” Fresh provisions were increasingly scarce and trapped occupants were often forced to survive on food of questionable quality. “Its hard to Stay coop'd up here & feed upon Salt provissions . . . We have now & then a carcase offerd for Sale in the market, which formerly we would no thave pickd up in the Street, but bad as it is, it readily Sells.”