Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"My Sleep Was Much Broken, As It Had Been for Many Nights Before" - Civilian Accounts of the First Days of the Siege of Boston

With multiple news accounts describing the current status of Siege of Aleppo and the sufferings of the civilians trapped inside, I thought it was important to discuss the sufferings of Americans during a similar siege in 1775. . . the Siege of Boston.
Over the years, historians have devoted countless works to the military and political aspects of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the aftermath known as the Siege of Boston. Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the impact the military engagement had on the residents of Boston. As British military and political authorities attempted to recover from the disaster of April 19, 1775, the residents of Boston found themselves trapped inside a town that was on the verge of social and economic collapse. Of course, with a lack of support from the surrounding countryside many residents were forced to fend for themselves.

Following the departure of Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s expedition on April 19, 1775, a sense of despair and anxiety set into Boston. Many of residents believed in the days leading up to April 19th that British authorities would be making an attempt to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams. They did not know that authorities were instead plotting to seize and destroy a supply depot located in Concord, Massachusetts. As Sarah Winslow Deming recalled “the main was to take possession of the bodies of Mesrs Adams & Handock, whom they & we knew where were lodg'd. We had no doubt of the truth of all this. And, that express's were sent forth both over the neck & Charlestown Ferry to give our Friends timely notice that they might escape.”

On the evening of April 18, 1775, many of the residents knew an operation was imminent and thus, got little sleep. “I did not git to bed this night till after 12 o'clock, nor to sleep till long after that, & then my sleep was much broken, as it had been for many nights before.” Shortly after dawn, word reached Boston residents of the Battle of Lexington. Predictably, fear set into the populace. “ Early on Wednesday the fatal 19th April, before I had quited my chamber, one after another came runing up to tell me that the kings troops had fired upon & killed 8 of our neighbors at Lexington in their way to Concord. All the intelligence of this day was dreadfull. Almost every countenance expressing anxiety & distress.”

Almost instantly, the residents of Boston broke into a state of panic and societal structure collapsed. Many were unsure if the town would be attacked by the British army or the American Provincials. Others wandered the town aimlessly, unsure of what the future held in store for them. In a letter to his son, the Reverend Andrew Elliot stated “I know not what to do, not where to go . . . poor Boston, May God sanctify our distresses which are greater than you can conceive - Such a Sabbath of melancholy and darkness I never knew . . . every face gathering paleness - all hurry & confusion - one going this way & another that - others not knowing where to go - What to do with our poor maid I cannot tell - in short after the melancholy exercises of the day - I am unable to write anything with propriety or connection . . . Everything distressing.” Upon discovery that she was trapped inside Boston, Sarah Winslow Deming despaired “I was Genl Gage's prisoner -- all egress, & regress being cut off between the town & country. Here again description fails. No words can paint my distress.” According to merchant John Rowe, Boston’s economy immediately collapsed. Businesses stopped operating and fresh provisions for market stopped coming into town. “Boston is in the most distressed condition.”

In the following days, the situation grew even worse as residents attempted to flee Boston but were turned away by the British army. This was due to the fact General Gage had issued orders that barred the residents from fleeing the town. The general was fearful that the residents, if permitted to leave, would provide assistance the American army. 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, fewell & 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 agreed to approach General Gage to secure permissions for Americans to evacuate the town. Gage ultimately agreed to let the residents vacate to the countryside on the condition they surrender their weapons. Reluctantly the Bostonians agreed and prepared to evacuate. A Boston minister recalled the state of Boston on the eve of the 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”

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