Roxbury During the Siege of Boston / by Jason Turgeon

March 17 is Evacuation Day here in Suffolk County, better known as St. Patrick’s Day to the majority of Bostonians.  Most of us think Evacuation Day is something of a joke, a convenient historical excuse for Boston’s Irish to get the day off, and there’s probably a lot of truth to that.  But Evacuation Day would be a holiday worthy of celebration in Roxbury even if it didn’t fall on St. Patrick’s day.

The Siege of Boston started on another day we celebrate in Suffolk County, on April 19, 1775, better known as Patriots Day and the Red Sox home opener.  We’re all familiar with Paul Revere’s famous ride, but very few people know that he had a counterpart, William Dawes, who started a similar ride right here at Eliot Square and ended up in Lexington at about the same time as Revere.  Dawes is commemorated in a satirical poem called the “Midnight Ride of William Dawes.”

After the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, the revolutionaries went about isolating the British troops in Boston by setting up a series of forts and other defenses stringing from Chelsea to Roxbury.  Fort Hill, of course, played a major role in these defenses with the upper and lower forts guarding the only land route into Boston along Boston Neck.

From Concord and Lexington on, things settled into a long and painful stalemate.  The patriots had control of the land routes into Boston, but no navy.  This meant the British could sail in and out of Boston unimpeded, and they were able to keep the city supplied with weapons, food, and troops by water.  

The British tried and failed to break out through Charlestown on June 17 at the Battle of Bunker Hill, which claimed the life of Roxbury’s own Joseph Warren, but otherwise this was a relatively quiet affair as far as wars go.  In Roxbury, Henry Knox, a 25-year old bookseller who would later go on to become a general and hero of the revolution, designed the two forts.

It’s worth noting that although the high fort, where the Cochituate standpipe now sits, gets all the glory, the lower fort situated about where the Cooper center is on Linwood Road was both larger and more strategically important because it was closer to Boston Neck.  The lower fort, pictured below, used the rock outcrops to its advantage and crowned them with an earthen wall 12 feet thick and 5’ tall.  The lower fort had several cannons and hundreds of spears, which General Ward felt might have helped win the Battle of Bunker Hill.  

The lower fort stood until 1836, when Alvah Kittredge was building his now-famous house and decided to remove some of the ramparts.  While the work was underway Aaron Willard, who with his brother Simon dominated the American clockmaking scene and started the industrialization of Roxbury, stopped by and told Kittredge about a day 60 years earlier when he had helped to dig the lower fort.  Willard, then a 16-year-old fifer, had slept at his workplace and been rudely awoken by a 24-pound cannon ball tossed by the British into his newly constructed earthen wall.  He pointed out the spot where he thought the ball must have landed and Kittredge’s workers were actually able to find the ball!  It remained in the Kittredge family as a souvenir, and perhaps it still remains somewhere in a Roxbury basement.

The high fort wasn’t just for show, of course.  This fort commanded the road to Dedham, now called Centre Street.  Washington is reported to have believed that the high fort was the best constructed and located of all of the defenses in the Siege of Boston.  The fort stood pretty much undisturbed until 1868, when it was demolished during he construction of the standpipe.  

Beyond the two forts, Roxbury was host to a major army contingent under the control of General John Thomas, who used the parsonage of the First Church as his headquarters.  As many as 4,000 men were stationed in Roxbury.  Roxbury suffered a great deal during this time.  Roxbury Street, the main drag through Eliot Square, was crowded with thousands of soldiers.  The church was used for target practice by the British.  The orchards were clearcut so that the apple trees could be used for spears.  Keeping in mind that in 1765 the population of the town was just shy of 1500, it’s hard to imagine the sacrifices the townspeople made for their country.  

The best place I’ve found online to get a sense of what Roxbury was like during the siege is the National Park Service’s curriculum for teachers on Roxbury during the siege.  The Massachusetts Historical Society also has a great section of its website dedicated to the siege, including transcripts of diaries by soldiers stationed in Roxbury.  The best of these is the diary of Samuel Bixby, found in a searchable format on Google Books.

The stalemate continued for 11 long months.  It was soon clear that things wouldn’t improve unless the patriots could find a way to take control of the harbor. The patriots knew that there was a supply of artillery at Fort Ticonderoga in New York and sent Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen with a large contingent to take the fort in early May.  Arnold and Allen were successful in capturing the fort and its artillery, but Fort Ticonderoga was a long way from Boston.

By the late fall, our hero Henry Knox suggested a daring plan to bring the cannons at Fort Ticonderoga down to Boston.  Dorchester Heights commanded a great view of the harbor, but without guns it was useless.  The plan was to bring the guns to Boston and fortify Dorchester, thus giving the patriots control of the harbor without the need to go out and build a navy that could take on the British.  Knox’s mission turned out to be nearly impossible, but in the end he and his men succeeded in dragging 60 tons of cannons from upstate New York to Boston in the middle of the winter.  It’s a trip that’s almost impossible to fathom in a world in which we complain about being stuck in traffic or having to sit at a red light.

Knox arrived in Roxbury at the beginning of March, passing right through Eliot Square with his cargo.  In 2009, a marker memorializing his trip was added to Roxbury Heritage State Park near the Dillaway Thomas house.

Knox’s delivery was what the patriots needed to break the stalemate.  Faced with the new battery of guns pointing towards the harbor, the British could no longer safely enter the harbor.  On March 17, 1776, the British evacuated Boston for Halifax.  Today, and every year on March 17, we celebrate their departure…and also raise a glass to the Irish who replaced them 75 years later!