After the previous British victories in New York and New Jersey in 1776, Continental Army General George Washington had to be lucky, daring, and cunning. In early December 1776, he’d been lucky to get away from the advancing British earlier in the war with a reasonable force left. Later, he made his daring crossing of the Delaware River over Christmas of 1776 where he had surprised Hessian troops serving in the British cause. However, those types of raids would be hard to re-create with the level of surprise that that one had achieved. Therefore, on 3 January 1777, George Washington used his cunning and tactical flexibility to strike a new blow on an over-extended British Army in New Jersey.
The Battle of Princeton 1777
After letting the Americans slip away after the Christmas 1776 attack at Trenton, Washington knew that British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis would not let another opportunity to catch him go to waste. Cornwallis combined most of his British Army forces from Princeton with his Hessian troops around Trenton and took off in pursuit leaving detachments at several locations. On 2 January, Washington had decided to set up defensive positions around Trenton and the British attacked. Washington realized that he could not take on the massed might of the British, so he decided to retreat with a purpose. The Continental Army fought off the British attack with a delaying action that let most of the Continental Army escape overnight. Washington kept most of his 6,000 Continentals intact, but Cornwallis had fatally separated his 8,000 troops into several detachments in New Jersey during the pursuit. Washington saw his opening. Washington managed to evade a decisive engagement with Cornwallis near Trenton, but cunningly looped around to find several smaller British detachments around Princeton. Washington managed to cut off Cornwallis’s rearguard in several short and sharp engagements around Princeton and inflict tactical, but significant defeats on the British.
The retreat from New Jersey across the Delaware River, the Christmas Trenton raid, and the Battle of Princeton had shown Washington to be more than a match for the British Army. General Sir William Howe
, Cornwallis’s superior, had seen enough and pulled British forces back closer to New York for the winter. The British were to leave New Jersey soon thereafter to focus on the more strategically important northeast coast. Washington had proven to the British that neither he nor his “ragtag” American troops could be taken easily.
The Battle of Princeton 1777 Motorcycle Ride
Check out west-central New Jersey roughly following Washington’s route from Trenton to Princeton to the Rockingham State Historical Site to Rocky Hill to Hopewell to Lambertville and down the Delaware River valley to lovely Yardley, PA.
British Boston in the Revolutionary War
In early 1776, the American colonists were trying hard to limit the area in which British forces, based in Boston, could operate. As long as the British could retreat to the safety of Boston and its harbor, General George Washington would not be able to control the eastern end of Massachusetts. From Boston, British General Howe could re-supply from the sea and conduct operations with Boston as a base. In fact, Howe had taken nearby Bunker Hill (albeit with heavy losses) and was planning more of these types of operations in early March 1776.
Henry Knox and the Guns of Fort Ticonderoga
Washington knew bold, unexpected and decisive action was needed to disrupt Howe’s plans. In Late 1775, Washington had dispatched Artillery Colonel Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga, a British garrison captured by the Green Mountain Boys with Benedict Arnold tagging along, to bring the impressive array of artillery to Boston as soon as possible. Washington had probably expected it in late Spring, but the big man Knox drove his oxen and men hard over the lakes, rivers and frozen terrain of New England to get the 44 guns, 14 mortars and one howitzer to the outskirts of Boston by early February 1776. Knowing good fortune when he saw it, Washington wanted to take aggressive action immediately. Washington wanted to conduct a daring cross Charles River attack from Cambridge, but his council of war thought it too risky. Washington’s leaders agreed on the decisive action, but wanted to do it without significant risks to their small and largely untested militias. The compromise was to take aggressive action on Dorchester Heights which overlook Boston from the southeast.
Taking Dorchester Heights
On the 2nd and 3rd of March 1776, the Patriots fired the Knox artillery on the British in Boston and the Brits returned the favor. Washington had prepared a river crossing unit to the west of Boston to provide relief, if Howe tried to break out and disrupt the Dorchester Heights plan, although it seemed as if he had no idea what was going on. Whilst the artillery dueled, heavy, but transportable, fortifications were being fabricated down the hill. On the night of 4 March 1776, General Artemas Ward’s forces used an old ploy of Washington’s and put straw on the wheels of his wagons’ wheels to move quietly and began occupying Dorchester Heights from neighboring Roxbury. With a mammoth effort and 300 ox carts of material moved up the hill, the rebels had constructed 4 works on the heights and the flanks. By daylight on the 5 March, General Howe awoke to incomplete, but substantial works on the southeastern hills overlooking the harbor and the city. Howe was reported as saying, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”
The British Admiral Molyneaux Shulddown informed Howe that he could not maintain his ships in the harbor with such a threat. In the following days, Howe planned a quick counter-attack, but bad weather or a bout of under confidence or both made him quit Boston. By 17 March, in agreement with Washington not to destroy Boston if allowed to leave unmolested, the British had left Boston on ships for Halifax, Nova Scotia. They would be back, but for now Boston was in the Patriots hands and the radicals of the American colonies had a lot to crow about.
Motorcycle Ride Recommendation
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