George Washington and the Continental Army John Adams of Massachusetts had another idea. He proposed that Congress create a “Continental army” made up of troops from all the colonies. To lead this army, Adams nominated “a Gentleman whose Skill and Experience as an Officer, whose . . . great Talents and excellent universal Character, would [unite] the colonies better than any other person” alive. That man was George Washington of Virginia, who had distinguished himself in the French and Indian War.
The delegates agreed. They unanimously elected Washington to be commander in chief of the new Continental army.
The Battle of Bunker Hill Meanwhile, militiamen near Boston made plans to fortify two hills that overlooked the city: Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. On the night of June 16, 1775, Israel Putnam led a few hundred men up Breed’s Hill. In four hours of furious digging, they erected a crude fort on the top of the hill.
The fort worried British general William Howe, who had just arrived from England with fresh troops. Howe ordered an immediate attack. Under a hot June sun, some 2,000 British troops formed two long lines at the base of Breed’s Hill. At Howe’s order, the redcoats marched up the slope.
As the lines moved ever closer, Putnam ordered his men, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Only when the British were almost on top of them did the militiamen pull their triggers. The red lines broke and fell back in confusion.
The British regrouped and attacked again. Once more the Americans stopped their advance. On their third attack, the redcoats finally took the hill—but only because the Americans had used up all their gunpowder and pulled back.
This clash, which became known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, was short but very bloody. More than 1,000 British troops and nearly half that many Americans were killed or wounded.
General Washington Takes Command George Washington took command of his new army shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He found “a mixed multitude of people . . . under very little discipline, order, or government.” Washington worked hard to impose order. One man wrote, “Everyone is made to know his place and keep in it . . . It is surprising how much work has been done.”
A month later, however, a dismayed Washington learned that the army had only 36 barrels of gunpowder—enough for each soldier to fire just nine shots. To deceive the British, Washington started a rumor in Boston that he had 1,800 barrels of gunpowder— more than he knew what to do with! Luckily, the British believed the rumor. Meanwhile, Washington sent desperate letters to the colonies begging for gunpowder.
Washington got his powder. But he still did not dare attack the British forces in Boston. To do that he needed artillery—heavy guns, such as cannons—to bombard their defenses. In desperation, Washington sent a Boston bookseller named Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to round up some big guns.
Ticonderoga was an old British fort located at the southern end of Lake Champlain in New York. A few months earlier, militiamen led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had seized the fort. The Americans had little use for the run-down fort, but its guns would prove priceless.
As winter set in, Knox loaded 59 cannons onto huge sleds and dragged them 300 miles to Boston. Knox’s 42 sleds also carried 2,300 pounds of lead for making bullets. Boston was about to be under siege.
The British Abandon Boston On March 4, 1776, the British soldiers in Boston awoke to a frightening sight. The night before, the ridges of nearby Dorchester Heights had been bare. Now they bristled with cannons, all aimed at the city.
Rather than risk another battle, General Howe abandoned the city. Within days, more than a hundred ships left Boston Harbor for Canada. The ships carried 9,000 British troops as well as 1,100 Loyalists who preferred to leave their homes behind rather than live with rebels.
Some Americans hoped the war was over. Washington, however, knew it was only the beginning.