Today is a very important holiday in the history of our country. Such a significant day that it is actually a public holiday here in Massachusetts, when Suffolk County offices are closed. I’m speaking, of course, of Evacuation Day, when the British forces occupying Boston finally left after a year of laying siege to the town. The Siege of Boston caused 10,000 refugees to leave the town, and today is a state holiday celebrated with green beer.
Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, American forces moved to form a circular line from Chelsea around Charlestown and Boston, down to Roxbury and Dorchester. Both Charlestown Neck and Boston Neck (the only land access to those two towns) were cut off. The British could only access these areas by the harbor.
It is difficult to imagine the circumstances the thousands of citizens of Boston found themselves in. Among the residents of the town were a number of Benjamin Franklin’s relatives, including his sister Jane (Franklin) Mecom, nephew William Homes, and niece Grace (Harris) Williams, the wife of Boston merchant Jonathan Williams. In a letter written on May 14, Jane wrote of what happened around Lexington and Concord:
“the Horror the Town was in when the Batle aprochd wihin Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the commotion the Town was in after the battle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I believe none had much sleep, sinch which we could have no quite. . .”
Within days, General Gage met with official from town to negotiate terms for the citizens to move freely in and out of the town. Women and children could leave with their effects, and men who swore not to take up arms against the British troops could leave. No plate (i.e., silver, gold, etc.) would be allowed to leave the town. This sounds like a peaceful process; it was anything but.
Thousands of refugees filled the streets. It quickly became difficult to find transportation. If they did not own livestock and carts to carry belongings, the residents could only depart with what they could carry themselves. And all had to pass through the one small road on Boston Neck. Many walked out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Everything was left behind, with no knowledge of when, or even if, they would ever return.
As the residents were leaving, British regulars and Loyalists looted homes, setting fire to many after absconding with anything valuable. The roads surrounding Boston quickly became clogged with the refugees. The fortunate ones had family and friends in other towns, but many had nowhere to go. Many families were separated during the departure. Forced to leave at different times as passes became available, or separated in the chaos and confusion that surrounded the city, it would take some time for many to be reunited.
Jonathan Williams wrote to Benjamin Franklin from Worcester on June 19th: We relying on the faith of General Gage packed up all his Goods [materials belonging to his son who was with Franklin] in Order to remove them out of Boston, but was forbid by him out of whose Mouth proceds blessing and cursing. They there remain with all my Estate Which was indeed Sofficient for me and all my famely though a few days before I left that once happy Town which is no become a den of theaves and robers, to COmpleat ruin my Stores With all my papers and Some of my Books Were Consumed by fire. I was Oblig’d to leave all except a few trunk of Clouths and house linnen my Sons Goods nine house one of Which I valued at £15.000 Sterling and all its valueable furniture, but blessed be God I have now Colected my Scater’d famley Who are all hear in this Town. . .”
At the same time that Bostonians were fleeing the town, many were swimming against the stream to enter the city. Loyalists from around the area were trying desperately to get to a place where they felt safe, and made their way into the town to be protected by the British Regulars.
It is estimated that over the course of the next eight weeks 10,000 residents would flee Boston, about 60% of the population. General Gage’s army kept control of the town for almost a year. During that time conditions became quite horrible for those left behind. Food was scarce, as was firewood and many of the other necessities of life. And the majority of the residents were British soldiers, making life difficult for civilians.
On a stormy night in March, the Continental Trooops, under the comman of George Washington, fortified Dorchester Heights with cannon captured and brought to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga by Henry Knox. General Howe, now in command of the forces in Boston, was desperate to avoid another route like Bunker Hill, decided to retreat. On March 17, 1776, the British troops departed Boston, taking with them many Loyalists, and fled to Nova Scotia. It was Washington’s first major victory in the war.
In 1901 the city declared Evacuation Day to be a holiday. It was established as a holiday in Suffolk County in 1941. It is, of course, a complete coincidence that Irish politicians controlled the city at this point, and that the date of the evacuation is the same as St. Patrick’s Day. Complete coinicendce. So each year Bostonians remember the 10,000 refugees and the end of the siege by drinking green beer. Happy Evacuation Day!