About This Artifact
Following the beginning of hostilities at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, New England militiamen laid siege to Boston, a city occupied by the British, and a key port city for the American colonies. The British attempted to break the siege with attacks on Breed ’s Hill and Bunker Hill and, although they technically won the battle, the siege was maintained for the next eleven months. The American forces were ill-equipped, often undisciplined, and prone to return home when their term of service expired. With the arrival on the scene of General George Washington, who had been given command of the new Continental Army, he gradually either replaced or reinforced the undisciplined troops with men from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. In January 1776, he also acquired much needed ammunition as well as 43 cannons and 16 mortars captured at Fort Ticonderoga.
The British commander, General William Howe, had neglected to occupy Dorchester Heights, which overlooked both the city and Boston Harbor. Washington noted this and took control of the heights, built fortifications and mounted his artillery in March of 1776. General Howe, thwarted by bad weather and the lack of reinforcements, provisions and stores, decided not to attack the heights. Instead, he evacuated Boston on March 17th. Accompanying his forces were many of Boston’s loyalist (i.e. pro-British) population. A triumphant Continental Army came down from the heights to a liberated Boston. The British sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they regrouped and later successfully attacked New York. Boston remained free for the remainder of the revolution.
This scrimshaw, done on the tooth of a sperm whale, depicts the evacuation of Boston by the British. General Washington, on a white horse, points to the departing ships and several soldiers of the Continental Army raise their arms in victory. There is some thought that this piece was done by modern scrimshander William Perry, who worked in the first half of the 20th century.
Questions for Further Thought
- What was the significance of the British evacuation of Boston? How did it affect the war?
- How does what happened in Boston demonstrate how divided the local population was during the American Revolution?
- How can a work of art, in this case scrimshaw, help us understand history?