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Siege of Boston - American Revolutionary War

Updated on June 6, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Early American history is of special interest to Phyllis, for it is what shaped our country.

Battle of Bunker Hill During the Siege of Boston

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle, 1897
The Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle, 1897 | Source

Continental Army April 1775

The Continental Congress saw the need of organizing the militias throughout all the individual states into one army and chose General George Washington as the Commander in Chief of the new Continental Army.

General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army

General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull, Yale University Art Gallery (1792).
General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull, Yale University Art Gallery (1792). | Source

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord

The Siege of Boston began immediately after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. From April 19, 1775 to March 17, 1776, General George Washington and other Patriot commanders kept a tight rein on the British army. Several skirmishes throughout the area occurred and one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War was fought at Bunker Hill during this time.

On April 19, 1775, the Patriot militia had gained an overwhelming victory over the British at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Percy, the British were making a hasty retreat towards Boston and suffered heavy casualties. By this time the Patriot fighting force was over 15,000 militia men strong and right on the tail of the British army.

Patriot commander Brigadier General William Heath had the foresight to have the Great Bridge dismantled to prevent the British from reaching Charlestown by that route. Heath also had militia men stationed along the banks of the river. Percy's retreat was hindered by these maneuvers, however, Percy found a narrow road leading down the banks that would take them over to Charlestown -- this quick thinking and action by Percy saved his troops that day and broke the relentless firing upon them from the militias.

Once across the river, Colonel Timothy Pickering, with a large force of militia men, was waiting on Winter Hill. Pickering could have wiped out Percy's entire army, but for some reason let the British pass unharmed.

General Timothy Pickering, 1745-1849

General Timothy Pickering
General Timothy Pickering | Source

British Fortifications

Having passed by Pickering's large force, Percy was able to gain high ground and meet with reinforcements of troops and heavy artillery sent out by Governor Thomas Gage.

Along Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill, Percy had ordered fortifications to be built. Heath saw that Percy now had a formidable position and ordered the militia back to Cambridge to assess the situation and reorganize.

The beleaguered British troops left the fortifications incomplete when they were sent to Charlestown to recuperate.

On April 20th, General Artemas Ward took over command of the militia, replacing William Heath.

Ward organized the militia into formations that surrounded Boston on three sides, effectively blocking the only access by land to Charlestown.

The Boston Neck, which was the only land access to Boston, was also blocked by Ward's soldiers. From Chelsea in the north to Roxbury in the south, Boston peninsulas were completely surrounded by the Patriot militias.

The Siege of Boston had begun and the British had control of only the harbor and the open sea.

Major General Artemas Ward 1727 - 1800

Major General Artemas Ward, second in command to George Washington during the Siege of Boston.
Major General Artemas Ward, second in command to George Washington during the Siege of Boston. | Source

The British Defenses in Boston, 1775

Map of the British defenses in Boston, 1775.
Map of the British defenses in Boston, 1775. | Source

Militia Grows in Numbers

The militia continued to grow as more troops came from Connecticut. Militias from New Hampshire and Rhode Island also joined up with Ward's army. Ward had the militias s well-trained and placed that Governor Thomas Gage himself recorded in his journal that the colonists had:

"... never showed such conduct, attention, and perseverance as they do now."

Gage then turned his attention to fortifying what was left to him of Boston and the peninsula. With the Patriots in control of the countryside, the settlers who were still Loyal to the British left their homes to flee to Boston -- at the same time, Patriots living in Boston left for the countryside.

Gage set up the main defense of the city on four hills in Boston. He had the rest of the British troops who had fought at Concord brought in from Charleston, which left the town empty. Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill in the north were not defended, nor was Dorchester Heights in the south defended by the British. Dorchester Heights was in a strategic location, overlooking the city and the harbor.

Royal Navy

Although the British were hemmed in, they still had free access to the harbor, which meant that the Royal Navy, commanded by Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, could bring in supplies from Nova Scotia.

The American forces had no armed vessels, so could not do anything to prevent the Royal Navy from sailing in. The people in Boston, as well as the British forces were getting low on supplies and food was being rationed.

General Ward was receiving information as to what was going on in Boston. Gage was at a disadvantage since he had no knowledge or information coming in about activities of the American regiments.

Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, 1713 - 1787

Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, British Royal Navy admiral during  the American Revolutionary War
Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, British Royal Navy admiral during the American Revolutionary War | Source

Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga at south end of Lake Champlain in upstate New York
Fort Ticonderoga at south end of Lake Champlain in upstate New York | Source

Allen and Arnold at Fort Ticonderoga

Engraving depicting Ethan Allen demanding the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga
Engraving depicting Ethan Allen demanding the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga | Source

Weapons at Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga was over 300 miles north of Boston, at the southern part of Lake Champlain. Late in April, Ethan Allen in Bennington, Connecticut, was contacted by a small militia group for his assistance in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. The militia knew there was a large store of weapons and supplies at the fort. Allen was Colonel Commander of the Green Mountain Boys.

Allen decided to help them and contacted the Green Mountain Boys to reinforce the small militia. Allen, 130 Boys and 60 militia met in Castleton on May 7. The attack was planned for May 10. Late on the 9th, Benedict Arnold, with a commission from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, showed up and demanded the right to lead the expedition. The militia and Boys refused to follow Arnold. Both Allen and Arnold, after a private discussion, agreed that they would both be up front during the attack.

The group managed to procure a few boats to cross the lake to the fort. Only 83 men were able to cross, but, since dawn was coming fast, Allen decided to attack. The fort was not heavily guarded, nor were they battle ready. Only one sentry was on duty. Allen and Arnold went to the quarters of Captain William Delaplace. The captain's assistant woke Delaplace, who immediately surrendered. There was no battle, not one shot was fired, and the militia were then in charge of the fort.

Commander of the Green Mountain Boys, Seth Warner, took a detachment and captured the garrison at Fort Crown Point. The weaponry and supplies they seized from both forts, including 180 cannons, would be of great help to the Continental Army.

On May 14, Arnold's captains arrived with 100 men in a schooner and bateaux (flat bottom long boats). Arnold and his regiment sailed north and conducted a raid on Fort St. John. They captured the HMS Royal George along with supplies and more bateaux.

Green Mountain Boys Flag

Replica of Green Mountain Boys flag. It is still used by the Vermont National Guard.
Replica of Green Mountain Boys flag. It is still used by the Vermont National Guard. | Source

Benedict Arnold, 1741 - 1801

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold | Source

Back in Boston

In Boston another skirmish occurred on May 21. Supplies of fresh meat were gone and there was no more hay for the horses. When Gage sent a group of regulars to Grape Island to bring back some hay, the group was fired upon by militia waiting for them. The militia had destroyed almost all the hay by burning the barn it was stored in. Out of 83 tons, the regulars retrieved just 3 tons.

After that incident, the militia started clearing the livestock and supplies from the other harbor islands to prevent the British from gaining access to meat and supplies.

On May 27 the British Marines sailed into the harbor to stop the removal of more livestock. Resistance from the militia was strong and the Battle of Chelsea Creek ensued, lasting two days. When the British schooner Diana ran aground during the battle, the militia seized all the weaponry on board.

Governor Gage must have known there was little hope of overcoming the American militias and breaking out of the siege. On June 12 he issued a proclamation that would pardon all dissidents if they gave up their arms. That pardon clearly stated it did not include John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The outcome of the proclamation was not what Gage had hoped for, as it only angered the Patriots and more of them joined the militias.

General Thomas Gage, 1720 - 1787

General Thomas Gage, Governor of Boston, Portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1768
General Thomas Gage, Governor of Boston, Portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1768 | Source

Map Depicting Location of the Battle of Chelsea Creek

Battle of Chelsea Creek
Battle of Chelsea Creek | Source

British Generals Arrive in Boston

British Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton arrived in Boston on May 25. Their first order of duty was to meet with General Gage and organize some battle plans. Obvious to them was to fortify two strategic sites that command Boston. Bunker Hill, a large hill to the north over Charleston, and Dorchester Heights in the south.

Dorchester Heights consisted of three hills, joining the main by the southern arm of land. Erecting batteries in these two places would be advantageous and necessary if they were to succeed and end the siege. These plans were to be executed early dawn on the 18th of June, beginning with Dorchester Heights.

Unfortunately for the British Generals, the Committee of Safety (the shadow government for the colonists in the Boston area) received word of the plans on June 15th.

Battle of Bunker Hill

General Ward received orders on June 16th from the Committee of Safety to fortify Bunker Hill. That same day, Colonel William Prescott, with 1,000 troops of the army, plus 300 from Prescott's own regiment, was given orders from Ward to proceed to Bunker Hill and set up fortifications along both Bunker and Breed's Hills.

Just around midnight, Prescott arrived at Breed's Hill and directed Colonel Henry Knox, engineer in charge of logistics, to draw lines for the most strategic areas to be fortified. Following the lines of battle that Knox had set up, the entire regiments began digging trenches and worked till just before sunrise, at which time a large force led by British General Howe attacked with heavy bombardment. Generals Burgoyne and Clinton were on a hill the other side of Charlestown. With those regiments and British ships in the harbor cannonading Charlestown, it was not long before the town was destroyed.

Prescott's troops were exhausted from their heavy manual labor, yet they were able to hold off Howe's regiments in two attacks, giving them rounds of such hot fire that the British retreated 150 yards each time. With their ammunition running low, the colonial troops fought hard in the third assault with only scattered fire, the few bayonets they had and small arms. It had come to hand to hand combat for a little over an hour, with heavy losses on both sides.

Prescott was able to get his men to retreat to Cambridge. They had a significant loss of 115 killed, 305 wounded, and 30 captured by the British -- a total of 450 troops.

Technically, the British won the Battle of Bunker Hill with the third assault, but their loss of men was so devastating that it was tantamount to defeat. The British losses were 226 killed including 19 officers and 828 wounded, including 62 officers -- a total of 1,054 troops.

Some time after the battle, in a letter written to his nephew, Lord Stanley, Burgoyne had described the set up of the attack plans by the British. Not involved in the actual combat on Bunker and Breed Hills, Burgoyne was able to observe what was going on there. He wrote:

"And now ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived..."

Ships in the harbor were cannonading the colonial forces and the town. He went on to describe the town in one great blaze with church steeples looking like pyramids of fire with colonial ships anchored in the harbor and buildings falling in ruins, the whole scene a "complication of horror" like nothing he had ever witnessed before. Smoke from the fires and weaponry was drifting over the whole area like a blanket of doom. What ran through Burgoyne's mind, as he stated to his nephew, was:

" ... defeat for the British Empire with the final loss of America."

The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Howard Pyle, 1897

Battle of Bunker Hill
Battle of Bunker Hill | Source

General George Washington

General Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 3 and set up headquarters in the Longfellow House. Washington's first order of business was to shape the many different militias into one force, the Continental Army. He appointed official senior officers, laid down organization and disciplinary policies and had uniforms distributed that denoted the rank of the officers.

From Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, about 2,000 riflemen arrived to join the siege and became part of the new Continental Army. Their attack expertise and the accuracy of their rifles was something that New England and the British had not ever seen. Washington kept them as one force and they were set up in strategic places to continually harass the British with well aimed fire.

On August 2, one of these rifleman was killed by the British and his body taken to hang in sight for all to see. Anger overtook the riflemen force and they attacked the British at their line of defense, killing or wounding many British. The riflemen lost one man. There were several other skirmishes and attacks during August, with many British killed.

On August 30, Washington had 1,200 men assigned to dig trenches on a hill overlooking the Charleston Neck to strengthen fortifications. Although under heavy bombardment from the British, the men completed the task.

Early in September Washington ordered the appropriation of fishing vessels to be put in place in hopes of gathering intelligence information and to prohibit the delivery of supplies to the British.

This beneficial plan led to the development of the Continental Navy in late October.

With little or no supplies getting through to the British, a raid at Lechmer's Point provided them with ten head of cattle. They lost two men on this mission. Everyone in Boston was suffering from hunger and the outbreak of scurvy and smallpox took a toll. The winter would see serious problems for both the British and Americans. Washington's army was running very low on gunpowder and he knew that many troops might be leaving when their term was up at the end of December.


Longfellow House, Headquarters of General George Washington During the Siege of Boston

The Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts
The Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts | Source

Council of War

In a council of war in November, Washington and his officers decided to send an expedition to Ticonderoga to bring back the heavy artillery and ammunition that Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had captured. Knox volunteered for the mission.

On January 24, 1776, Knox and his regiment of engineers arrived in Cambridge after a grueling three months of transporting 60 tons of artillery on sledges pulled by oxen.

Using some of these cannons, Knox placed them in strategic positions surrounding Boston, and on March 2, began bombarding Boston. The British returned their own cannonade. A few British soldiers were killed and some houses damaged by American fire.

The British Evacuate Boston, March 17, 1776

Engraving depicting the British evacuating Boston
Engraving depicting the British evacuating Boston | Source

Dorchester Heights

The exchange of fire continued until March 4. On the 5th, Washington had cannons and several thousand troops to Dorchester Heights, which overlooked Boston from the south. With the ground frozen, no trenches could be dug, but the regiments used logs to fortify their position.

General Howe was amazed at what the Americans had accomplished overnight. He had cannons directed to fire on the heights, but the British cannons did not reach the top where the American troops and cannons were. Howe knew he would lose this war if the Americans were not removed from Dorchester Heights.

A planned attack by Howe to remove the Americans from their formidable position failed due to a storm. With their last chance at success gone, the British chose to withdraw. Beginning on March 10, 1776, the British army and Loyalists began evacuating Boston. The loading of the British fleet in the harbor took about a week. The fleet, loaded with 11,000 people, sat in the Boston harbor waiting for favorable winds.

During the time of waiting for the British fleet to sail, American naval operations captured several British ships outside the harbor that were loaded with supplies and took them in to the colonial ports. There was no fire or attacks on the British fleet in the harbor. They were allowed to sail as they got underway on the morning of March 17, 1776.

The Siege of Boston had ended.

Henry Knox and The Noble Train of Artillery

Noble Train of Artillery in the American Revolutionary War
Noble Train of Artillery in the American Revolutionary War | Source

Colonel Henry Knox and his Noble Train of Artillery

One of the most phenomenal achievements involving logistics of the entire Revolutionary War was during the Siege of Boston in 1775-76. It took one with boldness, courage, and extraordinary skills to accomplish the major undertaking. An expedition led by a bookseller who volunteered to become a soldier had a decisive impact on the outcome of the war.

When the war began in 1775, Henry Knox was a bookseller in Boston. He and his wife, Lucy, abandoned their shop and secretly left Boston so Henry could join the militia. Knox had never been a soldier before, but he had engineering skills that he felt would be of help to the militia and volunteered to put those skills to use.

He became acquainted with General Washington, who was very impressed with the engineering skills of Knox and his natural leadership abilities. John Adams, during the Second Continental Congress, began work to obtain a commission for Knox as colonel of the artillery and logistics regiment in the Continental Army.

Knox served under General Artemas Ward during the Siege of Boston and was put in charge of defense lines to develop fortifications that enclosed Boston where the British had retreated to. The fortifications were so well planned that the only way out for the British was by sea. Knox took command of directing cannon fire during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

When General George Washington called his council of war in November 1775, he and his officers discussed the possibility of retrieving the cannons that had been seized at Ticonderoga and Crown Point in upstate New York, over 300 miles away. Washington put Knox in charge of the expedition, sent a letter to General Philip Schuyler asking him to assist Knox, and sent a letter to the Second Continental Congress to authorize the funds to Knox for what would be needed. He wrote to the Second Continental Congress regarding the weapons in Ticonderoga, asking them to do everything possible to provide Knox with the funds needed.

Knox left on November 17 for New York for supplies and equipment, hired available men and arrived in Ticonderoga on December 5. Without wasting any time, Knox chose the weapons and supplies to transport. Mortars, howitzers and cannons were loaded up along with all the necessary ammunition and tools.

The journey back to Boston was fraught with mishaps, but it is obvious there was a mode of determination, perseverance and a higher calling to make these men succeed in the nearly impossible mission.

Knox and his team used every source of appropriate transport they could to get this "Noble Train of Artillery" back to Boston and the Continental Army. It is an amazing story and one that turns on the pride for those who went above and beyond to help form America.

Noble Train of Artillery and Henry Knox ~

Have you ever heard about Henry Knox and the Noble Train of Artillery?

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John Bell on Washington's Artillery and Remaking the Regiment

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A markerBoston, MA USA -
Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel, Boston, MA, USA
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Siege of Boston

B markerBunker Hill -
50 Freedom Trail, Boston, MA 02129, USA
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Battle of Bunker Hill

C markerChelsea Creek -
167 Falcon St, Boston, MA 02128, USA
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Battle of Chelsea Creek

D markerLongfellow House -
105 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
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George Washington's Headquarters in Cambridge.

© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      HSchneider, thank you very much for the visit and comment. I am glad you enjoyed it.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are most welcome and thank you, Eddy. I really appreciate your visit and comment. Best wishes to you.

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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful historical Hub, Phyllis. Great job explaining it in plain but descriptive terms.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      A wonderful history lesson indeed Phyllis and so well told. Thank you for this interesting hub and wishing you a great day.

      Eddy.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, teach, for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it. I am glad you enjoyed the hub. It has always amazed me that Henry Knox and his crew were able to get every single piece of weaponry and tools to Boston. It was a difficult and long journey.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I may have studied the Noble Train in grade school, but I can't remember the details. Thank you for the education which was quite interesting.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      OMGosh, Dane -- such a wonderful comment that really just lifted my spirit up. I am so glad you liked the hub. It took me a long time to bring it all together. I know your great interest in the RW, so this means so much to me, your read and comment. I always think of you when I write on the early history of America and wonder how you would do it. You are my mentor for this time era in our history. Thank you so much.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Starting off your excellent story I was reminded of the scene in The Patriot movie where the Continental General tells a Mel Gibson at a meeting of the S.C. assembly that they shot down 700+ redcoats at point blank range yet still they took the hill. "That was the depth of their resolution" or something to that effect. You've enlightened me very much on much I didn't know about this part of the RW, Phyllis. Although I've read Philbeck's superb book you have on offer here, your article was so well written with the awesome info it was a pleasure to read. You really deliver the goods here ladywriter, well done!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Genna. Wow -- such fine praise which leaves me a bit overwhelmed. You are very kind, dear Genna. Boston has always fascinated me since I first heard about the Boston Tea Party in elementary school. Thank you so much for your praise, votes and sharing, I so appreciate it.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      As a Bostonian, the Siege of Boston is a subject close to my “roots,” so to speak. This is a brilliant article, Phyllis, well-presented and superbly researched. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s refreshing to know that someone has such knowledge with this depth of detail. (I am still a bit flummoxed over the fact that a number of my fellow Bostonians don’t know what actually precipitated The Boston Tea Party.) Voted way up, across the board, and shared. Excellent work, Phyllis.

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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, SANJAY LAKHANPAL, I appreciate your visit and vote.

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 3 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Nicely presented and detailed hub on the subject. Voted up.

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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are most welcome, Jodah.

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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, DDE. I appreciate your comment and visit.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks for that info Phyllis.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Siege of Boston - American Revolutionary War is an interesting insight that time. I learned lots form this educational hub. You presented with good photos and explained to perfection.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Jodah. Thanks for the read and compliment, I appreciate it. Thanks for the vote up, too. :)

      Several Indian tribes did enlist in the American militias and even in the Continental Army. Early on during the beginning of the Revolution there were land grant feuds and skirmishes between Indians and the state of New York, which the Mohicans were involved in.

      After the Rev War, the Mohicans migrated west and the Iroquois gave them some 20,000 acres of land to live on. They migrated further west as the colonists moved west.

      Two years prior to the Revolutionary War, the French-Indian War (1754 - 1763) was fought.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What an amazingly in depth article Phyllis. I didn't know a lot about the Siege of Boston and the Revolutionary War. I found it interesting to hear of the roles of various famous names like Benedict Arnold, George Washington etc. Was this the war the Mohican Indians had some involvement in? Voted up.

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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are most welcome -- Thank you, Frank. I always appreciate you visits and comments.

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      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      thank you for refreshing my history love the concise format Phyllis :)

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Jackie - thank you so much. I am glad you enjoyed it. I have always had great interest in early American history and the Revolution era. I will have to hop over to your place and read your article. Thanks, Jackie, for the visit, vote and sharing. I so appreciate it.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Bill. You are most welcome. There are many forgotten heroes of the Revolutionary War and Knox is one of them. It just amazes me what he accomplished. Thanks for the visit and comment, Bill. Take care.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Wow what an outstanding article! You have really put some work into this. I have been reading a lot of this myself, not included in my article but still from that time period. So interesting. Up and sharing. Very good.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Knox bringing down the artillery has always been my favorite story of this period. Thanks for including... and sharing the entire story! ;-)