This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Defending The Charles
After the April 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord and the headlong retreat of the badly mauled British into Boston, the greatest challenge facing Patriot forces was to keep the detested lobsterbacks and their powerful naval squadron confined in the city until sufficient artillery could be secured to force them out altogether.
With that object in mind, the patriots constructed an encircling system of redoubts, batteries, and forts. This hastily built ring of earthenworks extended from Roxbury, to the southwest of Boston, through Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford, to the northwest. This proved a highly effective stratagem, giving rise to the famous eleven month-long Siege of Boston.
The most vulnerable point on the American defensive perimeter was without doubt the Charles River Basin, a nine-mile long natural highway into the interior. If the British naval squadron could freely access this waterway, it would be in a position to offer critical support to its ground forces in assaulting the American lines.
The defense of the Charles River Basin was made all the more important by the role that two of its towns, Cambridge and Watertown, were playing in the revolutionary drama---the former, as the headquarters of the Army of New England, and the latter, as the headquarters of the revolutionary government.
The largest of all the entrenchments constructed by the American army was Fort Brookline, which stood just west of the present Boston University campus, about where the B.U. Bridge crosses the river today.
Sewall’s Point, as this location was then called, had several defensive advantages. Its elevated location gave it a clear view of approaching enemy forces. The location was also surrounded on three sides by the Charles and its tidal marshes, rendering it easy to defend. Most importantly, Fort Brookline stood just west of the point where the Charles widened dramatically into the Back Bay (then, of course, still under water). Any British warship venturing into the lower reaches of the Charles would thus be within range of the six four-pound cannon the Americans mounted at Fort Brookline, making a seaborne assault on the American lines potentially disastrous.
The construction of the various fortifications on the edge of the Charles became all the more critical after the British pushed the Americans off of the Charlestown Peninsula in the June 17, 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill.
Colonel Rufus Putnam, who was placed in charge of the construction of all the fortifications south of the river, designed Fort Brookline as well as the two neighboring redoubts to the southeast. These entrenchments, the marshy character of the ground east of the fort, including an extensive cedar swamp, made a direct overland attack on the south bank of the Charles impractical.
The first portion of Fort Brookline to rise was a redoubt facing east toward Boston. Breastworks were soon added on either side of this structure. Large-scale construction began on July 10 when Colonel Oliver Prescott’s 430-man Middlesex County Regiment was sent to assist in building the fort. Later in the month, Prescott’s force was transferred to Cambridge, to be replaced by a 498-man regiment under the command of Colonel Samuel Gerrish of Newbury, Massachusetts, a controversial figure who had given a rather mediocre account of himself at Bunker Hill.
The building of this giant earthenwork fort required an estimated 20,000 man hours of labor and took about six months to complete. Measuring some 600 by 470 feet, it covered almost six acres of ground.
Other fortifications near the Charles River Basin were in scale far more modest. The best known of these, owing to the survival of a portion of its earthenworks, is Cambridgeport’s historic Fort Washington, which was restored in 1858, and now serves as a city park. Though the site lies some distance north of the river (near the intersection of Allston and Waverly Streets), in revolutionary times this battery sat on a rise of land on the very edge of the tidal river.
A few hundred yards north of Fort Washington a similar entrenchment was constructed, also on the edge of the tidal marshes, overlooking an indentation in the shoreline called Little Cove.
About a half mile west of these batteries, closer to the village of Cambridge, stood two somewhat more substantial entrenchments known as Forts Nos.1 and 2, the former located near the intersection of present day River Street and Putnam Avenue, the latter at Putnam Avenue and Franklin Street.
As historian Richard Frothingham wrote in 1873 of the remains of these revolutionary entrenchments: “The forts and batteries of this line of defense, which constituted the firmest bulwark of the American army, are [today] all leveled with the ground, and the entrenchment which were raised and defended by warriors are now employed in the peaceful pursuits of agriculture.”
A century and a half later still, the agricultural pursuits Frothingham referred to have given way to a variety of commercial, industrial, and recreational activities. The site of Fort No. 1, for example, today accommodates Riverside Park, formerly the home of the Riverside Press, and before that, of the old Cambridge Almshouse.
The American fortifications on the Charles were assaulted by the British on one occasion only, on July 31, 1775, some six weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Following a heavy bombardment of the American lines south of the city, British forces advanced into Roxbury, but found that village deserted. After setting fire to several of its structures, the King’s troops withdrew into Boston.
A second assault had meanwhile been launched against the American lines in the eastern part of Cambridge. Here the defenders were initially repulsed, but with the arrival of reinforcements from Cambridge, they were able to reassert themselves, killing several of the British attackers, and driving them back toward Charlestown.
The third, and most important assault of the day was launched against Fort Brookline, then still in the early stages of construction. The British understood the strategic importance of the site, and hoped a vigorous bombardment would scare the inexperienced Americans out of the unfinished fort. With that goal, they rowed two floating batteries (each containing six twenty-four pound cannon) to within three hundred yards of fort. It was late in the day before they reached the desired position and opened fire.
Fortunately, the Americans did not panic. Instead they pursued the passive strategy of lowering their heads and sitting out the British cannonade. “The rascals can do no harm,” Colonel Gerrish declared in ordering his men not to respond, “and it would be a mere waste of powder to fire at them with our four-pounders.” As Frothingham wrote of this engagement, ”It was evening, the lights were extinguished, and all the British balls flew wide of the fort. After several hours of ineffectual firing, the British abandoned the effort and withdrew their floating batteries from the basin.
Colonel Gerrish’s passive defense of Fort Brookline did not meet with official approval, however. It had the effect of destroying his military career. Following the British withdrawal, General Washington, who believed that Fort Brookline’s cannon could have done the enemy serious damage, ordered Gerrish placed under arrest. The unfortunate colonel was subsequently found guilty of “conduct unworthy of an officer” and dismissed from the American service.