March is flying by, but this month contains one of Boston’s most important holidays. March 17 is known as St. Patrick’s Day to many, but in Boston it is also the date of Evacuation Day, a holiday that commemorates the day British troops evacuated Boston in 1776, ending the eleven month siege of Boston. The siege of Boston began on April 19, 1775, following the battles at Lexington and Concord, when the British Army became trapped in Boston by local militia. Conditions within Boston during the siege were difficult, as tensions between soldiers and civilians grew, and provisions dwindled. While some loyalists came to the city from the surrounding countryside to live under the protection of the British Army, many residents fled Boston to escape the increasingly harsh conditions. John Andrews, a merchant, described life in the city in a letter written on June 1, 1775:
“Was it not for a triffle of Salt provissions that we have, twould be impossible for us to live, Pork & beans one day, & beans & pork another & fish when we can catch it, am necessitated to Submit to Such living or risque the little all I have in the world… as its Said without Scruple that those who leave the town, forfeit all the effects they leave behind — whether they hold it up as only a means to detain people or not I cant Say… it has So far availd as to influence many to Stay, who would other ways have gone—”
When George Washington arrived in Boston in July of 1775 as the recently elected Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Army, he immediately set to work developing a plan to drive the army out of Boston. His proposed attack on the city was rejected by his officers, so he ordered Henry Knox on a mission to obtain additional artillery from Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York. Knox returned in January of 1776 with 59 cannons, and in March these cannons were moved into place on Dorchester Heights, aimed at the British Army. Taken by surprise and left with little choice, 11,000 British troops and over 1,000 loyalist civilians departed Boston by sea on March 17, 1776. Evacuation Day was first recognized as a holiday in 1901, on the 125th anniversary of the British Army’s departure in 1776. On this first Evacuation Day, celebratory medals were presented to the city’s children, schools were closed, and municipal workers had a paid day off. The holiday continues to be officially recognized in Boston each year on March 17, as a celebration of Washington’s victory and the end of the siege of Boston.