Today, the Bicentennial Quarter Coin remembers when General Howe ordered his men to take down the Old North Church for firewood on December 14, 1775.
Several Boston churches became known as the Old North Church, this one, built in 1677, met its demise for want of firewood.
From the History of the Siege of Boston by Richard Frothingham, Jr., published in 1849:
The army in December* suffered much for want of the necessaries of life, food, clothing, and fuel.
A few store-ships from England got in, but furnished but a small portion of the supplies that were needed and were expected.
To add to the distress, the winter set in uncommonly severe. Before the barracks were ready on Bunker Hill, for the winter garrison, the troops encountered cutting winds and driving snows.
These troops, at length, (11th and 12th,) struck their tents. Lieutenant-col. Agnew, with seven hundred men, was left in “the three redoubts erected on the heights.”
General Clinton, with the remainder, moved into Boston. There are long descriptions of the sufferings of the troops and inhabitants at this period.
One account (December 14) says: “The distress of the troops and inhabitants in Boston is great beyond all possible description. Neither vegetables, flour, nor pulse for the inhabitants; and the king’s stores so very short, none can be spared from them; no fuel, and the winter set in remarkably severe. The troops and inhabitants absolutely and literally starving for want of provisions and fire. Even salt provision is fifteen pence sterling per pound.”
The small-pox broke out, and spread alarm through the army, which was generally inoculated. The British commanders considered this disease alone as a sufficient protection against an assault from their antagonists.**
Plundering, also, —if the numerous cases of discipline of this period be a fair criterion to judge from, —kept pace with the increase of suffering, and seemed almost to bid defiance to the efforts made to stop it.
General Howe had every motive to check licentiousness, to respect private property, and to preserve order; and he dealt with merciless severity with cases of robbery by house-breaking.
Some of the offenders were hung; some were sentenced to receive four hundred, some six hundred, some one thousand, lashes on the bare back with a cat-o’-nine-tails.
This discipline was extended to receivers of stolen goods. In one case, the wife of one of the privates, convicted of this offence, was sentenced “to receive one hundred lashes on her bare back, with a cat-o’-nine-tails, at the cart’s tail, in different portions of the most conspicuous parts of the town, and to be imprisoned three months.”
The instances of discipline, while they confirm the contemporary relations of robbery and licentiousness, prove that they are unjust in ascribing them to the disposition or to the policy of the British commander.
The want most easily supplied was that of fuel, and this was obtained by demolishing the poorest of the buildings.
The “useless houses” in Charlestown—so an order terms the few that escaped the general conflagration—were the first that were authorized to be pulled down.
They were divided into lots, and portions were assigned to each regiment. In Boston, so scanty was the supply dealt out, that the soldiers, notwithstanding severe prohibitions, demolished houses and fences, without waiting for orders.
The evil became so great, that General Howe (December 5th) directed “the provost to go his rounds, attended by the executioner, with orders to hang up on the spot the first man he should detect in the fact, without waiting for further proof for trial.”
No supply having arrived, an order was issued (14th) authorizing working parties to take down the Old North Church and one hundred old wooden houses.
Boston, at this period, presented its most deplorable aspect.
Hostile cannon were planted on its hills and lawns, and an insolent soldiery sat around its hearth-stones, or used its buildings for fuel, or wantoned in its temples of worship.
Its Faneuil Hall was a play-house, where the efforts of the sons of liberty were turned into ridicule.
Its patriot population, exposed to the ill-treatment of the army and to the espionage of its adherents, in want of the necessaries of life, and cut off from relief which friends would gladly have extended, were obliged to endure the severest trials.
The pursuits of commerce and of the mechanic arts, the freedom of the press, of speech and of public meetings, the courts, the churches and the schools, were all interrupted.
Even the air was filled with unwelcome noise, as the morning and evening guns sounded from Beacon Hill, or as the relief guards marched with their music to perform their stated duties.
In a word, Boston under rigid martial law was like a prison, and it is not that the inhabitants who sided with the patriots longed to leave a place so filled with hated sights and sounds, and to breathe, although in poverty and exile, the free air of the surrounding hills.
Necessity obliged General Howe to promote their departure, and hundreds were permitted to go in boats to Point Shirly, whence they dispersed into the country.***
* On the 5th the Boyne sailed for England, with General Burgoyne on board. A London paper, Dec. 30, says: “Yesterday morning the Generals Gage and Burgoyne, the Earl Dartmouth, and Lord George Germaine, went to the queen’s house, and had a conference with his majesty for upwards of two hours, on which account his majesty did not ride out to take the air.”
** The following is from the newspaper printed in Boston: —“Boston, December 14, 1775. Last Thursday a piratical brig, with ten carriage-guns and seventy-five men, fitted out at Plymouth, and commanded by one Martingale, was taken by the Foway man-of-war and brought in here. The prisoners we have are to be sent to England in the Tartar, which sails this day. Several other ships, likewise, sail this day for England, two of which carry the officers of the 18th and 59th regiments.
“It is currently reported that the Continental Congress have declared the Colonies in a state of Independency.
“We are informed that there is now getting up at the theatre, and will be performed in the course of a fortnight, a new farce, called the Blockade of Boston.”
In copying this, an American editor remarks: “It is more probable, before that time, the poor wretches will be presented with a tragedy called the Bombardment of Boston.”
In the London Chronicle of Dec. 2 is the following: “General Burgoyne has opened a theatrical campaign, of which himself is sole manager, being determined to act with the provincials on the defensive only. Tom Thumb has been already represented, while, on the other hand, the provincials are preparing to exhibit early in the spring Measure for Measure.”
*** Watertown, Nov. 27. “On Friday last General Howe sent three hundred men, women, and children, poor of the town of Boston, over to Chelsea, without anything to subsist on, at this inclement season of the year, having, it is reported, only six cattle left in the town for Shubael Hewes, butcher master-general, to kill.”—Newspaper.
The Bicentennial Quarter Coin shows with an image of the Old North Church that was built in 1677.