Heading Into Memorial Day Weekend, Willwork, Inc. Exhibit& Event Services Reflects on Epic and Miracle Logistics … and on Sacrifice … That Launched a Nation

Willwork, Inc. Exhibit & Event Services is a national leader in exhibition services and event project management.

A major component of our business is logistics.  Logistics is thought of, commonly, and broadly, as the shipping of materials.  But the exercise and process of logistics is far more entailed.

Helpful background on – and a definition of – logistics is found in the following excerpt, which is also the first two paragraphs, of an Encyclopaedia Britannica  entry on logistics:

“Logistics, in business, is the organized movement of materials and, sometimes, people. The term was first associated with the military but gradually spread to cover business activities.”

Logistics implies that a number of separate activities are coordinated. In 1991 the Council of Logistics Management, a trade organization based in the United States, defined logistics as: ‘the process of planning, implementing, and controlling the efficient, effective flow and storage of goods, services, and related information from point of origin to point of consumption for the purpose of conforming to customer requirements.’ The last few words limit the definition to business enterprises. Logistics also can be thought of as transportation after taking into account all the related activities that are considered in making decisions about moving materials.”

Please click here to be taken to the full Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, written by Donald F. Wood, Professor of Transportation, San Francisco State University.

Willwork has achieved renown for its success and efficiency in handling major and complex logistics challenges.

We are able to get the job done and pull off logistics feats because of our skilled, caring, and well trained employees; having a strong and dependable and extensive network of service partners; our large and modern facilities and best-in-class and well maintained equipment; and carefully and strategically planned systems and processes that are flexible and adjustable.

For Memorial Day, Willwork felt it fitting and proper to discuss here in this space an extraordinary and epic logistics mission.   It was a mission that supported a heroic military operation – an operation that was instrumental in the birth of our republic.

It was a mission that involved and was carried out over land that included what is now the neighborhood in which the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center sits.

We have to go back a ways for this story – back to maybe the most consequential year in our nation’s history:  1776.

It was the year following – on the morning of April 18, 1775 – when British soldiers and local militia skirmished at Lexington (five miles to the west of Boston) and then at North Bridge in Concord (11 miles to the west of Boston) where the militia routed the British.

It was the year following the day after the Lexington and Concord battles when colonial militiamen cut off all access to British-held Boston.

It was the year following the British winning back from the militia – in the Battle of Bunker Hill, on June 17, 1775 – a strategic area in Charlestown, a town separated from Boston by a channel of Boston Harbor.  The British lost so many lives and shed so much blood in the battle that its leadership understood that they could not endure more such victories.

In the late fall of 1775, on the cusp of 1776, the future of the rebellion – of a nation – was in flux and in desperation.  Flux and desperation centered on Boston.

The colonial militia – now called the Continental Army – surrounded the British … and yet the hold was precarious.

Ten thousand British troops occupied Royal Navy ships which held Boston Harbor, and whose cannons could send shot into Continental Army garrisons.

The British could land troops from the harbor.

Continental Army General George Washington, on the ground in Boston, recognized the problems … and saw opportunity.

One way to discourage and prevent a British attack from the harbor, as Washington considered, was to occupy Dorchester Heights (in present day South Boston), an area that afforded an overlook of Boston Harbor, and the peninsula of Boston itself, which was populated with British troops and citizens loyal to England.

The English coveted Dorchester Heights as well.

General Washington, whose command base was a house in the city of Cambridge, which bordered Boston, knew that his troops might be able to take Dorchester Heights, but because they lacked sufficient armaments and firepower, they could not hold it.

But the armaments, the firepower, were not available.

Or were they?

Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller turned Continental Army officer, had an idea.  A crazy idea.  An idea that had no chance of being realized.

Of such craziness is the stuff that changes the world.

Knox knew that the previous May, American forces – the Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold – had captured cannons when they overcame the British garrisons of Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point nearby in upstate New York, alongside Lake Champlain.

Knox asked General Washington if the general would let him lead an expedition – with winter approaching – that would travel 300 miles to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown, and … somehow … transport cannons back to Boston and to Dorchester Heights.

General Washington listened.  He commissioned Henry Knox a colonel, appointed him the head of an artillery unit, and said go for it.

Henry Knox and his team arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in mid-December.

Now how to transport 59 cannons (30 from Fort Ticonderoga and 29 from Fort Crown) – 60 tons worth – across mountainous and snow and ice-packed terrain.

Colonel Knox commandeered sleds pulled by oxen.

As the team of oxen made its way along the trail to Boston – today the Henry Knox Trail – Colonel Knox had to work as a hiring agent as he traveled across sparsely populated territory … hiring men for temporary stints to help in the transport.

More than once, while crossing frozen rivers, ice broke and a cannon went into the water.  But every cannon was retrieved.

In early January, the caravan made its way south from Lake Champlain, and across the Adirondacks, down to Albany.  Colonel Knox led and guided the shipment into Massachusetts and across the Berkshires.

In late January, Colonel Knox and the cannon arrived in Cambridge.

General Washington first directed some of the cannons to be placed in Cambridge, and in Roxbury, which bordered Boston.

He then strategized how to get to the cannons up to Dorchester Heights, and to fortify the Heights, without the British detecting the move.

General Washington employed diversion to accomplish the task.

On the evenings March 2 and March 3, he had the cannon batteries in Cambridge and Roxbury open fire.  British troops returned fire. No significant casualties resulted.  The noise and commotion, though, provided cover for American troops to prep for a lightning taking and fortifying Dorchester Heights.

On March 4, evening, the American cannons again fired.  Accompanying the cannon shooting was the movement of 2000 Continental Army soldiers, under the direct command of General John Thomas, moving up to Dorchester Heights with entrenching tools, cannon placements, and cannon.

Troops placed bales of hay between their work and the harbor so to muffle the sound of the activity and prevent those on the British warships from being alerted.

Following is an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry on the fortification of Dorchester Heights:

“General Washington was present to provide moral support and encouragement …. By 4 a.m., they had constructed fortifications that were proof against small arms and grapeshot. Work continued on the positions, with troops cutting down trees and constructing abbatis to impede any British assault on the works.  The outside of the works also included rock-filled barrels that could be rolled down the hill at attacking troops.”

When dawn broke on March 5, Dorchester Heights was armed and fortified.

British General William Howe, marveling, and no doubt distraught, with his opponent’s miracle execution of logistics, commented, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”

The work of the rebels left the British at a major disadvantage.  American control of Dorchester Heights afforded an excellent position for General Washington’s soldiers to rain hellfire upon the British in Boston, and on the Royal Navy if it sought to land troops close to the Heights — which it would have to do if it sought to bring the troops ashore because the Continental Army occupied most of the surrounding coastline.

General Howe considered an assault on Dorchester Heights, but understood such an operation would be like Bunker Hill, only worse.

General Howe and his command made the decision to evacuate British troops and Loyalists from Boston — which was done on March 17, 1776.

Much hardship, and monstrous suffering and sacrifice lay ahead for the Continental Army, and colonial patriots, before liberty was fully won.

Yet, for sure, the logistics-feats-for-the-ages that the Americans pulled off during the winter of 1776 enabled a nascent and still-fragile revolt to live; it gave great hope to and inspired patriots; and it was the marrow and stuff of the launch of a nation.