The Bungling British Marine. By Mark Tully

THE month of March marks the 225th anniversary of the British evacuation of Boston on March 17, 1776. The evacuation was a logistically complicated affair that took a great deal of time to plan and execute. British Commander-in-Chief General William Howe feared that the Continentals might take advantage of the situation by attacking as his troops were lining up along the wharfs to board their transports. Howe threatened to burn the city if his troops were molested, and as an extra security measure, Howe sent an Irish Lieutenant of the British Marines on a special mission: he was to spread caltrops along Boston neck.1

Caltrops (a.k.a. “crows feet”) are small, iron booby-traps primarily used as an
anti-cavalry device:

“Crows-Feet: an iron of four points of about six inches long, which are used against the cavalry, for one point will always be uppermost, let it fall as it will.”2

When spread in large quantities, these caltrops create a prickly barrier that is difficult for man or beast to successfully navigate.

But back to our story. The caltrops “mine field” was intended to slow any
premature advance of the Continentals across Boston neck. However, thanks to our
bumbling lieutenant, it had the reverse effect, slowing the retreat of the British rather than slowing the advance of the Rebels.3

Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair dutifully spread his crows feet behind him as he walked down Boston neck towards the rebel positions. Only after he reached the abandoned British outer defenses did he realize his error–he would have to carefully pick his way BACK through the nasty caltrop field he had just
created! The British departure was delayed by almost half an hour while Lieutenant Adair tip-toed his way back to the harbor through the barbs of the caltrops he had just spread.4

1) Thomas Flemming, 1776; Year of Illusions,
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1975, p 186. Unfortunately, Fleming does not note his source for this amusing incident, though he does footnote the fact that it was “the finest day in the world and fair breese.” Thanks to Steve Gilbert for providing the name of the Marine Lieutenant!
2) The Dictionary Section of Thomas Simes’ Military Medley.
3) ibid. Flemming
4) For details on how the evacuation from Boston was conducted, see The Diaries of Archibald Robertson, (New York:NY Times and Arno Press, pp 79-80.