Artistic Interpretation of First Naval Battle of American Revolution – H.M.S. Margaretta portside, Transport Unity starboard. Jeremiah O’Brien and his four brothers seized the British warship.
A 1776 nautical chart of Machias Bay; Machias is at the very top.
The day, perhaps, the decisive day, is come,” Abigail Adams wrote on April 18 in a letter to her husband, who was in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Like so many people who lived near Boston, she feared that vengeful British troops were on their way from Bunker Hill, marching to wherever they could find Rebels to slaughter. “It is expected,” she wrote, “they will come out over the Neck to-night, and a dreadful battle must ensue. Almighty God, cover the heads of our countrymen, and be a shield to our dear friends!”
The British, tending their dead and wounded and recovering from the shock of Rebel ferocity, had no intention of leaving the relative safety of Boston. The decisive day had another consequence. Before Bunker Hill there was a chance that Concord and Lexington had been encounters like the Boston Massacre—bloody but not acts of war. Bunker Hill, however, was far more than an encounter. A war had begun, and people already saw it as a civil war: There was no room in Gage’s Boston for Rebels and there was no room for Tories in the Patriots’ Cambridge, or in Roxbury, or in fire-gutted Charlestown.
On April 27 Gage announced that anyone could leave the city, and a new stream of refugees flowed out of Boston. Days later he ordered the printing of permits that allowed people to leave “between sunrise and sunset.” Whatever they had with them was examined because, the pass said, “No arms nor ammunition is allowed to pass.” Permits were sold illegally, and people paid more and more to buy them. Then, beginning in July, anyone “desirous of leaving the Town of Boston” could do so only after presenting his or her name to James Urquhart, the British officer serving as town major. Within two days more than two thousand Bostonians registered with Urquhart.
Many others hesitated to depart because they knew that the homes they left behind would almost certainly be plundered by British soldiers. Urquhart ruled that each refugee could possess no more than five pounds in cash and that no one could carry away silver-plate valuables. But women sewed treasures into their garments, and families found ways to smuggle their silver spoons, bowls, and teapots in the goods that were piled on their carts. Urquhart issued a special secret pass that allowed Henry Pelham, John Singleton Copley’s halfbrother, to “take a plan of the towns of Boston & Charlestown and the Rebel works round these places.” Pelham was also assigned a sergeant and some soldiers to help him when he was in Boston. When he prowled as a British agent beyond Redcoat control, he acted like an artist making sketches. His spying gave the British detailed cartographic intelligence about Rebel fortifications—and gave posterity a magnificent map of the greater Boston area.
In a letter to Copley in England, Pelham sketched Boston in words. The “Sword of Civil War is now unsheathd,” he wrote. “Thousands are reduced to absolute Poverty… . Buisness of any kind is entirely Stop’d… . We find it disagreeable living entirely upon salt Meat… .
Almost every shop and store is shut.” At a dinner in August with General Howe, Pelham had “the only bit of fresh Meat I have tasted for very near four Months past. And then not with a good Conscience, considering the many Persons who in sickness are wanting that and most of the Convenency of Life. The usual pleas now made by those who beg a little Bacon or Saltfish is that its for a sick person.”
Loyalists responded to the blockade by promising “to contribute our Aid to the internal Security of the Town.” They formed a voluntary association, saying that they would do whatever Gage deemed necessary or by helping “to raise a Sum of Money for promoting this salutary Purpose.” Gage, drawing from a pool of about two hundred Loyalist volunteers, assigned forty-nine to patrol the streets each night.
Immediately after Bunker Hill, Gage found a mission for mandamus councillor Abijah Willard. He was put in charge of one hundred Loyalists assigned to find food for Gage’s troops, a demanding task in hungry Boston. Details on exactly how Willard’s victuallers did it are lacking; one report credits them with delivering one hundred oxen and sheep. James Putnam of Worcester, another councillor who had been targeted by Rebels, took command of a company of Brigadier Ruggles’s Loyalist volunteers. Three hundred Loyalists—with more signing up every day—formed a significant portion of the population. As people poured out of Boston, the number of residents dropped to 6,753. Gage had to feed 5,000 British troops and their families: 18,600 wives and children.
At this early point in the blockade Gage did not anticipate firefights inside Boston. Selectmen had assured him that all the residents had been disarmed. But Gage did not trust the selectmen, for good reason. They were all pro-Rebel, and at least one was a Son of Liberty. Presumably Gage’s many spies had reported widespread possession of firearms by lingering Boston Rebels. His proclamation ordered all firearms to be delivered immediately to a Loyalist-controlled courthouse. All who held on to firearms “should be deemed enemies to his majesty’s government.” People turned in 1,778 “firearms” (presumably muskets), 973 bayonets, 634 pistols, and 38 blunderbusses.
In Cambridge, Loyalists and Patriots sparred but did not fight. Friends of departed Loyalists barricaded the entrances to vacated houses and nailed doors closed to seal off rooms piled high with furniture and other bulky valuables, stored for the day of victorious return. Patriots, who outnumbered their opponents, forced the guardians to take down the barricades and then plundered the houses. One of the houses belonged to John Nutting, the busy carpenter who had supervised the building of British barracks in Boston. His house served up a bit of irony: According to a Tory neighbor, it “was made a Barrack for the american Souldiers and much Damaged thereby.”
During the lull in Boston and Cambridge, Patriots in Maine—the sparsely populated northernmost part of the Massachusetts Colony—sparked a confrontation with the Royal Navy. In Falmouth, Thomas Coulson, a wealthy Loyalist merchant, was outfitting his ship, the Minerva, and had ordered sails and rigging from Britain in defiance of the Patriot embargo on British goods. When the ship carrying Coulson’s goods arrived, Patriots ordered it to go to sea without unloading its cargo. Coulson objected, claiming that the ship was unfit for a return voyage and needed repairs. But when the repairs dragged on, Patriots decided that the ship had tarried too long and repeated their demand.
William Tyng, Falmouth’s Tory sheriff, had been given a colonel’s commission by General Gage. Expecting waterfront trouble, Tyng asked for help. Gage sent HMS Canceaux, a merchantman converted into an eight-gun Royal Navy warship, under the command of Lt. Henry Mowatt. The Canceaux’s appearance happened to coincide with the arrival of news of Lexington and Concord. Fearing that emboldened Rebels would move against them, Coulson and Tyng sought refuge on the warship, along with the Reverend John Wiswall, a Church of England clergyman, and some of his flock.
As the standoff crisis seemed to ease, sixty militiamen from Brunswick, led by Col. Samuel Thompson, arrived to support the Patriots. Mowatt, Wiswall, and the ship’s physician had disembarked and were strolling onshore when, apparently on impulse, some of Thompson’s men pounced on them. Both Patriots and Loyalists were shocked. Mowatt’s second in command, learning of the kidnapping, threatened to shell the town if Mowatt was not released. He fired a couple of blanks as a warning.
Panic swept through the town. As one witness wrote, “Our women were … in tears, or praying, or screaming; precipitately leaving their houses, especially those whose husbands were not at home, and widows, hurrying their goods into countrymen’s carts … and carrying their children either out of town, or up to the south.”
Thompson, pressured from both sides, released his captives “under parole.” Wiswall came ashore, was interrogated by Patriots, promised to return to his parsonage—and sneaked back to the Canceaux. The crisis worsened as some six hundred Patriot militiamen from nearby towns poured into Falmouth. A few militiamen, rebelling against their own officers, seized them and demanded rum and food as ransom. Other militiamen threatened to attack local Loyalists—or even the Canceaux.
The crisis ended when Coulson’s Minerva, the ship that started it all, used its illicitly imported sails and rigging to head for Boston, carrying off Falmouth’s first Loyalist refugees—Tyng, Wiswall, and Coulson. Their families would follow later.
The next confrontation between Maine Rebels and the Royal Navy flared into the first naval battle of the Revolution. Maine provided Boston with much of its lumber. Ichabod Jones, who had built one of the first sawmills in the little town of Machias, had made his fortune by delivering Boston goods to Machias in exchange for lumber. Machias, a river town up Machias Bay, was so far north and so isolated that its people associated themselves more with Nova Scotia than with Boston. The town did not have a militia, but it did have a Liberty pole and a Committee of Correspondence and Safety.
On June 2 Jones sailed up the Machias River aboard a British warship, the armed schooner HMS Margaretta, ready for trouble. Accompanying the warship were two coastal trading sloops that were to deliver goods to Machias and carry off lumber. The sloops tiedup at the wharf while the Margaretta anchored offshore. Jones and Midshipman James Moore, the young captain of the Margaretta, went ashore. Jones announced that he was there to deliver supplies to Machias—if the town provided lumber. No lumber, no supplies. Jones did not identify his customer, but people knew it was the British Army, in need of lumber for barracks and floorboards for entrenchments and other earthworks.
Midshipman Moore had something to add: If the town did not take down its Liberty pole, he would bombard Machias.
Dublin-born Jeremiah O’Brien, a Patriot leader, stepped forward to say that a town meeting had voted for the Liberty pole, and only a town meeting could vote to take it down. O’Brien, knowing that town Tories were on Moore’s side, was stalling for time to rally Patriot support. He knew that the provincial congress had “strongly recommended” that no one supply the British troops with goods, including, specifically, timber, boards, spars, pickets, and tent poles.
O’Brien also knew that if Machias did not get Jones’s goods, the town would not starve, not while there was game in the woods and fish in the sea and in the Machias River. No lumber sale meant only a shortage of rum, snuff, tobacco, and luxuries not many could afford anyway. Besides, anything could be smuggled, for a price, from Nova Scotia.
The town meeting on Saturday, June 10, voted to keep the Liberty pole. Jones reacted by distributing provisions only to those who voted against it. O’Brien persuaded Moore and Jones to wait for a second vote on Monday. On Sunday, Moore and his officers were invited to the meetinghouse, which served as the Machias church. The Reverend James Lyon, a Presbyterian minister, was the pastor. As the chairman of the Patriots’ Committee of Safety and Correspondence, Lyon was undoubtedly aware that O’Brien and his Patriots had a reason for wanting their visitors to go to church.
On Sunday, while listening to Lyon’s sermon, Moore looked around and noticed that there were few able-bodied men in the congregation. Through an open window he spotted a band of men approaching the church. Signaling his officers to follow, he leaped through the window and led them racing down the road to the wharf. Jones, knowing the area, fled to the woods and hid there for several days, undoubtedly aided by Loyalist sympathizers.
On board the Margaretta, an alert petty officer saw his officers being chased by a mob. He ordered a boat launched and fired a swivel gun, a small cannon mounted on a deck railing. The ball missed the pursuers but slowed them down. Moore and his officers made it to the boat, which was rapidly rowed back to the ship.
The next day O’Brien, his five brothers, his black servant, and about twenty other men swarmed aboard the Unity, one of the trading ships, while another group of Rebels boarded the second trading ship, the Polly. The two crews had among them about twenty muskets, along with an assortment of clubs, pitchforks, and timber axes. One of the men lugged a large-caliber gun aboard the Unity.
As the two ships set sail, the Margaretta slipped its anchor cable, hoisted sail, and headed down river toward the bay, six miles away. During the chase the Polly ran aground. When the Margaretta reached the bay, it fired on the fast-closing Unity, killing a man who had propped the big gun on a gunwale. Another man stepped forward and fired, killing the Margaretta helmsman. Musketry from the Unity raked the British warship. The two ships were so close that Moore, from the quarterdeck, could hurl small, powder-filled cannonballs with lighted fuses down on the Unity, mortally wounding one man and wounding several others.
O’Brien rammed the Unity into the Margaretta. His men lashed the ships together and leaped upon the Margaretta‘s deck. Moore, cutlass drawn, led his crewmen and marines against the boarders. In a fierce fight, Americans swung muskets, clubs, axes, and pitchforks against British bayonets and Moore’s cutlass. A lethal musket shot felled Moore, and the crew shortly surrendered. O’Brien leaped to the halyards and hauled down the British ensign. Four Americans were killed and ten wounded; the British suffered ten killed and ten wounded. O’Brien and two of his brothers later became privateers in the war against the British at sea.
As for Ichabod Jones, he was caught in the Machias woods. Condemned as “a known enemy” by the provincial Committee of Safety, he was taken to a Massachusetts town four hundred miles from Machias and released under a large bond. His property was confiscated, a retribution that would befall more and more Tories.
Widespread confiscation of Loyalist property got its start in Cambridge. The Committee of Safety decreed that hay belonging to John Vassall, an Addresser from Cambridge, was to be cut and used by the Patriots. They took over his abandoned Tory Row mansion and his two-hundred-acre estate, even ordering that his stables be reserved for Patriots’ horses. Vassall and his family soon went aboard one of the six Loyalist-laden ships that left Boston for England that summer.
Gage stationed about two hundred of his men on Boston Neck, the front line between British and American troops. He also strengthened the “Rebel redoubt” on Breed’s Hill, and fortified the Boston-to-Charlestown ferry stops and Moulton’s Point, where Howe’s troops had landed. Soldiers used wood salvaged from the ashes of Charles-town for fortifications, tent floors, and fuel. General Ward’s militiamen, numbering about sixteen thousand, threw up earthworks in a line from Cambridge to the Mystic River and built forts in Roxbury. The strongpoint in the Rebel line was on Prospect Hill in Charlestown (today’s Somerville), which loomed over Boston and the British fleet.