Destruction of Falmouth (modern day Portland, Maine)
On October 8, 1775, a British naval squadron of four ships, led by the lightly armed vessel Canceaux, sailed from Boston Harbor.1 The squadron’s commander, Lieutenant Henry Mowat, had orders from Admiral Samuel Graves, to “chastise” a number of coastal settlements north of Boston. Ten towns were identified as appropriate targets with one in particular, the village of Machias far up the Maine coast, specifically mentioned for retribution. Several months earlier the inhabitants of Machias had seized two British vessels, the sloop Margaretta and schooner Diligent, killing the commander of the former and imprisoning the commander of the latter as well as the crews of both ships. Admiral Graves was determined to punish Machias and the other coastal towns north of Boston and instructed Lieutenant Mowat, “to go to all or to as many of the … named Places as you can, and make the most vigorous Efforts to burn the Towns, and destroy the Shipping in the Harbours.2
Lieutenant Mowat was given discretion on how to execute his orders and he selected Falmouth (modern day Portland, Maine) as the first, and it turned out, only town to bear the brunt of his squadron’s wrath. It was a surprising and ironic choice, for five months earlier in May Falmouth’s leaders had come to Lieutenant Mowat’s aid and secured his release after he was seized by a party of local militia while ashore in Falmouth. Mowat’s release was conditioned on his agreement to return to Falmouth the next day, an agreement the lieutenant failed to honor. Instead, Mowat sailed out of Falmouth harbor and headed to Boston where he likely brewed over his brief detention in Falmouth.
Apparently bent on revenge, Lieutenant Mowat returned to Falmouth five months later (on October 16, 1775), with a squadron of ships. He immediately provoked the ire of the townspeople by firing on a small schooner in the harbor that refused to heave to. The Reverend Jacob Bailey witnessed the incident and recalled that,
Notwithstanding the discharge of several muskets and two cannon [from Mowat’s ships, the schooner] escaped in safety to the town. The populace, which were gazing by hundreds, were immediately thrown into furious agitation by this incident, and vowed revenge with the utmost menace and caution. The Committee, composed of tradesmen and persons of no property, prompted only for a flaming zeal for the liberty of their country, were not less enraged at this hostile appearance and … ordered the company of guards to … secure the cattle, intimidate the tories and observe the motions of the enemy.3
With the British squadron anchored in Falmouth harbor, the townsfolk endured an anxious evening and became more troubled the next day when they observed the squadron position itself as if to bombard the town. Reverend Bailey recalled,
The whole fleet stood directly up the river, and formed in line of battle before the town. We now plainly discovered one ship of twenty guns, one of sixteen, a large schooner of fourteen, a bomb sloop and two other armed vessels.4
Bailey exaggerated the naval ordinance arrayed against Falmouth aboard Mowat’s squadron (no doubt due in part to the excitement of the moment). Many of Falmouth’s residents were confused by the hostile movement of the flotilla because they believed that Lieutenant Mowat held Falmouth in high regard for rescuing him in May.5 They soon learned otherwise when Mowat sent an officer ashore with a dire warning to the townspeople. Reverend Bailey recalled that,
[The officer] landed at the lower end of King street, amid a prodigious assembly of people, which curiosity and expectation had drawn together from every quarter. Some of the multitude appeared in arms, who united with the rest to convey the officer with uncommon parade and ceremony along the street to the Town House. His entrance was immediately followed by a confused mixture, which filled the apartment with noise and tumult.6
The British officer stunned the gathering with a shocking proclamation from Lieutenant Mowat:
After so many premeditated Attacks on the legal Prerogatives of the best of Sovereigns; After the repeated Instances [of] Britain’s long forbearance of the Rod of Correction; and the Merciful and Paternal extension of her Hands to embrace you, again and again, have been regarded as vain and nugatory And in place of a dutiful and grateful return to your King and Parent state; you have been guilty of the most unpardonable Rebellion … Having it in orders to execute a just Punishment on the Town of Falmouth … I warn you to remove without delay the Human Species out of the said town; for which purpose I give you the time of two hours.7
Lieutenant Mowat gave the residents of Falmouth just two hours to evacuate the town and avoid imminent bombardment. Reverend Bailey described the reaction of the townspeople to Mowat’s proclamation:
It is impossible to describe the amazement which prevailed upon reading this alarming declaration: a frightful consternation ran through the assembly, every heart was seized with terror, every countenance changed colour, and a profound silence ensured for several moments. During the astonishment which had seized the multitude, I quitted the apartment of justice and became a spectator on what passed in the street, where nothing occurred but scenes of tumult, confusion, and bustle.8
A small committee was hastily formed to appeal to Lieutenant Mowat and he agreed to delay the bombardment until the next morning if the townspeople delivered up their arms. A handful of weapons were delivered in the evening as a gesture of good will. This prompted Lieutenant Mowat to proclaim,
If the town would surrender their cannon and musketry, and give hostages for their future good behaviour, he would delay the execution of his orders till he could represent their situation to the Admiral, and intercede for their final deliverance.9
Panic swept through Falmouth on the evening of October 17, as residents scrambled to save what possessions they could from the impending bombardment. At the same time, militia from surrounding communities arrived and added to the confusion. It appears that in all the chaos little consideration was given to Lieutenant Mowat’s demand that the town’s cannon and muskets, along with a few hostages, be delivered to him by 9:00 a.m. As a result, the committee returned to Mowat at 8:30 a.m the next morning to inform him that,
To their … astonishment, they found that no part of the Inhabitants [had] assembled in the morning, [to hand over their muskets] and that the whole town was then in the greatest confusion, with many women and children still remaining in it.10
Mowat allowed the 9:00 a.m deadline to pass to allow stragglers in the town flee inland and commenced the bombardment at 9:40 a.m. Reverend Bailey described the destruction:
The cannon began to roar with incessant and tremendous fury … In a few minutes the whole town was involved in smoak and combustion. About a thousand men in arms attended this scene of devastation, besides a prodigious number of both sexes, without attempting any repulsion. The bombardment continued from half after nine till sunset, during which all the lower end and middle of the town was reduced to a heap of rubbish. Several houses in the back street and in the upper part, together with the church shared the same fate. The front of the Meeting house was torn to pieces by the bursting of a bomb, and the buildings which were left standing had their glass windows broken, and both walls and apartments terribly shattered. In a word about three quarters of the town was consumed and between two and three hundred families who twenty four hours before enjoyed in tranquility their commodious habitations, were now in many instances destitute of a hut for themselves and families, and as a tedious winter was approaching they had before them a most gloomy and distressing prospect.11
The bombardment lasted until nightfall, after which the British squadron, low on ammunition, sailed out of Falmouth harbor with two captured vessels. Eleven other boats were destroyed in the harbor.12
The once proud community of Falmouth was left a smoldering ruin. The 3,800 inhabitants were left to face the approaching winter shelterless.13 British landing parties added to the destruction of the town by coming ashore with torches to set fires where the shells failed to do so. Despite the presence of hundreds of armed militia, no effective opposition was offered against Mowat’s landing parties or the bombardment. This became a point of criticism from those outside of Falmouth who believed that inhabitants got what they deserved for their timid response to Mowat. Daniel Tucker, an inhabitant of Falmouth and a witness to the destruction, defended the town from such criticism:
Many people have blamed the inhabitants of Falmouth for not defending the town against so small a force: but the truth is it was not in their power, for there was not a cannon mounted in town at that time, and there was a great scarcity of powder.14
Whether Tucker’s explanation for the behavior of his fellow inhabitants of Falmouth justifies their lack of resistance is open to debate. Just eight days later and eight hundred miles to the south, a similar yet unrelated confrontation occurred in Hampton, Virginia with a much different outcome.
Battle of Hampton (Virginia)
On the morning of October 26, the inhabitants of Hampton, Virginia awoke to discover a small flotilla of armed tenders anchored at the mouth of the Hampton River. Capt. Matthew Squire, the commander of the 14 gun British sloop of war H.M.S Otter, anchored off Norfolk, commanded this collection of vessels, which consisted of a large schooner, two smaller sloops, and two even smaller pilot boats, all crewed by a mix of sailors from the Otter and Loyalist Virginians and runaway slaves
Captain Squire declared that he intended to burn Hampton in retaliation for an incident that occurred almost two months earlier, the pillaging and destruction of one of the Otter’s tenders that had washed ashore in a storm (with Captain Squire on it) in early September.
Like Falmouth, Hampton’s defenders lacked effective artillery (in this case there were no cannon to be had) but they were armed with muskets and more importantly rifles, and unlike their fellow colonists in Falmouth, the Virginians resolved to use them if necessary:
A company of regulars and a company of minute-men, who had been placed there in consequence of former threats … against [Hampton] made the best disposition to prevent their landing, aided by a body of militia, who were suddenly called together on the occasion.15
As Captain Squire’s flotilla sailed up the Hampton River towards Hampton, gunfire erupted from the Rebels onshore. Virginia’s Royal Governor John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, who had fled to a British warship in June, and was aboard another such ship a few miles away in Norfolk, recounted the affair as it was told to him:
Some of the King’s tenders went pretty close into Hampton Road. So soon as the rebels perceived them, they marched out against them and the moment they got within shot of our people, Mr George Nicholas … who commanded a party of rebels at that time at Hampton, fired at one of the tenders, whose example was followed by his whole party. The tenders returned the fire but without the least effect.16
Dunmore laid the blame for the first shot at Hampton (and thus the inauguration of war in Virginia) on Capt. George Nicholas of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, the son of Virginia’s prominent treasurer, Robert Carter Nicholas, but an American eyewitness saw the engagement differently. He reported that as the British ships approached Hampton,
Two vollies of musquetry were discharged from the tenders, and answered by captain Lyne from his post by a rifle, which was answered by a four pounder from one of the tenders; then began a pretty warm fire from all the tenders. Captain Nicholas, observing this, soon joined about 25 of his men. The fire of our musquetry caused the tender nighest to us to sheer off some distance.17
Captain Lyne of the local minute-man company was identified in a second account as the one “who fired the first gun in the attack at the mouth of the river, [and] killed a man by that very fire.”18
Thus, as at Lexington and Concord six months earlier, it is unclear which side fired the first shot at Hampton. What is clear is that the opening shots of the Revolutionary War in Virginia were fired at Hampton, and the initial engagement lasted for over an hour with Captain Squire’s ships getting the worst of it. Unable to maneuver past several sunken vessels obstructing the harbor, the ships were raked with rifle and musket fire from shore. Their crews responded with cannon, swivel, and musket fire, but it apparently had little effect on the Virginians, who were well sheltered on shore. One rebel combatant recalled that,
The fire [from the ships] consisted of 4 pounders, grape shot etc for about an hour. Not a man of our’s was hurt. Whether our men did any damage is uncertain. They could not get nigher than 300 yards. Some say they saw men fall in one of the tenders.19
Pinkney’s Virginia Gazette boasted of the bravery the Virginians displayed against Captain Squire’s flotilla:
No troops could shew more intrepidity than the raw, new raised men, under the command of captain Nicholas, of the second regiment, and captain Lyne, of the minute men, together with some of the country militia. These brave young officers, at the head of their men, without the least cover or breast-work, on the open shore, stood a discharge of 4 pounders, and other cannon, from a large schooner commanded by captain Squire himself, and from a sloop and two tenders, which played on them with all their guns, swivels, and muskets. They stood cooly till the vessels were near enough for them to do execution, when they began a brisk and well directed fire, which forced the little squadron to retire.20
Yet another account of the battle, apparently published in the evening of the initial engagement, asserted that the defenders of Hampton were eager to face Dunmore’s forces again:
The troops in town are in high spirits, and wish for [another] attack in this quarter; they are all excellent marksmen, and fine, bold fellows. After all the firing at the houses in Hampton, there were only a few windows broke, and a door panel Lord Dunmore may now see he has not cowards to deal with.21
The rebels would get their wish for further combat the next morning.
Battle of Hampton: Day Two
Although the firing ended at nightfall, both sides remained active. Under cover of darkness and a driving rain the British tenders quietly moved up to the sunken obstructions and worked to clear a passage through the channel while the rebels strengthened their breastworks on the town wharf and anxiously waited for reinforcements from Williamsburg. Col. William Woodford of the 2nd Virginia Regiment (the second of two newly raised regiments of regular, full time Virginia troops) marched all night with a company of Culpeper Minutemen to reach Hampton by morning and assume command of the rebel forces. In a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, John Page, a prominent resident of nearby Gloucester County, provided a detailed account (probably supplied by Woodford) of the resumption of combat on October 27:
Col Woodford accompanied Captain Buford’s rifle company through a heavy rain to Hampton and arrived about 7 a.m. When the Col Entered the Town, having left the Rifle Men in the Church to dry themselves, he rode down to the River, took A view of the Town, and then seeing the Six Tenders at Anchor in the River went to Col Cary’s to dry himself and eat his Breakfast. But before he could do either, the Tenders had cut their Way through the Vessel’s Boltsprit which was sunk to impede their Passage and having a very fresh and fair Gale had anchored in the Creek and abreast of the Town.
The People were so astonished at their unexpected and sudden Arrival that they stood staring at them and omitted to give the Col the least Notice of their approach. The first Intelligence he had of this Affair was from the Discharge of a 4 Pounder. He mounted his Horse and riding down to the Warf found that the People of the Town had abandoned their Houses and … the Militia had left the Breast Work which had been thrown up across the Wharf and street.22
Colonel Woodford deployed Captain Nicholas’s company of 2nd Virginians, Capt. Abraham Buford’s Culpeper riflemen (minutemen), and the local militia amongst the building overlooking the harbor and behind breastworks on the shore and at the wharf. John Page’s account of the battle continued:
The Fire was now general and constant on both Sides Cannon Balls Grape Shot and Musket Balls whistled over the Heads of our Men, Whilst our Muskets and Rifles poured Showers of Balls into their Vessels and they were so well directed that the Men on Board the Schooner in which Captain Squires himself commanded were unable to stand to their 4 Pounders which were not sheltered by a Netting and gave but one Round of them but kept up an incessant firing of smaller Guns and swivels, as did 2 Sloops and 3 Boats for more than an Hour and ¼ when they slipt their Cables and towed out except the Hawk Tender a Pilot Boat that had been taken some Time before from a Man of Hampton …
In her they found 3 wounded Men 6 Sailors and 2 Negroes Lieut Wright who commanded her had been forced to jump over Board and was attended to the Shore by 2 Negroes and a white Man, one of the Negroes was shot by a Rifle Man across the Creek at 400 yds distance. If Col Woodford’s Men whom he had ordered round to the Creeks Mouth could have got there soon enough they would undoubtedly have taken the little Squadron, for the Sailors could not possibly have towed them through their Fire Although the nearest of the Tenders was 3 Hundred Yds, and the farthest about 450 from our Men, yet our Fire was so well directed that the Sailors were not able to stand to their Guns and serve them properly but fired them at Random at an Unaccountable Degree of Elevation.23
Lord Dunmore confirmed much of Page’s account in his report of the battle to his superior in England, Lord Dartmouth:
[On October 27] the tenders returned again to the creek and ran up very near to the town. The rebels, being reinforced and taking possession of the houses, made a very heavy fire upon them but only killed one or two of the men and wounded several others, took a pilot boat that the gentlemen of the navy had made a tender of, and made seven men prisoners belonging to the Otter that were in her. The loss of the rebels must have been very inconsiderable if they suffered at all. The tenders were towed out of the creek by the boats with some difficulty.24
Both of these second hand accounts were supported by accounts that appeared in the different Virginia Gazettes. One account, printed in Pinkney’s Gazette a week after the engagement, reported that,
In the night they cut a passage through the vessels that were sunk, and the next morning, about 8 o’ clock (which was about half an hour after colonel Woodford and captain Buford arrived with a rifle company) 5 tenders, to wit, a large schooner, 2 sloops, and 2 pilot boats, passed the passage they had cleared, and drew up a-breast of the town; they then gave 3 cheers, and began a heavy fire.
Colonel Woodford immediately posted captain Nicholas with his company on one side of the main street, and captain Buford with his riflemen on the other, who were joined by the town company of militia; captain Lyne with his company was ordered to march to the cross roads just out of town to sustain any attack that might come from James or Back river. The colonel had been informed that men were landed from both these rivers. The musquet and rifle balls soon began to fly so thick that few men were seen upon the decks. The engagement continued very warm for some time.
At length they began to cut and slip their cables, and all cleared themselves, except one, which was boarded and taken by some of our men. They took in her the gunner and 7 men, 3 of whom were wounded, 2 mortally (both since dead), 1 white woman, and 2 negro men. lieutenant Wright, who commanded the prize, after receiving a ball, jumped overboard, and it is thought he was not able to reach the tenders. Several more jumped overboard; but it is not known what is become of them, or what damage is done on board of the other tenders. In those 2 different actions, Mr Printer, officers and soldiers of the regular, minute, and militia acted with a spirit becoming freemen and Americans, and must evince that Americans will die, or be free!25
The two-day engagement in Hampton, which produced the first bloodshed of the Revolutionary War in Virginia, was clearly a rebel victory. Virginian troops at Hampton, unlike their counterparts in Falmouth, bravely stood and repulsed a British naval squadron with only small arms fire. The Virginians admittedly faced a weaker enemy force than the one that burned Falmouth, but they did so without cannon. It was a bold stand, one that spared Hampton from destruction and infused Virginians with a heightened degree of confidence, something the inhabitants of Falmouth sorely lacked in the fall of 1775.
1 William Bell Clark, ed., “Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to Philip Stephens, October 9, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966), 371-372.
2 Clark, ed., “Vice Admiral Graves to Lieutenant Henry Mowat, H.M Armed Vessel Canceaux, October 6, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:324.
3 Clark, ed., “Letter from Rev. Jacob Bailey, October 16, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:471.
4 Clark, ed., “Letter from Rev. Jacob Bailey, October 17, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:487.
5 Clark, ed., “Narrative of Daniel Tucker of Falmouth, October 17, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:488.
7 Clark, ed., “Lieutenant Henry Mowat to the People of Falmouth, October 16, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:471.
8 Clark, ed., “Letter from Rev. Jacob Bailey, October 17, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:487.
9 Ibid, 2:488.
10 Clark, ed., “Lieutenant Henry Mowat to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, October 19, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:515.
11 Clark, ed., “Letter from Rev. Jacob Bailey, October 18, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:500.
12 Donald A. Yerxa, “The Burning of Falmouth, 1775: A Case Study in British Imperial Pacification,” Maine Historical Society Quarterly, 14:142.
13James S. Leamon, Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 9.
14 Clark, ed., “Narrative of Daniel Tucker of Falmouth, October 28, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:500-01.
15 Dixon and Hunter, Virginia Gazette, October 28, 1775, 3.
16 K.G. Davis, ed., “Lord Dunmore to Lord Dartmouth, 6 December, 1775 through February, 1776,” Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 12, (Irish University Press, 1976), 58.
17 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, November 2, 1775, 2.
18 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, October 26, 1775, 3.
19 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, November 2, 1775, 2.
20 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, October 26, 1775, 3.
21 Pinkney Virginia Gazette, October 26, 1775, 3.
22 Clark, ed., “John Page to Thomas Jefferson, November 11, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:991-92.
23 Clark, ed., “John Page to Thomas Jefferson, November 11, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 2:991-92.
24 Davis, ed., “Lord Dunmore to Lord Dartmouth, December 6, 1775 through February, 1776,” Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 12, 58.
25 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, November 2, 1775, 2.