In the summer of 1775, American forces had succeeded in bottling up the British army on the Boston peninsula and laying siege to the town. Although virtually surrounded by thousands of Continental soldiers, the British did not remain perfectly contained in Boston for the duration of the siege. Nor did the two forces maintain a polite distance from one another pending the British evacuation in March 1776. Rather, skirmishes and irregular fighting between smaller groups of troops were occurring in the immediate Boston area, such as along the Mystic River in the nearby towns of Malden and Chelsea.
Lying to the northeast across Boston Harbor and the mouth of the Mystic River, the two towns were strategically located. Charlestown, its soil lately consecrated by the blood of hundreds of fallen men at the Battle of Bunker Hill, lay to the southwest across the Mystic. Three companies of Continental soldiers were stationed in Chelsea under the command of Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwinand served as the leftmost extremity of the Continental Army. At least one company was stationed in Malden.
In late July 1775, refugees escaping the sickness and starving conditions of British-occupied Boston streamed across the Winnisimmet Ferry and landed in Chelsea. As free travel and communications between Boston and the countryside were blocked during the siege, the refugees served as valuable sources of firsthand information concerning British activities in Boston. In interviewing the displaced inhabitants, the soldiers at Chelsea gained intelligence which Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin included in his daily reports to Gen. George Washington at army headquarters in Cambridge.
On August 4, Baldwin wrote to Washington with intelligence gleaned from a boatload of Bostonians that had landed at Chelsea earlier that day. British soldiers in Boston had taunted “that they ware Fools to go to Chelsea for tomorrow they (the Regulars) ware a going to take possession of that Place & burn & distroy all before them.”
A Captain Morton who had recently arrived in Chelsea reported that he had heard the British were considering taking Green’s Hill in Chelsea, slightly west of the Winnisimmet Ferry. Taken together, the accounts from Captain Morton and the others seemed to point toward an alarming possibility—an impending British attack on Chelsea.
Having no feasible way to validate the information, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin expressed his hope that the general would be “pleased to Excuse it if I Should Sometimes trouble you with imperfect accounts & matters of Little consequence as I cannot tell what may or what may not prove true.”
Later that day, Baldwin received a reply from Headquarters. Though appreciative of the lieutenant colonel’s diligence in apprising him of the information, General Washington could notthink that “if any such affair was on foot, the Soldiers would be allowed to know any thing of it,” concluding that “we need not be under any Apprehensions on that score.”
Late in the afternoon on August 6, Baldwin was startled by “the report of Cannon from the floating Battery’s & Soon found they were upon the move[.] I emediatly ordered all the Companies to turn out.”At that moment, it must have seemed as though the warnings about the British taking Green’s Hill and burning and destroying everything before them were about to be proven nightmarishly true.
Penny Ferry was a ferry service that transported passengers from Charlestown Neck across the Mystic to Malden and back. A ferryhouse was also located at the site.British soldiers, under the cover of floating batteries, had sailed up the Mystic and landed slightly upriver of Chelsea, in neighboring Malden. They torched the ferryhouse, burning it to ashes.
The skirmish drew the attention of Continental soldiers from different regiments on the other side of the Mystic. Lt. Paul Lunt, stationed at Prospect Hill, wrote in his journal, “Sunday, 6th… the Regulars went from Bunker’s Hill and set fire to a house at Penny Ferry; they fired a number of cannon from their floating batteries.”Lt. Benjamin Craft, stationed at Winter Hill, relayed how “two floating batteries came up Mystic River and fired several shots on Malden side, and landed a numbers of regulars which set fire to a house near Penny Ferrys which burnt to ashes.”
Upon seeing the ferryhouse in flames, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin scrambled to organize his men. He ordered them to “go emediatly up to the top of Greens Hill & watch the Motions of the enemy and if they Should attempt to land to Salute them with Powder & Ball in the most Vigourous maner.”
After ensuring that all of his men were well-positioned to defend their post in case the British decided to take Green’s Hill after all, Baldwin rushed back to Malden. There, he found to his astonishment only a lieutenant and a few other men of the company milling around the smoldering ruins of the ferryhouse. The lieutenant reported that their captain, Eleazer Lindsey, had “gone home [and] near one half the Company was fled [and] where they were gone he could not tell.”
Questions about the suitability and trustworthiness of Capt. Eleazer Lindsey and some of his company had already reached General Washington. About a week before the blaze at Malden, Adjutant General Horatio Gates wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin that “the company posted at Malden, under the immediate command of Capt. Lyndsey behaves in so disorderly and unsoldierlike a manner that they are of no sort of service in that post.”The general had even heard that Captain Lindsey ordered any men who were “guilty of offenses to pay so much rum to him as a punishment for their crimes.”
With the captain vanished and half the company gone, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin ordered the remaining lieutenant to rally his men and guard the post. The floating batteries and boats had by now moved away from Malden toward Charlestown. Baldwin watched as British soldiers paraded along the Charlestown shore. Feeling anxious, he headed back to Chelsea where he doubled the number of guards and posted numerous sentries.
Soldiers from the different regiments across the Mystic aided in repelling the British and driving them away from Malden. Lieutenant Lunt stated that upon the British firing of the cannon at Malden, “we returned the fire and silenced them.”Lieutenant Craft reported that “We were all alarmed and immediately manned our lines and our people went down to Temple’s Point, with one field piece, and fired several shot, at the Regulars, which made them claw off as soon as possible.” Scornfully, henoted that “Capt. Lyndsly, who was stationed there, fled with his company, and got before the women and children in his flight.”The same day, Timothy Newell, a Boston Selectman who remained in Boston throughout the siege, commented in his diary “Skimishing up Mistic River, several [British] Soldiers brought over here wounded. The House at Penny Ferry, Malden side, burnt.”
After spending what likely had been a fretful evening in Chelsea, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin finally settled down at midnight to write a report of the skirmish for General Washington. He had just learned a few hours earlier that the British had “Returnd to Boston on the Ships Just in the Grey of the Evening”and so might have breathed easier, no longer expecting an attack on Green’s Hill that evening.
Two days later, Baldwin headed to Cambridge to report to Washington on the conduct of Capt. Eleazer Lindsey. On the way, he met Maj. Gen. Charles Lee who informed him that Lindsey had already been arrested for fleeing his post on the day Penny Ferry was burned.
The British, perhaps emboldened by their success of the week before, attempted one last foray against Malden. One week later on August 13, two barges and two sailboats traveled up the Mystic River about noon, moving toward the cover of the floating batteries. This time, the men of Captain Lindsey’s company did not flee. Later, reflecting upon the fiery response of Captain Lindsey’s company in driving off the enemy that day in contrast to their panicked flight the week before, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin mused that perhaps “Capt. Lindseys Company Suspected [the British] had Some Evel designe, or a mind to Reveng passed Injuries.”
This time, the men at Malden peppered the British with a “pretty Smart fire”, causing them to turn away and head back downriver.Passing along the Chelsea shore they started firing at Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin’s men “with their Swivel guns and Smal arms.” The Americans returned fire. “We gave them the Best we had … we Sufferred no Damage by them … there was a great number of Balls Struck one of the Boats & belive wounded if not killed Some of the [British], Some of our men declare they saw a number drop as if they were Shot dead whin a Volley was fired from our men its certain they nevr appeard much in Sight again.”
Ultimately, these two skirmishes along the Mystic during the summer of 1775 were inconsequential. They had no meaningful effect on the siege and certainly not on the outcome of the war. However, these skirmishes demonstrate ways in which British and American soldiers interacted outside of clearly defined battles or engagements—and continued to do so even after the last large-scale battle occurred in the immediate Boston area.
A few days after the skirmishes on the Mystic, Capt. Eleazer Lindsey was tried by a general court martialfor “absenting himself from his post, which was attacked and abandoned to the enemy.” The court recommended that Lindsey be “discharged from the service, as a person improper to sustain a Commission.”Lindsey was cashiered and returned home to Lynn. He died in 1783.
Penny Ferry was never restored to service, nor was the ferryhouse ever rebuilt. After being burned by the British, it lay unremembered and in disuse for over a decade. Penny Ferry was replaced by a bridge in 1787.
Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston(Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 178, books.google.com/books?id=p8rTAAAAMAAJ&lpg=PA234&dq=ten%20hills%20farm%20cannon%201775&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Loammi Baldwin to George Washington, August 4, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0148.
John Trumbull to Baldwin, August 4, 1775, Loammi Baldwin papers 1768-1872, A.L.s.; Cambridge, MS Am 1811 (58). Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL.HOUGH:34725874?n=1.
Baldwin to Washington, August 6, 1775,” Founders Online,National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0163.
In 1751 this particular ferryhouse was advertised as featuring a tavern which could serve as a waystation for travelers. It might also have served as the ferryman’s dwelling. See The Register of the Malden Historical Society, Number 4, 1915-1916, (Lynn: Frank S. Whitten, printer, 1916), 48, books.google.com/books?id=TyoWAAAAYAAJ&dq=penny%20ferry%20tavern&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Paul Lunt, Paul Lunt’s Diary, May-December, 1775, ed. Samuel A. Green, M.D. (Boston: For Private Distribution, 1872), 10, Internet Archive, archive.org/details/paulluntsdiaryma1872lunt.
Benjamin Craft, “Craft’s Journal of the Siege of Boston,” Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, Vol. 3, (Salem: G.M. Whipple, 1861), 56, books.google.com/books?id=PG8MAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA51&dq=crafts%20journal%20essex%20historical%20collection&pg=PR2#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Horatio Gates to Baldwin, July 27, 1775, Loammi Baldwin papers 1768-1872, A.L.s.; Headquarters, MS Am 1811 (21). Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL.HOUGH:34725707?n=1.
Timothy Newell, “A Journal Kept During the Time Boston Was Shut Up in 1775-6,” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. I, Fourth Series (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1852), 265, archive.org/details/s4collections01massuoft.
Baldwin to Washington, August 8, 1775,” Founders Online,National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0174.
Baldwin to Washington, August 13, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0202.
“General Orders, 16 August 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0212.