In the days following the British pyrrhic victory of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, Gen. George Washington, in his new role as commander-in-chief, assumed the leadership of approximately 14,000 troops. While Washington’s army laid siege to Boston, the town’s British garrison of some 7,000 soldiers, sailors and marines were stretched thin as they attempted to hold the town and its immediate environs.
Prior to 1716, when all Americans were loyal subjects of the Crown, the ocean approach and harbor route to British North America’s then largest city was one of the worst for shipping within the American colonies. The various islands and reefs, coupled with significant winds, caused an ever escalating number of shipwrecks due to the increasing commercial shipping traffic and Royal Navy usage; by 1713, those losses could no longer be disregarded. In 1713, the Boston merchant community proposed to the Massachusetts General Court that it would be a good idea to construct a “light Hous and lanthorn” at the mouth of the harbor. The erection of a lighthouse was not an insignificant project. This was especially true of the type of proposed structure known as the “wave-swept light” built on rocks or shoals exposed to the wrath of the sea. There were few of these types of lighthouses even in Europe and none in the New World.
The court considered the matter until 1715 when they passed “An Act for Building and Maintaining a Light-house upon the Great Brewster Island (sometimes late referred to as Beacon Island or Light House Island for obvious reasons), at the extreme of the Harbour of Boston.” The great expense was justified because the lack of a light “hath been a great discouragement to Navigation, by the loss of the lives and estates of several of His Majesty’s subjects.” The lighthouse was to be assembled on the southernmost part of Great Brewster Island and was “to be kept lighted from sun-setting to sun-rising.” All ships entering the port, with the exception of small coastal vessels, were to pay a duty of a penny a ton towards its continuous maintenance. The lighthouse and its residence for the light-keeper were placed into operation in September 14, 1716. Included was a single cannon to be used as a warning signal during heavy fogs. Accidental fires in 1720 and 1751 caused considerable damage to the interior of the structure, but in each case repairs were quickly conducted as this naval facility had continually proven its worth.
Beginning in 1774, while the British military presence in Boston and its surrounding islands was expanded, the Boston Light, as it became universally known, reverted from civilian to military control. When hostilities broke out, , the Boston Light was a critical link in the maritime infrastructure that sustained besieged British forces; it is astounding that protection of this important resource was not initially given a higher priority.
To pressure the British throughout New England, small vessels, which initially consisted primarily of sturdy whaleboats, conducted hit-and-run raids. The whaleboats were double-ended, making landing and relaunching almost effortless, and rowed by ten to sixteen men. The British well remembered that only a few years previously that men in these shoal draft and fast whaleboats had burned the revenue cutter HMS Gaspee in Narragansett Bay. These same tactics were now used throughout Boston Harbor. By May and June 1775 the American forces were waging a vigorous whaleboat war, having scoured all the nearby creeks, inlets, and beaches to assemble several hundred of these open boats. The Patriot objective was to fully cripple critical British navigation aids to prevent the Royal Navy from safely using its large warships’ massive firepower and to make it hazardous for needed supply ships to reach Boston.
This type of warfare initially began off the town of Rockport with the Thacher Island Lighthouse and quickly moved to the neighboring twin lights affectionately known as “Anne’s Eyes.” Although these beacons provided effective assistance to New England sailors and fisherman, there developed convincing viewpoints among the local populace that these structures assisted the British more than the Patriot cause. These maritime posts were manned by Capt. James Kirkwood, who was labeled a Loyalist, and his two of assistants. On July 6, 1775 Capt. Samuel Rogers of Gloucester decided to take matters into his own hands and martialed a company of militia in whaleboats to the lighthouses. Without bloodshed and with speed lest the Royal Navy react, they went from “Cape Ann to Thacher’s Island, broke the lighthouse glasses and lamps all to pieces, brought away the oyl together with Captain Kirkwood’s family and all he had on the island and put them on the main to shift for themselves.” The Kirkwoods ultimately fled to Canada.
The whaleboats scurried so quickly that the Royal Navy had little time to respond. Soon after taking command, Washington informed the Continental Congress that, “I have ordered all the Whale Boats for many miles along the coast to be collected, and some of them are employed every Night to watch the motion of the enemy by water, in order to guard as much as possible against any surprize.”There were also orders to attack local fishermen who were supplying the British bastion. With the New England countryside controlled by the newly formed American army, everything necessary to maintain the garrison, the navy and civilian population in Boston had to be mostly brought in by the sea. As a result, British shipping and its supporting maritime infrastructure continued to be prime military targets. The blockading of Boston Harbor was a favorite subject of respected politician and patriot Josiah Quincy Sr. who lived nearby along the port at Squantum Neck. He wrote to John Adams that “Had we a sufficient Supply of Powder and battering Cannon such is the Spirit and Intrepidity of our brave Countryman, we should very soon, and with little or no Hazzard, lock up the Harbor, and make both Seamen and Soldiers our prisoners at Discretion.”
The whaleboat raids became so frequent that the British flinched at almost every shadow and movement in the harbor. British lookouts were exhausted and their officers alerted the senior naval officer, Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, who in turn the informed the Admiralty of his sailors’ growing anguish. British naval forces were redirected from positive aggressive missions to meet the perceived threat of attacks on the lumbering and anchored warships. Graves became quite concerned that twenty to thirty whaleboats with 400 or 500 men could creep up and even capture one of his undermanned ships-of-the-line. James Warren took note of these British concerns and wrote to his friend John Adams that the British are more “afraid of our Whale Boats than we are of their men-of-war.” There were many examples which provided credence to Graves’s worries. On May 17, a major fire, with suspicions of being deliberately started, erupted on one of Boston’s wharfs and destroyed a vast amount of equipment, including weapons and clothing, belonging to several companies of the 47th and 65th Regiments of Foot.
The Americans were continually probing the power of the Royal Navy to reveal its limitations. In Boston Harbor were a number of significant islands that were utilized by the British as grazing ranges for livestock such as cattle, pigs and sheep, storage areas for various maritime supplies crucial for maintaining the fleet, and for harvested hay. Numerous armed raids were launched by American troops in their whaleboats on locations such as Noodles Island and Hog Island to either seize or destroy these military supplies. In addition, two important attacks were carried out on a significant landmark on an island on the far edge of Boston Harbor.
Maj. Joseph Vose of Heath’s Regiment from Milton, Massachusetts, struck on the night of July 18. Vose led a detachment of approximately 400 soldiers and rowers onto the Nantasket peninsula located on the south side of Boston Harbor. There was concern that the British were going to remove a large amount of hay and barley from this area so Vose was ordered to seize these needed grains. Vose’s raid continued into July 20 when his whaleboats landed on nearby Light House Island. His men set fire to the irreplaceable light house, the flames alarming the Royal Navy anchored closer to Boston. The larger warships dispatched several armed barges, a cutter and a schooner which attached the Americans, resulting in the wounding of two of Vose’s men. An eyewitness declared that he “saw the flames of the lighthouse ascending to heaven like grateful incense, and the [British] ships wasting their powder.”
Capt. Thomas Bishop, commanding the twenty-gun post ship HMS Lively, recorded the event in his ship’s journal. The vessel was moored in Nantasket Road in close proximity to the Boston Light. Bishop had one of the clearest observation points from the water to witness the event. He wrote on Thursday, July 20, 1775 that:
at 8 A M discovered a Number of Whale Boats Crossing from Nastasket to the Light House they Landed & set fire to the House we made a Signal for Assistance – came onboard 5 Boats from the Preston Boyne & Somerset got a Spring upon the Cable Emp[loye]d getting 2 Guns from the Hope into the Sophia Tender – Came onboard the Admirals Longbt & Somersets Launch at ½ past 3 P M the Boats put off from the Ship with Lieut Gibbons at 7 D[itt]o the Boats return’d
Upon learning of the fighting, Washington dutifully informed John Hancock in Philadelphia that, “Yesterday we had an Account that the Light House was on fire.” Being from Boston, Hancock probably instantly recognized that Washington was writing about the light house in which, as a prosperous merchant, he had partially financed the upkeep of; however, the commander-in-chief continued that “by whom, & under what Orders, I have not yet learned. But we have Reason to believe, it was done by some of our Irregulars.”
Washington later learned that this action was not by some “irregular force” but troops under Gen. William Heath.
I have the Pleasure to inform your Excellency that Major Vose of my own Regiment; beside securing the Barley on Nantasket; yesterday morning Landed on the Light-House Island with Six or Seven Boats, the Light House was set on Fire and the wood work Burnt, the Party brought off Three Casks of Oil, all the furniture of the Light house, about 50 wt of Gun Powder a Quantity of Cordage &c. (an Inventory of which will be forwarded to your Excellency;)
Heath also inquired if “Some of these Brave men who effected this with their Lives in their Hands, have just applied to me whether it was considered as Plunder, or otherwise.” Heath mentioned that some of these troops courageously raided in Boston Harbor, “Grape Island, Deer Island & at Long Island when each of those islands were stripped of their Stock &c.” The reference was to the livestock removed from Grape Island and its hay burned on May 21 after a skirmish with a British foraging party. Deer Island was emptied of sheep and cattle by an American raid on the night of June 2. Heath may not have known that less than a month before, the Continental Congress had declared that, “All public stores taken in the enemy’s camp or magazines, whether of artillery, ammunition, cloathing, or provisions shall be secured for the use of the United Colonies.”
By the end of July, the Royal Navy in Boston Harbor became even more alarmed about the whaleboat threat which Graves estimated as nearly 300 vessels. On July 31, Capt. John Tollemache, commander of the sloop HMS Scorpion positioned near Boston Light, wrote to tell the Admiral he believed it “certain” that his small warship would be attacked by the whaleboat fleet. He mentioned in his correspondence that “the Scorpion is almost the only vessel in His Majesty’s Service that an Enemy with only small Arms could effect any Execution; but she is without Waist, and her Decks consequently without Cover; The men are entirely exposed to the Enemy’s fire.”
The captain’s major concern was that his small vessel’s decks did not have any protective cover, making it easily overcome solely by small arms and light cannon fire. Earlier, a very worried Graves reported, “The Rebels have collected near three hundred Whale Boats in the different Creeks round this Harbour … From their Lightness and drawing little Water, they can not only outrow our Boats, but by getting into Shoal Water , and in Calms, they must constantly escape.”He directed the captains of the Preston, Boyne, and the Somerset to seek and destroy whaleboats reportedly hidden in the woods along the nearby Germantown River using their smaller ancillary craft manned by armed marines and sailors. The effort proved unsuccessful as their American pilots refused to guide the mission.
Ten days following the first attack (the same day of Tollemache’s warning), Washington order Maj. Benjamin Tupper of Col. John Fellow’s Massachusetts regiment to attack Boston Light once again as the British were completing their repairs of the important lighthouse. Several dozen marines guarded the strategic position while about ten Loyalist workmen quickly worked to make the needed repairs. Midshipman Christopher Hele wrote that on the night of the July 30 he, Lieutenant Colthurst, and the marines “remained up till day light … the whole time under Arms, and Centinels placed at different parts of the Island.” They attempted to gain a few hours of sleep until their sergeant raised the alarm by shouting “the Whale Boats are coming.” Hele found “the number of 33 boats each Boat containing about 13 men. The Marines were drawn up” to meet this overwhelming threat, “tho’ not without great Confusion, perceiving many of them in liquor and totally unfit for Service.” As the uneven struggle developed, “The Marines without Orders fired a number of Musquets at the Boats” while “the Rebels cheered divided and proceeded to land on different parts of the Island.” Colthurst, observing that “there was a much greater force than was possible” to defeat, initially ordered a fighting retreat to the lighthouse, but abandoned that idea because “the Rebels would set it on fire.” Instead, orders were to rally “on board a Schooner then laying in the Mole afloat.” As the schooner was aground, Hele used his “Endeavors” by jumping “overboard and waded to a Canoe,” using it to gain access to a longboat and ultimately reaching the safety of HMS Lively.
In his August 3 report to Gen. Horatio Gates, Tupper recounted,
I find by examination that we killed Six persons on the spot one of which was A Leiutt that we have 5 merines and one Torey in the Hospital that one Died of his wounds before he arrived to Roxbury that one woman & a Lad is still at Dorchester, so that ading the 15, above mentioned to the 38 which General Ward sent over to Cambridge makes 53 killd & taken … Majr [John] Crane with his feildpiece which was planted on Nantasket Beach to cover our Retreat Sunk one of their Boat, and probably killd Sundry of their crews as the Enemy apprrochd
Crane’s cannon sank one of the small vessels sent to reinforce the Marines. It was estimated that there were
probably killd Sundry of their crews as the Enemy approachd within 200 yards. On our side we lost one man only, had two just graizd with Balls, we stove one of our Boats & was oblidgd to leave it, we lost Seven small arms part of which were lost in Landing as the rocks were very steep some of the party Slipt in & let go their guns to save themselves and we have 25 small arms and Accutriments brought off with us and concive there were more taken but have been secreted by some of the party.
In a letter dated July 10-11, 1775, Washington confirmed the engagement to the President of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock. The General described that a number of workmen, supported “with a guard of 32 Marines and a Subaltern” were dispatched to repair the Boston Light. On “Monday Morning about 2 oClock,” Major Tupper “landed there with about 300 Men Attack’d them killed the Officer and 4 Privates, the remainder thereof, which are badly wounded he brought off Prisoners with 10 Tories, all of whom are on their Way to Springfield Gaol.” He added that Tupper, “being detained by the Tide on his Return, he was Attack’d by several boats.” Washington continued that Tupper “happily got thro’ with the loss of one Man killed and another wounded.” Midshipman Hele confirmed Tupper’s report that a British officer was killed during the fighting, recording that he observed Lieutenant Colthurst fall “getting his men on board the Schooner” as they conducted their fighting retreat; however, he could not “pretend to say what number of Men were killed or wounded” of the other troops.
The British prisoners seized at Boston Light consisted of Marines (two sergeants, two corporals and twenty privates) and a dozen Loyalists. Gen. Horatio Gates, in his orders to the officer commanding the American guard detachment, stipulated that the prisoners be transported to the chairman of the Worcester committee of safety who would then direct a detachment of local militia to accompany them to Springfield. At this point they were “to be Secur’d, so as to be forthcoming whenever an Exchange of prisoners or a happy reconciliation between Great Britain and her Colonies shall take place.” The prisoners marched out of Cambridge at about 9:00 in the morning and arrived in Worcester on August 3.
Washington publicly praised the raid on Boston Light:
The General thanks Major Tupper, and the Officers and Soldiers under his Command, for their gallant and soldierlike behaviour in possessing themselves of the enemy’s post at the Light House, and for the Numbers of Prisoners they took here, will be as famous for their mercy as for their valour.
Abigail Adams also took note of the fighting at Boston Light and mentioned its sorrow-filled aftermath to her husband in a letter on August 2, 1775. She “went out yesterday to attend the funeral of a poor fellow who the Night before fell in Battle.” She admitted “my account will be very confused,” but she would “try to relate it as well” as possible. Her second-hand description basically kept within the range of engaged troops on both sides including the total of dead and wounded. Mrs. Adams listed a Rhode Islander named “Griffin”who was interred with “the Honours of War” accompanied by a service delivered by “Mr. Wilbird” who “upon the occasion made the best oration I have ever heard from him.” A few of the wounded British marines also requested to attend this solemn service which was granted. Mr. Wibird “pathetacally addressed them; with which they appeard affected.” She spoke to the marines, indicating “it was very unhappy that they should be obliged to fight their best Friends.” She generously declared to her husband that, “They said they were sorry—they hoped in God an end would be speadily put to the unhappy contest” and the troops expressed gratitude for the kindness as prisoners they had unexpectedly received.
In the end, it was the British who had the final gesture, or perhaps the last laugh. Boston was evacuated the following March, and the the last of the Royal Navy vacated Boston Harbor the following year on June 14, 1776. As they sailed away, a squad of marines landed on Little Brewster Island to finish th matter. The marines torched the building’s wooden sections and placed a keg of gunpowder at its base, then withdrew to their vessels. Only a half hour later, at 11 in the morning, the keg’s fuse reached its mark and turned the structure into a heap of rubble.
The light house site remained abandon until 1783. Following the end of the hostilities, recognizing that the Boston Light still played a critical role in the safe navigation of the harbor, the Massachusetts legislature authorized its reconstruction. The builders ostensibly followed the original 1716 plans and integrated the remaining elements into the new tower. Following a series if repairs and improvements in 1809, 1844 and 1859, the Boston Light continues to serve until the current day.
“History of the Cape Ann (Thacher Island) Lighthouse,” www.newenglandlighthouses.net/thacher-island-twin-lights-history.html, accessed June12, 2018.
 George Washington to John Hancock, July 21, 1775, The Papers of George Washington-Revolutionary War Series, ed., Philander D. Chase, et. al., 21 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985-2017), 1:138.
Eric Jay Dolin, “The Enduring Boston Light,” The Boston Globe, August 30, 2016, bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/08/30/the-enduring-boston-light/aJO7478MtspJaDStoeHvkN/story.html, accessed April 25, 2018.
Another writer incorrectly stated that the attack was carried out by Rhode Island troops, possibly because this man was a Rhode Islander. James Warren to John Adams, July 20, 1775, in Clark, Documents, 1:934.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, August 2, 1775, in L.H. Butterfield, ed., Adams Family Correspondence December 1761-May 1776, 13 vols. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), 1:270-271.