The Siege of Boston in 1775-76 mostly involved the Regulars and Provincials staring at each other across the water. The regulars had a pretty solid defensive position in the city itself, which the Provincial army did not dare attack. At the same time, British General Gage did not seem terribly confident that he could do anything offensively until he had received more reinforcements. Even the few regiments that followed Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne to Boston, along with additional regiments from New York and Halifax did not give Gage confidence that he could conquer New England.
But if the colonists had neutralized the regular army, they could do little to threaten the British navy. The colonists had no vessels capable of taking on a British warship at this time. Some New Englanders had lightly armed merchant vessels with swivel guns or a few cannons for defense against pirates, but nothing that could pose much of a challenge to the navy.
They navy’s main job in America was to catch smugglers. It would confiscate their ships and cargo to be sold at auction. While catching smugglers was difficult, given the small number of naval vessels patrolling hundreds of miles of coast, those officers tasked with the job did there best to seize as many as possible. The officers and crew received a percentage of the prize money from any ships sold at auction.
At this time, the navy’s other important task involved keeping supplies from reaching the Provincial army. It also had to ensure that the regular army at Boston received necessary food and supplies to sustain the soldiers.
Battle of Buzzards Bay
In mid-May Admiral Samuel Graves ordered the HMS Falcon to the far side of Cape Cod, about 70 miles south of Boston, looking to interdict colonial shipping. Graves had intelligence that the merchant ship Champion, was delivering food supplies from Baltimore up to the Provincial army around Boston.
Linzee told the captured colonials he would release their ship if they gave him some intelligence about real smugglers operating in the area. Although the captured Captain of the ship Thomas Wing refused, one of his crew spilled the beans about another ship from the West Indies that was unloading cargo at Buzzards Bay.
Linzee, however, was concerned that if he sent the Champion back to Boston on its own, it might be recaptured. Taking both ships to search out this new one also presented some risks.
So, instead of releasing Wing and his ship, Linzee assigned his Midshipman, Richard Lucas and a crew of 13 or 14 sailors to Wing’s ship to go out in search of the new ship at Buzzard’s Bay. They put several cannons on the small ship as well. The Falcon and Champion would remain out at sea while the smaller ship went in search of the new prize.
On May 13, 1775, the crew found the ship, with its contents already unloaded. They seized the ship anyway and began sailing both ships back toward the Falcon near Martha’s Vineyard. However, they hit fog and decided to anchor overnight before completing their trip back to the Falcon. The two ships anchored about three miles from each other
Back on shore, the owner of the newly captured ship, Jesse Barlow, figured that given the small size and crew of the ship that had captured his, he might be able to retake his ship and capture a few of the enemy.
|Buzzard's Bay (from Wikimedia)|
Poor weather and visibility prevented any of the ships from making much progress, but the next morning the Success spotted Wing’s smaller ship, sailed up and boarded, taking the small crew by surprise and without firing a shot. Most of the crew on this ship were colonists who had been forced into this raid and had no desire to put up a fight. The other ship was anchored about three miles away.
Now in command of two armed ships, Egery found the ship that had been captured exchanged gunfire with the British crew. The attackers wounded the British commander, Midshipman Lucas and two other British sailors. They then pulled alongside, boarding the ship and forcing the British crew to surrender. Before the Falcon could discover what had happened, Egery sailed all three ships to Fairhaven, Massachusetts. There, the men turned over the British sailors as prisoners of war and returned all three ships to their rightful owners.
Captain Linzee got the Falcon and Champion back to Boston, but had to explain to Admiral Graves about the loss of some of his crew and guns.
A few months later, the provincials built a fort at Buzzards Bay to protect the area from future British raids.
Trading with Machias
Back in Boston, as the weeks wore on, Gage’s regular army began having more trouble getting enough food and supplies. A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the fighting on Grape Island, as well as Hog and Noddle Islands in Boston Harbor as regulars and provincials fought over supplies. Bringing everything over from London was expensive, and in the case of fresh food, impossible. The navy had to find sources for food, hay and wood, and they had to extend their search beyond Boston Harbor.
Around the same time the regulars and provincials were fighting over islands in Boston Harbor, Ichabod Jones arrived in Boston Harbor aboard the Unity and the Polly, two merchant sloops full of lumber. The British with a growing desperation for lumber, needed for firewood and a host of other things, welcomed Jones into town.
Jones had sailed down from Machias, a small town of less than one hundred families on the coast of what is today Maine, but was at the time part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. This was an isolated community, with nothing around them but miles of wilderness, and not always friendly Indians. Jones appears to have lived in Machias and still had family living there. But when the Port of Boston closed, Jones also had family living in Boston. Evidence suggests he may have been supplying the army regularly, during the time the port was closed to other commercial traffic and was known as a friend of the Crown to both Gen. Gage and Admiral Graves.
If the Regulars in Boston were hurting for supplies, the people in Machias were downright desperate. A few weeks earlier they had sent a petition to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress expressing their desperation. The town had suffered a drought the prior year. They had no food or supplies and could not find anyone to trade with them. They wanted to sell the only product they had, wood, to the Provincial Congress in exchange for food and supplies.
Jones had sailed his two ships to Boston in hopes of trading wood. It is not clear if his friends and neighbors back in Machias knew that he intended to trade with the British rather than the Provincials. His decision may have been less ideological and more to the fact that he had family who had gotten stuck in Boston and wanted to leave. They also had a fair amount of furniture they wanted to take with them.
|Machias (from tide-forecast)|
Gen. Gage and Adm. Graves allowed Jones to sell his wood, and also to take his personal property out of Boston on his ships, something forbidden under the Port Act. But needing merchants who would provide much needed supplies, Gage permitted the transaction. As part of the deal, Jones also agreed to return to Machias, to bring back more wood for trade.
Although Jones was willing to trade with the army, it was unclear whether he could convince the rest of Machias to go along. Like most colonists, the people of Machias supported the Provincial government and had no desire to violate any of the rules against trading with the British. Jones was certain, however, that the desperate situation of the people would force them to go along with any trade they could get.
To ensure Jones performed as promised, and to make sure other naval vessels did not detain him, the navy sent one of its ships, the Margaretta, along with him to return to Machias. The Margaretta was a small tender ship. She had a crew of between twenty and forty (accounts differ). Its normal use was as a tender ship, a smaller ship that stayed with larger warships to handle tasks that the larger ship could not, like bringing men to shore in a shallow area. One source I read said it only had a few swivel guns, another, which I tend to believe more, said it had at least four small cannon as well. Either way, it was intimidating enough for most merchant vessels, but not much more than that.
As part of the mission, Admiral Graves tasked the Margaretta’s commander, Henry Moore, to recover some cannon from a small ship that had sunk there a few months earlier. The HMS Halifax had gone down in February after hitting some rocks. Some say a local pilot deliberately sank the ship. Other accounts hold the pilot was simply incompetent. Since the pilot fled the ship and disappeared, no one ever discovered his true motivation. The Halifax went down with several cannon. Graves was concerned the patriots might recover the cannon for use against the British military.
On June 2, the convoy arrived in Machias. It took several days before Jones could call a town meeting to get approval to trade with the British army in Boston. Though the town generally supported the Patriot cause, it had been hard hit by a drought and the closing of Boston Harbor. With the outbreak of war, few traders were even stopping there. Without this trade, they might starve over the winter.
A good negotiator might have been able to convince the town to go along with the trade. Jones, however, was not a good negotiator. He was afraid that patriots would attack him or his property for trading with the army. He insisted that the townspeople sign a document approving of his actions in trading with the regulars and agreeing to protect him and his property against anyone who might take action against him for his trades. Jones also called on Moore to move the Margaretta up the river closer to town so that the ship’s guns could intimidate anyone who decided to take action against Jones or his ships.
On June 6, the town held a meeting at Burnham’s Tavern to discuss the matter. The town was divided. Faced with the very real possibility that the Margaretta would level their town or that they might starve for lack of supplies, a majority of the town voted in favor of Jones.
With that Jones docked his ships and offloaded supplies. However, Jones would only provide food to those who voted in his favor. Those who voted against got nothing.
The Battle of Machias
The hard core patriots in town who had voted against Jones decided they really had nothing to lose. Without food, their families would starve. They had no reason not to take action against these collaborators. Benjamin Foster was a Lieutenant of militia and sometimes business partner of Jones. He and another prominent patriot, Jeremiah O’Brien, organized a group of patriot militiamen with the goal of capturing the ships and taking the British crew prisoner.
Without any comparable arms to use against the cannons, they needed the element of surprise. June 11 was Sunday. Both Jones and Moore attended church services in town. The patriots intended to capture the men on land and then demand the surrender of their ships.
About thirty patriots formed the militia party to capture the men. They were not however, able to execute the plan as intended. Those in the church saw the men advancing and had time to escape. Moore and his first mate escaped out of a window and returned to their ship. Jones fled to the woods and hid.
(from today in history blog)
The patriots meanwhile stormed Jones’ other ship, the Unity and began to pursue the Margaretta. Some locals pursued the ship in smaller boats and canoes. The two ships began a running firefight in the dark. The Margaretta was not fast enough to escape, and had to stop several times to effect repairs. The British found another ship about a half mile downriver loaded with lumber. The crew boarded thes ship and put part of the cargo on the Margaretta’s deck for to build defenses for the expected fight.
At first light the following morning, Moore abandoned Jones and made his escape. The Margaretta cast off and sailed for open sea. Jeremiah O’Brien took command of the Unity and with a crew of about 40 volunteers, sailed after the Margaretta. The pursuers were armed only with muskets and swords.
The other colonial leader, Benjamin Foster, also decided to enter the fray. Another small merchant vessel, the Falmouth Packet had docked at Machias a day or two earlier. Foster commandeered the ship and took another 20 patriot volunteers aboard to pursue the British.
The Margaretta had a few miles head start and probably could have escaped. But the ship accidentally turned into the wind, causing the sails to swing wildly across the deck and slammed into another part of the ship thus damaging the sails and crippling the Margaretta.
Luckily, the crew spotted another small merchant ship. Moore sent over a boarding crew to take the ship and force it alongside his damaged one. The crew removed the boom and gaff from the ship to replace their damaged parts. Just as they were finishing the repairs, the Unity and Falmouth Packet came into sight.
The ships exchanged fire in a running firefight. The patriots called on Moore to surrender, but he refused. The slower moving Margaretta was better armed with its swivel guns and grenades, but the Patriots ships were faster and had more men.
|Margaretta, left and Unity, right (Artist's conception)|
The fighting finally ended when Moore took two bullets to his chest and stomach. His first mate, also shot, but not as seriously, ran below deck and hid. The crew finally surrendered and all three ships returned to Machias. There, Captain Moore succumbed to his wounds the following day.
Again, I’ve seen contradictory casualty rates. The highest I’ve seen say the British lost five killed and nine wounded. The patriots may have suffered ten killed and three wounded.
The Patriots used the guns of the Margaretta to arm the Polly and renamed it the Machias Liberty, under the command of O’brien. They would use it to capture two more navy schooners later that summer. The patriots took Jones prisoner, confiscated all of his property, and sent him with the surviving crew of the Margaretta down to the Provincial Congress as prisoners of war.
The British Navy did have a few successes. I mentioned earlier the capture of the Champion, a merchant vessel from Maryland bringing food supplies to the Provincial Army. Its capture brought hundreds of barrels of flour and corn to the Boston garrison. Although it did not get Jones’ promised shiploads of wood from Machias, the navy did capture to other merchant vessels loaded with wood that they took to Boston.
The navy realized, however, that their smaller schooners out alone might find themselves outmatched and captured by angry locals, as happened with the Margaretta. Collecting supplies, let alone enforcing maritime laws, would not be simple tasks with a people at war with them.
Lexington of the Seas
Years later, James Fenimore Cooper referred to the battle at Machias as the “Lexington of the Seas” being the first real naval battle of the war. This, of course ignores Arnold’s earlier capture of British ships on Lake Champlain and the Battle of Buzzards Bay, both of which happened earlier. Machias as a full ship to ship battle, which Arnold’s raid really was not, and also resulted in the capture of navy ship, not just prize ships like those at Buzzards Bay. But even after Machias, the colonists were really in no position to challenge the British navy. At best, the provincials might capture the occasional merchant vessel or a small tender ship like the Margaretta. They were an inconvenience to the navy, but not a real challenge. It would be some time before the Americans would have a proper navy. They would mostly have to await the arrival of a French fleet to pose much of any challenge at sea.
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Recapture of Falcon’s Prizes: The First Naval Encounter of the War 14 May 1775: http://www.awiatsea.com/incidents/1775-05-14%20Recapture%20of%20Falcon's%20Prizes.pdf
Beck, Derek “The First Naval Skirmish of the Revolution” Journal of the American Revolution, 2013: https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/10/first-naval-skirmish-revolution
Dunn, Daniel S. "The Capture of the Margaretta" ABA Journal June 1975 https://books.google.com/books?id=ses6bBWD54wC&pg=PA727
August 1775 letter to George Washington referencing the prisoner Ichabod Jones: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0193
(from archive.org unless noted)
Allen, Gardner W. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.
Drisko, George Narrative of the town of Machias, Machias: Press of the Republican, 1904.
French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.
Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: CC Little & J. Brown, 1851.
Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.
Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)
Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.
Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.
Forman, Samuel Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2011.
Lockhart, Paul The Whites of Their Eyes, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.
Nelson, James George Washington’s Secret Navy, New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.
Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2012.