Follow by Email

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"The Church is Also Burnt but not the Meeting House" - The Burning of Falmouth

One of the often overlooked events of the early months of the American Revolution was the burning of Falmouth (now Portland), Maine. In an effort to crush the rebellious spirit of Massachusetts, Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, commander of the British North Atlantic fleet, ordered Royal Navy Captain Henry Mowat to “carry on such Operations upon the Sea Coasts … as you shall judge most effective for suppressing … the Rebellion… to "lay waste burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships."

Captain Mowat already had a poor relationship with Massachusetts colonists, especially those from Falmouth. In April 1775, he and his ship, the HMS Canceaux, were dispatched to the coastal town to protect a British merchant vessel that had arrived in March. While onshore, Mowat was kidnapped by local militiamen and held for ransom. The Royal Navy was forced to pay for his release.

After receiving Graves orders', Mowat and his squadron bypassed the coastal towns situated along Cape Ann, the Merrimack Valley and the New Hampshire Seacoast and instead sailed directly for Falmouth. On October 17, 1775, the ships appeared in the town's inner harbor. A naval lieutenant landed and quickly delivered Mowat's communication to the town. 




"After many premeditated attacks on the legal Prerogatives of the best of Sovereigns. After repeated Instances you have experienced in 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 unpardon- -able Rebellion, supported by the Ambition of a set of designing men, whose insidious views have cruelly imposed on the credulity of their fellow creatures, and at last have brought the whole into the same Dilemma, which leads me to feel not a little for the Innocent of them, in particular on the present occasion, having it in orders to execute a just Punishment on the Town of Falmouth: In the name of which Authority I previously 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, at the period of which, a Red pendant will be hoisted at the Maintop- -gallant Masthead with a gun. but should your imprudence lead you to show the least resistance, you will in that case free me of that Humanity, so strongly pointed 6 pointed out in my orders as well as my own Inclination. I also observe that all those who did upon a former occasion fly to the King’s Ship under my Command for protection, that the same door is now open and ready to receive them. The Officer who will deliver this letter I expect to return unmolested. I am &c H. Mowat"

As soon as they received this ultimatum, the townspeople sent a committee to plead with Mowat for mercy. He promised to withhold an attack if the town swore an oath of allegiance to the Crown and surrender all their small arms, powder and artillery carriages. The residents quickly deliberated Mowat's demands and chose to evacuate the town instead.

By the morning of October 18th, the town appeared abandoned.  Mowat ordered his squadron to open fire. According to one eye witness, "The firing began from all the vessels with all possible briskness, discharging on all parts of the town ... a horrible shower of balls from three to nine pounds weight, bombs, carcasses live shells, grapeshot and musketballs. ... The firing lasted, with little cessation, until six o'clock." Not satisfied with the bombardment, Mowat dispatched landing parties to burn any building that was still standing. By evening, according to Mowat, "the body of the town was in one flame."




Surprisingly, Falmouth had a large Loyalist population at the time of the raid and one recounted the impact of bombardment. 

"On the 18th Octbr last a Fleet under the command of Capt Mowatt burnt the Town of Falmouth as you’ve undoubtedly heard by Mr T—. Your House Barn Out Houses. Fences & Office are all in Ashes. We had so few Hours notice of our Destruction, that we had no Time nor Team to save either your Furniture or mine – I was obliged to flee for my Life – I knew not where till a Quaker offered me a lodging in his House, which had not a finished room in it— However I was obliged by the offer— and my wife & I were were forced to foot it with large Bundles on our Arms about 6 or 8 Miles & abused as we passed the Road What little time I had was employed in throwing my Furniture into the Garden from whence a good deal was stole and the most of the remainder broken or torn in pieces— The Church is also burnt but not the Meeting House— All below Doct r Watts except a few Houses in Back Street and Bradbury & Mrs Ross’s two Houses are clean gone— The upper End of the Town supposed to be about one third of the whole is standing among which is the House I lived in by reason of that fortunate Event, I saved some of my Furniture but am Still in the Woods, where if I cant get off either to London, Boston or Hallifax."

More than 400 buildings and houses were damaged or destroyed by fire. In his report to Graves, Mowat stated that eleven small vessels were destroyed in the harbor itself, and four captured, at the cost of one man killed and one wounded. 
A visitor to the town reported that, a month later, there was "no lodging, eating or housekeeping in Falmouth." 

The events of Falmouth cause an uproar in the colonies and further galvanized the American rebellious spirit. Mowat's career suffered as a result of his actions. He was repeatedly passed over for promotion, and achieved it only when he downplayed his role in the event, or omitted it entirely from his record.

No comments:

Post a Comment