October 18, 1775 – Burning of Falmouth, Massachusetts by the British Navy

After the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Royal Navy, under the command of Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, was instructed by the British Admiralty to suppress the burgeoning rebellion. Captain Henry Mowat received orders from Graves to “carry on such Operations upon the Sea Coasts … as you shall judge most effective for suppressing … the Rebellion.” Graves further ordered Mowat to “lay waste burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships …”

Captain Henry Mowat

Mowat left Boston Harbor on October 6, 1775 with a flotilla of five ships and 100 marines. Mowat was happy to take revenge against the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts (now Portland, Maine) where he had been held prisoner during Thompson’s War, an early American Revolutionary War confrontation between patriot militia and loyalists supported by the British navy, including Mowat’s sloop, the HMS Canceaux.

On October 16 he reached the outer parts of Falmouth harbor and anchored there. He gave the townspeople until October 18 at 9 a.m. either to swear an oath of allegiance to King George and surrender all arms, or to evacuate. In response, the people of Falmouth began to move out of the town. No oaths were sworn. A small number of muskets were surrendered, but no gun carriages.

Painted version of the map of Falmouth Neck as it was when destroyed by Mowat October 18, 1775. The map originally was created in 1850 and published by Bailey & Noyes of Portland

By 9:40 on October 18 the town appeared to be deserted, so Mowat ran a red flag up the Canceaux’s masthead, and ordered the fleet to begin firing. Incendiary cannonballs set fire to the harbor installations and most of the town’s houses and public buildings. The firing lasted, with little cessation, until six o’clock. When the bombardment appeared inadequate to Mowat, he sent a landing party to set fire to any buildings that had survived. By evening, according to Mowat, “the body of the town was in one flame.”

More than 400 buildings and houses were recorded as damaged or destroyed by fire. The townspeople were left to fend for themselves for the winter.

News of the raid caused uproar in the colonies. James Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and later a Paymaster General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, wrote to John Adams on October 20, 1775:

This is savage and Barbarous in the highest stage. What can we wait for now. What more can we want to Justifie any Step to take, Kill, and destroy, to refuse them any refreshments, to Apprehend our Enemies, to Confiscate their Goods and Estates, to Open our Ports to foreigners, and if practicable to form Alliances &c. &c.”

James Warren circa 1763 Oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized the issue of letters of marque, licensing privateer actions against the British navy. The Second Continental Congress heard of the event just as word arrived of King George’s Proclamation of Rebellion. Outraged, Congress commissioned two ships on October 30 “for the protection and defense of the united Colonies.” The Falmouth incident was again mentioned on November 25, when Congress passed legislation described by John Adams as “the true origin of the American Navy.”

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