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In 1775, the Royal Navy’s cruel attack backfired, spurring on the American colonies’ nascent rebellion.

By the autumn of 1775, the six-month- old American Revolution had already devolved into a stalemate, at least on land. Maj. Gen. George Washington’s ragtag Continental army of 16,000 men had bottled up Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage’s 6,000-man British army in Boston. Washington was eager to attack the British, but his men lacked training, discipline, and ammunition.

Gage’s men had training, discipline, and ammunition, but lacked numbers. What’s more, they had no real desire to attack Washington. Boston was not where they wanted to headquarter their army, and Massachusetts was not where they wanted to fight. Gage saw no benefit in trying to battle his way out of the city. He was waiting only for the chance to move to New York, where the real fighting could begin.

And as things on the ground were settling down for a long winter siege, a Royal Navy squadron was about to shake up things on the seas, and beyond. For the British, seeking to punish the colonies for their attacks on merchantmen and other depredations, had decided to carry out a brutal assault on the small American port of Falmouth. While they made their point, the attack would also prove to be a costly miscalculation, drawing international reproach and—more important—thoroughly hardening American resolve to fight its then-sputtering revolt to the bitter end.

As the New England Chronicle proclaimed a month later, the “savage and brutal barbarity of our enemies…is a full demonstration that there is not the least remains of virtue, wisdom, or humanity in the British court….Therefore we expect soon to break off all kinds of connections with Britain, and form into a Grand Republic of the American Colonies….”

Since the beginning of the war, the colonists had been taking it to the British on the Eastern seaboard. Local militia in Marblehead and Portsmouth had captured British merchant ships driven into harbor by the weather. Fleets of whaleboats were prowling Boston Harbor like a seaborne cavalry, raiding the islands and pouncing on shipping. George Washington himself, at first no fan of naval action, had secretly authorized the fitting out of a few schooners in Marblehead to prey on the fat merchantmen that he saw lumbering into Boston every day.

Through it all, Vice Adm. Samuel Graves, commander of the Royal Navy on the North American station, did nothing. Graves, 63, was not a man of great initiative. In London, British undersecretary of state William Eden referred to him as, “a corrupt Admiral without any shadow of capacity.” By late summer, however, Graves knew that he had to do something. He was receiving warnings from friends in England that the Admiralty was not pleased with his inaction, so he crafted a plan to take the war to the enemy.

The strategy that he hit upon, however, was extraordinary, considering the lack of aggression he had demonstrated until that point. In order to “punish the people of the four New England Governments, for their many rebellious and pyratical Acts,” Graves decided to “burn and lay waste the Towns and destroy the Shipping” of nearly all the major seaports in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Graves’s proposal constituted the most punitive and violent reaction yet to the growing rebellion, a wild swing from a laissez-faire policy to one of scorched earth.

He consumed the entire month of September in preparing the little squadron that would be sent to punish the seaport towns of New England. To lead the expedition, Graves chose 41-year-old Lt. Henry Mowat, commander of the six-gun vessel Canceaux. Mowat was pragmatic and tough and knew the coast of New England intimately, having been engaged in survey work there since 1764. Along with Canceaux, the squadron consisted of the army transport Symmetry, the sloop Spitfire, and the armed schooner Halifax.

On October 6, Graves ordered Mowat and his squadron to Gloucester, Massachusetts, on Cape Ann Harbor to “burn destroy and lay waste the said Town together with all Vessells and Craft in the Harbour.” That done, the squadron was to continue north, devastating rebellious towns along the coast.

“My Design,” Graves wrote, “is to chastize Marblehead, Salem, Newbury Port, Cape Anne Harbour, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Saco, Falmouth in Casco Bay, and particularly Mechias, where the [Margaretta] was taken, the Officer commanding her killed, and the People made Prisoners, and where the Diligent Schooner was seized…”

Mowat’s squadron was under way on October 9. A few days later they closed with Cape Ann Harbor, but the British judged the houses in Gloucester were too widely spaced for fire to effectively spread from house to house. Finding it impractical to raze his first target, Mowat stood out to sea again, and the squadron headed north.

The next day the ships were off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, but a northwest gale drove them farther east and forced them to come to anchor near Squirrel Island in Boothbay Harbor. There they remained for several days until the storm blew itself out.

Finally, on October 16, the squadron set sail again. It did not continue up the coast to Machias, as one might have expected. Machias, after all, was where rebels under Jeremiah O’Brian and Benjamin Foster had captured the British armed schooner Margaretta, killing the lieutenant who commanded her in the process. If ever a community deserved to feel the iron fist of the Royal Navy, it was Machias. But rather than heading east, Mowat retraced his steps and made for Falmouth, now known as Portland, Maine.

Even with Machias out of the picture, Falmouth would seem an unlikely choice. Though the town was well known for its rebel sympathies, it had caused less offense than nearly all the other towns that Graves had slated for razing. Falmouth could hardly compare to Machias—or even Beverly or Marblehead or Portsmouth—in the armed insurrection department. Mowat, however, had a very good reason for choosing Falmouth. And it was personal.

Falmouth, today a northern suburb of Portland, then included a three-mile-long peninsula at the south end of Casco Bay. About 2,000 people clustered mostly in two- and three-story wooden buildings, closely spaced along narrow streets that climbed uphill from the thriving waterfront. Falmouth was a busy, successful seaport, its economy based mostly on lumber. By 1768 it was exporting four million feet of pine boards, almost 10 times more than the combined exports of Kittery, Portsmouth, and Boston.

What is now the state of Maine was then a province of Massachusetts, and Falmouth, like most Massachusetts towns, was fervently revolutionary, complete with local militia and a Committee of Inspection to make sure that the pact known as the Continental Association, which banned trade with England, would be properly observed.

In March of 1775, a sloop from England had dropped anchor in Falmouth Harbor. Commissioned by local businessman and loyalist Thomas Coulson for a merchant in Bristol, England, the sloop carried sails and rigging for a ship under construction at Falmouth. Questions arose as to whether the cargo violated the Continental Association. Coulson applied to the local Committee of Inspection for permission to offload it. After a long and serious debate, the committee decided that because the rigging and sails were from England and Coulson’s ship was bound for England after launch, the cargo was indeed prohibited.

After incurring all the expense of building the ship and importing sails and rigging, Coulson was not willing to let the issue end there, and he applied to General Gage in Boston, for whom the Continental Association was just another illegal act of rebellion. Coulson brought with him a letter from the loyalist sheriff at Falmouth requesting a man-of-war be sent to settle the affair.

Gage asked Admiral Graves for a ship. The only one Graves had available was the Canceaux, which was slated to leave for Halifax for repairs. Graves ordered Mowat to take the Canceaux to Falmouth instead and allow Coulson protection as he offloaded his cargo. The sloop of war arrived there in early April and, under the protection of her guns, Coulson was free to proceed. Except now he could not find any men to unload the ship.

For the next month the Canceaux remained in the harbor while Coulson’s sloop was slowly unloaded, presumably by her own small crew. Tensions were running high. The patriots in Falmouth braced for an attack by the Canceaux; the loyalists were certain that the patriots would imprison them. To make matters worse, a group of radicals from Brunswick and Topsham at the other end of Casco Bay, under the leadership of Col. Samuel Thompson, was threatening to come to Falmouth and launch an attack on the British man-of-war.

For all the tension, calm still pervaded, and the British sailors were free to come ashore unmolested. Hoping to maintain that calm (and fearing that they would get the worst of any violent confrontation), the Falmouth Committee of Correspondence wrote to their counterparts in Brunswick, the other largest town in the region, asking that no attempt be made on the Canceaux. Thompson assured them that he had dropped his plan to attack the man-of-war, which may have been true.

But he still intended to make trouble. On May 9 Thompson, backed by about 50 armed men, landed on the back of Fal mouth Neck. Thrifty and resourceful Yankees that they were, each man’s uniform consisted of “a small bough of spruce in his hat,” and for a standard they carried “a spruce pole, with a green top on it.”

Rather than launch an attack on the Canceaux, the band lay low in a thick stand of trees, seizing anyone who passed by. Around 1 p.m., they hit the jackpot when Lieutenant Mowat, who was out for a walk with the Canceaux’s surgeon and the local Anglican minister, John Wiswell, wandered into their trap.

When word of Mowat’s capture got back to the Canceaux, the ship’s master sent word that if Mowat were not released in a few hours “he would lay the Town in ashes.” Canceaux’s men “hove taught the Spring,” swinging the ship “Broadside to the Town.” With that, the smoldering anxiety of the past month exploded into full-blown panic. As one observer wrote:

You can hardly conceive of the consternation, confusion and uproar that immediately ensued. Our women were, I believe, every one of them in tears, or praying, or screaming; precipitately leaving their houses…and widows hurrying their goods into countrymen’s carts, never asking their names, though strangers, and carrying their children either out of Town, or up to the south end, according to the greater or less irritability of their nerves.

Falmouth’s men, apparently, did not react much better. A delegation met with Thompson and urged him to release the prisoners, but Thompson “appeared inflexible, and even furious.” Negotiations dragged on during the day, but Thompson refused to release his captives and continued to insist that “Divine Providence had thrown them into his hands.”

By that evening, however, it was clear to Thompson that all Falmouth stood in opposition to his plans—and the reinforcements he had been counting on were not coming. God’s will notwithstanding, he agreed to give Mowat parole on the condition that the lieutenant return the next day. Patriots escorted Mowat to the waterfront and ferried him out to the Canceaux. At the same time, the Canceaux’s master released a number of prisoners he had collected that day to use as leverage for the return of his captain.

The next morning Mowat elected to violate his parole and remain on board the man-of-war, which was hardly a surprise.

When word of Mowat’s breach reached the various militia units that had converged on Falmouth, they were furious. They turned their anger on local Tories, who were tried in makeshift courts, pronounced guilty, and fined for their crimes. Plans were laid to destroy the Canceaux but the various groups could not agree on how it might be done. A few days later a band of drunken militiamen fired on the man-of-war with their muskets, which was as close as they ever got to attacking the ship, before finally drifting back to the towns from which they had come. “Thompson’s War,” as the odd, three-way struggle has come to be known, was neither a stellar success for American arms nor a shining example of the noble defense of a righteous cause.

On October 16, six months and one week from the day he had been taken prisoner by Samuel Thompson, Mowat was back at Falmouth, anchored outside the harbor with a powerful squadron. The people of Falmouth had seen the ships pass a few days before and had not been much alarmed. They concluded that the squadron was on a foraging expedition for the garrison in Boston. Falmouth sent militia to the nearby islands to protect livestock and hay, but beyond that they took no precautions.

When the ships returned and anchored outside the harbor, however, fear began to spread, and uncertainty as to the squadron’s intentions made the situation worse. Then, on the morning of October 17, townspeople discovered that Henry Mowat commanded the squadron. They took this to be good news.

When Mowat had been released on parole the previous spring, he had “expressed his gratitude to the Town in strong terms,” as one local correspondent had put it, before going back aboard the Canceaux. The people of Falmouth felt that they had saved Mowat from the evil designs of a radical outsider, and they assumed that the lieutenant felt the same way. At least, they thought, he had “great reason to be bound in gratitude to several gentlemen” of their city. Nevertheless, Mowat did not draw such fine distinctions between the radicals of Falmouth and those of Brunswick. They were all, in his eyes, ungrateful rebels. That morning the squadron faced contrary winds, but Mowat was eager to get up to the town. The fleet began the laborious process known as kedging or warping, moving the ships by dropping their anchors ahead and hauling the vessels forward.

By early afternoon the breeze had come up, and the squadron was able to make sail and cover the last distance to the Falmouth waterfront. With the ships arrayed to fire on the town, the people began to suspect that Mowat’s designs were not so friendly. Falmouth resident Daniel Tucker recalled that the “inhabitants generally were in a state of alarm, and many began to move out for safety.” Still, no word had come from the fleet concerning its intentions.

Once the ships were anchored, Mowat penned a letter to “the People of Falmouth” and sent his acting lieutenant, a man named Fraser, to deliver it. By then Falmouth was a fury of activity, with some residents rushing to leave town, while others were gathering at the waterfront.

Fraser landed in the midst of a crowd of locals who had come to see what was happening, many of them carrying muskets. One can imagine Fraser taking a deep breath and resisting the urge to race back to the boat as the crowd escorted him along the street to the Town House. Fraser and a number of the leading citizens took seats in the courtroom and the rest packed in as best they could.

The crowd was called to silence. Fraser handed Mowat’s letter to a lawyer named John Bradbury who read it aloud. The letter asserted that the inhabitants of Falmouth were “guilty of the most unpardonable Rebellion” and for that, Mowat had “orders to execute a just Punishment on the Town of Falmouth.” What the punishment was he did not say, but the broadsides of the ships aimed at the town gave sufficient hint. Mowat allowed the people two hours “to remove without delay the Human Species out of the said town.” To those who had sought protection aboard the Canceaux during Thompson’s War, “the same door is now open.” Mowat’s words were greeted with stunned silence. Bradbury was asked to read the letter again, which he did. “It is impossible to describe the amazement which prevailed upon reading this alarming declaration,” one witness recalled. “[A] frightful consternation ran through the assembly, every heart was seized with terror, every countenance changed color, and a profound silence ensued for several minutes.”

Rather than kill the messenger, the people pointed out to Fraser that the punishment was very severe and the time very short to remove the civilian population, especially with night coming on. Fraser told them that if they had a proposal for Mowat he would take it out to the commodore, but he could not guarantee that Mowat would receive it.

The town leaders immediately appointed a committee of three: Jedediah Preble (who in May had offered himself to Thompson as a prisoner in Mowat’s stead, and had been imprisoned when Mowat broke his parole), Dr. Nathaniel Coffin, and Robert Pagan. They were to meet with Mowat and negotiate a truce. The three men took a boat out to the Canceaux where they asked Mowat about “the nature of the chastisement” and reiterated that, with nightfall approaching, there was not sufficient time to get the women and children out of town.

Mowat told the committee that his orders “did not authorize him to give any warning to the inhabitants” but simply to come alongside the town and “burn, sink and destroy.” He explained that they had no right to expect leniency thanks to the nature of their crimes, but, encouraged by “the known humanity of the British Nation,” he was ready to deal. Mowat told the committee that if they were to deliver up all the arms and ammunition in the town, along with a few prisoners of his choosing, he would put off destroying Falmouth until he had consulted with his superiors. Preble, Coffin, and Pagan argued that it would take some time to comply with that demand.

At last the two sides came to an agreement, but what the agreement was is unclear. In his report to Graves, Mowat says he demanded that a number of arms as well as the five cannons he was certain were in town be delivered to him by 8 that evening. The committee of three, however, in a report written three months later, claimed that Mowat demanded that Falmouth deliver the arms and cannons by 8 the following morning. Likewise, according to the committee’s report, Mowat asked for eight muskets to be delivered as a token of compliance. In his report to Graves, Mowat wrote “they returned with Ten stand only,” suggesting that the committee brought more than its members thought necessary, but less than Mowat expected. The differences between the two accounts could simply be the result of faulty memories, or they might represent genuine failures in communication. In either case, Lieutenant Mowat was not pleased.

When the paltry offering of 10 muskets failed to meet Mowat’s definition of all the arms and ammunition in the town, Preble, Coffin, and Pagan begged him to give them until 9 the following morning to more fully comply, or, if the people chose not to give in to Mowat’s demands, to give them time to get the women and children out of town. Mowat agreed, and told the committee to be aboard the Canceaux, with the arms and cannons, by 8:30 a.m. The men returned to find all of Falmouth in a disordered panic, “where nothing occurred but scenes of tumult, confusion, and bustle,” as the Reverend Jacob Bailey recalled. People were driving ox- and horse-drawn wagons piled high with household goods through the narrow streets, desperately making their way off the peninsula and away from the leering guns of the enemy’s ships.

The committee of three called together the leading men of Falmouth and related Mowat’s demands, but to their astonishment the people were opposed to giving up their cannons or small arms, even in the face of the British squadron’s artillery. They agreed to meet in the morning and make a final decision, but when they did, that decision was “by no means to deliver up the cannon or their arms.”

Despite the 14 hours that had passed since Mowat’s initial letter had been read, many civilians still remained in Falmouth. Townsmen asked Preble, Coffin, and Pagan to return to the Canceaux and stall for time.

The three men did as asked, arriving on board the Canceaux at 8 a.m. on October 18. They informed Mowat that no more weapons would be forthcoming. They did not even bother to ask if Mowat might spare the town; only that he give them half an hour to get ashore and get clear of the line of fire. That Mowat agreed to, and Preble, Coffin, and Pagan, after “expressions of thankfulness for the lenity that had been shown,” left the Canceaux at 8:30 and pulled for the Falmouth waterfront.

Mowat had set 9 a.m. as the time he would open up on the town, but from the Canceaux’s quarterdeck he could see women and children still struggling through the streets. “I made it forty minutes after nine before the Signal was hoisted,” he wrote, “which was done with a gun, at the same time the cannonade began.”

Daniel Tucker was just making his way out of town when the firing began. “Mowat hoisted a red flag,” he wrote, “and fired the first gun and the shot whistled along between me and the old meeting house.” The streets were still crowded, and it appeared to some observers that Mowat was purposely firing high to avoid civilian casualties, though there is nothing in Mowat’s reports to suggest that he was. But even firing high caused immediate destruction. The gunfire and smoke, for example, terrified the draft animals pulling wagons out of town and caused them to bolt, “dashing everything to pieces, and scattering large quantities of goods about the street,” according to the Reverend Bailey.

Unlike Gloucester at Cape Ann, Falmouth was perfectly situated for destruction by naval bombardment. The harbor was deep and broad and allowed the ships to anchor within pointblank range. The town’s wooden buildings were packed closely together so that flames would easily move from one to the other, and the town was built on a hillside sloping up from the harbor, so those buildings farther inland were not hidden behind those closer to the water. It did not take long before the real destruction began. “The first house that was fired…burned down without communicating with any other,” Tucker wrote, “but it was only a short time before all the north part of the town was in a blaze.”

The master’s log of the Canceaux recorded the devastation in cold, official language: “at 10 several Houses was on fire the fire broke out with great violens in two or 3 houses of the Somost [southernmost] Part of the Town at Noon the fire begun to be general both in the town and vessles but being calm the fire did Not Sprede as wished for.” Though most of the people had fled, armed men remained in the town and desperately fought the fires as one building after another burst into flame.

The constant barrage of cannons and mortars continued through the afternoon, the ordnance including round shot from three to nine pounds, bombs, carcasses, live shells, grapeshot, and musket balls. Around 1 p.m. a small breeze sprang up from the south that helped push the flames from building to building, but the squadron did not let up. Toward the south end of Falmouth were several detached buildings, too far removed to be caught up in the general conflagration. Those, and the Americans who had stayed behind to fight the fires, made it, in Mowat’s opinion, “absolutely necessary for some men to be landed, in order to set fire to the vessels, wharfs, storehouses, as well as the many parts of town that escaped from the shells and carcases.”

At 3 p.m. Lieutenant Fraser and 30 sailors and marines went ashore to put the last of the structures to the torch. The armed men of Falmouth who had been struggling to save the buildings met them. Musket fire flashed between the British and Americans, as the marines held the militia at bay while the sailors threw torches into the doors and windows of the houses and stores. With the last of the buildings blazing and the marines forming a rear guard, the British moved back to their boats and pulled for the Canceaux. The only casualties were a midshipman and a marine, both slightly wounded.

The sun was near setting by 6 p.m. and “the body of the town was in one flame,” Mowat wrote in his report. With the Canceaux warmed and illuminated by the brilliant inferno just across the water, Mowat at last called for a cease-fire. Mowat’s ammunition was all but expended, and the Spitfire was in bad shape, presumably from the constant concussion of the guns, punishment that the converted merchant vessel was not designed to take. Food and supplies were running low, and many of the men had fallen sick. Mowat decided he had to return to Nantasket Roads in Boston Harbor before he could “attempt any other place.”

Falmouth had received exactly the sort of scorched-earth treatment that Graves had envisioned. Nearly every building that faced the water was a smoldering ruin. “In a word,” Reverend Bailey wrote, “about three quarters of the town was consumed and between two and three hundred families who twenty four hours before enjoyed in tranquility their commodious habitations, were now in many instances destitute of a hut for themselves and families; and as a tedious winter was approaching they had before them a most gloomy and distressing prospect.”

Committing acts of atrocity, as a military tactic, is rarely successful. Rather than break the morale of those who are made to suffer, it tends to strengthen their resolve. And so it was with Falmouth. William Gordon wrote to John Adams wondering how many more towns would be burned before “every manly exertion of power & wisdom is to be exercised in opposing our Enemies!”

George Washington, on hearing of the event, wrote to Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler to say the British navy attacked Falmouth “with every Circumstance of Cruelty and Barbarity, which Revenge and Malice could suggest. We expect every Moment to hear other Places have been attempted, and have been better prepared for their Reception.”

Washington touched on one of the problems facing Graves. Before the attack on Falmouth, most seaport towns were lightly defended, if at all. By January, every town that could be accessed from the sea was bristling with defenses. But he never tried such an attack again, despite his grandiose plans. By the time Mowat returned to Boston the weather was deteriorating, Washington’s schooners were making problems for Graves, and other matters demanded his attention. It may also have dawned on the old admiral that it was not a good idea in the first place.

In England, the destruction of Falmouth seems not to have raised much of a stir. At first, reports were dismissed as rebel propaganda. When they were found to be true, it was assumed there was good reason for the attack. The French, however, who were keeping close watch on the goings-on in America, recognized the destruction of Falmouth for the blunder it was. “I can hardly believe this absurd as well as barbaric procedure on the part of an enlightened and civilized nation,” wrote France’s foreign secretary, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, “more especially as the perpetrators of this terrible crime allegedly declared that the order had been given to burn all maritime towns from Boston to Halifax.”

Vergennes had some excellent sources of information, and he also had a firm understanding of the issue. The radicals in America were fired up by the British atrocity, and their calls for independence became more vociferous. More important, many of those Americans who had been unsure of the wisdom of breaking away from England were now persuaded of its necessity and came down firmly in the patriots’ camp.

William Whipple, a prominent citizen of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, wrote to Capt. John Langdon, “it seems to me to be the determination of every one to risque his all in support of his liberties & privileges, the unheard of cruelties of the enemy have so effectually united us that I believe there are not four persons now in [P]ortsmouth who do not justify the measures pursuing in opposition to the Tyranny of Great Britain.”


Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here