J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The First Skirmish in Boston Harbor

Last month I quoted the first entry in selectman Timothy Newell’s journal of the siege of Boston. That was dated 19 Apr 1775, the day the war began. He didn’t write another for over a month because there was no significant fighting during that time.

(Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen did take Fort Ticonderoga on 10 May, which turned out to be a significant military event. But Newell didn’t know about it, and there hadn’t been any fighting out there, either. The British outpost hadn’t yet heard about Lexington and Concord, and were therefore caught unawares.)

Selectman Newell resumed his chronicle this way:

May 21st (Sabbath). This day two sloops and an armed schooner with soldiers sailed to Grape Island near Hingham to get hay, our People attacked them and beat them off, some say with loss, none on our side as is known, they returned without accomplishing their design. Our People afterwards set fire to the hay.
This little skirmish ended without loss of life. Newell wasn’t close enough to see the response to the three British ships, but Abigail Adams was. She described the alarm in the provincial towns south of Grape Island in a letter to her husband dated 25 May:
Suppose you have had a formidable account of the alarm we had last Sunday morning. When I rose about six oclock I was told that the Drums had been some time beating and that 3 allarm Guns were fired, that Weymouth [meeting] Bell had been ringing, and Mr. Welds was then ringing.

I immediatly sent of an express to know the occasion, and found the whole Town in confusion. 3 Sloops and one cutter had come out, and droped anchor just below Great Hill. It was difficult to tell their design, some supposed they were comeing to Germantown [in Braintree] others to Weymouth.

People women children from the Iron Works flocking down this Way—every woman and child above or from below my Fathers. My Fathers family flying, the Drs. [Dr. Cotton Tufts’s] in great distress, as you may well immagine for my Aunt had her Bed thrown into a cart, into which she got herself, and orderd the boy to drive her of to Bridgwater which he did.

The report was to them, that 300 hundred had landed, and were upon their march into Town. The allarm flew lightning, and men from all parts came flocking down till 2000 were collected—but it seems their [i.e., the British military’s] expidition was to Grape Island for Levet's hay. There it was impossible to reach them for want of Boats, but the sight of so many persons, and the fireing at them prevented their getting more than 3 ton of Hay, tho they had carted much more down to the water.

At last they [i.e., the local militiamen] musterd a Lighter, and a Sloop from Hingham which had six port holes. Our men eagerly jumpt on board, and put of for the Island. As soon as they [the army] perceived it, they decamped. Our people landed upon Island, and in an instant set fire to the Hay which with the Barn was soon consumed, about 80 ton tis said. We expect soon to be in continual alarms, till something decisive takes place.
As Adams’s hastily written letter reflects, people in towns around Boston harbor expected punitive raids from the British military at any time.

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