On 12 July 1775, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded the battle of Long Island in his diary. No, not the big one in which Gen. Sir William Howe drove the Continental Army into Manhattan in 1776. This was a small battle over the nutritive resources of the much shorter Long Island in Boston harbor. Newell wrote:
Two men of war made a heavy fire on Long Island. The Provincials last night [i.e., the 11th] in 65 whale boats [like the one shown at left, courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum] and 500 men went over to Long Island and took off 31 head of cattle, with a number of Sheep and quantity of hay and likewise seized on and brought off fourteen of the Kings Mowers with the family belonging to the Island—From outside the town, an eyewitness described the same fight:
The next day they returned again and set fire to the Mansion house and barn &c.—this within sight of the Man of war, who kept up a constant fire on them.
While we were on Powderhorn Hill, back of Chelsea, we saw a skirmish between a party of our people, (one hundred and ten in number,) who went in whale boats to an island about twelve miles from Boston, and burnt a large quantity of hay, which was put up into bundles by the Regulars, and intended to be sent to Boston for their horses.The provincial commander of this raid was Col. John Greaton (1741-1783) of Roxbury. At the time, Long Island was legally owned by Barlow Trecothick (1718?-1775), a former Lord Mayor of London who had started in business at Boston, married his employer’s daughter, and moved to England to make their fortune. (Or perhaps the property was tied up in Trecothick’s estate.)
A great number of Marines, in schooners, men-of-war boats, and two ships-of-war, kept up a constant fire on our men, while they remained on the island; but this did not prevent them from destroying the hay.
The schooners and boats endeavoured to cut off their retreat, which brought on a very warm engagement, in which we had one killed and one wounded. The loss of the Regular is not known, but supposed to be considerable, as they were drove off several times, and finally obliged to retire; which would not have been the case, if they had not lost some men.
One major consequence of this raid is that the Continentals suddenly had more prisoners. What to do, what to do? The staff at headquarters asked the Committee of Safety. The committee, deciding it didn’t have the authority to decide, sent the matter to the whole Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The Provincial Congress’s “Committee appointed to examine the fifteen Prisoners” came back with these orders:
That Jonathan Winship and Jacob Whipple, two of the prisoners, be discharged immediately; that Jacob Davis, another of the prisoners, be sent to the main guard at Cambridge, the Congress having great reason to suspect that he enlisted in, and deserted from the Army raised by this Colony, and that the officers of the guard be certified in writing of what crime the said Jacob now stands charged; that John Freeman, a negro man, said to be the servant of Mr. Joseph Howett, of Newburyport, be sent to the Jail at Cambridge, there to continue till further orders; that the other prisoners, with the said Jacob and John, be committed to Captain Crafts, to be kept under guard until further orders.The next day, the congress ordered ten prisoners from Long Island distributed among towns in Worcester County:
- John Hayes and Thomas Bibby to Lunenburgh
- James Griffin and John Reef to Rutland
- Perez Merren and Michael Malony to Shrewsbury
- Patrick Hickey and Richard Nash to Brookfield
- Michael Mellows and John Fleming to Sutton
That day the congress also gave the Committee of Safety full executive power through the end of the month, meaning that the smaller group could make these tough decisions on their own for a while.