Two hundred thirty-two years ago, Boston selectman Timothy Newell wrote in his diary:
This morning two bomb Ketches and several armed vessels with some sailors sailed on a secret expedition, it is said to demand a Ship belonging to Portsmouth, retaken by our whale boats, and carried into Cape Ann—also to demand of that town 40 seamen which they took from the man of war—if not delivered in 24 hours to bombard the town.Although the British and Continental armies had continued to make plans, build fortifications, fire artillery, and occasionally skirmish, the real action at this point in the war was at sea.
British naval vessels were trying to keep the army in Boston supplied by escorting transports and merchant ships from Britain. The first generation of American privateers were trying to capture those ships full of food and weapons. That meant the navy was trying to hunt the privateers.
In this case, the provincials had also apparently taken “40 seamen” from a naval ship. Perhaps those men had been impressed by the Royal Navy, perhaps they were simply tired of life in the navy, perhaps they wanted to try the American cause.
Admiral Samuel Graves was already eager to take aggressive action against the New England rebels. On 1 Sept 1775, he had written to Gen. Thomas Gage:
With your Excellency’s approbation and Assistance, I propose to lay Waste such Sea Port Towns in the New England Governments as are not likely to be useful to His Majesty’s Stores and to destroy all the Vessels within the Harbours. To this End I must beg your Excellency to assist me with such Men, Vessels, Artillery Forces &ca as His Majesty’s Squadron is not provided with, and are really requisite under for the intended Service.Graves particularly resented having most of the Marines deployed on land instead of on his ships.
The small squad of ships that left Boston on 3 October was spotted off Gloucester later that week, as Newell feared. However, its commanders apparently thought that town would be too difficult to shell. The ships headed further up the coast.