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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Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Somerset in the Battle of Lexington and Concord

On 18 Apr 1775, the warship Somerset was moored in the Charles River at the narrow point between Boston’s North End and Charlestown. Its guns never fired and its sailors took no part in any fighting the next day, but the warship was significant in the Battle of Lexington and Concord in several ways.

First, the Somerset, like most of the other Royal Navy ships around Boston that day, supplied boats and crews to ferry Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s column across the Charles to Cambridge.

Second, the ship with its 68 guns (according to a January count) stopped the usual ferry from crossing the river, thus preventing travelers from carrying news of evening preparations for the expedition out of Boston to the countryside.

Paul Revere had prepared for just such an obstacle, however. He had confederates send a signal to the Committee of Safety in Charlestown by hanging two lanterns in the Christ Church steeple. And, to be safe, he had two friends row him across the Charles—which meant passing the warship. In 1798 Revere recalled:

two friends rode me across the Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset man-of-war lay. It was then young flood, the ship was winding, and the moon was rising.
Donald W. Olson and Russell L. Doescher discussed how the angle of the moonlight aided Revere’s passage in this 1992 article for Sky and Telescope.

The action then shifted to the mainland, and the west. The journal on board H.M.S. Preston records this order for late on 19 April:
at 1/2 past 5 hoisted a Red flag at the Main Topmast head and fired a Gun as a Signal for all the Marines of the fleet to go on board the Somerset
About ninety minutes later the British column and its reinforcement under Col. Percy reached Charlestown from the west, many of the men exhausted and their ammunition depleted. Adm. Samuel Graves later wrote of his own preparations:
the Admiral ordered all the Marines on Board to be ready to land at a Moments Warning upon a Signal for that purpose, and by desire of General [Thomas] Gage, they were landed in the afternoon at Charles Town under the command of Captain Lieut. James Johnson to cover the retreat of our harrassed Soldiers.

But it was the Somerset alone that preserved the detachment from Ruin. The vicinity of that formidable Ship to Charles Town so intimidated its Inhabitants that they (tho’ reluctantly) suffered the Kings Troops to come in and pass over to Boston, who would otherwise have been undoubtedly attacked, and in their defenceless conditions such a proceeding must have been fatal to all the Land Forces on that side…
Graves went on to claim that his navy ship had saved all the army troops in Boston as well. After having “massacred those poor harrassed Soldiers” at the end of their march, he said, the Charlestown people would have crossed into Boston, found “19 out of 20” men ready to help them, and destroyed the rest of the redcoats as well. I doubt army officers saw the navy as that crucial.

TOMORROW: Adm. Graves’s plan to put down the rebellion, and the end of the Somerset.

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