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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Saturday, September 07, 2019

Fortifying Newburyport Harbor

Last month Alexander Cain laid out some new research about how Newburyport and nearby towns worked quickly at the start of the Revolutionary War to fortify that small harbor against the Royal Navy:
It appears two possible events triggered the move to fortify the Merrimack River in 1775. The first was the Ipswich Fright which occured in the days after Lexington and Concord. This particular event was the result of a false rumor that British soldiers had landed in Ipswich and had killed the local populace. As the rumor spread, widespread panic set in among the residents of several North Shore Massachusetts towns and many, including those from Newburyport, fled to New Hampshire.

The second event transpired the following month when a detachment of British sailors and officers from the HMS Scarborough entered Newburyport Harbor under the cover of darkness to scout the town’s defensive capabilities. According to the Essex Journal, “last Tuesday evening (May 23) a barge belonging to the man of war lying at Portsmouth, rowing up and down the river to make discoveries with two small officers and six seamen.” Unfortunately, the mission was an utter failure as the “tars not liking the employ, tied their commanders, then run the boat ashore, and were so impolite as to wish the prisoners good night, and came off.” Upon entering Newburyport, the deserters alerted the town of the mission and the location of the officers. However, “the officers soon got loose and rowed themselves back to the ship” before they were apprehended.

The two events rattled Newburyport. Many residents realized that if a Royal Navy warship entered the Merrimack, it could easily sail down the river and not only bombard the town, wharves and shipyards, but it could also raze Salisbury and Amesbury. As a result, officials from the three towns and Newbury agreed that the mouth or the river, as well as the harbor itself, needed to be fortified.
The result, Alex Cain writes, was “an early warning network and at least three defensive lines that included coastal fortifications, physical obstructions, floating batteries, interior redoubts and two companies of militia that were on a constant state of alert.” This made Newburyport a refuge for merchant ships sympathetic to the American cause and a base for American privateers. At least for a couple of years. When the war moved south, the port and its protection became less important.

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