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, August 13, 2020

“Brisk Firing” along the Rivers in 1775

When we last peeked in on Malden during the siege of Boston, a British raiding party from Charlestown had crossed the Mystic River and burned the building at the Penny Ferry landing.

The Continental Army officer assigned to that spot, Capt. Eleazer Lindsey, was no help. Reports differ about whether he had gone home or took just that moment to go home in a hurry.

The British floating battery remained in the Mystic River, threatening those parts of the American siege lines.

A week later, on 13 Aug 1775, there was another exchange of fire. It started when some British boats came to resupply the floating battery. Capt. William T. Miller of Rhode Island, stationed on Prospect Hill, told his wife there were “2 Boats that were armed from Bunkers hill.” The historian Richard Frothingham later stated there were “two barges and two sail boats, on their way from Boston.”

Men guarding Malden’s ferry landing opened fire. Capt. Miller wrote that the British boats “were Drove back by the brisk firing of Some field pieces from Malden this day which Caused them in a Very great Hurry to Retreat and Run ashore on Bunkers hill Shore.”

Those small cannon might have been the two that had arrived in April from Newburyport. If so, the men firing them appear to have been a local guard rather than men from Lindsey’s company. In addition, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin’s soldiers at Winnisimmet in Chelsea fired on the British boats.

There were no known casualties on either side. The Continentals were quite pleased with their performance in comparison to the previous week, though presumably the redcoats would have gone back to their lines anyway.

Both Lindsey and Baldwin reported to Col. Samuel Gerrish of Newbury. His regiment was spread out over several spots along the northern wing of the siege lines. When a group of officers from the regiment sent a petition to Gen. George Washington complaining that they hadn’t been paid, they signed from the “Camps at Chelsea, Malden, Medford, and Sewells Point” near what is now the B. U. Bridge.

Gen. William Heath’s memoir records a similar British attack on that Brookline fortification a couple of weeks earlier, on 31 July:
A little before one o’clock, A.M. a British floating-battery came up the river, within 300 yards of Sewall’s Point, and fired a number of shot at the American works, on both sides of the river.
Some of the works on the Cambridge side survive as Fort Washington Park. The picture above, a detail from Henry Pelham’s map of the siege, shows the area in 1775. (Pelham’s map has north on the right.)

That attack might have been the occasion when Col. Gerrish chose not to shoot back at the British but instead told his men to hunker down behind their walls. Reportedly he said, “the rascals can do us no harm, and it would be a mere waste of powder, to fire at them with our 4 pounders.” That was the wrong attitude for an officer already under criticism for how he had behaved at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

COMING UP: Washington’s “pretty good Slam” among the officers.

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