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, July 12, 2007

Boston's Own Battle of Long Island

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—

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.
From outside the town, an eyewitness described the same fight:
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.

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.
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.)

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
They were “to be received, employed, and provided for by the Selectmen of those respective Towns, in the best way and manner they can, till further order of this Colony.” No, I can’t make the numbers add up to fifteen, either.

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story about Long Island. Looking at it from Spectacle Island you would never have thought something like that took place.

Interested in knowing if you have anything on George's Island or Castle Island? Wasn't it in 1770 Gov. Hutchinson sent two regiments to Castle Island for fear of an engagement after the Boston massacre? Parliament deemed the two regiments Sam Adam's regiment as he was the one who made the fuss of sending them out of Boston.

I believe there are couple more islands that have fortifications throughout the harbor (if only minor), interesting to learn if any other skirmishes took place.

J. L. Bell said...

If you search Boston 1775 for the word "Castle," you'll find several postings the mention Castle William or "the Castle," as it was often referred to at the time.

Back then it was an island at high tide. Now it's not, but it's called "Castle Island." Go figure.

Because the Castle was so heavily fortified, it was never the focus of a battle during the siege. But politically it was very significant in the years leading up to the siege. In particular, as this post discusses, it was the focus of a dispute when British regiments were first ordered into Boston in 1768.

As acting governor, Thomas Hutchinson did move the 14th and 29th Regiments to the Castle after the Boston Massacre. Later in 1770 he turned the fort over to the army; previously it had been a militia base, so that was controversial.

Throughout the decade before the Revolution Crown officials and prominent supporters took refuge in the Castle when they felt threatened by mobs, and Whigs responded by saying those officials were exaggerating the danger.

Anonymous said...

The taking of cattle and hay reminds me of a story I read recently. Ichabod Perry (who enlisted at age 17 out of Fairfield, Conn.) wrote of this experience while camped with fellow rebels near Bargin Point in New York in 1775:

"There was one little circumstance which took place which I will mention; I and one of my Comrads went to Bargin Point to get some plums. An armed schooner lay about 60 rods off and there was a ridg of ground a few rods back, that secur'd us. I crawl'd Down to one of the plum trees and rose up to pick off the plums from the lower limb, when they gave me a shot from a 4 pounder which went a little one side, I then rose and went to picking again (for I fell at the smoke of the gun) when they gave me another shot, which cut off the top of the tree, full of plums just as large as I could carry. I pick't it up and ran over the bank where I was out of danger. I then stopt and returned them my thanks for their kindness which made a great laugh on Board."

Thanks again for your wonderful work, Mr. Bell. I look forward to it each day.

J. L. Bell said...

Nifty story! If we didn't have seventeen-year-olds to take stupid risks, we'd have to invent them for tales like this.

Thanks for your kind comments.