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 31, 2008

The Last of the Boston Light

Earlier this month, Christopher Klein, author of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands, contributed two articles about the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island and the Continental Army’s raid on that lighthouse on 20 July 1775. But that wasn’t the end of the story, or the end of the lighthouse.

Here’s Chris’s conclusion:

Just 11 days after their first attack on Boston Light, the patriots hit again. This time, a detachment of 300 men led by Major Benjamin Tupper set out in whaleboats from Nantasket during the night of 30 July 1775 and landed on Little Brewster Island in the early hours of the morning on 31 July.

The patriots overcame the guard, gained the upper hand on the British marines stationed on the island, and burned the lighthouse and buildings on the island. Tupper’s men killed between 10 and 12 British troops and made prisoners of the rest while suffering only one fatality of their own.

In his letter to the Continental Congress dated August 4 and 5 of 1775, General George Washington reported:

A Number of Workmen having been sent down to repair [Boston Light] with a Guard of 22 Marines & a Subaltern, Major Tupper last Monday Morning about 2 oClock landed there with about 300 Men, attack’d them killed the Officer, & 4 Privates, but being detained by the Tide, in his Return he was attack’d by several Boats, but he happily got through with the Loss of one Man killed & another wounded. The Remainder of the ministerial [i.e., British] Troops, 3 of which are badly wounded, he brought off Prisoners, with 10 Tories all of whom are on their Way to Springfield Gaol.
Washington’s general orders of 1 August 1775 also included this item:
The General thanks Major Tupper, and the Officers and Soldiers under his Command, for their gallant and soldierlike behaviour in possessing themselves of the enemy’s post at the Light House, and for the Number of Prisoners they took there, and doubts not, but the Continental Army, will be as famous for their mercy as for their valour.
By June 1776, the British had evacuated Boston but their ships still lurked in the harbor. When they were finally driven out of the harbor for good on 13 June 1776, the British returned the favor to the colonists and blew up the tower of Boston Light using a timed charge. It was an ignominious “parting gift” from the Redcoats, who were led by the aptly named Captain Bangs.

The British destruction of the lighthouse is the reason why the beacon at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which dates to 1764, has the distinction of being the oldest lighthouse structure in America, although Boston Light is still the oldest light station in the country. Boston Light would lay dark for seven years before it was rebuilt under orders from John Hancock in 1783.

Today, the distinguished, bold pillar of Boston Light is a postcard-perfect lighthouse, and it is the last to retain a Coast Guard keeper. Tours of Boston Light run from Thursday to Sunday through early October. For more information, visit www.bostonislands.org.

Thanks again, Chris!

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