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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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Skirmish at the Boston Light

Yesterday guest blogger Christopher Klein, author of the new book Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: A Guide to the City’s Hidden Shores, described the importance of the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island. That first North American lighthouse is shown above in a late-1800s sketch based of a mezzotint engraving created by William Burgis in 1729.

In 1775, that lighthouse made it safe for the Royal Navy and British supply ships to navigate Boston harbor at night. The islands were the British military’s nearest source of fodder and vegetables. Aiming to strike at the Crown forces, Maj. Joseph Vose of the Continental Army led a raiding party onto the Nantasket peninsula on the night of 18 July 1775. Their ultimate goal was Little Brewster Island. Chris describes what happened next:

The patriots landed on the island on the morning of 20 July 1775, burned the wooden parts of the lighthouse, and removed three casks of oil, gunpowder, and furniture. Seeing the beacon in flames, several British barges, a cutter, and an armed schooner attacked Vose’s detachment, but only two patriots were wounded in the action.

A letter from Brigadier General William Heath to George Washington, dated 21 July 1775, recounted the actions of Vose’s detachment, both on Little Brewster Island and on other islands in Boston Harbor:


I have the Pleasure to inform your Excellency that Major Vose of my own Regiment; beside[s] securing the Barley on Nantasket; yesterday morning Landed on the Light-House Island with Six or Seven Boats, the Light House was set on Fire and the wood work Burnt, the Party brought off Three Casks of Oyl, all the furniture of the Light house, about 50 wt of Gun Powder, a Quantity of Cordage &c. (an Inventory of which will be forwarded to your Excellency;)

Some of the Brave men who effected this with their Lives in their Hands, have just now applied to me to know whether it was to be consid[ered] as Plunder, or otherwise; I was not able to detirmine this matter, but told them that I would Lay the matter before your Excellency; I would beg leave to add that these Brave men, were some of them at Grape Island, Deer Island & at Long Island when each of those Islands were Stripped of their Stock &c.

I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s most obedient & very Humble Servt
W. Heath
The British quickly deployed Loyalist workers, protected by a guard of marines, to repair Boston Light. “With this Party,” Vice Admiral Samuel Graves wrote, “the Engineers were of opinion the Light House might well be defended, until Succours arrived, against 1000 men, and the Admiral expected to have the Building soon repaired and a Light shewn as before.”

And it appears the British did proceed quickly in their repair of the light. In a letter to John Adams, James Warren reported that by the night of 29 July the British efforts to rebuild the beacon were “in such forwardness as Actually to shew a Light.”

However, the other assessment by Graves as to the ease of defending Boston Light would soon be put to the test.

Check back at Boston 1775 on 31 July for the next chapter in the lighthouse’s war story. Thanks, Chris!

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