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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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Search for the Diana

The Associated Press reported on a new effort to locate the Royal Navy’s ship Diana, its first naval casualty of the Revolutionary War. Steve LeBlanc’s dispatch reads:

Chelsea Creek... separates the city of Chelsea from the East Boston neighborhood of Boston. Today the river is plied by oil tankers and is home to a landscape dotted with the city's iconic tripledeckers.

But more than 200 years ago, the creek was the site of one of the earliest and least-remembered engagements of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Chelsea Creek was also the first naval engagement of the American Revolution.

For two days in May 1775 [specifically, 27-28 May], British Redcoats and members of the Continental Army battled up and down the waterway.

The British were trying to reach farmers who would still trade food and livestock. The revolutionary forces were trying to deny them those resources.

As the fighting raged, the British sailed the Diana up the river to provide reinforcement. For a while it worked. Then the tide turned, literally, and the Diana found itself run aground in the mud despite the best efforts of British troops to free it.

An unknown number of redcoats died in the fighting. The rest fled, leaving the ship behind. The Continental Army forces took what they could and torched the rest. . . .

Now, Massachusetts has received a $48,300 grant from the National Park Service to preserve the battlefield where the Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought.

State researchers will use the money to pull together all they know about the battle, fill in what blanks they can, and then try to match that narrative to the existing landscape. And maybe dig up the remnants of the Diana along the way.
Here’s the same story as reported in London by the Telegraph; compare and contrast. And here’s the state’s press release, saying that the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources will spearhead this effort.

Here are a couple of contemporaneous accounts of this fight. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress reported only three of its soldiers wounded, and couldn’t estimate British military’s casualties. That didn’t stop the 8 June 1775 New York Journal from reporting 30 enemy dead, probably a wild exaggeration. Records from the British warship Somerset indicate that seamen George Williams and William Crocker died.


Charles Bahne said...


I noticed an interesting disagreement about how the Battle of Chelsea Creek was started. The AP article cited in Wednesday's blog says that "The British were trying to reach farmers who would still trade food and livestock. The revolutionary forces were trying to deny them those resources. As the fighting raged, the British sailed the Diana up the river to provide reinforcement."

The London Telegraph article says basically the same thing: "The redcoats were attempting to reach farms further inland to obtain food while their opponents were trying to block their way. The Diana, under the command of Lt Thomas Graves ... was sent up river to support the British soldiers."

But in Boston 1775 for May 27, 2007, you cite Caleb Haskell's diary as saying "Today a party of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire forces, about 600, went over to Noddle’s Island to bring off some cattle. The enemy landed on the island, and pursued our men till they got back to Hog Island...." And, from the same post, Timothy Newell says in his diary, "Our People set fire to hay and a barn on Noddle’s Island; a number of Marines went over [after them]. Our People Retreated over to Hog Island, the troops following...."

So the question arises: Did the British start the battle by "attempting to reach farms further inland"? Or did the Americans start it by going "over to Noddle’s Island to bring off some cattle" -- in other words, by trying to keep those cattle out of the hands of the British?

The version I had always heard, until now, was that the Americans initiated the action. Where do we get the story that the British launched the offensive? (And, indeed, were there any inland farmers who would be willing to trade with His Majesty's Regulars?)

I've also heard of a connection between this incident and your recent posts concerning the so-called Grand Union Flag. Some sources say that the mast of the Diana was salvaged by the Americans and used as a flagpole at Prospect Hill -- the same pole where the Grand Union Flag (or was it just the "Union Flag"?) was flown on January 1, 1776.

J. L. Bell said...

I believe the provincials started the actual fighting by trying to deny resources to the British military, pressing in to the islands. But the British may have been pressing out a bit before then without producing armed opposition.

Earlier that May, the Patriots of Malden and Chelsea complained that Dr. Samuel Danforth was supplying the British from the north side of the Charles River. So that early in the siege, there may still have been goods getting across the lines.

I hadn’t heard about the use of the Diana’s mast as a Liberty Pole, but I hadn’t given much attention to this fight. It looked like a little skirmish between two real battles. But more seems to have been going on than I realized.

Peter Ansoff said...

The connection with the Prospect Hill flag raising is in Paul Lunt's diary: “Tuesday, August 1, 1775 . . . raised the mast that came out of the schooner that was burnt at Chelsea, for to hoist our flag upon, in the fort upon Prospect hill in Charlestown, seventy-six feet high.” As I recall, the Diana was actually American-built, and the 76-foot height compares reasonably with sail plans of similar-sized vessels.