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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Friday, April 16, 2010

The Admiral’s Plan to End the War, and the End of the Somerset

On the evening of 19 Apr 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage was absorbing news of his troops’ bloody withdrawal from Concord. According to his later report, Adm. Samuel Graves came to offer this helpful advice:

In an interview this Evening with General Gage the Admiral advised the burning of Charles town and Roxbury, and the seizing of the Heights of Roxbury and Bunkers Hill, (indeed the latter had begun to be fortified, but that work was discontinued for some reasons with which the Admiral was unacquainted);

to this Proposal the General objecting the weakness of the Army, the Admiral replied that he would strengthen it to the utmost of his power by landing what few Marines remained aboard his Fleet, and, if the General would withdraw the 64th Regiment from Castle William, he would garrison it with his Seamen and be answerable for its safety.

Such a plan pursued, at the same time that the three Line of Battle Ships lay opposite to the town full of Rebels and their Goods, would probably have chequed the most daring and have given such am Appearance of activity to our Operations that things might have continued a long time quiet.

It was indeed the Admirals opinion that we ought to act hostiley from this time forward by burning & laying waste the whole country, & his inclination and intentions were to strain every nerve for the public Service.
Having been recalled to England when he wrote this, Graves was defending himself against criticism. He was also writing with the assurance of a man whose plan was passed over in favor of another and could thus say, “If people had only listened to me at the time…”

Gage opted for less punitive measures, with threats instead of actual destruction. The admiral recorded one step:
Capt. [Edward] LeCras was ordered to acquaint the Select Men of Charles Town that if they suffered the Rebels to take possession of their town or erect any works upon the Heights, the Somerset should fire upon them
The Somerset was still guarding the Charles River on 17 June when the British forces spotting provincials building a redoubt on the lower portion of Bunker Hill called Breed’s Hill. Its gun crews immediately went to work, set fire to Charlestown, and made the first kill of that battle.

The warship was part of the evacuation of 1776, returned to England, and was back along the North American coast in 1778, fighting Continental and French ships. During that mission the Somerset ran aground off Truro on 2 November. Twenty-one members of the crew died, and the rest became prisoners of war.

The Massachusetts authorities salvaged all they could, including cannons used to fortify Boston and “several Casks of Oatmeal” assigned to “for the Use of the State Hospital” the following April. The shipwreck itself is now considered the property of the British government.


George Lovely said...

When I first head about the bones of the Somerset appearing in the surf this month, I yawned, thinking it nothing more significant than the ship Revere rowed past. Thank you for opening my eyes. I now wish the weather was better so I could justify a drive out to Truro.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t know all those details about the Somerset myself until I started to dig. For instance, I didn’t realize how much bigger it was than the ships that had been moored near the ferry before. For Revere and his friends in their rowboat, it must have been like sneaking past an imperial star cruiser.