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, 2015

“A tolerable cannonade ensued”

Here’s yet another contemporaneous account of the capture of British troop transports in Boston harbor in June 1776, this time from the ranking army officer aboard those ships: Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell (shown here).

Campbell’s letter to his commander, Gen. William Howe, was printed in several American newspapers that year and then reprinted in British magazines. He regretfully reported:
On the 16th of June, the George and Annabella, transports, with two companies of the 71st regiment of Highlanders, made the land of Cape Anne, after a passage of seven weeks from Scotland, during the course of which we had not an opportunity of speaking to a single vessel that could give us the smallest information of the British troops having evacuated Boston.

On the 17th, at daylight, we found ourselves opposite to the harbour’s mouth of Boston; but from contrary winds, it was necessary to make several tacks to reach it. Four schooners, which we took to be pilots, or armed vessels in the service of his Majesty (but which were afterwards found to be four American privateers, of eight carriage-guns, twelve swivels and forty men each), were bearing down upon us at four o’clock in the morning. At half an hour thereafter, two of them engaged us; and, about eleven o’clock, the other two were close along-side.

The George transport, on board of which Maj. [Robert] Menzies and I, with 108 men of the second battalion, the adjutant, the quartermaster, two lieutenants, five volunteers, were passengers, had only six pieces of cannon to oppose them; and the Annabella, on board of which was Capt. [George] MacKenzie, together with two subalterns, two volunteers, and 82 private men of the first battalion, had only two swivels for her defence.

Under such circumstances, I thought it expedient for the Annabella to keep ahead of the George, that our artillery might be used with more effect and less obstruction. Two of the privateers having stationed themselves upon our larboard quarter, and two upon our starboard quarter, a tolerable cannonade ensued, which, with very few intermissions, lasted till four o’clock in the evening, when the enemy bore away, and anchored in Plymouth harbour. Our loss upon this occasion was only three men mortally wounded on board the George, one man killed, and one man slightly wounded, on board the Annabella.

As my orders were for the port of Boston, I thought it my duty, at this happy crisis, to push forward into the harbour, not doubting I should receive protection, either from a fort, or from some ship of force stationed there for the security of our fleet.

Toward to close of the evening, we perceived the four schooners that were engaged with us in the morning, joined by the brig Defence, of sixteen carriage-guns, twenty swivels, and 117 men; and a schooner of eight carriage guns, twelve swivels, and 40 men, got under way, and made towards us. As we stood up for Nantasket road, an American battery opened upon us; which was the first serious proof we had that there could scarcely be many of our friends at Boston; and we were too far embayed to retreat, especially as the wind had died away and the tide of flood not half expended.

After each of the vessels having twice run aground, we anchored at George’s Island, and prepared for action; but the Annabella, by some misfortune or other, got aground so far astern of the George, we could expect but a feeble support from her musketry.

About eleven o’clock, four of the schooners anchored right upon our bow, and one right astern of us. The armed brig took her station on our starboard tide, at the distance of 200 yards, and hailed us to strike the British flag.

Although the mate of our ship, and every sailor on board, the captain only excepted, refused positively to fight any longer, I have the pleasure to inform you, that there was not an officer, non-commissioned officer, or private man of the 71st, but what stood to their quarters, with a ready and cheerful obedience. On our refusing to strike the British flag, the action was renewed, with a good deal of warmth on both sides; and it was our misfortune, after the sharp combat of an hour and a half, to have expended every shot that we had for our artillery.

Under such circumstances, hemmed in, as we were, with six privateers, in the middle of an enemy’s harbour, beset with a dead calm, without the power of escaping, or even the most distant hope of relief, I thought it my duty not to sacrifice the lives of gallant men wantonly in the arduous attempt of an evident impossibility.

In this unfortunate affair, Maj. Menzies and seven private soldiers were killed; the quartermaster and twelve private soldiers wounded. The Major was buried, with the honours of war, at Boston.
Campbell’s account agrees in notable details with the Connecticut captain Seth Harding’s, quoted yesterday: both men said the serious engagement began at 11:00 P.M. and continued for ninety minutes. Campbell also mentioned shots from “an American battery,” as described in the Massachusetts artillery officer’s letter quoted on Monday.

It’s striking that Capt. Harding’s report to the Connecticut government said nothing about those shore guns. He also wrote nothing about other American ships being a factor in the fight on the night of 18-19 June, though both Col. Campbell and the artillerist said five schooners were involved. Of course, Harding was gearing up to claim the British ships as prizes, and he wanted the maximum share.

TOMORROW: More of the paper trail.

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