The Burning of Falmouth
October 18-19, 1775 at Falmouth, Massachusetts
It was the destruction of most of the buildings that constituted the town of Falmouth, (now Portland) by a small fleet of British warships.1776.
It was “An outrage exceeding in barbarity and cruelty every hostile act among nations,” according to George Washington and rather than bring the radical elements of the American colonies in line, it fed the fires of revolution sweeping America in 1775.
In 1775, relations between Britain and the American Colonies had already been bad for a while. Falmouth’s protests, harassment of British tax officials and demonstrations of sympathy for rebels in Boston painted Falmouth as a rebel town.
However, many wealthy merchants were doing big business with the British. When merchant Thomas Coulson, a British sympathizer, took delivery of a load of rigging and sails from Britain in violation of an embargo, the local Whig authorities demanded he send it back. Coulson refused, and loyalist sheriff William Tyng sent to Boston for support.
Support came in the form of the British ship Canceaux, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Mowatt.
On May 7 1775, less than a month after the battles at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, a group of rebels from Brunswick under the command of Colonel Samuel Thompson arrived on the back side of Falmouth Neck (the Portland Peninsula) and hid in the trees there for two days with the intention of ridding Falmouth of the British presence. They took Lieutenant Mowatt and a couple of companions captive as the trio were walking in the woods.
Canceaux‘s master, Ensign Hogg, threatened to fire on the town if Mowatt was not released and fired a couple of blank shots to punctuate his threat. That started a panic among the populace and some started to evacuate their homes. Others appealed to Colonel Thompson to release Mowatt.
Thompson relented and allowed Mowatt to return to the ship, and radical militias from around the countryside converged on Falmouth where they generally extorted money from loyalists, got drunk and intimidated the locals whose homes were under the British guns. The militiamen formed plans to destroy Canceaux, but never carried them out.
They occupied Falmouth for several days before returning to their homes in Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth and Gorham, towns that were fairly safe from British attack.
Many militiamen, disappointed that they weren’t able to provoke a wider confrontation with the British, left with the opinion that Falmouth’s ardor for rebellion was somewhat wanting.
On May 15, the whole dust up, later called “Thompson’s War” ended, when Mowatt’s ship sailed away from Falmouth. With Mowatt went the first group of Tory refugees from Falmouth. Mowatt would return, and this time Falmouth would not get off so lightly.
Two months later in Machias, a group of about forty rebels attacked a small British sloop sent to help another loyalist merchant. The capture of the Margaretta on June 12 was the first naval victory by a rebel force over the mighty British navy and the commander of the British navy in New England, Vice Admiral Samuel Graves was embarrassed by it.
Graves had been under pressure to be more forceful in suppressing rebellion in the area. After Machias, he drafted a list of nine towns to be bombarded as an example to the recalcitrant rebels. The list included towns from Marblehead, Massachusetts to Machias including Portsmouth, Saco, and Falmouth. He then presented the orders for the destruction of those towns to Lieutenant Henry Mowatt.
On October 8, Mowatt departed on Canceaux with three other ships . Bad weather forced Mowatt to pass by several of the towns on his list, but he was probably headed to Machias when the weather changed, and sailing to Falmouth became a better choice.
On the afternoon of October 16, Mowatt’s squadron of four ships appeared in Falmouth Harbor. Mowatt sent word to the townspeople that they had two hours to evacuate. A three person committee went to Mowatt and got him to agree that if the town gave up its arms, he would see if Admiral Graves would spare them the ordered destruction.
Townspeople delivered a token amount of muskets with a deadline of nine o’clock the following day for delivery of the remainder of the town’s arms.
By the time this compromise had been reached, the town was in complete panic. Residents loaded wagon upon wagon with what possessions they could rescue and attempted to move them to safety. In the press of it all, no one ever held the meeting to decide whether to surrender the rest of their arms.
The next morning, about half an hour after the deadline, Mowatt’s ships opened fire. At first, they fired high to warn the people of Falmouth that the bombardment was at hand. Mowatt’s ships fired on the town of Falmouth for rest of the day.
When cannon fire wasn’t doing enough damage, a group of British sailors landed in town and burned many buildings. Militiamen put up token resistance, and are credited with saving a few buildings, but the damage was very widespread. At six p.m. the bombardment ceased and Mowatt’s four ships sailed off.
130 houses were gone. the Anglican Church, the meeting house, the public library, and the fire station all were destroyed. Thirteen ships had been in the harbor at the time. Two were captured. The rest were sunk, some with valuable cargoes aboard. And many people of Falmouth were looking at a long hard winter ahead with no home, no resources, no town. Amazingly no one was killed on either side.
Following the bombardment, militiamen who had come to Falmouth to oppose the British turned their attention to looting the remains of the homes. Some people carried off the possessions of those who had already lost their homes. And some, remembering Falmouth’s tepid response to the British both during Thompson’s War and in opposition to Mowatt’s force, thought that the residents of Falmouth Neck got what they deserved.