October 18 This day during the American Revolution

October 18, 1775 – The Burning of Falmouth was an attack by a fleet of Royal Navy vessels on the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts (site of the modern city of Portland, Maine, and not to be confused with the modern towns of Falmouth, Massachusetts or Falmouth, Maine). The fleet was commanded by Captain Henry Mowat. The attack began with a naval bombardment which included incendiary shot, followed by a landing party meant to complete the town’s destruction. The attack was the only major event in what was supposed to be a campaign of retaliation against ports that supported Patriot activities in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War. Among the colonies, news of the attack led to rejection of British authority and the establishment of independent governments. It also led the Second Continental Congress to contest British Naval dominance by forming a Continental Navy. Both Mowat and his superior, Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, who had ordered Mowat’s expedition, suffered professionally as a consequence of the act. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British army was besieged in the City of Boston. The British were supported and supplied by the Royal Navy under the command of Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, who was under Admiralty instruction to suppress the burgeoning rebellion. Under his orders, vessels were searched for military stores and potential military communications. Laid-up vessels were stripped of their masts and rudders to prevent their use by privateers and military equipment was salvaged from readily-accessible recent wrecks. Captain Henry Mowat had been in the port of Falmouth (present-day Portland, Maine) in May 1775, during Thompson’s War when local Patriots captured several ships carrying supplies for Boston and weaponry from Fort Pownall at the mouth of the Penobscot River.[3] Graves’ Admiralty orders (issued in July 1775 and received by him on October 4) required that he “carry on such Operations upon the Sea Coasts … as you shall judge most effective for suppressing … the Rebellion”. Graves ordered Mowat to “lay waste burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships … and particularly Machias where Margueritta was taken” Mowat left Boston harbor on October 6, 1775[3] aboard his 16-gun hydrographic survey sloop HMS Canceaux, in company with the 20-gun ship Cat, the 12-gun schooner HMS Halifax, the bomb sloop HMS Spitfire, and the supply ship HMS Symmetry. While his instructions were broad in the number of possible targets, he opted against attacks on harbors on Cape Ann, where the buildings were too widely spaced for naval cannon fire to be effective. On October 16 he reached the outer parts of Falmouth harbor and anchored there. The people of Falmouth had mixed reactions to the presence of the British fleet. Some recognized the Canceaux and believed there was no danger; but militia members remembering Thompson’s War were more suspicious. The next day was windless: Mowat kedged the ships into the inner harbor and anchored them near the town. He sent one of his lieutenants ashore with a proclamation stating that he was there to “execute a just punishment” for the town’s state of rebellion. He gave the townspeople two hours to evacuate. As soon as they received this ultimatum, the townspeople sent a deputation to plead with Mowat for mercy. He promised to withhold fire if the town swore an oath of allegiance to King George. They must also surrender all their small arms and powder, along with their gun carriages. In response, the people of Falmouth began to move out of the town. No oaths were sworn. A small number of muskets were surrendered, but no gun carriages. Mowat had set a deadline of 9:00 am on October 18 for the town’s response. By 9:40 the town appeared to be deserted, so he ran a red flag up the Canceaux’s masthead, and ordered the fleet to begin firing. Incendiary cannonballs set fire to the harbor installations and most of the town’s houses and public buildings. One witness reported: The firing began from all the vessels with all possible briskness, discharging on all parts of the town … a horrible shower of balls from three to nine pounds weight, bombs, carcasses, live shells, grapeshot and musketballs. … The firing lasted, with little cessation, until six o’clock. When the bombardment appeared inadequate to Mowat, he sent a landing party to set fire to any buildings that had survived. The town militia offered little significant resistance, as most were helping their families to safety. In spite of this, some of the landed British marines were killed or wounded. By evening, according to Mowat, “the body of the town was in one flame”. Following the bombardment, Mowat went on to Boothbay, where he set fire to a few houses and raided for livestock, but his expedition was faltering to an end. The decks of some of his ships had been inadequately braced for prolonged gunnery, and many of his guns had jumped their mounts. He returned to Boston, and remained there as winter was setting in. When Admiral Graves was relieved in December 1775, these punitive raids were gradually abandoned. One of the last, undertaken to avenge British military losses to revolutionary Patriots, was the burning of Norfolk, Virginia, on January 1, 1776, instigated by Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia. 


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