This Day in History: The first naval battle of the American Revolution
On this day in 1775, the first naval battle of the American Revolution begins. The battle is sometimes called the “Lexington of the Seas.” It was a decisive victory against the British!
The story starts with a trader named Capt. Ichabod Jones, who was accustomed to traveling the route between Boston and Machias, Maine. He would take goods to Machias, then return to Boston with a load of lumber to sell. When Americans cornered the British in Boston after Lexington and Concord, you can imagine that it put a bit of a crimp in his routine.
During the spring of 1775, Jones found himself stuck in Boston. He wanted to return to Machias but could not do so without a British pass to leave the Boston port. The British would not let him leave unless he agreed to be accompanied by a British ship, the Margaretta. He was also asked to return to Boston with another load of lumber, which was needed to build barracks for the troops stranded there. Jones was not very happy about the situation (at least according to some reports), but he agreed to the deal. He and his two sloops left for Machias, accompanied by the British ship.
The citizens of Machias were very unhappy to see Jones returning under the protection of the British flag. Accounts vary on what happened next.
Maybe the citizens feared that the lumber would be used for the British troops. Or maybe they were upset when the British captain tried to make the town take down its “Liberty Pole.” Or perhaps they were irritated when Jones gave his goods to some people, but not to others. Whatever the cause, the matter was deliberated by the town’s citizens in what was effectively a council of war. According to some reports, they were asked, on the spot, to cross a bridge if they favored action to prevent the lumber from returning to Boston. Every citizen crossed the bridge, and they stood with the men who had proposed the idea in the first place.
These men at first planned to seize the British officers from church on Sunday, June 11. However, the plan was foiled when someone in the church saw the Americans coming through a window and unknowingly alerted the British. Jones made his escape into the woods. The British captain was able to get to his ship, weigh anchor, and escape.
Clearly, the Americans needed a Plan “B.” They headed for Jones’s sloops and took one of them, the Unity. They intended to pursue the British ship, but first they needed ammunition and more volunteers. By the morning of June 12, they had a few charges of powder, some muskets, pitchforks and axes. The Unity caught up with the Margaretta near Round Island. Historian John Francis Sprague describes the mentality of the crew that day: “Understanding that they had no powder to waste, they determined to bear down on the enemy’s ship, board her and decide the conquest at once.”
This they did! When the Americans caught up with the Margaretta, the British were astonished by the swift volley of musketry. The helmsman of the Margaretta was shot. The Unity pulled up alongside the Margaretta and 20 of the Americans boarded the ship, armed with pitchforks! (Pitchforks! Can you imagine?!) The two sides engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. The British captain was shot and mortally wounded during the conflict. The British surrendered.
Daughters of the American Revolution: The Hannah Weston Chapter, Naval Battle at Machias, June 12, 1775 (Maine Historical Society; 1912)
Jim Harnedy & Jane Harnedy, The Machias Bay Region (2001)
John Francis Sprague, “The Lexington of the Seas,” in Maine My State (Maine Writers Research Club; 1919)
John Francis Sprague, “The Lexington of the Seas,” in Sprague’s Journal of Maine History (Part one: October 1913 / Part Two: January 1914)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (2014)