This Day in History: The first naval engagement of the American Revolution
On this day in 1775, American militia cross Chelsea Creek, near Boston. They would soon be engaged in the first naval engagement of the American Revolution. A British ship would explode! The American victory occurred a mere five weeks after the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington Green.
The war was truly on! And Americans were doing well.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British found themselves under siege in Boston. This left them with multiple problems, but an obvious one was access to food and supplies.
Americans sought to take advantage of the situation.
Local islands found themselves at the center of the colonists’ effort. Neither the British nor the Americans had claimed them. Perhaps more importantly, these unsecured areas had farms and produce and livestock.
Would the British be able to get their supplies there? They needed to try because any effort to replenish supplies from Britain or Canada would take a while.
The Patriots immediately attempted to protect the islands, but their efforts were a bit disjointed. Americans were still getting used to working with each other. Both the Massachusetts Committee of Safety and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress passed resolutions recommending that livestock and supplies be taken from the islands or burned. General Israel Putnam (CT) was given overall command of an expedition to Noddle’s and Hogg Island. Colonel John Stark (NH) and Colonel John Nixon (MA) were also given command of troops from their respective states.
Unfortunately, spies notified British General Thomas Gage of the Americans’ intent. Gage knew the plan, but, fortunately, he did not know the timing of it.
Stark and Nixon’s soldiers left on the night of May 26 and crossed Chelsea Creek. After meeting some local patriots at the Chelsea meeting house (probably) on the morning of the 27th, they proceeded to gather as much livestock as they could. They burned houses and barns. Approximately mid-afternoon on the 27th, the British saw smoke from the fires, and they sent armed ships to block the Patriots. Putnam received a message from Stark and Nixon of this development and arrived with reinforcements at about 9 p.m.
The newly reinforced Patriots fired on the British ship that had gone upstream (HMS Diana), forcing it into a retreat. When Diana ran ashore, the British fled the ship. Americans took advantage of the situation, taking military supplies off Diana before burning the ship. The explosion of Diana at about 3 a.m. on May 28th brought the battle to a close, at least for a while.
The militia returned to the islands in the following days. A second attempt to occupy and fortify the islands failed on June 3, but they were able to take the remaining livestock and otherwise render the island generally unfit for the British during this period of time. Both sides abandoned the islands after a minor skirmish on June 10, and they remained that way for the rest of the war.
When all was said and done, Americans had won another early victory!
James McKellar Bugbee & Oliver Wendell Holmes, Memorial , Bunker Hill, June 17th, 1775-1875 (1875)
J.L. Bell, Fighting on Noddle’s Island and Hog Island (Boston 1775 Blog; May 27, 2007)
Victor Mastone et. al, Chelsea Creek--First Naval Engagement of the American Revolution (National Park Service: American Battlefield Protection Program; 2011)