On this day in 1775, American Patriots set fire to Boston Light, then the oldest lighthouse in North America.
In many ways, our Revolution was full of these little-known conflicts. Many of the stories are all but lost to history. How sad. These little incidents were, in so many ways, critical to our success.
The events at Boston Light occurred soon after the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord. The British had been driven back into Boston. They remained under siege there for months, yet many skirmishes still occurred between the two sides during this time. One of these involved the lighthouse guarding Boston Harbor.
The Patriots decided that they needed to cripple the lighthouse. Doing so would slow the British down as they tried to get ships in and out of the harbor, further complicating their efforts to obtain food and supplies.
Thus it was that Maj. Joseph Vose led a raid on Little Brewster Island, where the lighthouse was located. These Americans landed on July 20 “in open day and in fair sight of several men of War,” as Abigail Adams later told John Adams. They took whatever they could find—gunpowder, rope, oil—then set fire to the lighthouse. One eyewitness said that he saw “flames of the lighthouse ascending up to Heaven, like grateful incense.”
Well, with such a fire, you can imagine that the British soon took off after the American raiding party! The Patriots were pursued by “Eight Barges, one cutter, [and] one Schooner, all in Battle array,” according to Abigail.
In good news, Americans escaped with only two injuries. In bad news, they left behind a lighthouse that had not been completely destroyed.
The British were quick to make repairs and seemed on track to get the lighthouse up and running again within a matter of weeks. Obviously, Americans found this situation unacceptable. On July 31, they went back. This time, several hundred men landed on the island in whaling boats.
They did a much better job of destroying the lighthouse the second time around.
Why does all this matter? After all, the tussle over the lighthouse was just one in a series of skirmishes around the Boston area during 1775.
Perhaps Abigail Adams summarized it best:
“These little Skirmishes seem trifling, but they serve to innure our Men and harden them to Danger,” she wrote to John Adams.
And we now know that our ancestors (unfortunately) really need to be hardened to danger, didn’t they? The war would continue for many more years before the British finally surrendered at Yorktown.
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Boston Light and Little Brewster Island, Boston 1775 (July 19, 2008)
Elias Nason, A memoir of Mrs. Susanna Rowson (1870)
Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse (2016)
George Rockwell Putnam, Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States (1917)
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams (July 25, 1775)
Letter from Brigadier General William Heath to George Washington (July 21, 1775)
Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston: And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (4th ed. 1873)
Skirmish at the Boston Light, Boston 1775 (July 20, 2008)
The Last of the Boston Light, Boston 1775 (July 31, 2008)