Eastern Frontier : The Burning of Falmouth
The Burning of Falmouth
On October 18, 1775, six short months after the outbreak of fighting at
Concord, a British naval squadron under the command of Lt. Henry Mowatt
bombarded and destroyed a large part of Falmouth (Portland) along with
most of the port town’s commerce.
The occasion for this surprising act of ferocity arose from an
increasing number of violent protests against British authority in New
England’s coastal towns. In Boston, Adm. Samuel Graves ordered Mowatt to
lead a flotilla of four armed vessels to punish a series of rebellious
coastal communities extending northward from Marblehead in Massachusetts to
Machias in eastern Maine, which was then still part of the Massachusetts
Bay Colony. Falmouth-where several acts of violence had occurred, and
where Mowatt himself had been briefly detained by a mob-was included on
this "hit list." The most prominent name on the hit list was
Machias, the town in which armed residents had seized His Majesty’s
sloop, Margaretta, and killed her commanding officer.
Mowatt’s squadron set sail from Boston early in October, bypassing
many of the towns targeted for punishment because of adverse winds or
because the towns themselves were too scattered for effective bombardment.
It appears Mowatt was heading Down East, straight for Machias, but
whatever Mowatt’s plans, he never got there. On route, adverse winds
forced him to shelter briefly at Boothbay and then to change course for
Falmouth, the nearest of his assigned targets.
The British squadron sailed into Falmouth on October 16, at which time
Mowatt read a formal proclamation accusing the town of "unpardonable
rebellion," and giving the residents two hours to depart before he
would commence a bombardment. Prominent local leaders succeeded in
convincing Mowatt to delay carrying out so dreadful a deed until he
obtained confirmation of his orders from Boston. Falmouth, meanwhile, was
a scene of vast tumult as townspeople desperately sought to escape with
their possessions into the interior.
Adding to the confusion, militia from nearby towns, such as Brunswick,
Gorham and Scarborough began filtering uninvited into Falmouth. Resenting
Falmouth’s commercial wealth and its lagging enthusiasm in the patriotic
cause, the country militias seized the convenient chaos to prevent any
accommodation with the British and to loot the property of suspected
The intruders were very successful. In the ensuing confusion,
negotiations between Mowatt and Falmouth’s spokesmen broke down. On the
morning of October 18, while refugees still jammed the streets, Mowatt’s
fleet commenced an all-day bombardment. By evening, two-thirds of Maine’s
leading town lay in smoldering ruins, while most of its shipping rested on
the bottom of Casco Bay. Burned by the British and pillaged by its own
neighbors, Falmouth’s remaining population faced the oncoming winter as
refugees, relying on charity from neighboring townspeople who seemed to
derive a certain satisfaction from Falmouth’s fate.
THE DEFENCE | THE EASTERN FRONTIER |
THE CASTINE LOYALISTS
INTERVIEWS | TRANSCRIPT |