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Program 11: The Penobscot Expedition and The Revolution

The Eastern Frontier : The Burning of Falmouth

The Burning of Falmouth

On October 18, 1775, six short months after the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and 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 loyalists.

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.



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