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XV. THE FIRST NAVAL BATTLE OF THE REVOLUTION.
IN the days just before the Revolution, Machias was a scattered settlement, extending for several miles along the Machias River, and thence out upon its branches, East, West, and Middle rivers. There were already many mills, and the sixteen seven-acre lots of the first mill-owners formed the nucleus of the village.
It was not a large settlement, but it was a very patriotic one. The battle of Lexington had been fought, and its echoes had reached Machias and set the liberty-loving blood of its townspeople all aflame. The wise and prudent town fathers felt not a little anxiety about their exposed situation, with British New Brunswick adjoining them on the one hand, an unbroken wilderness on the other, and their seacoast wholly exposed to the bombardment of any enemy that might assail them. But there was one resolve alike in the breasts of the prudent fathers and the reckless, hurrahing youngsters: the "Britishers" should never find Machias an easy prey.
A liberty pole had been erected on the village green, and thither the townspeople resorted to talk over the affairs of their little borough, the fishing trade and the lumber trade, the state of health and the state of religion, and now the much more exciting themes of taxes and tyranny, and the possibility of throwing off the British yoke. The boys resorted to the common, also, and punctuated the patriotic speeches of their elders by earsplitting hurrahs whenever Deacon Libbee, said to have been the austere guardian of the proprieties both in "meeting" and out, raised his stout hickory cane as a signal that such indulgence was in order.
On a sunshiny June morning, the June of that memorable year, 1775, the Polly and the Unity, two sloops well known in Machias, hove in sight upon the glittering blue of the bay. They were Ichabod Jones's vessels. Ichabod was a trader, and had brought a stock of much-needed goods and provisions of various kinds to Machias; and he had also brought his family, who had been sojourning in Boston.
An accustomed and a welcome sight were the Unity and the Polly, but on that day they were convoyed by a rakish little armed schooner, the Margaretta. She carried four light guns and fourteen swivels, and she was commanded by a midshipman in the British navy named Moore, who was a nephew of Admiral Graves, commander in chief of British naval forces in Massachusetts waters.
The town fathers looked one another in the face, and their hearts thrilled with a vague apprehension.
When Ichabod Jones landed, he sought his nephew Stephen, and, with a disturbed face, went off with him to his house, a house which is standing to this day, much altered and enlarged, at the lower end of Center Street. Stephen Jones was a military man, but he became, after the colonies had attained to independence, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas. It was soon made known that Ichabod Jones did not mean to unload his cargo unless he could be assured that he would be allowed peaceably to carry a cargo of lumber to Boston. He asserted that he had been able to bring them the stores only by making an agreement with the British at Boston to return with the lumber; and here was the armed British vessel on hand to see that the agreement was carried out.
The Machias people needed the stores very much, and Ichabod Jones was, after all, their townsman, and it is uncertain what they might have decided to do if the commander of the Margaretta, who is variously described as "a youngster," "a stripling," and "a snip of a boy," had not ordered the liberty pole to be taken down, and threatened to fire upon the town if his order was not obeyed.
A town meeting was held. The town fathers endeavored to face calmly the grave problem before them. Benjamin Foster made the first speech, and although it did not absolutely counsel defiance, it had a warlike ring. Benjamin Foster was a man of substance, and a leader in the affairs of church and state. He had, also, the largest military experience that was represented in the town, having fought in the ranks at the capture of Louisburg, in 1745, and later, under General Abercrombie, in the French and Indian War. He had come to Machias in 1765, established himself on East River, and built a sawmill there. His brother, Worden Foster, was already there, having come as the blacksmith of the settlers in 1763. Both brothers were men whose opinion had weight, and when it was a question in which military matters were involved, the whole town hung upon Benjamin Foster's words. But when he had finished speaking, there was a dissenting voice.
It was David Gardner, an elderly and dignified Quaker, who arose and spoke impressively. "Has thee reflected, Benjamin Foster," he said, "that the British commander will assuredly fire upon the town if the pole remains, and mayhap will kill the women and children?"
There was a hush upon the little assembly as the men weighed David Gardner's solemn words and faced the dread alternative. They thought, doubtless, of their small garrison house, and of the little militia company, organized in 1769, with Judge Jones as captain and Benjamin Foster as lieutenant; the feeble defense, the raw militia, would be unavailing against the enemy's powerful guns.
"Then, David Gardner," said Benjamin Foster, slowly, "will you help to cut the liberty pole down?"
The peaceable old Quaker blazed suddenly into wrath. He used wicked and un-Quaker-like language, which it would never do to set down here. He hoped something might happen to him if he would. He said that Benjamin Foster "might do his own dirty work."
Then there was wild cheering, and as soon as it had sufficiently subsided for any one to be heard, Sam Hill, a tall lumberman, shook his sledge-hammer fist and declared that he would inflict summary punishment upon ally one who attempted to cut down the liberty pole.
Captain Moore, the young officer in command of the Margaretta, would have been glad to retract his threat; but he feared that by doing so he should lose the respect of his men.
Ichabod Jones, who still had hopes of selling his goods and securing his lumber, persuaded the captain to withhold hostilities until the larger and fuller town meeting appointed for the 14th of June should have taken place.
Meanwhile the little town looked about it for means of defense and resistance. The leading townsmen met together privately, by agreement, in the woods on the west bank of the Machias River, about a mile below the village. Bold were the counsels of veteran Benjamin Foster. He proposed making prisoners of the officers and men of the British ship and taking possession of the Margaretta and of the still partly laden sloops of Ichabod Jones.
The more cautious argued that it was only by allowing Ichabod Jones to load and depart, as they had voted, that they could be assured of stores to keep them from starvation hereafter. They were too small a force to give themselves to reckless deeds. But the O'Briens took sides with Benjamin Foster, and they were a power in the town. Six stout and brawny fellows they were, sons of Morris O'Brien, an Irishman born on the famous old river Lee, near Cork. Colonel Jeremiah O'Brien was the eldest of the brothers and the leader with Benjamin Foster in this movement.
All the counsels of timidity or prudence were defeated by the impetuous daring of Foster and O'Brien. A dramatic little scene was enacted there, in the woods when Benjamin Foster impulsively stepped across a brook—as an ancient leader crossed the Rubicon—and called upon every man who was in favor of the seizure of the British cutter and the two sloops to follow him. There was a determined rush of the bolder spirits to his side at first; then the others came, lingeringly, doubtfully, but at last every man had crossed the brook.
David Gardner kept away from this meeting, lest he should be tempted wholly to forget his Quaker principles, but later he gave a private word of advice to Colonel O'Brien. "Let me whisper a word in thine ear, Friend Jeremiah," he said. "If thee intends to board the Margaretta, thee must remember not to strike her amidships, unless thee art minded to do her an injury; for verily that schooner is weak in the waist, and the Unity, with her solid bow, would be apt to crush her."
After the brook was crossed, the next thing was to agree upon a plan of attack. The following day was Sunday, the 11th of June. The English officers would be at church, and it was proposed to seize them there. Benjamin Foster was a devout man, but he had no objection to mingling this sort of fighting—for the defense of sacred rights and liberties—with his praying.
The church was a rude building, twenty-five by forty feet. The townsmen surrounded the church, hiding their guns, and a part of them went in to the service as usual. John O'Brien hid his gun under a board in the church, and sat on the bench behind Captain Moore, ready at a given signal to seize him.
Parson Lyman was probably acquainted with the plot. He was a native of Nova Scotia, but an ardent Whig. It is related that he read with great unction the hymn:
"O Lord, to my relief draw near,
For never was more pressing need;
For my deliv'rance, Lord, appear,
And add to that deliv'rance speed."
But Parson Lyman's colored servant, London Atus, had not been taken into the confidence of the planners of this attack, and this proved to be a disastrous oversight. For London, sitting humbly by the rear window, caught sight of Foster's armed company crossing a footbridge that connected two islands on the falls, and with a great outcry jumped out of the window.
The British officers, of course, took alarm, and followed Atus. Ichabod Jones, who was also to have been taken prisoner, fled, and hid himself in the woods. The British reached their vessel before the armed force had reached the church, and Captain Moore at once weighed anchor and sailed down the river. Foster and O'Brien immediately planned to seize Ichabod Jones's sloops and chase the Margaretta.
The Polly was unavailable, probably because still too heavily laden, but the O'Briens took possession of the Unity, and before Sunday night had mustered a volunteer crew of about forty men. Foster went to East River and secured there a schooner and a volunteer crew. The schooners from both villages proceeded down river early the next morning, but, unfortunately, the East River schooner got aground and lost her share in the battle.
It seemed a forlorn hope that pursued the British cutter in the Unity. Only half of the forty men had muskets, and for these only three rounds of ammunition. The other men had armed themselves with axes and pitchforks. And they were in pursuit of a vessel armed with sixteen swivel guns and four four-pounders, and with a full complement of disciplined men! As they sailed down the river, the Unity's little force organized itself. Jeremiah O'Brien was captain, and Edmund Stevens lieutenant.
Their little store of ammunition would be utterly wasted in long shots; their desperate plan was to bear down upon the Margaretta and board her. Then the contest would be decided upon her deck.
There was anxious looking for the East River schooner and her brave commander, whose counsels had led to this bold enterprise; but they could not wait. It has been said that for desperate courage no feat in all the Revolutionary War, and scarcely in any war, can match this of the handful of Machias settlers.
When the Unity reached the broad river below Machiasport village, the Margaretta came in sight. As soon as they were within hailing distance Moore shouted, "Keep off, or we fire!" Stevens shouted defiance, and O'Brien demanded surrender.
Instead of firing, Moore set all his sails, and with a favoring breeze tried to escape. He has been accused of being both hasty and cowardly in this action, and certainly seems to have deserved one, at least, of the charges. He stood out to sea, and the Unity followed him closely. A shot was fired from the Margaretta, and one man on the Unity fell dead.
The Unity answered with all her strength in a volley of shot. The two vessels came together, and John O'Brien leaped on board the Margaretta; then they swung apart, and O'Brien was left on the enemy's deck alone.
The English fired seven muskets at him without injuring him; but when they charged upon him with their bayonets, he jumped overboard and swam to his own ship.
The next move was to try Yankee pitchforks against British bayonets. Captain O'Brien ran the bowsprit of the Unity through the mainsail of the Margaretta, and twenty of his men, armed only with pitchforks, rushed upon her deck.
It was their one desperate chance, for all their ammunition was used up. One of the twenty men was killed, one mortally and another seriously wounded. Of the Margaretta's men five were killed or mortally wounded. One of the first to fall was Captain Moore, shot through by two musket balls. The Margaretta's helmsman was killed, and the cutter "broached to" and was run into. The others killed were Captain Robert Avery, an impressed American skipper, and two marines.
It is uncertain how many were wounded. John O'Brien reckoned the British list as ten killed and ten wounded, but it is doubtful whether there were so many. When Captain Moore was killed, the officer next in command, a midshipman named Stillingfleet, fled below for his life, and gave up the ship. If the English had known that the Americans had exhausted their ammunition, the issue might even then have been different.
Great was the rejoicing at Machias when the Unity came into port with her prize, although it was mingled with sorrow for the slain. Among the heroes of the day had been Richard Earle, the colored servant of Colonel Jeremiah O'Brien, whose courage had been so great in the most trying moments as to make atonement for the costly stupidity of another of his race in the morning.
A pleasant little story of girlish pluck is told in connection with this story of the early Revolutionary heroes. In making preparations for the proposed Sunday capture of the British officers, the Machias men had sent a messenger to Chandlers Mills for powder and ball. The men of that settlement had all gone to Machias, but two girls, Hannah and Rebecca Weston, seventeen and nineteen years old, procured thirty or forty pounds of ammunition, and brought it to Machias through the deep woods, finding their way by means of a line of blazed trees.
The sloop Unity was supplied with bulwarks, and the armament of the Margaretta was transferred to her. She was renamed, very appropriately, the Machias Liberty, and commanded by Colonel Jeremiah O'Brien.
For three or four weeks the Liberty cruised off the coast, trying to capture the Diligence, an English coast-survey vessel. At length the Diligence came into the lower harbor, and her officers and a part of her crew landed at Bucks Harbor, to try to discover the fate of the Margaretta.
They were surprised and taken prisoners, and the next day the Liberty, commanded by Colonel O'Brien, and the Falmouth packet, commanded by Benjamin Foster, captured, without resistance, the Diligence and her armed tender.
Thus Machias early did its share in the great struggle for American independence, and on the 26th of June the Provincial Congress passed a vote of thanks to Colonel Jeremiah O'Brien and Benjamin Foster, and the brave men under their command, for their heroic services to the country, and placed at their disposal the two sloops and the British schooner which they had captured.