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XVI. THE BURNING OF FALMOUTH.
NOT to Machias only, but to all the settlements of Maine, had the news of the battle of Lexington come like a bugle call. The people of York heard of it on the evening of the day when it was fought, and the very next morning a company set out from that town to march to Boston. It consisted of sixty men, with arms, ammunition, and knapsacks full of provisions. It was the first company organized in Maine for the Revolutionary War.
Falmouth (now Portland) was the town next in order, sending a strong company on the 21st, two days after the battle of Lexington. Biddeford came next, with a full regiment under Colonel James Scammon, who had seen military service and was a very able and popular man. Within a few days thousands of men had left their farms, forgetful of seedtime, and ready to sacrifice their lives, if need be, to protect their country's liberty.
Falmouth was the most important town in Maine. It was the shire town of Cumberland county, and a customhouse was located there. There-was a large party of royalists in Falmouth—crown officers and their political allies and friends; but among the great majority of the people there was an intensely patriotic feeling.
The Stamp Act of 1765 had been resented in Falmouth by the burning of the odious stamps, which had been brought by an English vessel and stored in the customhouse.
In 1774, when the port of Boston was closed by the British, the bell of Falmouth meetinghouse was muffled and solemnly tolled from sunrise to sunset. When the tax was imposed upon tea, a gathering of the townspeople passed a resolution to buy no more tea until the act that laid a duty upon it was repealed.
The meetings were usually held in Mrs. Greele's little one-story tavern, which long remained an historic landmark. A society called the American Association had been formed in the different settlements of Maine, whose purpose was to interfere with the tyrannical monopoly of trade and manufactures by the English. A Falmouth royalist, Captain Samuel Coulson, a violent opposer of the patriots, had built a large vessel and sent to England for materials, sails, rigging, and stores. The patriotic Americans had resolved that no English goods, with the oppressive duties demanded, should be received on their shores.
So when, in May of the eventful year 1775, a vessel arrived in Falmouth with Captain Coulson's goods, the committee of the association met and decided that the goods should forthwith be sent back to England. Captain Coulson determined to land his supplies. He applied for British aid, and a sloop of war, the Canseau, commanded by Captain Mowatt, was sent to Falmouth to his assistance. This Captain Mowatt, being a prudent man, hesitated to arouse the wrath of the people by resorting to violent measures. While he hesitated, the people were not idle. A company of fifty men, all skilled in the use of arms, had been raised in Brunswick for the purpose of seizing the Canseau. The company came in boats, under command of Colonel Samuel Thompson, a man of reckless daring, and encamped, under cover of night, in the woods on Munjoys Hill.
On the morning after the company's arrival, Captain Mowatt, the surgeon of the Canseau, and the Rey. Mr. Wiswall, the Episcopal clergyman of Falmouth. were taking a walk together upon the hill.
The reckless Captain Thompson seized Captain Mowatt and the surgeon, and held them prisoners. Then there was wild excitement and dismay, for the town was at the mercy of the Canseau's guns, and the second officer of the ship threatened that if the prisoners were not released before six o'clock he would open fire.
The excited townspeople were all in the streets; women ran about weeping and praying; every countryman's cart was piled high with household goods and with women fleeing with their children.
A committee of prominent citizens demanded of Colonel Thompson that he should save the town by freeing the prisoners. But he declared that there was war between America and Great Britain, and they were his rightful prisoners. However, he at last made the concession of releasing the captives, on parole, for the night, they promising to return to the encampment at nine o'clock the next morning. Two Falmouth townsmen pledged themselves as sureties of the two prisoners.
They did not appear in the morning, and the two sureties were arrested and held prisoners all day, without food. When Thompson sent to the Canseau to inquire why the parole had been broken, Mowatt returned answer that his washerwoman had heard that he was to be shot as soon as he appeared on shore.
Meanwhile, from all the little settlements around, companies of militia were marching to the relief of Falmouth. When they reached there, a court martial was established to discover who were in sympathy with the enemy. The Rev. Mr. Wiswall was one of the suspected, but declared, under oath, that he. believed in resistance to British aggressions, and was released. No avowed royalists seem to have been discovered, for none of those who were questioned were condemned.
The soldiers were riotous, broke into Captain Coulson's house, and made free with his wines. Then an intoxicated soldier fired at the war ship, and two bullets penetrated her hull. Only a musket was discharged from the Canseau in return, and by that no one was hit.
Colonel Thompson still held the sureties, Colonel Freeman and General Preble, and kept them on bread and water. In the midst of the terror and confusion, Thursday, the 11th of May, was observed as a day of fasting and prayer. But besides fasting and praying they succeeded, on that day, in capturing one of Mowatt's boats. He threatened to burn the town unless the boat were restored, but Thompson's men returned to Brunswick the next day, and carried the boat with them.
On the following Monday Captain Mowatt sailed, in the Canseau, for Portsmouth, with Captain Coulson and his new vessel. But he left threats of direful vengeance behind him. On the 8th of June a British war ship of sixteen guns, the Senegal, anchored in Falmouth harbor. Four days afterwards the Senegal's errand became evident, for Captain Coulson came in his new ship and anchored beside her, hoping that by the aid of her threatening guns he would be able to secure the masts for his ship.
But the Provincial Congress had, by this time, passed a law to prevent Tories from taking their property out of the country, and Coulson was not allowed to take his masts. He departed again, under convoy of the Senegal, and quiet reigned until the 16th of October.
That was a day memorable in the annals of the little provincial town. Early in the morning five vessels appeared in the harbor. The Canseau was the leader; behind her came the Cat, a large war ship, with a bomb sloop and two armed schooners. A strong head wind served to keep them off all that day, but on the next they were all anchored in the harbor, their formidable broadsides bearing upon the defenseless little town. An officer from the fleet, bearing a letter, under a flag of truce, landed at the foot of what was then King Street.
The whole town turned out and followed him quietly, but in great excitement and suspense, to the town house, where he delivered the letter. The British captain's epistle was ridiculously ungrammatical and ill spelled, but its dreadful meaning was clear: "You have long experienced Britain's forbearance in withholding the rod of correction. You have been guilty of the most unpardonable rebellion. I am ordered to execute just punishment on the town of Falmouth. I give you two hours in which you can remove the sick and the infirm. I shall then open fire and lay the town in ashes."
A stupefying dismay overcame the people for a few moments. They felt that the calamity was too terrible to be real. Then they began to realize that there was not a moment to lose.
A committee of three was appointed to visit Mowatt and discover whether, by any possible means, the calamity could be averted. The three men chosen were Episcopalians and supposed friends of the English. But Mowatt was not to be moved. He had already risked the loss of his commission, he declared, by his humanity in giving them warning. His simple and explicit orders were to anchor opposite the town with all possible expedition, and then burn, sink, and destroy. The order, doubtless, proceeded from Admiral Graves, who then commanded the port of Boston.
The committee endeavored to make Mowatt realize the extreme cruelty of his order. The sick and dying, the feeble women and children, would be shelterless, in the fields and woods, in the chilling autumn night. The Tory families, who had adhered persistently to the British government, would suffer with the rest. Personal feeling should enter into the captain's consideration for them, for they were his friends and had shown him much hospitality.
Mowatt showed some shame in view of the brutal deed which he was called upon to commit, and he at length consented to delay the bombardment until nine o'clock the next morning, provided that the people would reduce themselves to an absolutely defenseless condition by surrendering to him all the cannon and small arms and ammunition in the place. If eight small arms were sent to him before eight o'clock that evening, he would understand that his terms were accepted, and he would postpone the burning of the town until he had time to receive further instructions from Admiral Graves.
The committee told him that the people would probably refuse to accept the humiliating terms; but there was nothing to be done but to return to the town and communicate them to the anxious assemblage in the town house. A chorus of determined noes was the answer of the patriots. But, for the sake of gaining time, they sent the eight small arms to Captain Mowatt, with a message that they would summon a town meeting early in the morning and give him their final answer before eight o'clock.
But at the town meeting the first decision was heroically confirmed. At eight o'clock the next morning the same committee of three carried the message to Mowatt that the arms would not be surrendered.
At nine o'clock the signal of England's ruthless vengeance was run up to the masthead of all the vessels of the fleet, and the terrific bombardment began. All day long, until six in the evening, the dreadful storm of bombs, cannon balls, shells, bullets, and grapeshot fell upon the town, and one hundred men were landed in boats to fire any buildings that might escape the shot and shell.
Falmouth was then already a fine town. It had four hundred dwelling houses, some of them expensive and handsome, churches, a library, and several fine public buildings. Most of the buildings were of wood, and the town was soon a roaring sea of flame. Two hundred and seventy-eight homes were in ashes, and the whole number of buildings destroyed was four hundred and fourteen. Many hundred persons were reduced to the most extreme distress.
The losses amounted to an enormous sum of money for the time and place. In the desolated town the General Court soon after began to erect a small garrison with a battery of six cannon, and sent four hundred soldiers to help to protect the Maine coast.
Falmouth recovered itself very slowly, at first, from the terrible blow, but after prosperity came with peace, the gain of the town, in its beautiful and healthful location, was very rapid. In 1786 it was divided, and the peninsula and several of the islands in the harbor were incorporated into a town, to which was given the name of Portland.