Falmouth, Massachusetts

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Falmouth, Massachusetts

FALMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS. (now Portland, Maine), 18 October 1775. The increasing effectiveness of American privateers was a source of frustration for the British vice admiral Samuel Graves. Within army circles, moreover, criticism of the Royal Navy's inactivity was mounting. As a result, the navy decided to carry out punitive raids on New England seaports. One such expedition was led by Lieutenant Henry Mowat against the coastline north of Boston all the way to what is now Maine. On 6 October Graves ordered Mowat to take command of a small squadron to "lay waste burn and destroy such Seaport Towns as are accessible to his Majesty's Ships," with specific instructions stating that "My Design is to chastize Marblehead, Salem, Newbury, Port Cape Anne Harbour, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Saco, Falmouth in Casco Bay, and particularly Mechias." Mowat had been employed prior to the start of hostilities in cruising along that coastline with the party of Royal Engineers carrying out the first full survey of the region, and so was an ideal selection. His task force consisted of his own armed vessel Canceaux (schooner-rigged and armed with six guns), which had been his "survey sloop"; Lieutenant John De la Touche's smaller but better-armed schooner Halifax (sixteen guns), which had just been purchased in Nova Scotia to replace a wrecked schooner of the same name; the armed transport Symetry (eighteen guns, with a crew primarily transferred from warships); the sloop Spitfire (a vessel under army control); and a 100-man detachment of marines and artillerymen under Captain-Lieutenant Forster of the Royal Marines embarked on the Symetry and Spitfire. Preparations were completed that same day, and the force stood out to sea on 8 October. Forster had first explored the possibility of attacking settlements on Cape Ann but decided that it was too strong for the force at his disposal.

On 16 October Mowat reached the area of Falmouth and moved into the harbor the following afternoon. The next morning the squadron opened fire on the port at 9:40 and kept on firing until 5:00 p.m. At 3:00 p.m. Mowat sent a landing party ashore to set fire to some buildings that had escaped the bombardment, and it returned an hour later after skirmishing with the Cumberland County militia; by 8:00 that evening the entire task force had moved back to a safe distance offshore. Mowat claimed to have destroyed the entire town (the Americans said 139 homes and 278 other structures burned) and to have burned eleven vessels and removed two others as prizes. But because he had warned the inhabitants on 16 October, the civilians had evacuated the town and none were injured.

Mowat arrived back at Boston on November with his squadron and four prizes. He reported suffering two wounded—a marine and Midshipman Larkin of the Canceaux. Other than infuriating the Americans, the expedition accomplished nothing of military significance. The uproar led Lord George Germain to order General William Howe to conduct an official court of inquiry in May 1776, which, unsurprisingly, found no misconduct.

SEE ALSO Graves, Samuel; Naval Operations, British.


Clark, William B. George Washington's Navy: Being an Account of His Excellency's Fleet in New England Waters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1960.

Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters 1775–1783. Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1989.

                           revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.