Burning of Falmouth

Last updated
Burning of Falmouth
Detail from a 1777 nautical chart showing Falmouth (now Portland, Maine)
DateOctober 18, 1775 (1775-10-18)
LocationFalmouth, Massachusetts (present-day Portland, Maine)
Participants Henry Mowat

The Burning of Falmouth (October 18, 1775) was an attack by a fleet of Royal Navy vessels on the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts (site of the modern city of Portland, Maine, and not to be confused with the modern towns of Falmouth, Massachusetts or Falmouth, Maine). The fleet was commanded by Captain Henry Mowat. [1] The attack began with a naval bombardment which included incendiary shot, followed by a landing party meant to complete the town's destruction. The attack was the only major event in what was supposed to be a campaign of retaliation against ports that supported Patriot activities in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War.


Among the colonies, news of the attack led to rejection of British authority and the establishment of independent governments. It also led the Second Continental Congress to contest British Naval dominance by forming a Continental Navy. Both Mowat and his superior, Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, who had ordered Mowat's expedition, suffered professionally as a consequence of the event.


The British army was besieged in Boston after the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. They were supported and supplied by the Royal Navy under the command of Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, who was under Admiralty instruction to suppress the burgeoning rebellion. Under his orders, vessels were searched for military stores and potential military communications. Laid-up vessels were stripped of their masts and rudders to prevent their use by privateers, and military equipment was salvaged from recent wrecks. [2]

Captain Henry Mowat had been in the port of Falmouth (present-day Portland, Maine) in May 1775 during Thompson's War, when local Patriots captured several ships carrying supplies for Boston and weaponry from Fort Pownall at the mouth of the Penobscot River. [3] Graves ordered Mowat to "lay waste burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty's ships… and particularly Machias where Margueritta was taken". [3]

Sailing to Falmouth

Mowat left Boston harbor on October 6, 1775 [3] aboard his 16-gun [4] hydrographic survey sloop HMS Canceaux in company with the 20-gun ship Cat, the 12-gun schooner HMS Halifax, the bomb sloop HMS Spitfire, and the supply ship HMS Symmetry. [5] [6] His instructions were broad in the number of possible targets and he opted against attacks on Cape Ann, where the buildings were too widely spaced for naval cannon fire to be effective. [7] On October 16, he reached the outer parts of Falmouth harbor and anchored there. [8]

The people of Falmouth had mixed reactions to the presence of the British fleet. Some recognized the Canceaux and believed that there was no danger, but militia members remembered Thompson's War and were more suspicious. The next day was windless, so Mowat kedged the ships into the inner harbor and anchored them near the town. He sent one of his lieutenants ashore with a proclamation stating that he was there to "execute a just punishment" for the town's state of rebellion. He gave the townspeople two hours to evacuate. [7]

As soon as they received this ultimatum, the townspeople sent a deputation to plead with Mowat for mercy. He promised to withhold fire if the town swore an oath of allegiance to King George and surrendered all their small arms and powder, along with their gun carriages. In response, the people of Falmouth began to move out of the town. No oaths were sworn; a small number of muskets were surrendered, but no gun carriages. [7]


A 1782 engraving depicting the burning of Falmouth FalmouthBurning1775.png
A 1782 engraving depicting the burning of Falmouth

Mowat had set a deadline of 9 am on October 18 for the town's response. By 9:40, the town appeared to be deserted, so he ran a red flag up the Canceaux's masthead and ordered the fleet to begin firing. Incendiary cannonballs set fire to the harbor installations and most of the town's houses and public buildings. [7] One witness reported:

The firing began from all the vessels with all possible briskness, discharging on all parts of the town… a horrible shower of balls from three to nine pounds weight, bombs, carcasses, live shells, grapeshot and musketballs.… The firing lasted, with little cessation, until six o'clock. [9]

When the bombardment appeared inadequate to Mowat, he sent a landing party to set fire to any buildings that had survived. [10] The town militia offered little significant resistance, as most were helping their families to safety. In spite of this, some of the landed British marines were killed or wounded. [11] By evening, according to Mowat, "the body of the town was in one flame". [12]


Following the bombardment, Mowat went on to Boothbay where he set fire to a few houses and raided for livestock, but his expedition was faltering to an end. The decks of some of his ships had been inadequately braced for prolonged gunnery, and many of his guns had jumped their mounts. He returned to Boston and remained there, as winter was setting in. Admiral Graves was relieved in December 1775, and these punitive raids were gradually abandoned. [10] One of the last such raids was undertaken to avenge British military losses to the American Patriots, resulting in the burning of Norfolk on January 1, 1776 and instigated by Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia. [13]

Damage assessment

More than 400 buildings and houses were recorded as damaged or destroyed by fire. [14] In his report to Graves, Mowat stated that 11 small vessels were destroyed in the harbor and four were captured, at the cost of one man killed and one wounded. [10] The people were left to fend for themselves for the winter. A visitor to the town a month later reported that there was "no lodging, eating or housekeeping in Falmouth". [12]

An 1850 map depicting the areas damaged BurnedFalmouthPaintedMap1775.png
An 1850 map depicting the areas damaged

On October 26, the town formed a committee to raise funds for the distressed families. More than 1,000 people had been left homeless by the raid, including at least 160 families out of an estimated population of 2,500. [15] [16] The Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized £250 to be paid to the distressed families, and arranged for the distribution of up to 15 bushels of corn to those left destitute. As late as 1779, additional grants were made to needy families in Falmouth. [16] In 1784, the residents of Falmouth built over 40 homes and 10 shops. By 1797, over 400 homes had been built or rebuilt, along with factories, offices, and municipal buildings. [17]

The town of Falmouth accounted losses in the raid at over £50,000. [18] Part of the Falmouth Neck was politically separated in 1786 to form the city of Portland, Maine, [19] but significant recompense was not made until 1791, when Congress granted two tracts of land as compensation. These tracts became the towns of New Portland, Maine and Freeman.

Political reaction

News of the raid caused uproar in the colonies, especially fueled by its cruelty. [10] The Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized the issue of letters of marque, licensing privateer actions against the British navy. [20] The Second Continental Congress heard of the event just as word arrived of King George's Proclamation of Rebellion. Outraged by the news, Congress recommended that some provinces adopt self-rule and that Royal Navy ships be seized in South Carolina. [21] The attack on Falmouth stimulated Congress to advance its plans to establish a Continental Navy. It authorized commissioning two ships on October 30 "for the protection and defense of the united Colonies". [22] The Falmouth incident was again mentioned on November 25, when Congress passed legislation described by John Adams as "the true origin of the American Navy". [23]

When news of the event first reached England, it was dismissed as rebel propaganda. [24] When the reports were confirmed, Graves' superior, Lord George Germain expressed surprise rather than offense: "I am to suppose that Admiral Graves had good reason for the step he took". This was in spite of orders to not commit such acts unless the town clearly refused to do business with the British. [10] Graves was relieved of his command in December 1775, in part due to his failure to suppress the American naval forces. [25]

News of the event also reached the French government who were carefully monitoring political developments in North America. The French foreign secretary wrote: "I can hardly believe this absurd as well as barbaric procedure on the part of an enlightened and civilized nation." [24]

Mowat's career suffered as a result of his actions. He was repeatedly passed over for promotion, and achieved it only when he downplayed his role in the event or omitted it entirely from his record. [25]

Similar acts of reprisal

On August 30, 1775, Royal Naval Captain James Wallace commanding HMS Rose fired into the town of Stonington, Connecticut after the townspeople there prevented Rose's tender from capturing a vessel that it had chased into the harbor. He did not fire any heated rounds or incendiaries. [26] Wallace also fired on the town of Bristol, Rhode Island in October 1775, after its townspeople refused to deliver livestock to him. [27]

See also


  1. Sometimes spelled Mowatt
  2. Duncan, pp. 215–216
  3. 1 2 3 Duncan, p. 216
  4. Goold's gun count includes swivel guns but not the mortars of the bomb sloop Spitfire. Half (or fewer) of this count were carriage-mounted cannon. Other references indicate that Canceaux carried 8 cannon and Halifax carried 6.
  5. "The Penobscot Expedition Archaeological Project" (PDF). United States Navy. Retrieved 2012-01-24.
  6. Symmetry might have carried guns, because other references indicate that she fired during the Battle of Bunker Hill; but Goold describes her as a magazine for the bomb sloop during this engagement. Carcasses were transferred by lighters from a non-firing ship to the bomb sloop as a safety measure to prevent accidental ignition.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Duncan, p. 217
  8. Goold, William The Burning of Portland 19 February 1873
  9. Miller, p. 47
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 Duncan, p. 218
  11. Willis, p. 520
  12. 1 2 Miller, p. 48
  13. Fiske, p. 211
  14. Willis, p. 521
  15. Conforti, p. 60
  16. 1 2 Willis, pp. 521–523
  17. Conforti, p. 62
  18. Willis, p. 524
  19. Willis, p. 582
  20. Burke, p. 281
  21. Fiske, pp. 192–193
  22. Miller, pp. 48–49
  23. Miller, p. 49
  24. 1 2 Nelson, p. 146
  25. 1 2 Duncan, p. 219
  26. Caulkins, p. 516
  27. Charles, pp. 168–169

Related Research Articles

Naval battles of the American Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War saw a series of military manoeuvres and battles involving naval forces of the British Royal Navy and the Continental Navy from 1775, and of the French Navy from 1778 onwards. While the British enjoyed more numerical victories these battles culminated in the surrender of the British Army force of Lieutenant-General Earl Charles Cornwallis, an event that led directly to the beginning of serious peace negotiations and the eventual end of the war. From the start of the hostilities, the British North American station under Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves blockaded the major colonial ports and carried raids against patriot communities. Colonial forces could do little to stop these developments due to British naval supremacy. In 1777, colonial privateers made raids into British waters capturing merchant ships, which they took into French and Spanish ports, although both were officially neutral. Seeking to challenge Britain, France signed two treaties with America in February 1778, but stopped short of declaring war on Britain. The risk of a French invasion forced the British to concentrate its forces in the English Channel, leaving its forces in North America vulnerable to attacks.

Edward Preble American commodore

Edward Preble was a United States naval officer who served with great distinction during the 1st Barbary War, leading American attacks on the city of Tripoli and forming the officer corps that would later lead the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812.

Samuel Graves Royal Navy admiral

Admiral Samuel Graves was a British Royal Navy admiral who is probably best known for his role early in the American Revolutionary War.

<i>Andrew Doria</i> (1775 brig)

Andrew Doria was a brig purchased by the Continental Congress in November 1775. She is most famous for her participation in the Battle of Nassau—the first amphibious engagement by the Continental Navy and the Continental Marines—and for being the first United States vessel to receive a salute from a foreign power.

Penobscot Expedition

The Penobscot Expedition was a 44-ship American naval armada during the Revolutionary War assembled by the Provincial Congress of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The flotilla of 19 warships and 25 support vessels sailed from Boston on July 19, 1779 for the upper Penobscot Bay in the District of Maine carrying an expeditionary force of more than 1,000 American colonial marines and militiamen. Also included was a 100-man artillery detachment under the command of Lt. Colonel Paul Revere.

Captain Jeremiah O'Brien (1744–1818) was an Irish-American captain in the Massachusetts State Navy. Prior to its existence, he commanded the sloop Unity when he captured the British armed schooner HMS Margaretta in the Battle of Machias, the first naval battle of the American Revolutionary War. He also led the first American attack on Nova Scotia in the Raid on St. John (1775).

Boston campaign opening campaign of the American Revolutionary War

The Boston campaign was the opening campaign of the American Revolutionary War, taking place primarily in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The campaign began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, in which the local colonial militias interdicted a British government attempt to seize military stores and leaders in Concord, Massachusetts. The entire British expedition suffered significant casualties during a running battle back to Charlestown against an ever-growing number of militia.

Raid of Nassau 1776 American naval assault

The Raid of Nassau was a naval operation and amphibious assault by Colonial forces against the British port of Nassau, Bahamas, during the American Revolutionary War. The battle is considered one of the first engagements of the newly established Continental Navy and the Continental Marines, the respective progenitors of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The action was also the Marines' first amphibious landing. It is sometimes known as the "Battle of Nassau".

USS <i>Hannah</i>

The schooner Hannah was the first armed American naval vessel of the American Revolution and is claimed to be the founding vessel of the United States Navy. She was a fishing schooner owned by John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts and was named for his daughter, Hannah Glover. The crew was drawn largely from the town of Marblehead, with much of the ships ammunition being stored in Glover's warehouse now located at Glover's Square in Marblehead before being relocated to Beverly, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Naval Militia maritime warfare branch of Massachusetts militia forces

The Massachusetts Naval Militia, was a naval militia active during the American Revolutionary War. It was founded December 29, 1775, to defend the interests of Massachusetts during the war.

Battle of Gloucester (1775) 1775 skirmish fought early in the American Revolutionary War at Gloucester, Massachusetts

The Battle of Gloucester was a skirmish fought early in the American Revolutionary War at Gloucester, Massachusetts on August 8 or 9, 1775. Royal Navy Captain John Linzee, commanding the sloop-of-war HMS Falcon, spotted two schooners that were returning from the West Indies. After capturing one schooner, Linzee chased the second one into Gloucester Harbor, where it was grounded. The townspeople called out their militia, captured British seamen sent to seize the grounded schooner, and recovered the captured ship as well.

History of Portland, Maine

The History of Portland, Maine begins when the area was called Machigonne, meaning "great neck," by Algonquians who originally inhabited the peninsula. It extends to the city's recent cultural and economic renaissance.

Battle of Machias First naval engagement of the American Revolutionary War

The Battle of Machias was an early naval engagement of the American Revolutionary War, also known as the Battle of the Margaretta, fought around the port of Machias, Maine.

Battle of Machias (1777) an amphibious assault on the Massachusetts town of Machias (in present-day eastern Maine) by British forces during the American Revolutionary War

The Battle of Machias was an amphibious assault on the Massachusetts town of Machias by British forces during the American Revolutionary War. Local militia aided by Indian allies successfully prevented British troops from landing. The raid, led by Commodore Sir George Collier, was executed in an attempt to head off a planned second assault on Fort Cumberland, which had been besieged in November 1776. The British forces landed below Machias, seized a ship, and raided a storehouse.

HMS Canceaux was a sloop active in both the hydrographic exploration of the Atlantic Canada and New England coastline and in the American Revolutionary War. She played an integral role in the battle for control of Maine, in particular at the Burning of Falmouth. She began her life as a merchant vessel and would eventually be transformed to a military vessel for the Royal Navy, equipped to command the razing of major settlements. After leaving the Saint Lawrence River estuary in 1771, Canceaux actively shaped the maritime history of the American Revolution.

Thompsons War

Thompson's War was an early American Revolutionary War confrontation between Samuel Thompson's patriot militia and loyalists supported by HMS Canceaux. The confrontation ended without fatalities, but provoked the retaliatory Burning of Falmouth five months later. Falmouth is now known as Portland, Maine, but Maine was part of Massachusetts at the time.

Henry Mowat (1734–1798) was an officer of the Royal Navy commanding ships in northern New England during the American Revolutionary War. He was the son of Captain Patrick Mowat of the post ship HMS Dolphin. He was born in Scotland and went to sea at the age of 18.

Fort Loyal British outpost in Casco Bay

Fort Loyal was a British settler refuge and colonial outpost built in 1678 at Falmouth in Casco Bay. It was destroyed in 1690 by Abenaki and French forces at the Battle of Fort Loyal. The fort was rebuilt in 1742 and renamed Falmouth Fort before King George's War and rearmed again in 1755 for the French and Indian War. The fort was rebuilt a final time in 1775 for the American Revolution.

Raid on St. John (1775)

The Raid on St. John took place on 27 August 1775 during the American Revolutionary War. The raid involved American privateers from Machias, Maine attacking St. John, Nova Scotia. The privateers intended to stop the export of supplies being sent to the loyalists in Boston. This raid was the first hostile act committed against Nova Scotia and it resulted in raising the militia across the colony.

Nova Scotia in the American Revolution

Nova Scotia was heavily involved in the American Revolution. The American Revolution (1776–1783) had a significant impact on shaping Nova Scotia. At the beginning, there was ambivalence in Nova Scotia, "the 14th American Colony" as some called it, over whether the colony should join the Americans in the war against Britain. Largely as a result of American Privateer attacks on Nova Scotia villages, as the war continued, the population of Nova Scotia solidified their support for the British. Nova Scotians were also influenced to remain loyal to Britain by the presence of British military units, judicial prosecution by the Nova Scotia Governors and the efforts of Reverend Henry Alline.


Coordinates: 43°39′17″N70°15′13″W / 43.65472°N 70.25361°W / 43.65472; -70.25361