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Battle of Machias

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Battle of Machias (1775)
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Machias Bay is on the coast of eastern Maine. Machiasport is located near the outlet of the Machias River into the bay. Upriver and north from Machiasport, the river branches, leading left (west) to Machias, and east to East Machias. Holmes Bay is a large bay in the northeastern part of Machias Bay, just east of the mouth of the Machias River.
A 1776 nautical chart of Machias Bay; Machias is at the very top
Date June 11–12, 1775
Location Machias, Massachusetts
44°42′50.58″N 67°27′39.1″W / 44.7140500°N 67.460861°W / 44.7140500; -67.460861Coordinates: 44°42′50.58″N 67°27′39.1″W / 44.7140500°N 67.460861°W / 44.7140500; -67.460861
Result Patriot forces capture the HM schooner Margaretta
 Great Britain Province of Massachusetts Bay Massachusetts
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Great Britain James Moore 

Province of Massachusetts Bay Jeremiah O'Brien

Province of Massachusetts Bay Benjamin Foster
HM schooner Margaretta
about 40 Royal Navy seamen[1]
Private sloops Unity and Falmouth Packet
55 militia (Massachusetts militia)[2]
Casualties and losses
5 killed[3]
9 wounded[4]
10 killed
3 wounded[5]

The Battle of Machias (June 11–12, 1775) was the first naval engagement of the American Revolutionary War.[6][7] Also known as the Battle of the Margaretta, it was fought around the port of Machias (in what is now eastern Maine).

Following the outbreak of the war and the start of the Siege of Boston, British authorities enlisted the assistance of a loyalist merchant, named Ichabod Jones, to aid in the acquisition of needed supplies. Two of Jones' merchant ships arrived in Machias on June 2, 1775, accompanied by a British armed sloop called the Margaretta (sometimes also spelled Margueritta or Marguerite) that was commanded by Midshipman James Moore. The townspeople of Machias disapproved of Jones' intentions and arrested him. They also tried to arrest Moore, but he escaped through the harbor. The townspeople seized one of Jones' ships, armed it alongside a second local ship, and sailed out to meet Moore. After a short confrontation, Moore was fatally wounded, and his vessel and crew were captured.

The people of Machias captured additional British ships, and fought off a large force that tried to take control of the town in the Battle of Machias in 1777. Privateers and others operating out of Machias continued to harass the Royal Navy throughout the war.


On April 19, 1775, the American Revolutionary War began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in the British Province of Massachusetts Bay. Following the battle, the militia that had mustered to oppose the British commenced a siege of Boston[8] where the British troops were located.[9]

Boston's British military leaders, General Thomas Gage and Admiral Samuel Graves, both had reason to do business with the people of Machias. Gage required lumber to build barracks for the additional troops arriving in the besieged city.[10] Graves wanted to recover the guns from the HMS Halifax shipwreck, which been intentionally run aground in Machias Bay by a local pilot in February 1775.[11] The ship's guns were reported to be of interest to the Patriots of Machias.[12] Graves authorized Ichabod Jones, a Tory Machias merchant, to take flour and other food supplies aboard his ships Unity and Polly to exchange for Gage's needed lumber. To guarantee that this trade would happen, Graves sent James Moore, a midshipman from his flagship HMS Preston, to command the armed schooner Margaretta and accompany the two merchant vessels. Moore had additional orders to retrieve what he could from the wreck site of the HMS Halifax.[10]

Arrival at Machias[edit]

On June 2, 1775, Jones' ships arrived in the port at Machias. However, they were met with resistance from the townspeople when Jones refused to sell his pork and flour unless he was allowed to load lumber for Boston.[10] In a meeting on June 6, 1775, the townspeople voted against doing business with Jones. The hostile climate forced Jones to take action by ordering Moore to bring the Margaretta within firing distance of the town.[13] The threat prompted the townspeople to meet for a second time, and they voted to permit trade. The Unity was docked at the wharf to begin unloading the supplies.[14]

Following the vote, Jones announced that he would only do business with those who had voted in favor of trade. This angered those who had voted against trade. As a result, Colonel Benjamin Foster, a local militia leader, conspired with militia from neighboring towns to capture Jones, This was inspired by the actions of the Brunswick militiamen in Thompson's War a month earlier.[15] Foster's plan was to seize Jones at church on June 11, but the plan failed when Jones noticed the group of men approaching the building. Moore managed to get back to his ship,[16] while Jones escaped into the woods and did not emerge until two days later.[17]

The men of Machias regrouped the next day, and Foster took around 20 men, including his brother, Wooden Foster, to East Machias where they seized the Unity and constructed deck breastworks to serve as protection. They also commandeered a local schooner named the Falmouth Packet.

A two-masted wooden sailing ship is shown in full sail on the sea. It is flying the flag of the United Colonies: thirteen red and white stripes, with a British Union Jack in the upper left quadrant. Another ship is visible in the distance.
The Margaretta was likely smaller than this schooner, the USS Wasp.

The other militia men traveled on land to find the place where the Margaretta was anchored and demanded surrender. After refusing to surrender, Moore sailed to where the Polly was anchored and attempted to recover her. There was an inconsequential exchange of gunfire with the militia men who were located on the shore, and Moore was able to raise anchor and travel to a safe anchorage.[17] The remaining men armed themselves with muskets, pitchforks, and axes to set out after the Margaretta.[18]


After escaping the Machias men, the Margaretta was forced to jibe into brisk winds, which resulted in the main boom and gaff breaking away, crippling its navigability. Once Moore was in Holmes Bay he captured a sloop and took its spar and gaff to replace the Margaretta's. Moore also took its pilot, Robert Avery, captive.[17] The Unity crew of about 30 Machias men elected Jeremiah O'Brien as their captain and sailed out to chase down the Margaretta. Since the Unity was a much faster sailing vessel, O'Brien's crew quickly caught up to the crippled Margaretta, while the Falmouth Packet lagged behind.[19]

Upon seeing the Unity approaching, Moore opened full sail and cut away his boats in an attempt to escape. As the Unity pulled closer, Moore opened fire. The Unity crew managed to avoid damage and pulled alongside the Margaretta.[20] Led by Joseph Getchell and O'Brien's brother, John, the Unity crew stormed on board. Both sides exchanged musket shots as Moore tossed hand grenades onto the Unity. Moore was taken down by Samuel Watts with a musket shot to the chest.[21] Once the Falmouth Packet caught up to the attack, it managed to pull along the other side of Moore's ship. With the combination of both crews, they were able to overwhelm the Margaretta.[20]


Since Moore was grievously wounded in the battle, his second-in-command, Midshipman Richard Stillingfleet, surrendered the crew and the vessel. Moore was taken back to Machias and put into the care of Ichabod Jones's nephew, Stephen Jones. However, Moore's wounds were too severe and he died the following day. Three other members of Moore's crew were killed, including Robert Avery. The remaining crew members of the British schooner were held at Machias for a month, then handed over to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.[3] Reports circulated that as many as 100 British men died in the battle.[22] The Machias lost two men, John McNiell and James Coolbroth, and three others were badly wounded: John Berry, who had a musket ball enter his mouth and exit behind his ear, Isaac Taft, and James Cole.[23]

The Machias community expected retaliation by the British Empire, and immediately petitioned to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for guidance, supplies, and assistance.[24] The Provincial Congress organized the defense of Machias and remained vigilant. Jeremiah O'Brien immediately outfitted one of the three captured vessels with breastwork,[25][26][27] and armed it with guns and swivels that were taken from the Margaretta, and changed its name to Machias Liberty.[26] In July 1775, O'Brien and Benjamin Foster captured two more British armed schooners, the Diligent and the Tatamagouche. The ships' officers had been captured when they came ashore near Bucks Harbor.[20] The Provincial Congress formally recognized O'Brien and Foster's efforts by commissioning both the Machias Liberty and the Diligent into the Massachusetts Navy with O'Brien as their commander in August 1775.[28] Retaliation from the British did not occur until October 18, 1775, with the Burning of Falmouth.[29]

A black-and-white photo of the warship. Shown in motion with black smoke billowing from its four smokestacks, the ship has two masts but no sails.
The USS O'Brien, launched in 1914, is one of several ships named for Jeremiah O'Brien.

Following rumors of a planned assault on Nova Scotia, a small British fleet carrying 1,000 men attempted to take Machias at the Battle of Machias (1777). The battle took place on August 13, 1777, and continued until August 14, 1777. The locals were able to successfully fight off the British forces with the help of Indian allies. The rumors of the assault on Nova Scotia ended up being only partly true since no significant military planning had taken place.[30]

During the war, Machias men refitted and armed a variety of ships—including the Margaretta—and sailed off looking for battle with the British. The Machias Liberty and the Diligent were used to intercept merchant ships that were supplying the British in the Siege of Boston. Jeremiah O'Brien and John Lambert built a twenty-gun ship and began privateering under an American letter of marque. Both men were commissioned into the Continental Navy for their work. O'Brien was captured off the coast of New York in late 1777, but was able to escape from prison in Britain to continue privateering throughout the war.[31]

The British naval command was continually frustrated by the use of Machias as a staging point for militia actions in Nova Scotia. Samuel Graves ordered Sir George Collier to destroy Machias in 1777.[2] Graves attempted to subdue Machias multiple times, but had no success.

The Burnham Tavern in a 1911 postcard

Liberty pole story[edit]

There is a widely told story that Machias men erected a Liberty pole after meeting in the Burnham Tavern to discuss the battles of Lexington and Concord. This story, which persists in modern history books and travel guides,[32] has been shown to be an 1831 fabrication by Machias resident John O'Brien. There is no mention of the Liberty pole in any earlier accounts, including the official report sent by the residents of Machias in 1775, and the letters of other participants in the events.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Drisko, pp. 29–30
  2. ^ a b Drisko, pp. 48–49
  3. ^ a b Drisko, p. 47
  4. ^ Miller, p. 34 indicates that there were 14 casualties, not specifying dead or wounded. Combined with Drisko's report of 5 dead, we arrive at 9 wounded.
  5. ^ Drisko, p. 46, reports 2 killed and 3 wounded. Miller, pp. 33–34, apparently relying on better source material, reports 10 British dead.
  6. ^ Gratwick, Harry (10 April 2010). Hidden History of Maine. Arcadia Publishing Incorporated. pp. 28–. ISBN 978-1-61423-134-9. 
  7. ^ Abbot, Willis John (1890-01-01). The Naval History of the United States. Peter Fenelon Collier. 
  8. ^ "Early Shots: Battle of Machias". Education. Retrieved 2016-12-01. 
  9. ^ Leamon, pp. 74–76
  10. ^ a b c Duncan, p. 209
  11. ^ Duncan, p. 208
  12. ^ Leamon, p. 67
  13. ^ Mancke, p. 96
  14. ^ Drisko, p. 30
  15. ^ Mancke, p. 97
  16. ^ Leamon, p. 68
  17. ^ a b c Duncan, p. 210
  18. ^ Drisko, pp. 43–45
  19. ^ Duncan, p. 211
  20. ^ a b c Duncan, p. 212
  21. ^ Drisko, pp. 45–46
  22. ^ Drisko, p. 57
  23. ^ Drisko, p. 46
  24. ^ Drisko, pp. 51–52
  25. ^ Volo, p. 41
  26. ^ a b Drisko, p. 50
  27. ^ Benedetto, p. 94
  28. ^ Miller, p. 35
  29. ^ Duncan, Roger F (1992). Coastal Maine: A Maritime History. New York: Norton. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-393-03048-8. 
  30. ^ Drisko, pp. 53–56
  31. ^ Duncan, p. 213
  32. ^ Recent histories that recount this story include Harnedy (p. 8), Volo (p. 39), and Benedetto (p. 92). The 1995 edition of Fodor's exploring Boston & New England (Locke, p. 126) also has the story.
  33. ^ Churchill, pp. 61–63


  • Benedetto, William R (2006). Sailing Into the Abyss: A True Story of Extreme Heroism on the High Seas. New York: Citadel Press. ISBN 978-0-8065-2646-1. OCLC 70683882. 
  • Churchill, Edwin A (1975). "The Historiography of the Margaretta Affair or How Not to Let the Facts Interfere With a Good Story". Maine Historical Society Quarterly. Maine Historical Society. 15 (2, Fall 1975): 60–74. 
  • Drisko, George Washington (1904). Narrative of the Town of Machias, the Old and the New, the Early and Late. Press of the Republican. OCLC 6479739. 
  • Duncan, Roger F (1992). Coastal Maine: A Maritime History. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-03048-2. 
  • Leamon, James S (1995). Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 978-0-87023-959-5. 
  • Locke, Tim; Gordon, Sue (2005). Fodor's exploring Boston & New England. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc. ISBN 978-0-679-02818-5. OCLC 32270505. 
  • Mancke, Elizabeth (2005). The fault lines of empire: political differentiation in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, ca. 1760–1830. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-95000-8. OCLC 56368582. 
  • Miller, Nathan. Sea of Glory: The Continental Navy fights for Independence 1775–1783. David McKay Company. ISBN 0-679-50392-7. 
  • Nelson, James (2008). George Washington's Secret Navy. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 26–35. ISBN 0-07-149389-1. 
  • Volo, James M (2008). Blue Water Patriots: The American Revolution Afloat. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-6120-5. OCLC 209652239. 

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