Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

As Maine went, so went the nation

ON the 12th day of June 1775, three British vessels were anchored in the Machias River, off the far-down Maine waterfront of Machias. Machias hadn't been settled until 1763, but the waterpower and the standing timber made it a boomtown, and the very next year its sawmills turned out over a million and a half board feet of prime pine and spruce - Machias had become a major colonial town almost overnight. The Battle of Lexington and Concord had taken place that year, on April 19, and now these English ships had come from Halifax, Nova Scotia to load lumber that would be used to house the King's soldiers in Boston. Two schooners with swept holds were escorted by HMS Margaretta, a cutter commanded by Captain Moor. Captain Moor had approached the lumber merchants of Machias, but they told him that lumber for any such purpose was not to be had in Machias. Captain Moor took this as treasonable talk, and made it clear that if he didn't get his cargo he would unlimber his guns and reduce Machias to a has-been.

The merchants thanked Captain Moor for his frank words, but said a matter of this importance would need a town meeting and it would take a few days. Machias is lovely in June, so Captain Moor bided. While he bided, messengers went down-river, up-river, and out to the islands, and all were invited to attend, bringing their muskets. Word also went to the Passamaquoddy Indians, and Chief Francis Joseph Neptune responded with his warriors. Then came Sunday.,

About these ads

Captain Moor sent word that he would attend church. At this the Machias folks decided to capture him as a prisoner of war. The church at Machias had waited until the sawmills had been built, so it was a new building. Instead of pious pews that adorn more sophisticated New England churches, this one had plain plank benches made of stout Machias spruce, and they were arranged Anglican fashion, with a wide aisle down the middle. One John O'Brien agreed to watch where the captain sat and to take a place near him so he could leap and grab. Others in the conspiracy would dispose themselves handy by to aid in the capture. Captain Moor rowed himself ashore from the Margaretta and arrived just before the minister approached the pulpit. The game was afoot!

From his seat, Captain Moor could look out the open church window and see the glad Maine Junetime upon the scene. His Margaretta was at anchor, lookouts in place, and down the river the sunlight sparkled on the coming tide. It was indeed lovely, and Machias was a beautiful place. Then he saw some men coming into town along the shore, and he noticed that each was carrying a musket. The men from close by, and from the islands, and the 'Quoddy Indians, were coming! Captain Moor forthwith rose from his plank and dove headfirst out the church window, to regain his feet and run for the wharf, and to row himself to his Margaretta and command all hands to stations. The minister had been halfway between the offertory and the epistle.

This took place five days before the Battle of Bunker Hill. The men of Machias, with their helpers, boarded the Margaretta and the encounter was the first naval engagement of the American Revolutionary War. Captain Moor was a casualty. After the battle, needing a surgeon, the folks at Machias sent a boat to Halifax, which was much closer than Boston, and a Dr. William Chaloner responded to the call and arrived two days later to do what he could. Turned out he liked the looks of Machias, so he stayed there and practiced the rest of his life! Then the commandant at Halifax, irked at the humiliating outcome, sent a substantial fleet to retaliate, and also get some lumber, and the folks at Machias won that one, too. Sir George Collier, the commandant at Halifax, said afterward that the rebels at Machias were a harder set than those at Bunker Hill. Well, the British did get Bunker Hill, but not one Machias board ever went to house a British soldier at Boston.

Did you ever hear anything about this until now?

Just before the Machias men joined battle over the Margaretta, men on shore versus a warship, the lookout on the Margaretta saw a group come out of the woods and move down to a level place by the shore, and it looked to him like a funeral procession. There was a casket on a small cart, covered with sailcloth, and everybody was in solemn step, heads down. The English paid no further attention. But when the attack began, the mourners whipped the sailcloth away and the casket was a 12-pounder with which they blew the transom off the Margaretta. I've always wondered why the successful defense of Machias is less known than the unsuccessful defense of Bunker Hill.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.