Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Battle Of Marshfield

As we approach April 19th, it is easy to view the American Revolution as a US vs. England thing... even if most of the Americans still thought of themselves as English (Paul Revere never shouted "The British are coming!" during his ride, entirely because of this phenomena. Paul actually was shouting the less poetic "The regulars are out!") when the fighting started.

The US/England thing is easy to understand now, a few hundred years after the fact. What is less-known is that there existed considerable static between towns during the pre-revolt period.

The basic cause of this discord was the issue that would launch the Revolution. Some people thought that the colonies should break free from the crown, while others thought that we should remain in the kingdom.

As that famous American we know as Mel Gibson once said, "an elected legislature can trample your rights just as easily as a king can."

Others disagreed with Mel, and there was thick tension in the air throughout the 1760s and 1770s. If you voiced the wrong political opinion at the wrong tavern, you might be chased from the town by a mob.

... and maybe hung from this tree.

Here are a few examples of what would happen to you if you failed to say "Screw The Crown" quickly enough in pre-war New England. Its a lot of reading, but it should prove entertaining.

- "At Taunton also, about 40 Miles from Boston, the Mob attacked the House of Daniel Leonard, Esqr.,3 one of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace; & a Barrister at Law. They fired Bullets into the House & obliged him to fly from it to save his Life."

- "Peter Oliver Esqr., a Justice of the Peace at Middleborough, was obliged by the Mob to sign an Obligation not to execute his Office under the new Acts. At the same Place, a Mr. Silas Wood... was dragged by a Mob of 2 or 300 Men about a Mile to a River in Order to drown him, but, one of his Children hanging around him with Cries & Tears, he was induced to recant, though, even then, very reluctantly."

- "The Mob at Concord, about 20 Miles from Boston, abused a Deputy Sheriff of Middlesex, they making him pass through a Lane of them, sometimes walking backwards & sometimes forward, Cap in Hand, & they beating him."

- "All the Plymouth Protestors against Riots, as also all the military Officers, were compelled by a Mob of 2000 Men collected from that County & the County of Barnstable to recant & resign their military Commissions. Although the Justices of the Peace were then sitting in the Town of Plymouth, yet the Mob ransacked the House of a Mr. Foster, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, a Man of 70 Years of Age, which obliged him to fly into the Woods to secrete himself, where he was lost for some Time and was very near to the losing of his Life."

- "A Jesse Dunbar, of Halifax in the County of Plymouth, (was) ordered it into a Cart, & then put ... into the Belly of the (slaughtered) Ox and carted him 4 Miles, with a Mob around him, when they made him pay a Dollar after taking three other Cattle & a Horse from him. They then delivered him to another Mob, who carted him 4 Miles further & forced another Dollar from him. The second Mob delivered him to a third Mob, who abused him by throwing Dirt at him, as also throwing the Offals [innards] in his Face & endeavoring to cover him with it, to the endangering his Life, & after other Abuses, & carrying him 4 Miles further, made him pay another Sum of Money. They urged the Councilor’s Lady, at whose House they stopped, to take the Ox; but she being a Lady of a firm Mind refused; upon which they tipped the Cart up & the Ox down into the Highway, & left it to take Care of it self. And in the Month of February following, this same Dunbar was selling Provisions at Plymouth when the Mob seized him, tied him to his Horse’s Tail, & in that Manner drove him through Dirt & mire out of the Town."

- "In November 1774, David Dunbar of Halifax aforesaid, being an Ensign in the Militia, a Mob headed by some of the Select Men of the Town, demand[ed] his Colors [flags] of him. He refused, saying, that if his commanding Officer demanded them he should obey, otherwise he would not part with them: upon which they broke into his House by Force & dragged him out. They had prepared a sharp Rail to set him upon;12 & in resisting them they seized him (by his private parts) & fixed him upon the Rail, & was held on it by his Legs & Arms, & tossed up with Violence & greatly bruised so that he did not recover for some Time. They beat him, & after abusing him about two Hours he was obliged, in Order to save his Life, to give up his Colors."

- "A Parish Clerk was taken out of his Bed in a Cold Night & beat against his Hearth by Men who held him by his Arms & Legs. He was then laid across his Horse without his Clothes & drove to a considerable Distance in that naked Condition. His Nephew Dr. Abner Beebe, a Physician, complained of the bad Usage of his Uncle & spoke very freely in Favor of [the royal] Government, for which he was assaulted by a Mob, stripped naked, & hot Pitch was poured upon him, which blistered his Skin. He was then carried to an Hog Sty & rubbed over with Hog’s Dung. They threw the Hog’s Dung in his Face & rammed some of it down his Throat;"

- In Freetown, they used to paint Loyalists yellow, as "the Mob found that paint is cheaper than Tar and Feathers."

- "Patriots from Duxbury did kidnap Marshfield Loyalists Paul White, Dr. Stockbridge and Elisha Ford, and carted them to the "Liberty Pole" in Duxbury. There they were "forced to sign recantations" of their Tory sentiments, likely in response to mob violence."

By 1768, the crown deemed it necessary to send 4000 troops to pacify Boston, which was also getting ugly. Other than the potential for a Lexington-style suburban incursion by British troops, the countryside was (mostly) left on her own.

You know how it went from there. In 1770, the redcoats fired on the colonists, in what is known as the Boston Massacre. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party went down. In 1775, on April 19th, warfare broke out at Lexington/Concord.

As you can still see in modern occupational wars like Iraq or Afghanistan, the occupiers tend to stick to the cities. You have airports and docks to move supplies in, and cities usually sit astride rivers and highways that other trade flows through. The countryside tends to belong to the rebels.

This was the case in Massachusetts. Remember, the Revolution didn't start until the redcoats marched far enough out into the countryside to find farmers crazy enough to pick a fight with the world's best light infantry. While they may not use exactly those terms, every schoolkid in America can tell you the basics of Lexington/Concord.

What they can't tell you about (unless they read this column, of course) is the Battle of Marshfield. There's a good reason for this... there was no Battle Of Marshfield.

The non-battleground from this non-battle.

However, history is often drawn by tricks of fate, coincidence, miscalculations and itchy trigger fingers. An itchy trigger finger set off the Boston Massacre, started the Revolution, and was still happening when the National Guard went hippy-hunting at Kent State almost 200 years after the redcoats landed in Boston Harbor. If Marshfield in 1775 had been visited by ol' Mr. Finger, our history lessons would have been very different.

While an apt high school kid could tell you that Boston was occupied by the redcoats before the Revolution, they might not know that Marshfield also bore this status. Marsh Vegas, as it was then not known as, was a Loyalist hotbed. People in Vegas had no problem at all with the crown, at least the ones with the money and influence. They preferred change through diplomacy over revolt.

Even noting the fact that Marshfield patriots in 1773 had their own Marshfield Tea Party (on Tea Rock Hill), Marshfield was the most Loyalist town in New England.

This put them at odds with the neighboring towns. Duxbury and Plymouth were hotbeds of Patriot activity, and you saw with the Dunbar brothers how Halifax handled Loyalists. Not wishing to be mashed in Hog Dung, the loyalists in Marshfield sent a letter to General Gage, who was in charge of Boston. They demanded protection, and Gage complied, sending 100 men and 300 muskets on two schooners (the Dianna and the Britannia) down to Marsh Vegas in 1775. They were under the command of future Parliament member Captain Nesbit Balfour.

These redcoats disembarked at the mouth of the North River and marched 6 miles to the Nathaniel Ray Thomas estate. He was only the second most famous occupant, which is why you know it today as the Daniel Webster House. It looked a bit like a smaller version of the mansion from Django Unchained.

The redcoats set up their barracks on the grounds of the estate, and proceeded to piss off the locals. They would go to taverns or private homes in Duxbury and Plymouth. They behaved well enough, but they would have been hated in Duxbury even if they walked across water to get there. There is at least one story of a mob chasing a British officer into a Plymouth store, and not letting him out until he surrendered (and they broke) his sword.

Naturally, the entertainment in Boston served to get the locals' moxie up. Duxbury had already hosted Stamp Act protests, burned a dozen Englishmen in effigy and kidnapped loyalists for Liberty Pole parties. The presence of 100 redcoats a town over was, as they liked to say then, intolerable.

You didn't see a lot of South Shore people at Lexington. Paul Revere went west, not south. By the time that word of Lexington/Concord got to Duxbury, they would not have had time to get up to Boston for the battle. We did send some men up to Lexington/Concord, but most of the South Shore got off no shots at the redcoats fleeing Concord.

They didn't need to march up into the Metro West area to get at the regulars... they had 100 of them right there on the South Shore, sleeping on the lawn of a Marshfield mansion.

The South Shore towns had militia, and they had been training for this moment. They dropped everything on April 19th and gathered at what is now known as the John Alden House in Duxbury, under the command of  Colonel Theophilus Cotton.

No one knows what went on in the John Alden house that night, nor on the day of the 20th, when a council of war was held. What we do know is that Cotton, of Plymouth, failed to attack. He may have hoped that the British would leave on their own, or he may have feared a rabble-vs-regulars fight, or he may have been waiting for more people.

He got more people quickly enough. Companies arrived from Rochester, Middleboro,  Carver and Plympton to join the Duxbury, Plymouth and Kingston patriots. Fishermen from various local harbors, always fixin' for a fight, threw themselves into the mix. Colonel Cotton soon had five hundred men, five times the number of the British that they wished to oust from Marshfield. Other estimates give him 1000 men.

They marched to within a mile of the British regiment, not without some argument.  The cautious Cotton still refused to attack. A company from Kingston (led by Capt. Peleg Wadsworth), perhaps seeking to atone for their now-unfortunate town name, advanced without orders to within firing range of the British camp. Ish was about to get hectic.

However, there were no British to kill. The British garrison, who would have surrendered if fired upon, had instead run like a scalded dog.

The schooner Hope, along with two smaller sloops (the sloops had been "prest" into service, and were two of the first AmRev prizes taken by the Brisih Navy) arrived at the mouth of the Cut River in Green Harbor. They gathered up the soldiers and whatever Loyalists they could find and fled for Boston. The citizens of Marshfield alerted the British to the arrival of the ships by firing guns from Signal Hill. These were the only shots fired in the Battle Of Marshfield.

Then, the ass-kicking began. The South Shore is interesting, if not unique, in that our violence goes down after the troops leave.

Escape route...

Marshfield had 1200 people at the time, and only a few of them could get on those ships. Everyone else was left to fend for themselves, as the British Army and Navy were busy up in Boston.

Marshfield, a Tory town without the necessary Tory army to keep it safe, exploded in an orgy of assaults, tar-n-featherings, jailings, property confiscation, business boycotts and exile. Whoever could afford a boat ride to Nova Scotia fled. Everyone else stayed, and suffered abuse for it.

"Our fate now decreed, and we are left to mourn out our days in wretchedness. No other resources but to submit to the tyranny of exulting enemies or settle a new country," said Sarah Winslow of Marshfield not too long after the British surrender at Yorktown. Her father said, "I was the butt of the licentious, and had received every species of insult and abuse, which the utmost rancour and malice."

Those who did get away weren't always welcomed back. A ship from Nova Scotia, loaded with returning Marshfield Tories, was refused permission to disembark in the Neponset River by the town of Milton. The Tories eventually were let off at the North River, where they were promptly arrested.

Marshfield, much like someone tied to the Liberty Pole or being made to run a Gauntlet, finally caved in. Three months after the British Army was chased from Brant Rock, a town meeting resulted in Marshfield agreeing to support the Revolution. They sent their men off to fight, just like other towns.

Marshfield, for a long time, had more subdued celebrations of July 4th than neighboring towns did. Some years, they didn't celebrate the holiday at all. This sort of got played out in the 1950s and especially 1970s, as the demographics of the town were wildly altered by urban immigration. The incoming Bostonians loved July 4th, and by the time of my childhood, the Vegas coastline represented as hard as anyone.

Duxbury and the surrounding towns contributed mightily to the cause. Taking the 300 British muskets they found at the Thomas estate, they marched to Boston and joined up with George Washington. Duxbury men were involved in fortifying Dorchester Heights, which forced the British out of Boston. Unlike just about everyone involved in the Siege of Boston, the Duxbury men had already seen the British Navy flee before them once by the time the Limey Poofters sailed away from Boston.

Duxbury men served with George Washington at Valley Forge, and fought with him at Germantown and Monmouth. Washington was known to favor the fishermen of coastal Massachusetts as rowers. Duxbury men also manned a fort built out on the Gurnet. It saw no action in the Revolution, but they got to let off a few shots during the War of 1812.

It is interesting to ponder how the Brits would have reacted if Capt. Wadsworth had decided to charge the overmatched regulars. We know how the immediate battle would have worked, as Captain Balfour told us himself. The Brits would have surrendered with the first Rebel shot.

There's a difference between 100 soldiers and the entire Royal Navy, however. As we saw during the Battle of Wareham in 1812. the British would sail a squadron into town and burn every ship in the harbor for piracy. How wold they react after the loss of a whole garrison, especially if the battle which lost them turned into a massacre? Probably not well.

Duxbury did not embrace shipbuilding until after the Revolution, but they did need their harbor, and had nothing beyond a crude fort to keep the British from sailing in to set the whole town ablaze. Duxbury was a backwater, perhaps not meriting an invasion, but Plymouth was a high-profile revenge target.

Taking Plymouth would effectively cut off Cape Cod and the South Shore from contributing to the war effort, and would have the Brits very well positioned for a march on Rhode Island. The South Shore would have almost certainly got some Grey's Raid kind of action.. Never drink Earl Grey Tea, it's associated with the son of the Grey's Raid captain who attacked Fairhaven, New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard.

The Battle of Marshfield may have indeed proved to be a Phyrric Phirryc Pyrrhic costly victory, and the whole war effort may have been jeopardized by the desire of some Plymouth County farmers to seize a contested Marsh Vegas front yard.

However, all of that never happened. Colonel Cotton, viewed by many as a wussy, was actually a fine leader. He went all Sun-Tzu on the English, not moving to attack until victory was assured. He cleared out one of the two English-occupied towns in Massachusetts, and he did so without wasting an ounce of gunpowder.

Colonel Cotton is actually twice-famous, as he led a group of patriots in 1774 who tried to move Plymouth Rock to a better viewing area. He split the Rock while doing so, and you can still see the split today. That's a story or another day.

So, as you do something 'Murica today to commemorate the Patriot actions in Boston, Lexington and Concord, lay back and twist one in honor of the 500 South Shore bad-asses who chased the British away.

Even the house is crooked... or the photographer.


  1. This is extrodinary info. Thank you even though I live and love Marshfield it's interesting to read adverse history. Love it.

    1. Marshfield now represents harder than most on July 3rd, so it ended well.