In the summer and early autumn of 1775, General William Howe, the commander of the British Army in Boston, could not feed his troops. Besieged by the nascent Continental Army under General George Washington since April, Howe could not purchase or even forage from the prosperous farms of the Massachusetts’ countryside around the city. The task of supplying the Redcoats and the loyalist population of Boston fell to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves of the Royal Navy, whose squadron’s guns provided vital fire support for Howe.
Graves sent ships to American ports along the Atlantic seaboard to purchase the food and supplies necessary for Howe to maintain the garrison in Boston. However, many towns refused to do business with the British, and a few were openly hostile: several ships were captured by the Americans and many more were driven off. One of these was the HMS Canceaux, a sixteen gun sloop under the command of Lieutenant Henry Mowat. In May, 1775, Mowat was captured in Falmouth, Massachusetts (present day Portland, Maine) by Patriot militia while he attended church services ashore. Mowat was released, but when the 600 Patriot militia threatened to storm the Canceaux, Mowat set sail, to the cheers of the militia. He never forgave the citizens of Falmouth for his ignoble departure.
Incidents against Graves’ ships and crews occurred up and down the New England coast all summer. The HMS Margaretta was seized by the citizens of Machias, Massachusetts in June, and battle was had between the HMS Falcon and militia of Gloucester in August. In early October, the HMS Rose was forced to fire on Bristol, Rhode Island, to convince the townspeople to surrender 40 sheep. Even worse, reports suggested that rebel pirates were starting to operate out of these small ports. Graves decided to cow the Americans with fire and sword, and destroy the wretched hives of scum and villainy whom dared defy the authority of the British Crown. And he knew just the man to do it.
On 6 October 1775, Graves gave command of a squadron of five small ships to Lieutenant Mowat with the Canceaux as his flagship. Mowat’s orders were to “lay waste, burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships.” Mowat sailed directly to Falmouth. On 17 October, he anchored his flotilla in Falmouth Bay. The next morning, Mowat sent one of his officers ashore to address the townspeople. The officer proclaimed they had two hours to evacuate the town before the British ships opened fire. The citizens pleaded for mercy and Mowat offered amnesty if they took an oath of allegiance to the Crown. None did, and the townspeople fled Falmouth.
At 0930 on 18 October, 1775, Mowat’s flotilla opened fire on Falmouth. The ships continued to bombard the town until the sun began to set that evening. In the growing twilight, British shore parties landed by torchlight to fire any buildings that remained standing after the bombardment. They were met by Patriot militia. Lacking cannon to come to grips with the British ships, they sat impotently and watched the destruction of their town. Heavily reinforced by the furious townspeople, the militia unleased their rage on the Redcoats who came to finish the job. The landing parties managed to set fire to several more houses, whose conflagration spread throughout the town, but at the cost of several killed and wounded, as they battled the militia in the streets of Falmouth on their way back to the ships and safety.
Satisfied with the destruction of Falmouth, Mowat attempted to continue the punitive expedition, but his small ships were not sturdy enough to repeat the bombardment. Many of his cannon broke off their mounts and though the Americans didn’t fire on his ships, they were nonetheless damaged by the shock of nearly eight hours of continuous cannon fire. With the weather worsening, Mowat raided some farms further up the coast and then returned to Boston.
Mowat left one thousand Americans homeless out of Falmouth’s 2500 inhabitants, including about 160 families. 15 ships were either captured or sunk in the harbor, and nearly 400 buildings were damaged or destroyed by the bombardment and subsequent fire. Massachusetts rallied to help the citizens of Falmouth, and both Patriots and former Loyalists pitched in to rebuild the town. The Continental Congress authorized the issue of letters of marque turning New England’s pirates into privateers which eventually expanded the war onto the Seven Seas. The Burning of Falmouth shocked and outraged the Thirteen Colonies. It brought many fence sitters over to the American cause and greatly troubled many Loyalists for the indiscriminate nature of the destruction. For many Americans, there was now no possibility of reconciliation with British Crown. Even members of the British Parliament abhorred the raid – Graves was eventually fired, and Mowat was ostracized for the rest of his career.
When news of the Burning of Falmouth reached Europe it was initially dismissed as rebel propaganda. After the events were confirmed, Europeans recoiled at Britain’s barbarity and brutality. The French Foreign Minister, Count De Vergennes, commented, “I can hardly believe this absurd as well as barbaric procedure on the part of an enlightened and civilized nation.”
After conferring with King Louis XVI, Vergennes began exploring options about how to send covert aid to the American patriots. He dispatched a secret envoy to the American Continental Congress, who arrived in December, and lifted the boycott on France’s Caribbean colonies from selling gunpowder to the Americans in rebellion to the British Crown. More immediately, he quietly reversed a recent order preventing American ships from loading war material in French ports