The HMS Margaretta & the First Naval Battle of the Revolutionary War

In 1775 close to the border of Canada, Machias, a district of then-Massachusettes and modern-day Maine straddled the decision to stay loyal to the crown or lunge toward independence. As detailed in George Washington’s Secret Navy, James L. Nelson stated that, “The town made its living from the seemingly endless forest at its back, cutting and exporting the firewood…” (23). As a trade-off, agriculture was neglected with its people farming just enough to get by. Unfortunately a harsh drought hit the town in 1774, and by 1775 the crisis was continuing to threaten Machias.

At the same time the British were stranded in Boston and in desperate need of lumber, ripping apart the city for firewood and for the construction of barracks. Before the colony could respond to its needs, a Machias landowner loyal to the British, Ichabod Jones, offered his services. Jones was able to construct an agreement where the British would be able to acquire the lumber needed and in return, Machias would receive desperately needed provisions.

An agreement seemed to be struck between Jones and the General Gage, however, the colonists in Machias threatened to destroy the offer. This was a viable threat as a few months before, the Halifax, a British schooner, had run aground near Machias and its guns were taken. But the need was so strong for lumber that General Gage wrote to Admiral Graves that, Jones “…has my permission to carry Twenty Barrels of Pork, and Twenty Barrels Flour, from this for the use of the New Settles at Machias…” (Nelson, 24). To ensure that this trade would occur, the British dispatched the schooner HMS Margaretta with the young Captain James Moore to protect Jones’s sloops, the Unity and the Polly, carrying the provisions.

Captain Moore was young at twenty-five but his orders were simple: “To remain for [the Unity’s and the Polly’s] Protection while they are landing” (Nelson, 25). There were additional orders to destroy illegal and armed vessels harassing British shipping but Captain Moore’s Margaretta was ill-equipped. As Nelson details, “[The HMS Margaretta] was one of the smaller vessels [Admiral] Graves hired to augment his fleet about two months before… She carried only swivel guns mounted on the rails and muskets, pistols, and cutlasses for the crew. She had on board four 3-pounder carriage guns [which were] not mounted.” The Margaretta seemed to be little more than a show piece.

While Machias hadn’t yet made a declaration on which side they stood, they were hardly in the British camp. The O’Briens, most prominently Jeremiah, were leaders in the community, taking advantage of the lumber and creating a family business (Nelson, 28). Beyond a mere settlement, this was the home of many where they had invested considerably and they felt the full effect of British actions and taxation against the colonies.

Captain Moore arrived and landed with the three ships without incident. But upon landing, Ichabod Jones distributed a statement that “required the signers to indulge Capt Jones in carrying Lumber to Boston & to protect him and his property, in all events. And those who signed would be allowed to trade for the salt pork and flour he was carrying” (Nelson, 27) The local population recoiled and the trade was postponed. On 6 June, a few days later, Machias held a town meeting on the issue which caused Moore to move the Margaretta upriver so “her Guns would reach the Houses” (Nelson, 27). This did little to calm the colonists on shore.

Machias remained in desperate need of food and while the Margaretta was outfitted weakly, it remained lording over the town. A vote was held on whether to trade with Moore and the colonists grouped together, rejecting Moore’s offer. But after Moore again threatened the town, a second vote followed and the vote’s passage was ensured. The Polly and the Unity were called up and began to unload their supplies. After the supplies had been unloaded, Captain Moore declared that he would only trade with the people who had voted in favor of the exchange during the town meeting on the 6th of June.

News of what was happening in Machias swept quickly to two nearby regions and a plot set in on Sunday, 11 June. The plan was to surround the church building where Sunday services were held and then to abduct the officers of the ships, primarily Captain Moore. However, the militia was noticed in advance and all escaped with the exception of Ichabod Jones’s nephew, Stephen Jones, who was a captain in the militia of Machias (Nelson, 28). The officers escaped and they reached the Margaretta where Moore “was determined to do his duty whilst he had life; & that, if the people presumed to stop Captain Jones’ vessels, he would burn the town” (Nelson, 29). This declaration would do nothing but enrage the colonists.

The Margaretta had been safe for the moment but the Polly still remained at the wharf. Roughly one hundred patriots boarded the Polly, stripping it down and then rowing out to the other sloop, the Unity, farther downstream. It should be mentioned that sources are still mixed on which vessel was actually “stripped” but for our purposes we will establish that it was the Polly and that the colonists took the Unity. Captain Moore did little to react with the Margaretta which allowed the colonists to settle the Unity near the Polly.

As evening arrived the colonists brought the Unity closer to the wharf where they went ashore. In turn, Moore crept the Margaretta back to the wharf in an attempt to retake the Unity however the patriots soon saw what Moore was attempting and scrambled back to the Unity. In the hurried frenzy and limited time, the Unity’s anchor was cut which sent the Unity with the current, grounding it along the shore. In spite of this disadvantage, the colonists shouted for Moore to surrender. Instead, a firefight with muskets broke out for an undetermined amount of time with no resulting casualties before the Margaretta pulled away.

Captain Moore was distant enough where he found another sloop commanded by Samuel Tobey. According to Nelson (30), Tobey’s vessel was loaded with boards. Before Moore could do anything, the colonists appeared in “boats and canoes” but were quickly scared off, leaving one wounded on the British side. After the colonists had been brushed off, Moore acted and took the lumber from Tobey’s sloop and barricades were constructed on the Margaretta, ending the night.

When morning rose, James Moore cast off from Samuel Tobey’s sloop while abducting Tobey against his will, using him and his knowledge since he was familiar with the area. The Margaretta was able to escape the river and reach open water but Moore committed an error when “turning the stern through the wind” (Nelson, 30) which caused the boom and gaff to “slam into the shrouds supporting the mast and shattered,” virtually destroying the Margaretta’s mobility.

After setting the anchor, Moore discovered and captured another sloop approximately three miles away. Under orders and armed men, the sloop’s boom and gaff were surrendered with its commander Robert Avery coming aboard (Nelson, 33). As soon as the repairs had been made the colonists were spotted in the Unity and the Falmouth Packet, a small schooner.

Even after Moore cut away the sloop, the Americans had soon overtaken the lumbering Margaretta. The Margaretta’s strength laid in her small swivel cannon which was continuously fired at the colonists while the colonist’s strength lied in their numbers. Moore ordered Tobey to fire against the rebels but he refused while Moore gave the same order to Avery, who accepted (Nelson, 33). Again Moore was asked to surrender by the rebels once the vessels were in calling distance and again Moore ignored the offer, bracing for battle.

As shots continued to fire from the British and colonists sides, both prepared for hand-to-hand combat. The Americans had more axes, swords and heavy pitchforks (Duncan, 212) as Moore grabbed at hand grenades, lobbing two aboard the Unity (Nelson, 33). While this caused some panic aboard the Unity, it was too late as the Unity crashed into Margarettta’s starboard quarter and the Falmouth Packet into Margaretta’s bow (Nelson, 34). John O’Brien was the first aboard the Margaretta but was fired upon by four British sailors who all missed. But they threatened with their bayonets and charged, causing John O’Brien to leap safely overboard where he was rescued by his brother, Jerry (Duncan, 212). Meanwhile, Moore, who was attacking the Unity with grenades, was struck by two musket balls and was removed from the battle (Duncan, 212). The British leadership crumbled.

The colonists powered onto the deck of the Margaretta. Muskets became worthless after their first volley and the Americans had strong, sharp, steeled weapons in their hands and a three-to-one advantage (Nelson, 34). The battle’s end hastened in the American favor.

Robert Avery had been mortally wounded and the British lost one killed and five wounded while one American had died with six wounded, although one of those wounded Americans would also later die (Nelson, 34). At the same time the wounded Captain Moore claimed he ‘preferred Death before yielding to such a sett of evil Villains.’ (Nelson, 34). He ultimately died in Ichabod Jones’s home the next day.

The new US Government awarded the Unity, Polly and Margaretta to the people of Machias under the command of Jeremiah O’Brien and Captain Benjamin Foster (Nelson, 35). The Polly also underwent a name change to suit its change of ownership, Machias Liberty. The Margaretta’s guns were stripped of its 3-pounders that were stored in its hold and were placed upon Machias Liberty (Duncan, 212). Shortly after the battle, two more British ships were captured without a shot fired, the Tatamagouche and the Diligent, which were unaware of the changing climate in the region.

Jeremiah O’Brien and John Lambert were given control of the Machias Liberty and the Diligent. John O’Brien became Lambert’s First Lieutenant (Duncan, 212-13). When the state ended the commission, John O’Brien built a letter-of-marquee vessel, the Hannibal (Duncan, 213). John took the ship briefly to Santo Domingo before returning it to New York where Jerry O’Brien used it as a privateer. Jerry was chased by two British frigates and was forced to surrender where he stayed aboard the prison ship Jersey before being transferred to Mill Prison in England (Duncan, 213). Here, Jerry let his appearance go for months, hiding his proper clothes while letting the clothes he was wearing be reduced to rags; he refused to shave and was becoming unrecognizable. Then one day he washed, shaved and put on his good clothes, walking out of the prison as a man no one recognized, even getting a drink at a bar in the warden’s house before departing for France (Duncan, 213).

The attack at Machias was an incredible feat. Much as the previous actions of the British had caused many Americans to retaliate and choose a side, so too had Captain Moore at Machias. In the simplest terms, Machias is a near retelling of the initial stages preceding the American Revolution.

But the O’Briens were not to be forgotten as the world moved on. In World War II the Liberty Ship, S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien took part in the Normandy invasion. It is currently shut down due to both the virus and a recent fire, however, before this incident you could’ve walked this ship’s deck most days at pier 45, Fillerman’s Wharf, San Francisco where most areas were open to the public including the engine room, bridge and cargo holds. Sometimes it even offered a short cruise. According to the website it was “the only active Liberty Ship in original configuration.” However it is at risk, as stated by the website, the ship nearly escaped a fire and needs about $300,000 for restorations.

Works Cited

Benedetto, William R. Sailing Into the Abyss: A True Story of Extreme Heroism On the High Seas. Citadel Press, 2005.

Duncan, Roger F. Coastal Maine: A Maritime History. Countryman Press, 2002.

“History of the O’Brien.” National Liberty Ship Memorial, http://www.ssjeremiahobrien.org/pages/history-of-the-obrien.

Leamon, James S. Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independance In Maine. University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

National Liberty Ship Memorial, http://www.ssjeremiahobrien.org/.

Nelson, James L. George Washington’s Secret Navy: How the American Revolution Went To Sea. International Marine, 2009.

Volo, James M. Blue Water Patriots: The American Revolution Afloat. Praeger, 2007.

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