Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Battle of Falmouth- Part 1

The Battle of Falmouth by F.L. Gifford
When one thinks of the sites of significant battles in the history of our country, one does not generally think of Cape Cod. In fact, for most of the extensive history of warfare in this country, Cape Cod has been spared. Certainly the citizens of Cape towns and villages participated and served in combat, but the Cape itself has hardly been touched. This is even true for conflicts like the King Philip’s War and the French and Indian War. The sites of major battles were generally further north and west.

However, during the American Revolution, Cape Cod found itself consistently plagued by Great Britain due to its location. Specifically, there were several raids led by the British against Cape and Island farms during the War years of 1776 – 1779. Several times Cape Cod militias and British soldiers engaged in actual combat. Potentially the largest of these engagements occurred in the Vineyard Sound on April 3, 1779. The conflict that would become known as the Battle of Falmouth would place Cape Cod at the front lines of a battle for control of a developing country and culture, and would transform a local man named Joseph Dimmick from an ordinary minuteman into a hero.

Discontent with Great Britain seemed to start early on Cape Cod. In 1686 the British government wanted to gain greater control over rebellious Yankees in New England. Parliament decided to abolish the structure of colonies and colonial governments. In its place they erected the Dominion of New England, a consolidated New England government headed by one Sir Edmund Andros.

Edmund Andros instituted new taxes as a means of keeping New Englanders in hand. According to Jim Coogan and Jack Sheedy in “Cape Odd”, one of the more offensive Cape specific taxes was the crown’s new ownership claim on all “drift whales,” those whales which washed ashore.

These types of offenses and others led the West Barnstable native and later patriot, James Otis Jr., to coin the phrase “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny.” This phrase became a rallying cry for the rebelling colonies.

Cape Patriot James Ois Jr

Like the rest of New England, the Cape contained its fair mix of Tories (loyalist) and rebels. However, Cape Codders still took part in some of the more well known acts of rebellion. Several Cape men even participated in the Tea Party of 1773. In addition, at least one outspoken loyalist was tarred and feathered in the village of Barnstable.

In May of 1774, Parliament created the Massachusetts Government act in a further attempt to control New England. This act stated that members of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council would no longer be elected by the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Instead, they would be appointed and dismissed at the command of King George III.

This royal act was one of the last straws leading to open rebellion. The First Continental Congress, containing 12 of the 13 rebel colonies (Damn you Rhode Island), met in September of 1774. Directly following this, the town of Falmouth started to become directly involved in the resistance.

In an October meeting of the same year, the town decided to form its own Committee of Correspondence. These Committees were being founded throughout all 13 colonies and would act as local and colony wide shadow governments, operating secretly under the official British government. In addition, they would be instrumental in distributing rebel information and propaganda throughout the colonies.

Falmouth seemed to be a leader in the colonial rebel movement, as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (the Mass rebel government) also met for the first time in October of 1774.

According to “Three Lectures on the Early History of the Town of Falmouth,” by Charles and Edward Jenkins, the town’s Committee of Correspondence decided to secure arms and ammunition for all men from age 16 to 60, which was paid for out of the town’s own budget.

Falmouth had begun to realize how vulnerable it was going to be during a colonial conflict with Great Britain. As the Cape had some of the best harbors at the time and was surrounded by many small islands in the Atlantic, the risk of being blockaded and starved was serious. In fact British warships had already been seen in the Vineyard Sound and had landed on the Elizabethan Islands by 1774.

On April 19, 1775, things began to get really ugly. British troops had engaged Massachusetts militias at the Battle of Lexington/Concord while attempting to capture colonial weapons stores and rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Falmouth received word of the event and immediately began to prepare to protect themselves.

The town raised a company of minutemen under the command of a Major in the local militia named Joseph Dimmick. Major Dimmick was entrusted with training the Falmouth minutemen at least two days a week until they were ready for combat.

According to the “Early History of Naushon Island,” by Amelia Forbes Emerson, that same year the British ship, Faulkland, landed in Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island. The Captain of the Faulkland harassed and threatened the inhabitants of the island, specifically one Elisha Nye. The men of the Faulkland confiscated 200 sheep, destroyed a portion of the Naushon’s boats, and did their best to intimidate the islanders into submission.

Tarpaulin Cove, Naushon Island- by Joseph McGurl

Nye petitioned congress for aid and in return congress ordered that a group of able bodied men be made ready to protect the livestock and people of the Elizabethan Islands from further British harassment.

The raids on Naushon continued. The defenders were often left on the Island to fend for themselves against British warships. During the winter of 1776 to 1778 the Island was raided time and again. Finally in spring of 1778, only five defenders remained. The British landed and made a clean sweep of the livestock and provisions of known rebels. The properties of the many Tories on the Island were left untouched or were paid for. The Island was now defenseless and Falmouth was in easy striking distance.

In 1776, according to Charles and Edward Jenkins, Falmouth officially decided to side with the choice of the Continental Congress; they declared independence from Great Britain. To me this seems like a huge decision. Falmouth was already in a vulnerable position, sticking right out into the Atlantic. In addition, there were some entire colonies who refused to side with the Continental Congress. Falmouth was certainly rebellious.

In 1779, things finally came to blows in Falmouth. For months British ships had been running low on supplies. They often used Naushon Island’s Tarpaulin Cove as a staging ground for raids on Cape farms and livestock. However, the people were not necessarily defenseless. In return for these raids, Joseph Dimmick often led counter raids on British ships. He and his men were often successful in regaining stolen Falmouth property. When they weren’t, they were successful in aggravating the British.

As Dimmick was establishing a reputation for piracy of sorts, the British were becoming more and more annoyed by the resistance of Falmouth’s militia. Yet, it was one final incident that seemed to push the sentiment from annoyed to violent.

The British had once again run short of supplies. Seeing an opportunity, they landed a small group of soldiers at Little Harbor in Woods Hole on the evening of April 1, 1779. Although there had been a night watch in Falmouth posted during the war years, the British were able to avoid being seen. Using a local guide, they raided the farm of Ephraim and Manassah Swift, rounded up twelve head of cattle, and drove them back to their boats at Little Harbor, where they killed them. This is the modern location of the Steamship Authority and the Coast Guard in Woods Hole.

The British Raid at Little Harbor- by F.L. Gifford

Charles and Edward Jenkins relate an interesting tale, which they state can not be verified as history. As they tell it, Manassah Swift’s wife was well known for making delicious cheese. Apparently, the local guide informed the soldiers of the quality cheese, and the soldiers wanted to steal some. While most of the British were busy driving the cattle back to the beach, two soldiers entered the Swift home.

Manassah’s wife was home alone with the children. She appealed to the soldiers, saying that her house was undefended, and gentlemen soldiers should not wish to take advantage of a helpless women (yeah right). The soldiers asked for the cheese, and Mrs. Swift informed them that there was not enough for her own family. The soldiers actually offered to purchase the cheese. Mrs. Swift informed them that they would not leave with a crumb. The soldiers, now annoyed, stabbed two wheels of cheese with the end of their bayonets and walked out the door. However, Mrs. Manassah was not a Yankee to be messed with. According to the authors:
"This dastardly act raised the good woman’s wrath. She stationed herself at the door and as they retreated she grasped the cheese and . . commenced with her tongue such a well directed fire as completely to subdue them. She called them a valiant set indeed – fitted for just two things, to rob hen roosts and make hen-pecked husbands."
As the story goes, Mrs. Swift drove off the soldiers with insults and actually kept her wheels of cheese. I don’t know if this story is fact, but it does illustrate a reality. The British soldiers were not often out for blood when it came to the colonists of New England. Certainly they stole from them, but they often purchased just as much. They did kill colonists, but often only did so in combat or when attacked. Mrs. Swift might have been lucky in that regard.

As the rest of the soldiers were busy killing the stolen cattle on the beach back at Little Harbor, they were ambushed by a group of minutemen led by Joseph Dimmick. The local militia harassed them so badly that the British were forced to abandon their stolen provisions and return to their ships hungry.

Little Harbor Oct 2011
Site of the British Raid 1779

Litte Harbor Oct 2011
You can see Naushon Island in the distance
The British had apparently had enough. They were annoyed by the incident in Woods Hole and fed up with the resistant locals. On their return to their fleet, they decided to burn the town of Falmouth to the ground on April 3.

As this article became too long, I will post it in two parts. Hope you enjoyed it!!


  1. I am so happy to read your post , it is wonderful . I like it and thanks for sharing it .

  2. Thank you. I had a great time looking into the history behind the Battle of Falmouth. I grew up in this area and it is a little known story. There is really so much history all around us.