The Burning of Falmouth — Mowat’s Revenge

October 18, 1775

The Burning of Falmouth was a British naval attack on the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts — present-day Portland, Maine — that took place on October 18, 1775. The British fleet destroyed a large portion of the town, but was unable to end Patriot resistance in the area.

Admiral Samuel Graves, Portrait, Northcote

Admiral Samuel Graves. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Burning of Falmouth Summary

The Burning of Falmouth — or Mowat’s Revenge — was a British naval attack on the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts that took place on October 18, 1775, during the Siege of Boston. A small fleet of British ships, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Mowat, was sent to attack towns along the coast that supported the Patriot Cause, including Falmouth. When Mowat’s fleet arrived near Falmouth on October 16, he warned the townspeople of his intentions, giving them time to evacuate. The next day he moved his fleet into the harbor and then started his bombardment of the town on October 18. It is estimated that nearly 140 homes and 280 other buildings were burned to the ground in the devastating attack. Following the attack, Mowat returned to Boston.

Burning of Falmouth Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The Burning of Falmouth is also known as “Mowat’s Revenge” and the “Attack on Falmouth.”
  • Date Started: The Burning of Falmouth started on October 18, 1775.
  • Date Ended: It ended on the same day, October 18, 1775.
  • Location: It took place in Falmouth, Massachusetts, which is present-day Portland, Maine.
  • Theater: It was part of the Northern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: The Burning of Falmouth was part of the Boston Campaign.

Burning of Falmouth History and Overview

As the Siege of Boston dragged on, British forces trapped in Boston were in desperate need of food and supplies. General Thomas Gage sent foraging parties out to several islands in Boston Harbor to try to gather livestock and crops, but American forces often engaged his men and forced them to retreat. In response, the Americans resorted to taking livestock and crops and burning whatever was left. 

Thomas Gage, Portrait, Copley
General Thomas Gage. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Admiral Graves and the Royal Navy

Gage also needed to maintain control of the seacoast, because his only way in and out of Boston was through the harbor. If he lost control of the coast, the Americans might find a way to blockade the harbor, completely surrounding the British in Boston. The task of maintaining control of the coast was the responsibility of Admiral Samuel Graves, Commander-in-Chief of the North American Station for the Royal Navy.

Patriot Resistance Embarrasses Graves and the Navy

However, Graves also had issues with American resistance.

  • Following the Battle of Lexington, Lieutenant Mowat and the HMS Canceaux were at Falmouth. The Brunswick Militia captured Mowat and held him prisoner for a brief time. Mowat was released, but was humiliated by the incident, which is known as “Thompson’s War.”
  • On May 5, 1775, the HMS Falcon fails to capture two American sloops near New Bedford, Rhode Island, and the crew suffers casualties and some are taken as prisoners in the incident.
  • On June 12, three British ships sailed to Machias, Maine, to seize lumber and take it back to Boston. However, the townspeople attacked the ships, capturing the HMS Unity and the HMS Margaretta. The British loss was an embarrassment to Graves and the Royal Navy.
  • The Royal Navy was also unable to put a stop to American shipping, which was largely undertaken by privateers who smuggled goods to towns along the coast.

Criticism of Graves

In early July, Graves received orders from the Admiralty in London to carry out attacks along the coast. Meanwhile, Graves was heavily criticized for his failure to maintain control. In a letter to Lord Germain, General John Burgoyne said, “It may be asked in England ‘What is the Admiral doing?’… I can only say what he is not doing.”

John Burgoyne, Portrait, Reynolds
General John Burgoyne. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Graves Takes Action Against the Patriot Towns

Finally, Graves decided to take action. In September, he wrote that he was anxious to “revenge the Insults shown his Cruizers, and to scourge the Inhabitants of these Sea Port Towns.” He gathered a small fleet of four ships, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Mowat, and ordered the fleet to bombard the following Massachusetts towns, north of Boston:

  • Marblehead
  • Salem
  • Newbury Port
  • Gloucester
  • Portsmouth
  • Ipswich
  • Saco
  • Falmouth
  • Machias

Mowat’s Expedition Sails to Falmouth

Mowat only had about 100 men under his command, so the only option was to destroy the towns by bombarding them from the water. He was ordered to “burn, destroy, and lay waste” to the towns for their support of the Patriot Cause and put an end to their shipping operations. Mowat’s fleet was ready to commence operations around October 6.

The fleet sailed to Gloucester on Cape Ann, but Mowat decided the buildings were too far apart from each other. Fire would not easily spread from one building to another, so he would be forced to use more artillery than he wanted. He decided to sail past Cape Ann and targeted Falmouth. It is possible he simply wanted to take his revenge against the people of Falmouth for his embarrassment during Thompson’s War. This is why the attack on Falmouth is also referred to as “Mowat’s Revenge.”

Mowat’s Fleet Arrives at Falmouth

The fleet arrived in the waters near Falmouth on October 16 and anchored in the harbor. He sent one of his officers ashore to deliver a message to the townspeople, warning them of the impending bombardment. He ordered the people to evacuate the town and said, “…within two hours, the punishment would begin.”

Burning of Falmouth, 1775, Mowat's Fleet, Painting, Burrage
This painting by Mildred Burrage shows the location of the British ships near Falmouth. Image Source: Maine Memory.

Falmouth Evacuates

A committee of town leaders negotiated and asked for more time. Mowat responded and said he would hold off if the town surrendered the four cannons that were supposed to be there, along with any other weapons, ammunition, and prisoners. He also gave them until the next morning to comply with his demands.

The Burning of Falmouth Begins

At 8:00 a.m. on the 17th, Mowat was still waiting. Meanwhile, the townspeople evacuated. He gave them another hour to comply with his demands, but nothing came of it. Sometime between 9:00 and 9:40 a.m. two of the ships, HMS Canceaux and HMS Halifax, opened fire on the town. 

The bombardment lasted until around 6:00 p.m. Many of the houses and buildings were destroyed and set on fire. However, Mowat, intent on complete destruction, send a landing party ashore and had them set fire to more buildings. The local militia resisted, but the British were still able to set more fires. The town, including ships in the harbor, was destroyed and four other ships were captured by the British.

Mowat Returns to Boston

Due to the lengthy bombardment, Mowat’s fleet was out of ammunition. Unable to continue his mission and attack the other towns, he sailed back to Boston, arriving on October 19. Although Graves was disappointed Mowat only destroyed one town, he was hopeful it sent a strong enough message to the others and they would put an end to their activities.

Washington Sends Sullivan to Portsmouth

Rumors circulated in the American camp in Boston that Portsmouth, New Hampshire was the next target. General George Washington responded by sending troops under the command of General John Sullivan to Portsmouth to defend the town. Unfortunately, the lack of resources at Graves’ disposal and the approach of winter made it impossible to conduct further raids. However, British ships were still dispatched in an effort to seize provisions. According to a letter written by one of the townspeople, the HMS Cerberus returned in November.

Massachusetts responded to the attack by passing a law that authorized the establishment of Admiralty Courts. The purpose of the courts was for bringing charges against the commanders of British vessels operating against Massachusetts towns. 

Patriot Resistance Grows

Although Graves hoped the attack would diminish support for the Patriot Cause in the coastal towns, it had the opposite effect. William Whipple, a member of the New Hampshire Provincial Congress and a Founding Father, wrote a letter to Captain John Langdon and said:

“…it seems to me to be the determination of everyone to risk his all in support of his liberties & privileges, the unheard of cruelties of the enemy have so effectually united us that I believe there are not four persons now in Portsmouth who do not justify the measures pursuing in opposition to the Tyranny of Great Britain.”

Burning of Falmouth Significance

The Burning of Falmouth is important to the history of the United States for the role it played in boosting resistance to British authority in Massachusetts and New England. This contributed to the end of the Siege of Boston in 1776 when the British were forced to evacuate the city.

Edmund Burke’s Account of the Burning of Falmouth

In 1780, Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament who supported the Americans, published An Impartial History of the War in America. This is his account of the Burning of Falmouth. Minor text corrections and updates have been made to improve the text for readability.

About 9 o’clock in the morning, a cannonade was begun, and continued with little intermission through the day. Above 300 shot, besides bombs and carcasses, were thrown into the town, and the sailors landed to complete the destruction, but were repulsed with the loss of a few men.

The…town, (which lay next to the water) consisting of about 134 dwelling houses, 278 store and warehouses, with a large new church, a new handsome court-house, the old town-house, with the public library, were reduced to ashes; about 100 of the worst houses, being favored by the situation and distance, escaped destruction, though not without damage.

The destruction which fell upon Falmouth, probably accelerated in the Assembly of Massachusetts Bay, the daring measure (under the pretense of protecting their coasts) of passing an act — for grinding letters of marque and reprisal, and the establishment of courts of admiralty, for the trial and condemnation of British ships. In this law they declared the intention, of only defending the coasts and navigation of America, extending the power of capture only to such ships as should be employed in bringing supplies to the armies employed against them.

Edmund Burke, Portrait
Edmund Burke. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Joseph Dommett’s Account of the Burning of Falmouth

Joseph Dommett, a Loyalist living in Falmouth, wrote this account of the Burning of Falmouth in a letter dated February 2, 1776. Minor text corrections and updates have been made to improve the text for readability.

February 16, 1776

On the 18th October last a Fleet under the command of Captain Mowatt burnt the Town of Falmouth as you’ve undoubtedly heard by Mr. T—. Your House Barn Out Houses. Fences & Office are all in Ashes. We had so few Hours notice of our Destruction, that we had no Time nor Team to save either your Furniture or mine — 

I was obliged to flee for my Life — I knew not where till a Quaker offered me a lodging in his House, which had not a finished room in it — However I was obliged by the offer — and my wife & I were were forced to foot it with large Bundles on our Arms about 6 or 8 Miles & abused as we passed the Road. 

What little time I had was employed in throwing my Furniture into the Garden from whence a

good deal was stole and the most of the remainder broken or torn in pieces — 

The Church is also burnt but not the Meeting House — All below Doctor Watts except a few houses in Back Street and Bradbury & Mrs Ross’s two Houses are clean gone — 

The upper end of the Town supposed to be about one third of the whole is standing among which is the House I lived in by reason of that fortunate event, I saved some of my furniture but am still in the woods, where if I can’t get off either to London, Boston or Halifax. I intend to remain till peace be restored to this infatuated, this distracted Country — 

Captain Mowatt was so kind as to offer us (those I mean who had formerly fled to him for protection), a passage to Boston, but is was impracticable for us to get on board — though we wished to, for had we been discovered in the attempt, we should have been shot from the shore by the Rebels — nor could we have carried the least article with us supposing we could have got off ourselves — that above however would not have stayed us —

I am now at Stroudwater Falls at Mr George Knights — soon to the Lieutenant; — With me (besides G Knights and family) are W. Dommetts & Doct Coffins’ family to the number of 23 souls in a single-story farm house.

We are obliged to have three beds in the same small room, where we eat and drink — but still not at peace — for we are constantly alarmed & days fixed upon for a mobbing —

Judge how miserable we must be, but indeed it is almost beyond description or conception — William Dommett was not able to save any of his furniture except his clothes and a bed or two — I am told that whilst your house was on fire a band of thieves got into it & have taken a good deal of your furniture

This I mention that as you are on the spot you may form some estimate of the value of your House & furniture — for I have no doubt — but administration mean to make good to the friends of Government all losses sustained in consequence of the present rebellion — indeed it will be but justice — You may depend that Mr. Dommett and I did everything in our power to preserve your interest — …we were able to…save your papers that were in a white trunk —

…eight months since I had a letter from my father — I think as a faithful subject & one who has been imprisoned & otherwise suffered & still suffering by the Rebels on account of his loyalty & has lost some hundred by the destruction…has some claim on government for a provision

I will make you acquainted with the story of my imprisonment — 

After Captain Mowat had gone off, I moved into town again, hoping to spend the winter quietly there — but the Cerberus Captaub Simons came in November & demanded — sheep and other cattle of the town’s people which they positively refused, & sent a committee on board to tell him so — 

Capt. Simmons thought proper to keep the Committee prisoners till the town complied. Upon this Mr Dommett & I were immediately seized upon and a guard set over us — and we were ordered to write to Captain Simmons to acquaint him of our imprisonment, and that we were to be held as hostages till those he had on board were set free. Capt Simmons was so good for our sakes to set them at liberty which procured our enlargement. Otherwise we should have been close prisoners at this day.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Burning of Falmouth — Mowat’s Revenge
  • Date October 18, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Burning of Falmouth, Siege of Boston, Lieutenant Henry Mowat, General Thomas Gage, Admiral Samuel Graves, William Whipple
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 30, 2023

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