Cape Cod – The English Wars – Pt. 2

IN no long time the king’s men were marching out to Concord and Lexington; and with the actual shed-ding of blood, messengers, on the Sunday, rode out post-haste to rouse the country. “War is begun,” cried they at church doors. “War, war,” broke in upon hymn or parson’s prayer; and from pulpit and people rose the solemn response: “To arms: liberty or death.”

The radicals were jubilant. Mr. Watson, of Plymouth, wrote to his friend Freeman congratulations upon the spirit of Sandwich, where Freeman had ordered the royal arms burned by the common hang-man. “We are in high spirits,” wrote Watson, “and don’t think it is in the power of all Europe to subjugate us.” “The Lord of Hosts fights on the side of the Yankees,” averred he. “I glory in the name.” Yet Watson, an ardent patriot, in the course of a political quarrel of later years, was denounced to Jefferson as an old Tory, and was conveniently removed from office.

But sober men were preparing to meet the cost of choosing between a man’s way and a child’s. Cape Cod, in particular, with a defenceless coast and the probable interruption of her fisheries and commerce, faced ruin; but, four-square, she stood for freedom. Immediately upon the news of fighting, two companies of militia from Barnstable and Yarmouth took the road, but returned on word that the royal troops were held in Boston. With them, that day, piping them out with fifes, were two boys who, when they were sent back, “borrowed” an old horse grazing by the roadside to give them a mount homeward. One boy became solicitor-general, the other a judge, and one day there chanced to be a case of prosecution for horse-thieving between them. “Davy,” whispered Judge Thacher, leaning from the bench, “this puts me in mind of the horse we stole that day in Barn-stable.”

As the militia had marched down the county road, an old farmer halted them. “God be with you all, my friends,” said he as one who would consecrate their enterprise. “And John, my son, if you are called into battle, take care that you behave like a man or else let me never see your face again.” A Harwich father, when he had heard of the first blood spilled, cried out to his son: “Eben, you’re the only one can be spared. Take your gun and go. Fight for religion and liberty.” And that boy, and others who joined on the instant were ready to fight at Bunker Hill.

Yet there had been no open declaration of cutting loose from the mother country; and the colonists seem to have had no more deliberate intention of founding a nation than had the Pilgrims of declaring a new principle of government. The second Continental Congress had recommended a day of prayer and humiliation “to implore the blessings of Heaven on our sovereign the King of England and the inter-position of divine aid to remove the grievances of the people and restore harmony.” The Cape, a sturdy inheritor of the Pilgrim spirit, seems to have been an early advocate of state rights. In 1778 Barnstable appointed a committee to pass upon the proposed union. “It appears to us,” said Barnstable, “that the power of congress is too great…. But if during the present arduous conflict with Great Britain it may be judged necessary to vest such extra powers in a continental congress, we trust that you will use your endeavors that the same shall be but temporary.” “The Plymouth spirit, which nearly a century before had been shy of a union with Massachusetts,” writes Palfrey, “was now equally averse to a consolidated government which should implicate the concerns of Massachusetts too much with those of other states.”

Bunker Hill was fought, and by July Washington, as commander-in-chief, was in residence at Cambridge. When he called for troops to man Dorchester Heights, Captain Joshua Gray marched through Yarmouth with a drummer, calling for volunteers, and eighty-one men responded. The night was spent in preparation, the women moulding bullets and making cartridges, and by dawn the little company, equipped for war, was ready to take the road. As was natural, fishermen and sailors, when they could, en-listed in the infant navy. But the call for men pressed until even Joseph Otis protested: “We have more men in the land and sea service than our proportion,” and “there is scarcely a day that the enemy is not within gun-shot of some part of our coast. It is like dragging men from home when their houses are on fire, but I will do my best to comply.” An additional grievance lay in the fact that the Cape troops seem to have been sent largely to Rhode Island. And Otis added that it was unreasonable “to detach men from their property, wives and children to protect the town of Providence in the heart of the State of Rhode Island.”

Wellfleet, deprived of its fisheries, was all but ruined; Provincetown, with its few inhabitants who had not fled, was entirely at the disposal of the enemy fleet when it rode snugly at anchor in the harbor. But even these towns struggled to furnish their quota to feed the desperate need; and Mashpee Indians, as we know, played their part so nobly that the war’s end saw seventy widows in the little community.

But there were malcontents enough to induce precaution, and the Provincial Congress had immediately provided for disarming the disaffected. In Barnstable there had been so many of little courage that in 1776 it had voted against supporting the Congress if it should declare for independence rather than stand out simply for constitutional liberty; and when the draft was resorted to and some men “refused to march,” their fines and costs were paid by the loyalists of Barnstable and Sandwich. In August Colonel Joseph Otis and Nathaniel Freeman were appointed to round up suspects on the Cape, a task, we may guess, much to their liking. In December Major Dimmock, who had fought at Ticonderoga in the French War, was commanded to “repair to Nantucket and arrest such as are guilty of supplying the enemy with provisions.” Tories from the mainland had fled thither, and they were not only in constant communication with British ships, but manned many of the ships that harried the coast.

The Cape made a brave attempt to keep up its trade, and voyages were made with the permission of the General Court, “always provided that the said fish &c., shall not be cleared out for any of his Britannic Majesty’s dominions.” But affairs were in desperate case, and loyalists plotted with some show of reason that they had chosen the winning side. Otis reports on October 2: “Yesterday the Tories in the Sound, about a league off Highano’s harbor, took a vessel bound out of said harbor to Stonington and drove another ashore on the eastward part of Falmouth. In short the refugees have got a number of Vineyard pilot-boats (about twenty) and man them, and run into our shores and take everything that floats.” Nevertheless, he engages to get two small vessels, if they will give him guns, and “scour the Sound.” On October 12 the head of “a refugee gang in the Sound” sent a flag of truce to ask an exchange of prisoners. And in this same month the General Court appropriated money for four cannon, four to nine-pounders — no formidable armament for the long coast-line of the Cape. But the Sound, especially, was the scene of many an adventure, and enemy raids upon its shores seem to have been prompted largely by a desire for fresh meat. In 1779 marauders drove away some cattle from farms near Wood’s Hole, but were surprised and put off to their ships without their booty; an attack in force was planned against Falmouth, but was received by such hot fire from the shore that the ships were driven out into the Sound; at Wood’s Hole, again, they met with a like reception. But the Sound the Britishers succeeded in making their own. Nevertheless, one hundred men, under Colonel Dimmock, were sent over for the defence of Martha’s Vineyard; and among other exploits Dimmock captured an enemy vessel in Old Town Harbor, and took her crew, under hatches, to Hyannis whence they were sent overland to Boston. A Federal grain vessel, as it entered the Sound one day, fell into the hands of the British; but its captain escaped, roused Captain Dimmock, who got together twenty men and three whaleboats, next morning retook the prize from under the nose of the British at Tarpaulin Cove, and made safe harbor at Martha’s Vineyard.

The outer coast was blockaded, but sometimes a boat from Boston or the fishing-grounds would slip through; sometimes, even, such a one would be al-lowed to pass. None other than the great Nelson — Lieutenant Nelson he was then, in command of His Majesty’s Ship Albemarle stationed that year in Cape Cod Bay — released the Schooner Harmony, Ply-mouth owned, to its captain “on account of his good services,” as pilot, we may guess. Nor was the relation of fleet and mainland wholly unfriendly. These straight Britishers were much better liked by the people than the loyalist refugees that, for the most part, manned the hostile boats off Wood’s Hole and Falmouth. English officers often landed and called upon the people, or attended church; one ship’s surgeon even found opportunity to fall in love with a Truro girl, and win her, too; and after the war, he resigned His Majesty’s service, married his sweetheart, and settled down to the village practice. The Reverend “William Hazlett, a Briton,” baptized several children at Truro in 1785. Rich thinks he may have been a retired navy chaplain, but it seems quite as reasonable to suppose that he was the father of William Hazlitt, the essayist, who, at about that time, happened to be in Weymouth. As early as December, 1776, a committee was appointed to “acquaint his excellency, General Washington, with the importance of Cape Cod Harbor and consider with him on some method to deprive the enemy of the advantage they now receive therefrom.” But to the end of hostilities the English fleet continued to enjoy that advantage, though, as we have seen, they were content to use their ships for blockade purposes rather than their men to molest the inhabitants. The British seem to have been able to get needed supplies by purchase instead of bloodshed, although there is some evidence of disturbance ashore. Mr. Rich in his history of Truro tells us of a man who, one fine evening, was enjoying a pipe under an apple-tree on his farm near High Head when stray shots from a man-of-war came ploughing up the ground near him. And once the militia captain at Truro, believing a raid imminent, used the clever ruse of boldly parading his tiny “corn-stalk brigade” in and out among the dunes near Pond Village for two hours; and he frightened off the British, he averred, by such a demonstration of strength.

By sea Truro men did not get off so easily. In 1775 David Snow and his son, a lad of fifteen, were fishing off the “Back Side” one day when they were captured by an enemy frigate known, significantly, as “the shaving-mill.” They were taken to England and locked up, with other Yankee prisoners, in the Old Mill Prison near Plymouth, where they set their wits at work on methods of escape. Mr. Snow, one night, proposed a dance, when the fiddle squeaked its loudest and the dancers shuffled noisily in heavy brogans, to drown the noise of the file that willing hands kept hard at work eating at the bars. Thirty-six men, under cover of the hilarity, succeeded in slipping out into the yard, overpowered the guard, walked the fifteen miles to Plymouth Harbor, boarded a scow, and before daylight were afloat in the Channel. There they captured a small boat, and set sail for France where they sold their prize for hard cash, Snow and his son receiving as their share forty dollars. The French Government, when occasion served, set them on the shore of Carolina whence they finally worked their way overland to Boston, took boat for Province-town, and so home again to Truro. Seven years had been consumed in the adventure, and they had long been mourned as dead. The boy was now a man, but a quick-eyed girl cried, as she saw him: “If that isn’t David Snow, it’s his ghost.” And the father found his wife “spending the afternoon” with her sewing, at a neighbor’s. Another Truro lad was of the crew that rowed Benedict Arnold out to the Vulture, and when he knew the significance of that night’s story, fearing that he might be implicated in a charge of treason, he fled straight to Canada. There he married, and it was forty-eight years before he returned to visit his old home. A Yarmouth man was one of the gallant Andre’s guards the night before his execution, and lamented his unhappy fate. And Watson Freeman, of Sandwich, who in 1754 at the age of fourteen had joined the expedition to Canada, fought in the Revolution, and was present at the taking of Burgoyne in 1777. The next year he was stationed with General Sullivan on Long Island, where, being one of a “foraging party” that was surprised by the enemy in the relaxation of attending a ball, he received a sabre-cut on the forehead that scarred him for life. Later, having joined an uncle who commanded a privateer, he was taken prisoner by the enemy, wounded in an encounter between them and a French boat, invalided to a hospital at Portsmouth, England, and discharged as incurable. Wandering about the country, he came upon an old herb-woman who proved wiser than the doctors, and he lived to amass a fortune in Boston as an “importer of English goods and concerned also in navigation.”

Nor did the British cruisers have things all their own way. Swift-sailing privateers were fitted out — Cape Cod sailors we may be sure eager for such service — and in the two years between 1776 and 1778 nearly eight hundred prizes had been captured; while during the war nearly two hundred thousand tons of British shipping were taken by privateers that were manned largely by fishermen.

Certainly, whether of men high in council or of the rank and file, Cape Cod furnished her due share in the conflict: unnamed sailors and soldiers, brave men all; Nathaniel Freeman, Joseph Otis, Dimmock; and, greater than all, the James Otises, father and son. From the evacuation of Boston in 1776 to 1780 when the new government was established, Massachusetts affairs were in the hands of the Council that was elected annually as provided by the charter of William and Mary; of this Council Colonel James Otis, as senior member, was presiding officer and virtually the Governor of the Province. James, the patriot, never entirely recovered from the effects of a dastardly assault in 1769, and in 1783 he was killed by a stroke of lightning as he stood in his doorway at Andover. The last years of his life were dark with tragedy. His daughter, to his great grief, had married an English officer, who was wounded at Bunker Hill; his son, James, third of the name, had enlisted as a midshipman and died, at twenty-one, on the notorious British prison-ship Jersey. But the patriot had accomplished his great work. And of him John Adams well said : I have been young and now am old, and I solemnly say I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent and sincere — never one who suffered so much — never one whose services for any ten years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.”