A British Schooner Captured By Farmers In 1775
CAPTAIN JERRY O'BRIEN LEADS THE PATRIOTS OF 1775
HOW would any of you like to go back to the days when people had only
tallow candles to light their houses, and the moon to light their
streets, when they traveled on horseback or by stage, and got their news
only when it happened to come? In these days of the electric light, the
railroad train, and the telegraph that old way of living would not seem
living at all.
Yet that was the way people lived in 1775 when the Revolution began. It
took weeks for news to travel then, where it takes seconds now. Thus the
fight at Lexington, which began the Revolution, took place on April
19th, but it was May 9th, more than half a month later, before the news
of it reached the little town of Machias, on the coast of Maine. We
should hardly call that fast time. It must have taken several naps on
But when the news came, it found the people ready for it. A coasting
schooner put into the port and brought the story of how the patriots had
fought and bled at Lexington and Concord, and of how the British were
shut up in Boston town, and the country was at war. The news was
received with ringing cheers.
If any of my readers had been at Machias that day I know they would have
felt like striking a blow for liberty. At any rate, that is how the
people of Machias felt, and it did not take them long to show it.
They had some reason not to like the King and his men. All the tall,
straight trees in their woods were kept to make masts for the King's
ships, and no woodman dared set axe to one of these pine trees except at
risk of going to prison. Just then there were two sloops in their harbor
loading with ship-timber, and an armored schooner, the Margaretta, was
there as a good looker-on.
When the men on the wharf heard the story of Lexington, their eyes fell
on the Margaretta. Here was a chance to let King George know what
they thought about his robbing their woods.
"Keep this a secret," they said to the sailors. "Not a word of it to
Captain Moore or his men. Wait till to-morrow and you will see some
That night sixty of the countrymen and townsmen met at a farmhouse
nearby and laid their plans. It was Saturday. On Sunday Captain Moore
and his officers would go to church. Then they could gather at the wharf
and might take the schooner by surprise.
But it is often easier to make a plot than to keep it a secret, and that
lesson they were to learn. The captain and his officers went to the
little village church at sound of the morning bell; the Margaretta lay
lazily floating near the shore; and the plotters began to gather, two or
three at a time strolling down towards the shore, each of them carrying
But in some way Captain Moore discovered their purpose. What bird in the
air whispered to him the secret we do not know, but he suddenly sprang
to his feet, called to his officers to follow him, and leaped like a cat
through the church window, without waiting to go round by the door. We
may be sure the old-fashioned preacher and the pious people in the pews
looked on with wide-open eyes.
Down the street like a deer sped the captain. After him came his
officers. In their rear rushed the patriots, some carrying old muskets,
some with scythes and reaping-hooks.
It was a hot flight and a hot chase. Luckily for Captain Moore the guard
on the schooner was wide-awake. He saw the countrymen chasing his
captain, and at once loaded and fired a gun, whose ball went whistling
over the head of the men of Maine. This was more than they looked for;
they held back in doubt; some of them sought hiding places; before they
could gain fresh courage, a boat put off from the schooner and took the
captain and his officers on board.
Captain Moore did not know what was wrong, but he thought he would
frighten the people, at any rate. So his cannon thundered and balls came
hurtling over the town. Then he drew up his anchor and sailed several
miles down the bay, letting the anchor fall again near a high bank. Some
of the townsmen followed, and a man named Foster called from the bank,
bidding him surrender. But the captain laughed at him, raised his anchor
once more, and ran farther out into the bay.
It looked as if the whole affair was at an end and the Margaretta
safe. But the men of Machias were not yet at the end of their rope.
There lay the lumber sloops, and where a schooner could go a sloop could
Early Monday morning four young men climbed to the deck of one of the
sloops and cheered in a way that soon brought a crowd to the wharf. One
of these was a bold, gallant fellow named Jeremiah O'Brien.
"What is in the wind?" he asked.
"We are going for the King's ship," said Wheaton, one of the men. "We
can outsail her, and all we want is guns enough and men enough to take
"My boys, we can do it," cried O'Brien in lusty tones, after hearing the
Everybody ran off for arms, but all they could find in the town were
twenty guns, with enough powder and balls to make three shots for each.
Their other weapons were thirteen pitchforks and twelve axes. Jerry
O'Brien was chosen captain, thirty-five of the most athletic men were
selected, and the sloop put off before a fresh breeze for the first
naval battle of the Revolution.
It is likely that there were a few sailors among them, and no doubt
their captain knew how to handle a sloop. But the most of them were
landsmen, chiefly haymakers, for Machias lay amid grassy meadows and the
making of hay was its chief business. And there were some woodsmen, who
knew well how to swing an axe. They were all bold men and true, who
cared more for their country than for the King.
When Captain Moore saw the sloop coming with its deck crowded with men
he must have wondered what all this meant. What ailed these countrymen?
Anyhow, he would not fight without knowing what he was fighting for, so
he raised his anchor, set his sails, and made for the open sea. But he
had hardly started when, in going about in the strong wind, the main
boom swung across so sharply that it struck the backstays and broke
I fancy if any of us had been close by then we would have heard ringing
cheers from the Yankee crew. They felt sure now of their prize, though
we cannot see why, for the Margaretta had twenty-four cannon, four
throwing six-pound balls and the rest one-pound balls. Muskets and
pitchforks did not seem of much use against these. It had also more men
than the sloop.
We cannot see why Captain Moore showed his heels instead of his fists,
for he soon proved that he was no coward. But he still seemed to want to
get away, so he drew up beside a schooner that lay at anchor, robbed it
of its boom, lashed it to his own mast and once more took to flight. But
the sloop was now not far behind, and soon showed that it was the better
sailer of the two. In the end it came so close that Captain Moore was
forced to fight or yield.
One of the swivel guns was fired, and then came a whole broadside,
sending its balls hurtling over the crowded deck of the sloop. One man
fell dead, but no other harm was done.
Only a single shot was fired back, but this came from a heavy gun and
was aimed by an old hunter. It struck the man at the helm of the
schooner. He fell dead, letting the rudder swing loose.
The Margaretta, with no hand at her helm, broached to, and in a minute
more the sloop came crashing against her. At once there began a fierce
battle between the British tars and the haymakers of Maine, who sprang
wildly and with ringing cheers for the schooner's deck. Weapons of all
sorts now came into play. Cutlasses, hand-grenades, pistols and boarding
pikes were used by the schooner's men; muskets, pitchforks, and axes
were skilfully handled by the crew of the sloop. Men fast fell dead and
wounded; the decks grew red with blood; both sides fought fiercely, the
men of Machias striving like tigers to gain a footing on the schooner's
deck, the British tars meeting and driving them back.
Captain Moore showed that it was not fear that made him run away. He now
fought bravely at the head of his men, cheering them on and hurling
hand-grenades at the foe.
But in a few minutes the end came. A bullet struck the gallant captain
and he fell dead on his deck. When they saw him fall the crew lost heart
and drew back. The Yankees swarmed over the bulwarks. In a minute more
the Margaretta was theirs.
The battle, though short, had been desperate, for twenty men lay killed
and wounded, more than a fourth of the whole number engaged.
As Bunker Hill showed British soldiers that the Yankees could fight on
land, so the capture of the Margaretta, the first naval victory of the
Americans, showed that they could fight at sea. The Margaretta was
very much the stronger, in men, in guns, and in her trained officers and
skilled crew. Yet she had been taken by a party of landsmen, with
muskets against cannon and pitchforks against pistols. It was a victory
of which the colonists could well be proud.
But Captain O'Brien was not yet satisfied. He had now a good sloop under
his feet, a good crew at his back, and the arms and ammunition of his
prize. He determined to go a-privateering on his own account.
Taking the Margaretta to the town, he handed over his prisoners and
put the cannon and swivels of the schooner on his swifter sloop,
together with the muskets, pistols, powder, and shot which he found on
board. Then away he went, with a bold and daring crew, in search for
prizes and glory.
He soon found both. When the news of what he had done reached Halifax,
the British there sent out two schooners, with orders to capture the
insolent Yankee and bring him to port and to prison. But Captain O'Brien
showed that he knew how to handle a sloop as well as a pitchfork. He met
the schooners sent to capture him, and by skilful sailing managed to
separate them. Then he made a bold dash on each of them and in a little
time captured them both.