The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight
Fire, Smoak, and Elbridge Gerry
|Six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the inhabitants of Marblehead awoke one morning to find themselves threatened by the cannon of a trio of His Majesty's warships. On December 13, 1775, they discovered to their great alarm that three British naval vessels were standing off the mouth of the harbor, strung out in battle formation, with their gun ports triced up and the black, sinister-looking muzzles of their cannon aimed directly at the heart of their town.
The unexpected and unanticipated appearance of this powerful sea force unfortunately caught Marblehead by surprise, and at a time when it was wholly unprepared to mount a strong and vigorous defense. That it would soon have to fight for its very existence and for the safety and protection of its people was readily apparent to those citizens who had rushed to the beaches and headlands to scrutinize the enemy vessels. From these vantage points, it was possible to view the three enemy men-of-war who at that moment were busily engaged in executing a series of warlike maneuvers a few hundred yards off the shore. It was plain that their tactics spelled trouble. In truth, few if any present on that cold December day harbored a doubt as to the fleet's intention. It was evident that it was preparing to subject Marblehead to a bombardment, a bombardment so severe, so destructive and so devastating that the seaport would be promptly reduced to a mass of tangled, smouldering, smoke-blackened rubble.
The town, a century and a half old, was in 1775 beset by a multitude of trials and tribulations. Throughout the decades preceding the rupture between the American colonies and the mother country it had enjoyed a long and uninterrupted period of prosperity and growth. For many a year its ever expanding trade with the West Indies and the distant ports of Europe had enriched the merchants and shipowners, and enabled its citizens and storekeepers to fare well. But following the Battle of Concord and Lexington, these conditions were reversed. The British established a nearly impenetrable blockade upon the New England seacoast and in doing so forced the town's sizable merchant ships and fishing schooners to remain at anchor within the confines of its well-protected harbor. With its trade cut off and its fishing industry practically destroyed, Marblehead was striving hard to overcome the hardships and decay and deterioration that had already nearly sapped its once-astounding vitality.
The huge warehouses and storage sheds that ringed the waterfront and which had for generations housed vast quantities of dried, sun-cured fish were empty and forlorn. Formerly a scene of endless activity, they were now only a ghostly echo of the past, idle and silent and housing only a reek of brine and sea air. The wharves too had begun to show the ravages of disuse and neglect. No longer were they alive with sailors and dockworkers busily engaged in handling and loading barrels of dried cod and haddock, lumber and staves, and the products of the town's enterprising tradesmen. Buried under a jumble of splintered spars, broken barrels, weathered and damaged ship's gear and an accumulation of discarded litter, they were rapidly giving way to wrack and ruin. With business at a standstill and the sea lanes closed to its merchant fleet, its fishing industry at the mercy of the enemy's patrol boats, the townspeople of Marblehead were hard pressed to feed and clothe their families.
But in spite of the hard times that had settled upon the town and the adversities which beset its people, Marblehead remained a hotbed of rebellion, and to a man, its inhabitants were dyed-in-the-wool patriots. Innately inclined to look upon the authority of the province with both disapproval and contempt, they had in recent years ample reason for espousing the revolutionary cause. The Sugar Act of 1764 had hurt them, as had the Townshend Act and other imperial policies that had injured their commerce and their general welfare. Angered by the restrictions that had hemmed them in, and by the duties enacted by the British Parliament, they had reacted in a manner at once spontaneous and violent. By common consent they openly endorsed and supported any group or organization whose primary purpose it was to resist and defeat the encroachments of the Crown and His Majesty's New England emissaries. In session after session, the voters present at the Marblehead town meetings did little else but demand, argue, debate and clamor for liberty, freedom and independence. On these occasions there were neither divisions nor factions; one and all, merchant and fisherman, small tradesman and shipowner were of one mind. Each and every one was an outspoken and dedicated patriot.
Shortly after Captain Samuel R. Trevett and his artillery company returned from the Battle of Bunker Hill, Colonel John Glover was ordered to report to General Ward at Cambridge. His regiment of 505 well-uniformed and well-disciplined Marbleheaders (all but seven of whom were native-born Marbleheaders) left on June 21 and took up its position on the outskirts of Boston, reinforcing the Continental troops surrounding that city.
But among those who remained were many seasoned mariners and fishermen. Born to the sea, these men speedily responded to an appeal for seamen willing to serve on the privateers then being outfitted by a few patriot sea captains. Once the ex-fishing schooners were fully manned and provisioned, they slipped out of the harbor under cover of darkness and roved far and wide in their search for slow-sailing, heavy-laden English merchantmen.
To the consternation and dismay of the Royal Navy, these tubby, stub-masted privateers soon managed to capture a number of unescorted supply ships. But what aroused the Britishers more than anything was the knowledge that the cargoes of the prizes seized by the Americans were invariably a veritable treasure-trove to the ill-equipped and poorly provisioned Continental Army. The fact the ships bearing huge quantities of ammunition and military supplies destined for His Majesty's arsenals in North America were now safely within the magazines of the patriots was more than sufficient to infuriate the British naval command. (Note 1)
Angered by the depredations of the rebel privateers, the commander of the British North Atlantic fleet, Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, eventually decided the hour had arrived when he must strike the American patriots a telling blow. Throughout the summer months he had used every means at hand to either capture or sink the lightly armed privateers that were disrupting his supply lines. But to no avail. The Yankee vessels refused to retreat. Day-in and day-out they continued to dog the wakes of the British transport fleet, running down and capturing those which went astray or fell behind their escort. An awareness that the ordnance removed from his transports was immediately forwarded to Cambridge and returned in the form of a hail of bullets did little to improve the disposition of the Admiral and his fellow officers.
The moment he made up his mind to square accounts with the rebellious Americans, Graves determined to deal them a blow where it would hurt the most, and to strike them often and hard. The thing to do, he figured, was to wipe out all of the seaports sheltering the rebel cruisers and to wreak vengeance upon any coastal town that supplied them with recruits, provisions, sails and gear. With this in mind he then sent a letter to Captain Henry Mowat, master of the British armed vessel Canceaux.
"It is my Design" he wrote on October 6, 1775, "to Chastise Marblehead, Salem, Newbury Port, Cape Anne Harbour, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Saco, and Falmouth in Casco Bay [and] You are to go to all the above Places as you can and make the most vigorous Efforts to burn the Towns, and destroy the Shipping in the Harbours." (Note 2)
Mowat did as ordered. He sailed to Falmouth (Portland), Maine, and on the morning of October 17, ten days after the receipt of his communication from Admiral Graves, reduced that hapless and helpless seaport to a horrendous expanse of smoking ashes. Resorting to a heavy barrage of shells and incendiary bombs, his vessels set fire to the town and destroyed more than 200 dwellings, a church, several public buildings, a number of wharves and warehouses, and the major portion of its fishing fleet.
As was to be expected, this unprovoked attack upon an unprotected and vulnerable people immediately aroused the warring colonies and alerted them to the blows which they had reason to believe would inevitably be dealt them. It was now obvious to every American colonist that Admiral Graves's seemingly intemperate orders were neither idle words nor empty phrases. If the destruction of Falmouth were accepted as an example of his "Design," there could be but little doubt that he had every intention of inflicting upon the seaports of New England the ruthless policy he had promulgated.
The question which now arose to plague the minds of the patriots was harrowing to think about. Would the next victim of Graves's ferocious campaign of retaliation and retribution be Gloucester? Newbury Port? or Marblehead? Following the destruction of Falmouth an uneasy but welcome peace enveloped the coastal towns of New England. But nothing happened, no other ports were visited by hostile British warcraft, nor did Mowat attempt to threaten the patriot lairs with his small but potent fleet. As the weeks passed tension eased, and the people began to think that the retribution which Graves had promised had petered out.
However, unknown to the citizens of Marblehead, the British naval command at Boston had early in December concluded it was again time to flaunt the power and prestige of England's North Atlantic squadron. It thereupon issued an order directing a fleet of four heavily armed warships to scout Marblehead and the coastal towns of the province's north shore. Weighing anchor at four o'clock in the morning, the warships selected for this cruise set their sails and headed down the coast toward Cape Ann. (Note 3)
Aided by a strong and gusty wind the three fastest sailers reached Marblehead at about mid-morning having required some six hours to cover the distance between the two seaports. The fourth vessel, the Canceaux, commanded by Henry Mowat, the British naval officer who had burned Falmouth to the ground with shot and shell, did not appear. She either had fallen behind her sister ships or for reasons unknown and unrecorded returned to port. Whatever the cause of her failure to join in the momentous events of that gray December day, it served only to prevent Mowat from participating in the abortive attack upon Marblehead.
The unforeseen arrival of these hostile warships marked the beginning of a long, nerve-wracking and incredible day for the inhabitants of the surprised patriot stronghold. Before dusk fell that night they would find their streets swarming with soldiers, horse-drawn artillery and all the military paraphernalia General Washington felt he could spare for their defense. They would also tumble into bed and sleep the sleep of a people utterly exhausted by the struggles and stress endured throughout a brief and exciting period.
Although the chroniclers of those years may have considered the story of this extraordinary episode of no great consequence, there was one Marbleheader who judged it worth recording. That person was Elbridge Gerry, a native-born son of Marblehead and a dedicated, aggressive and able revolutionist. Believing that this singular contest between the redoubtable patriots of his home town and their arrogant British foe would serve to bolster the spirits of his countrymen, he incorporated it in one of his letters. If anyone active in the patriot cause could make good use of it, that man was his friend Sam Adams, a masterful and clever propagandist.
Gerry, born and raised in comparative wealth, was from the day of his birth an intense and complex person. After graduating from Harvard at the age of eighteen, he returned home, entered his father's countinghouse and the marts of trade, and promptly espoused the patriot cause. Rarely, if ever, did he pass up a chance to berate Great Britain and the harsh policies he claimed she had saddled on the weak, helpless and voiceless American provinces. An indefatigable worker and tireless propagandist, he seemingly did little other than to use his sharp prying eyes to search for signs of British tyranny, and employ his long and inquisitive nose to sniff into every nook and cranny in the hope of uncovering the slightest trace of Parliamentary oppression. From the moment he awoke, he spent each day living, writing and preaching sedition, freedom, liberty and independence. (Note 4)
Elected in 1772 to the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, Gerry, marked by his patrician manners and his finicky dress and deportment, soon caught the attention of the patriot party's constant agitator, Samuel Adams. Adams was a mastermind at intrigue, political manipulation and wise in the ways of influencing the longshoremen of Boston, the small tradesmen of the outlying towns, and the farmers in their homespun clothes. Under the tutelage of this energetic revolutionary Gerry's zeal for rebellion was both reinforced and strengthened. They became firm friends and their relationship proved a fruitful one inasmuch as they were dyed-in-the-wool partisans determined to leave no stone unturned until the American colonies had severed their ties with the mother country.
By 1775 Gerry had become an important and capable member of several patriotic committees, a person of resourcefulness, foresight and integrity. In the fall of that year he was working around the clock, laboring long and hard as a member of the Committee of Supply to procure for the Continental Army the food, clothing, guns and powder it so desperately needed. But busy though he was with provincial affairs, the mind and hand of this youthful patriot were never idle. Day-in and day-out he devoted hours which he could ill afford composing letters that castigated Great Britain, its King and its Parliament. While frequently long and rambling, their themes were always crystal clear. The British, he wrote on one occasion, were unprincipled knaves and he strongly urged the colonists to shake off their apathy and bend every effort to thwart the "Designs of Parliament and a Corrupt Ministry." (Note 5)
Brimming with energy and alive with ideas and the vision of a new nation, Elbridge Gerry seemingly spent the major portion of every twenty-four hours preaching rebellion and initiating plans to spread discontent throughout the American colonies.
On the day the three British warships appeared off Marblehead Gerry happened to be in his quarters at Watertown, the seat of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. It was evening and he was then closing a long and informative letter addressed to his compatriot, Sam Adams, when a messenger entered and handed him a dispatch. It required but a second to digest its contents.
A squadron of British warships was attacking Marblehead!
Staggered by the news that his home town was the target for enemy guns, Gerry put aside the letter and "at a half Hours Warning" (Note 6) was mounted and on his way to Marblehead. Accompanying him as he galloped through the winter darkness was Colonel Azor Orne, a fellow-townsman and ardent patriot.
The two men spared neither the horses nor themselves. After a long and dangerous ride over rutted roads in poor and deceptive light they entered Marblehead "about midnight." To their vast relief and to their utter amazement they found the town peaceful and quiet, the inhabitants in bed, sound asleep and unharmed!
They found neither devastation nor destruction of any kind. There were no homes riddled by shot and shell, no dead, no wounded, and no homeless families searching aimlessly for food and shelter. Instead of a seaport consumed by fire and a populace decimated by enemy cannon fire, they had entered a town completely quiet and unharmed, a town in which every man, woman, and child was obviously slumbering contentedly in bed!
As Gerry was to note later, both he and Azor Orne were not only bewildered and baffled but completely mystified by what they saw on every side. In his lengthy postscript, penned the 14th of December and appended to the letter he had been writing at Watertown, he confessed his perplexity, telling Adams "that instead of the roaring of Cannon, Fire & Smoak which there was reason to Expect, We found all Quiet."
The following morning, Gerry made it a point to learn why the enemy fleet had departed without firing a single shot. Why had the three British warships not battered and burned Marblehead as Mowat had Falmouth a few weeks earlier. To his delight, his quest found answers so intriguing that he found it impossible to resist the urge to share the details with his good friend Sam Adams, who he was certain would enjoy the tale he had to tell.
The largest of the trio of men-of-war, he discovered, was none other than HMS Lively, a 20-gun sloop of war and, oddly enough, the first British warship to send a broadside of shot and shell into the ranks of the patriot forces massed on Bunker Hill! The second most powerful vessel was the 300-ton Nautilus and the third and smallest of the three was the Hinchinbrook, whose armament consisted of 12 cannon. The fleet, with a total of 48 cannon, all manned by well disciplined and experienced crews, was indeed a truly formidable sea force. Under any conditions its armament and its gunners were far more than a match for the volunteers that had gathered around the cannon nestled behind the embankment of the town's earthen-walled fortress.
He learned also that almost as soon as the three British warships had entered the channel skirting the mouth of the harbor, the news spread through the town like wildfire. Scores of people immediately rushed to the beaches or climbed nearby slopes for a glimpse of the enemy ships. Even though the majority was fearful the oncoming fleet intended to deal Marblehead a blow similar to the blow Mowat had dealt Falmouth, they were reluctant to pass up an opportunity to witness the turn of events from the beginning.
If among the group congregated on the shores there were any who harbored an idea that the enemy squadron was on a peaceful mission, those persons were soon disillusioned. For as the ships drew near, those watching their approach were able to make out the activities taking place on their decks. From their vantage points they could see men clambering aloft, some to shorten sail, others to act as lookouts; at the same time they saw the gun ports being triced up and gun crews working around their cannon. It was obvious that this fleet meant business, that it was a fighting squadron in fighting trim, and preparing to strike!
From this point on, the course of events moved fast and furiously. The townspeople were well aware of the odds and to a man knew that the town was unprepared for an emergency of this magnitude and that militarily it was in desperate straits. They were outgunned and with their fighting men at Cambridge, the enemy not only possessed the upper hand but was about to use it to advantage.
Beleaguered though they were, the men of Marblehead were not in the mood to submit or surrender without a fight. They were determined to defy the enemy, despite the weight of his weapons and the number and skill of his veteran crews.
Without a moment's hesitation, they ordered a general alarm. Drummer boys were sent into the streets and byways, and men were dispatched to the several churches, there to set the steeple bells a-clanging. Soon the entire town was alerted as the inhabitants, aroused by the frenzied pealing of the church bells and the ominous throbbing of the drums, hastened to respond to the extraordinary summons.
At the same time, the town fathers, realizing the need for additional military support, drafted a letter and dispatched it to General Washington. The contents of this letter noted "that three men of war were...off the harbor, and that it was apprehended that an attack was intended." (Note 7)
As soon as he received this communication from Marblehead, Washington, then at Cambridge, and short of cannon, ammunition and well-trained troops, responded as expected. He ordered a company of artillery to be rushed to the aid of the threatened seaport. He also decided to augment the town's slender forces. He ordered Colonel John Glover's regiment of Marblehead fishermen to march immediately to the defense of their town.
Throughout this period the British warships, now off the fort and in full view of scores of men, women and children, were executing a series of maneuvers. Time and again they would sail past Gale's Head, reeling and plunging in the choppy waters of the channel, remaining always within easy range of the land. Spearheading the trio as they swept past was the Lively, and close on her heels would follow the Nautilus, with its tier of cannon aimed directly at the heart of the town. Trailing the two, though no less ready for action, would follow the Hinchinbrook. The townspeople could clearly see an attack was imminent. Baffled, worried and tense, they could only stand and stare.
Meanwhile, the Marblehead fishermen who had rushed to the fort had gathered about its cannon and were readying them for action. (Note 8) Some were engaged in carrying heavy iron shot from the inner depths of the fort's powder magazine to the waiting gun crews. Others, whose duty it was to serve the guns in other capacities, were assembling wad hooks, ladles and spongers. Every man was using his time to good account, struggling and sweating at his tasks, yet ever alert and primed for whatever might develop. Despite the lookouts whom the British had posted high on the masts of their ships, the fort's defenders made no effort to camouflage their preparations. They had nothing to hide; they wanted the British to know how hot a reception they were preparing for them!
Meanwhile the town fathers, increasingly concerned by the warlike tactics of the men-of-war, decided the hour had come when drastic steps must be taken. Momentarily expecting the enemy to hurl a rain of shot and shell into the center of the town, it seemed only sensible to protect the young, the old and the helpless. So they ordered all women and children to leave town. (Note 9) It was a step hitherto unprecedented, and the first and only instance in the history of Marblehead when it was deemed necessary to evacuate its people. Presumably, those who obeyed this edict sought shelter in the cold windswept fields nearby or the most distant woods, both beyond cannon range.
Within the fort everyone was on tenterhooks and filled with foreboding. They were of one mind; all were convinced that the British had every intention of bombarding the town. Yet nothing happened. The three men-of-war made no hostile moves; they merely continued their baffling maneuvers of threatening, retreating and returning to threaten once again. It was all very puzzling. But it left the patriots weak and worn, their nerves stretched taut, as they waited and waited for the expected onslaught.
In his letter Gerry described the British maneuvers, and this coursing of the channel by the enemy vessels as "parading." In this he was not too far wrong, inasmuch as the three ships sailing stem to stern through the churning roadstead did indeed constitute a parade. It was not however a pageant designed to entertain the townspeople of Marblehead. And understandably they found it a most harrowing spectacle to watch.
Precisely what went on aboard the three ships is of course a matter of conjecture, though it is evident that the preparations observed within the fort ultimately won the day for Marblehead. That the lookouts planted aloft were able to accurately report the defensive measures underway on Gale's Head and forecast a sharp and heavy cannonading in the event of an attack may be taken for granted. From their perches towering above the decks, they were able to see the militant actions of those manning the cannon nestling behind the thick earthen walls and also hear the clanging of the steeple bells and the rumble of the drums. In spite of the blustery weather, the choppy sea and the stiff northeast wind, the din was terrific. Soon everyone within earshot would realize that some untoward event was unfolding and hasten to the support of their besieged neighbors.
Understandably these developments placed the British in a quandary: would the Marbleheaders fight? Would they, dare they, risk their lives, the lives of their families and their homes, for a lost cause, a bloody battle? Would they, brave though they were, possess the nerve and the courage to recklessly exchange shot for shot with a trio of His Majesty's formidable navy?
The reports relayed to the deck officers from the seamen stationed in the crow's nest apparently settled this question. The town would defend itself. The fort was not only a-crawl with men, but those very men were exerting every effort, straining every muscle, to train their cumbrous guns upon the three ships. To the consternation and astonishment of the king's officers, it was plainly evident that the men of Marblehead did not plan to retreat or surrender.
At the same time it must have dawned upon the British that the strategy they had been practicing was not entirely successful. For one thing, their strange tactics had inevitably worked them and their ships into a decidedly precarious position. In a sense they had trapped themselves. They were not only under the muzzles of the cannon on Gale's Head, but they were also hemmed in between the rugged shores of Cat Island and the confines of the channel slanting past Marblehead harbor. They had become sitting ducks. No longer were they the powerful and invincible antagonist. Due to the superior accuracy of the fort's guns, they were little else than easy, attractive and tempting targets.
Apparently deeming it advisable to forego a chance to batter Marblehead into the ground, the British decided to change their tactics. Frustrated and discomfited by the resourcefulness of the Marbleheaders, they drew back. They shook out their sails, turned tail and headed out to sea. (Note 10) After "parading" for close to two hours, and by their actions indicating that they planned to attack the town, they departed without firing a single shot.
Marblehead, however, was highly pleased to witness their departure. Though the British did not know it, the town was helpless, wide open to attack, and incapable of mounting a defense. Neither the artillery General Washington had sent posthaste, nor Glover's regiment, had arrived. The truth was, that Marblehead on Wednesday, December 13, 1775, was as weak and powerless as Falmouth had been on the day Mowat's fleet had burned that defenseless town to ashes!
How truly impotent Marblehead was on that occasion is fully revealed in Elbridge Gerry's letter to Sam Adams. In a postscript penned shortly after he had questioned those who had participated in this abortive affair, Gerry disclosed a well-kept secret. Knowing his friend Sam Adams, he was certain it would both thrill and delight that stalwart revolutionist and possibly serve his patriot cause well. The truth is that Gerry was so elated by what he had uncovered that he could hardly contain himself. For the moment he put aside all worries relating to the procurement of supplies for the hard-pressed Continental army, and indulged in a bit of waggish boasting.
The town, he wrote, was well equipped with cannon and shot, and its people had the will, the courage and the determination to stand up to their enemies. But they lacked one essential item: they had no powder! The fort's magazine was empty! The demonstration they had staged was a defiant and clever act of bravado which worked a miracle for Marblehead.
Unable to contain himself the irrepressible Elbridge Gerry marked the incident by composing a trenchant bon mot:
"Had the town the powder," he wrote, its "Inhabitants would gladly have honor'd the King's ships with a royall Salute." (Note 11)
1. One of the major prizes to be captured by a Marblehead vessel was the British brigantine Nancy. Surrendering to Captain John Manley in the Lee, a 74-ton schooner owned by Thomas Stevens of Marblehead and outfitted with guns and men provided by Colonel John Glover, the Nancy proved a veritable arsenal. Laden with 2000 muskets, 30 tons of shot, 100,000 flints, 11 mortar beds and one huge mortar weighing 10,000 pounds, this ship was to provide the Continental Army with a vast supply of much needed equipment. (Back to article)
2. Vice-Admiral Graves to Lieutenant Henry Mowat, H.M. Armed Vessel Canceaux. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, ed. William Bell Clark (Washington, D.C., 1966) II, 324-326. (Back to article)
3. An entry entered in the logbook of HMS Lively, dated Wednesday 13 December 1775 reads "Strong gales & squalls.....at 4 A.M. weigh and came to sail....fired a Gun signal for ye other ships to weigh, ye Canceaux, Notilus & Hinchinbeck." British Admiralty papers 52/1834. Public Record Office, London. (Back to article)
4. Gerry was a tireless, capable and stalwart revolutionist, having a sharp and incisive tongue and a potent pen. Never loathe to advocate sedition he wrote Samuel Adams on 1 February 1773 saying boldly that "the People. . . ought . . . to have the Opportunity of Choosing their Submission to Slavery, or of righteously supporting with their Lives, their Rights & Liberties." Retained copy of a letter from Gerry to Adams in author's Gerry Collection. (Back to article)
5. Author's Gerry Collection. The complete sentence is a measure of Gerry's commitment to the patriot cause: "I hope, Sir," he wrote, "that in concert with the Sister Colonies, this Province will Push Matters so close that the Designs of Parliament & a Corrupt Ministry cannot any longer be Smouthered." (Back to article)
6. To the letter Gerry sent Adams dated 13 December 1775 is added a lengthy postscript dated Marblehead, December 14, 1775, in which he says "last evening at half an Hours Warning Col Orne with myself left Watertown upon an Alarm that this Town was attacked by Sea." (Back to article)
7. A short article clipped from a Cambridge, Massachusetts, newspaper reports "Yesterday afternoon an express arrived for his Excellency the General with advices that three men of war were seen off that harbor, and that it was apprehended an attack was intended. On the reception of this intelligence, Col. Glover's regiment, with a company of artillery, were ordered to march immediately to that place." Collection of newspaper accounts of the Revolutionary War, M. V. Brewington, Kendall Whaling Museum. (Back to article)
8. On the day this incident was staged the fort on Gale's Head was well armed. According to a report filed by a provincial committee appointed in early 1776 to view the sea coast, "The Situation and Importance of the Harbour of Marblehead with the Strength and Beauty of their Works, are equally conspicuous, they have 18 pieces of Artillery in their Fort [now Fort Sewall] and is in one of their Batteries viz: 2 of 24 [pounders] 2 of 18, 2 of 14, 4 of 12, the remainder nines, Sixes & fours,...[and] they are also erecting a five gun Battery at a Place called Hewetts Head and propose erecting another on the Back Part of the Town." "The Seacoast Defenses of Essex County in 1776," Essex Institute Historical Collections, 43, April 1907, 187. (Back to article)
That the town had strengthened its defenses is confirmed by a statement in Roads' History and Traditions of Marblehead. On pages 131-132 of the 3rd edition (1897), Roads writes that Marblehead had busied itself during August and September 1775 fortifying and making preparations for the defense of the town "and that 100 men were employed for seven days, Sundays not excepted. The cost to the town for carriages, planks and other materials, was thirty-two pounds, exclusive of donations from the citizens, which were very liberal." (Back to article)
9. Gerry's letter is the sole source for this statement. However the pen of Ashley Bowen, a Marblehead seaman, primitive artist and chronicler of local events large and small, lends substance to Gerry's account. An entry in Ashley Bowen's Journals, 1775-1777, in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, discloses that it was cold on Wednesday, December 13, and that at nine o'clock "a Larum [was] beet as three Ships are off...our Foart." Gerry places the time of their arrival one hour later, saying the British men o' war arrived "off the Harbour about ten oClock in the morning & after some Parade formed a Line Against A Battery lately built & mounting 20 pieces of Cannon." In view of the accuracy of the facts contained in Gerry's description of the event his assertion that the town fathers ordered the town evacuated cannot easily be brushed aside. (Back to article)
10. Most historical writers have taken it for granted that the three men-of-war all sailed from Marblehead at the same time. But if Bowen's notes are reliable this is not true. His observations relating to that day report "two of the Ships Stood out for ye NE and one Ley two all Day off our Harbour." (Back to article)
11. Author's Gerry Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts (Back to article)
Author's Note: This entire section "Fire, Smoak, and Elbridge Gerry," is reprinted from the Essex Institute's Historical Collection, January 1970, Salem, Massachusetts.