The Battle of Margaretta, by today’s standards, was really more of a skirmish: a sailing vessel with four guns attacked by woodsmen with farm implements.
But it was the first naval battle of the American Revolution, and James Fenimore Cooper called it “the Lexington of the Seas.”
The victors in the battle would protect Maine’s eastern coast during the Revolution and raid British ships.
And the Battle of Margaretta would have dire consequences for a town 200 miles to the south.
The Battle of Margaretta
During the Siege of Boston, bottled-up British troops quickly ran out of wood. They tore up churches and fences for firewood, but they needed lumber to build barracks for their crowded soldiers.
A Loyalist entrepreneur, Ichabod Jones, lived in the lumbering village of Machias in Downeast Maine. He worked out a deal to send firewood and lumber to Boston in exchange for flour, pork and other much-needed provisions in Machias.
But Machias proved a poor choice as a trading partner for the British. Some of the town’s most prominent citizens sided with the patriot cause. They included militia colonel Benjamin Foster and Jeremiah O’Brien.
In the summer of 1775, two sloops carrying provisions sailed into Machias Bay, escorted by an armed British cutter with four guns, the Margaretta. The Margaretta’s captain, midshipman James Moore, circulated a document that he wanted the villagers to sign. The document said they would agree to protect the three vessels in exchange for the provisions they so desperately needed.
Many of the villagers agreed, but Benjamin Foster did not. He gathered militia from neighboring villages. The rebels then secretly plotted to capture the British officers while they attended church services on Sunday, June 11.
Farce, Then Tragedy
There really wasn’t much to the Battle of Margaretta. It might have even seemed comical had it not ended in the deaths of seven combatants.
The Battle of Margaretta amounted to some three dozen woodsmen in a merchant vessel ramming a small, lightly armed cutter that sailed too clumsily to escape. The woodsmen overtook the British with pitchforks, axes and hunting rifles, using melted-down spoons as ammunition.
So on June 11, the British officers noticed the Machias rebels coming after them in church. They escaped to their little ship Margaretta amidst a bit of shooting. Midshipman Moore threatened to bomb the town.
The two sides prepared for battle the next day. Two young women, Hannah and Rebecca Weston, traveled 16 miles from Jonesboro with bags of pewter plates, spoons and mugs for ammunition. Hannah, 17 and pregnant with her first child, lived to 97; the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution adopted her as their patron saint.
On Monday, June 12, the rebels commandeered two sloops and chased the Margaretta, but the one captained by Benjamin Foster ran aground. The other, with Jeremiah O’Brien as skipper, chased the Margaretta.
As she headed toward the open sea, inept seamanship caused the Margaretta to lose her gaff and boom. That made the vessel hard to sail, and the crew had to capture another vessel for replacements. Then it had to fix the rigging.
That gave O’Brien’s sloop plenty of time to catch up with the Margaretta and ram into her side. The rebels then boarded her. Shooting and hand-to-hand combat resulted in the death of two Americans, four British and a mortal wound to Midshipman Moore.
Jeremiah O’Brien and his men captured two more British vessels, which made up a small privateer fleet.
Americans later staged several futile invasions of British territory from Machias. The British tried to attack the village in the summer of 1777, but broke it off as the aroused populace counterattacked.
As long as Machias held out against the British, they couldn’t seize the territory.
But they could retaliate, and retaliate they did: against Falmouth, now Portland, Maine. A fleet of British naval vessels fired flaming cannonballs into the town, burning down the harbor installations and most of the town’s buildings.
After the Battle of Margaretta, the Burnham Tavern was used as a hospital to tend the wounded of both sides. Moore died of his wounds in the tavern. Today a chest in the tavern said to be stained with his blood.
The Hannah Weston Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution now runs the Burnham Tavern as a museum. For more information about the Burnham Tavern, click here. This story was updated in 2022.