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The Battle

The First Naval Battle of The American Revolution
June 12, 1775
Machias Bay

View of Machias Bay, site of the first naval battle of the American Revolution.


It was early June 1775. The people of Machias had survived a difficult winter. They anxiously awaited the return of two familiar schooners, Unity and Polly, carrying food to replenish their meager stores. The vessels were owned by Ichabod Jones, a trader from Boston with personal and business ties to Machias. By the time spring arrived, Jones had resumed normal business activity by sending lumber to Boston with plans to return to Machias with a cargo of food. But this trip would be different. Because of the deteriorating relations between the Colonies and the British, Jones planned to move his household goods to Machias where he and his family had spent the winter.

The Boston Port Act of 1774 now required that Admiral Samuel Graves authorize all sailings from the city. Before approval was granted, Jones agreed to return to Boston with lumber needed by General Thomas Gage to build barracks for his troops. To ensure Jones's compliance, the admiral ordered the armed sloop Margaretta, under the command of his relative, Midshipman James Moore, to accompany the Unity and Polly to Machias and back.

Word of the April battle with the British at Lexington and Concord had reached Machias. Suspicions that Jones was a Loyalist were reinforced by the arrival on June 2nd 1775 of the British armed sloop protecting the Unity and Polly. The explanation Jones gave for his commitment to send lumber to Boston was challenged; but a meeting at the Burnham Tavern convened and eventually decided in favor of him.

Loading of the lumber proceeded without incident; but then Jones demanded a pledge of support to him as a requirement for sharing in the distribution of the much needed salt, pork, and flour. Tempers flared. Local discontents began to organize against Jones, secretly planning his capture. Led by Lt. Benjamin Foster and Jeremiah O'Brien, the rebels hatched a plan to seize the captain and crew of the Margaretta, along with Ichabod Jones and his nephew, Steven Jones, while they attended church in Machias on Sunday, June 11. As the rebels approached the church, their targets escaped. Captain Moore and his men fled to the Margaretta, anchored nearby in the Machias River. Initially evading his captors by hiding in the woods, Ichabod Jones, along with his nephew, was eventually caught.

At that point, Moore threatened to burn Machias if the rebels continued to prevent the loading of lumber. Foster, O'Brien and the local inhabitants responded with "Strike to The Sons of Liberty!" , a call for British surrender. Moore weighed anchor and let the Margaretta drift downstream. Sporadic exchanges of gunfire ensued throughout the evening. On the morning of June 12, Moore planned his escape and set sail for the open sea. In the meantime, however, Jeremiah O'Brien and more than thirty men armed with muskets, pistols, pitchforks, and knives had successfully commandeered Jones's schooner, the Unity, and constructed deck breastworks in anticipation of battle. At East River, Benjamin Foster, followed by about twenty patriots, prepared the Falmouth Packet to join the Unity in pursuit of the Margaretta.

The British ship struggled in the waters of the Machias Bay. As the pursuers closed in on the Margaretta, gunfire was briefly exchanged. A battle ensued off Round Island. With the Unity on the starboard and the Falmouth Packet on the larboard, the rebels boarded the Margaretta and engaged in hand to hand combat with Moore and his crew. Moore sustained a serious injury -- some accounts suggest that he was hit by an early volley of canonballs, others say that he was felled by a musket shot to the chest. The defenders of the Margaretta were forced into surrender and the rebels sailed triumphantly back to Machias to celebrate their victory in the first naval battle of the American Revolution on June 12, 1775.

The wounded Moore was taken to the home of Ichabod Jones in Machias, where he expired the next day. The battle produced three additional fatalities and many other injuries.

In the face of mounting anxiety about renewed British attacks, the Committee of Public Safety in Machias petitioned the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for permission to fit and arm at least one of the sloops captured in the bay off Round Island. The Unity was armed with guns and renamed the Machias Liberty under the command of Jeremiah O'Brien. A month or so later, O'Brien and Foster took another British ship, the Diligence, after it ran aground in Bucks Harbor. And so the Machias patriots gained a "small privateer fleet," as William Nestor has put it, "with which to protect Maine's frontier coast and raid British shipping in the sea-lanes. The battle for the Margaretta was a decisive local victory that kept Maine in American hands throughout the war."

Falmouth (Portland), however, paid dearly for the early victory in Machias Bay: on October 11, 1775 the British bombarded the town and burned eleven American ships at anchor there. The fate of the Margaretta is not clear; she was supposed to have been refitted by the rebels in the Machias River, but is thought to have been chased into Sawyer's Cove, Jonesport, and there burned by the British.

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