Remembering Thompson’s War and The Burning of Falmouth

7/4/18, Maine First Media Staff Report,

On May 9th, 1775, 50 militiamen from Maine kidnapped a loyalist ship captain in the start of a chain of events that would force the British navy out of Maine’s port and help win the American Revolution.

It is known as Thompson’s War, named after Samuel Thompson, a tavern owner in Brunswick.

Thompson has previously served as a Brunswick Board of Selectmen in 1768, 1770 and 1771. However, in 1774, Thompson was elected commander of the Brunswick militia.

As a head of the local enforcement committee for the Continental Association, it was Thompson’s duty to enforce a Continental Association boycott of all British goods. But loyalists weren’t going to take the patriots boycott lying down.

On March 2nd, 1775, as part of the boycott, the Continental Association — who’s authority came from the First Continental Congress — demanded a British ship carrying British good for shipbuilder, Captain Samuel Coulson, leave the port of Falmouth — or what is now known as Portland (and not to be confused with current day Falmouth, Maine).

However, Captain Coulson requested a delay to allow time for the ship to be repaired after making the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean from England. Thompson and the Continental Association granted the delay.

While Coulson’s crew repaired the ship, the HMS Canceaux (a British Navy sloop — or sailboat) was sent from Boston Bay to Casco Bay. It arrived in Falmouth (Portland) on March 29th. With the British warship, Canceaux, to protect him, Captain Coulson ignored the boycott and unloaded the banned materials from the ship that was being repaired.

At the same time, many of the highest officers for the patriot Army were concentrating on the ongoing Battles of Lexington and Concord, about 90-Miles south in Massachusetts.

Thompson and his militia learned of the battle on April 21st, 1775. And that’s when he hatched a plan to capture the Canceaux.

About four dozen Brunswick militiamen sailed to Falmouth on several small boats. When they arrived on May 9th, 1775, they captured Canceaux Captain, Lt. Henry Mowat, preventing the warship from barring their boarding.

At that point, Let. Mowat’s second in command fired two cannon charges in the direction of Falmouth — threatening to level the city if Lt. Mowat wasn’t returned to his ship.

About 600 neighboring militiamen rushed to Falmouth as local residents negotiated safety. In the end, Lt. Mowat was returned to the 16-gun Canceaux, but the warship was forced to leave the port on May 15th, 1775 — without turning Falmouth into a battleground.

It may have taken two and a half months, but for the time, it appeared the Patriots won the result they had been looking for when they first attempted to enforce their boycott back early March.

And better still, the victory inspired more Maine militiamen to raise arms and fight. In fact, Maine militiamen captured the British armed schooner, Margaretta in the Battle of Machias just one month later.

As a reward for his bravery and initiative, on February 8th, 1776, the Massachusetts House of Representatives promoted Thompson to Brigadier of the Cumberland County, Maine militia.

Furthermore, Thompson’s Brunswick Militia uniform would prove to live on in Maine history. The uniform featured leaves from a spruce tree. In April 1776, the Massachusetts naval ensign was changed to the Pine Tree Flag. And still today, Maine’s nickname is the Pine Tree State.

However, while no lives were lost in Thompson’s War, Maine did pay a hefty price later.

Seeking revenge, Lt. Mowat returned to Falmouth with the HMS Canceaux in October of 1775.  Mowat’s crew set fire to the city and left residents homeless just before the coming winter cold and snow.

When the Canceaux returned for revenge, Lt. Mowat ordered incendiary cannonball shots to be fired from the warship — destroying many homes and public buildings. He followed that by sending a landing party to bombard Falmouth and finish the job. By evening, the entire city was in flames.

In total, 400 building and homes were destroyed in the fire, now known as the Burning of Falmouth. Mowat also wrecked 11 small ships and commandeered four others. More than 1,000 residents were left with no housing and little food for the remainder of the winter.

The rebuilding of Falmouth took decades. It wasn’t until 1797 that the 400 homes, factories, offices and city building were rebuilt or replaced.

As a result of the Burning of Falmouth, communities across New England — and beyond as the news spread — began rejecting British authority and instead started establishing independent governments.

And in another turning point in the War for Independence, the Burning of Falmouth led to the formation of the Continental Navy by the Second Continental Congress. Now patriots could fight for their freedom from both land and sea.

And perhaps most importantly of all, the Burning of Falmouth is one of the factors that is said to have inspired the French to join forces with patriots against the British oppressors.

For his actions, Lt. Mowat was sent back to Massachusetts where he remained and was repeatedly passed over for promotions — until he removed his involvement in the Thompson War and the Burning of Falmouth from his record.

While Mainers paid a heavy toll in the American Revolution, Thompson’s War was the first domino to fall in a chain of events, including the Burning of Falmouth, which ended in American independence from Great Britain.

It’s a fascinating story to remember and be proud of on this, our Independence Day!


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