Sunday, March 29, 2015

Places: Machias Bay

The Bay

Machias Bay

One might think I'd prefer to write about Galway Bay, or Bantry Bay (or even Sheepshead Bay), but too much water lies between Ireland and the world of the Yankee Doodle Spies. Yet you might feel like you are in Galway with the picturesque beauty of Machias Bay and the area around it in beautiful coastal Maine. Near the eastern end of the Maine coast, the town of Machias began as a a trading post for French and English in the 17th century. In 1763 it was an American settlement and seaport.

Machias Seaport

The spirit of independence and freedom was strong in Machias. The first Liberty Pole in Maine was erected in the town. Machias also claims the title of "birthplace of the American Navy." That might be disputed by people in Whitehall, New York, but I digress. One of the first naval battles of the American War for Indepenence took place in a portion of Machias Bay and locals still call that engagement the "Lexington of the Sea."

The  Battle

On the 2nd of June 1775, the British schooner Margaretta (compliment of 4 guns), escorted two sloops, Polly and Unity into the port, seeking lumber for British troops  stationed in Boston.  Margaretta was under the command of Midshipman James Moore.  The sloops belonged to a Loyalist merchant named Ichabod Jones. Jones had a contract to provide the British needed supplies. A few weeks earlier, the battles at Lexington and Concord had stirred up the hornets' nest of rebellion into a war. Though far from those fields, the call for action went up and down the coast and tiny Machias was no exception. Spoiling for action, some of the local boys determined to take it to the lobster navy. Also, the unscrupulous businessman Jones was not popular with the locals even before he declared himself Loyal. They plotted to seize the ships while Midshipman Moore and his officers attended church services. This did not work out and the three ships escaped into the bay.

Machias Bay

But two of Machias's leaders, Jeremiah O'Brien and Joseph Wheaton, put together a makeshift force of local seamen. They hastily armed a local ship and took one of Jones's ships as well. O'Brien pursued Moore across the bay. On the 11th of June he captured the Unity. The next day he bagged the larger Margaretta. The small scale engagement called the Battle of Machias resulted in a total of seven killed and wounded combined. Moore himself was mortally wounded. For his role in the attacks, O'Brien took command of the Unity and moved Margaretta's four guns on board. He also renamed Unity the Machias Liberty. A few weeks later, the British schooner Diligent with a tender (to haul away lumber one supposes), entered Machias Bay. O'Brien attacked the Diligent and captured her along with the tender. Now O'Brien commanded a fleet of two small ships, the nucleus of the Massachusetts (not the Continental) Navy. Seamen from Machias went on to capture additional British ships during the war. They also fought off the landing of a large British force that tried to take control of the town in 1777. Privateers and others operating out of Machias continued to be a thorn in the British Navy's side throughout the war.

O'Brien closes on Margaretta

The Fort

To protect the port, the citizens of Machias built a small fort looking out over the bay. It was built in 1775 to guard the Machias River and its communities. The British  destroyed the fort during the  in the same year. But the Patriots rebuilt it in 1777 and it played an important role in protecting the harbor for the remainder of the war as well as the war of 1812 and the Civil War. At first the small baston was called Fort Machias it was later named Fort O'Brien.

 Fort O'Brien is a park today

The Architect

And what of the architect of this little-known First Victory? Captain Jeremiah O'Brien was originally from the seaport of Kittery (full disclosure, the only place in Maine I have yet had the privilege to visit). He had moved with his family to Machias in 1765. O'Brien had five brothers: Gideon, John, William, Dennis and Joseph. They all served with him during the Battle of Machias and beyond. The resourceful O'Brien led naval attacks on British shipping for the remainder of the war. During the long struggle he was captured by the British more than once but always managed to escape and go back to sea. He survived the war and later became the Customs Collector at the port of Machias. Something tells me not too much contraband slipped past him. For his achievements the US Navy has, over the years, named five ships after him.

USS O'Brien, a Sumner Class Destroyer commissioned in 1943,
was the fourth of five US Navy ships named after Jeremiah O'Brien

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