Wiscasset in the American Revolution

British, Americans claimed victory

Part 1 – The HMS Rainbow arrives
Posted:  Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 10:15am
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Few people know Wiscasset was the scene of a dramatic standoff between a British naval commander and the Sons of Liberty during the American Revolution. Both sides claimed victory afterwards each adding their own spin to the dramatic events that took place over three days.

It’s an old story passed down mostly word-of-mouth, embellished to some degree, but not yet completely lost to legend. The trouble began in 1777, during the waning days of summer when his majesty’s ship Rainbow, a 44-gun frigate, laid anchor in Wiscasset harbor and threatened to rain destruction on the small village.

One of the earliest written accounts of the Rainbow’s visit appears in an unlikely source, the 1863 pamphlet, “History of Lincoln Lodge at Wiscasset.” A part of the Freemasons, Lincoln Lodge was formed on June 19, 1792 and is still going strong on Fort Hill Street.

Rufus King Sewall, who practiced law in Wiscasset, researched and wrote the pamphlet. Along with having a keen interest in the town’s past, Sewall was a Mason and Lincoln Lodge member. How he came to include the story of the Rainbow is easily explained. David Silvester, Lincoln Lodge’s first Master was an unwilling actor in the drama.

Sewall based his narrative almost entirely on journal entries kept by Commodore Sir George Collier of the British Royal Navy, the Rainbow’s commanding officer. 

Sir George had a distinguished and well-documented career in the British Navy. Just a few weeks earlier he’d taken part in the attack on Machias during a fiercely fought battle on Aug. 13 and 14, 1777. The Red Coats had gone ashore and seized a ship and raided an arms storehouse before being turned back by the Americans. As it was, both sides had claimed a margin of victory after the shooting stopped. 

Following the battle, Sir George set a course south and westward, sailing the Rainbow down the Maine coast. Reports from Tories, colonials loyal to the Crown, were that the American rebels aided by the French were known to be trafficking in ships’ masts. Sir George was intent on finding and capturing these men whom the British authorities considered nothing more than thieves.

Timber for masts and spars was in great demand in England, France and the American colonies. In Northern New England, the tallest of the northern pines were often marked with a broad arrow reserving them as Crown property for the Royal Navy.

Quoting from Sir George’s journal, R. K. Sewall writes, the Rainbow accompanied by a tender, the Hope arrived at the Boothbay Peninsula in the latter part of August 1777.

On nearing the village of Townsend Harbor, now Boothbay Harbor, they encountered a man in an open boat. Declaring his allegiance to King George III, the man said he was fleeing “Whitchcassett,” a small village on the Sheepscot River in the eastern part of Pownalborough parish.

He told Sir George the rebels had driven him from his home offering information of a mast ship operating just north of the village. The commodore showed little surprise by the man’s eagerness to help, noting in his journal, “there being many loyalists there (in Pownalborough) at the time.” 

At Townsend Harbor, Sir George’s men raided the countryside taking food and what other provisions they wanted. The Rainbow then weighed anchor and made its way to sea. Off the coast they captured a fisherman and forced him to pilot the frigate up the Sheepscot River in search of the mast ship. 

As evening descended Sept. 9, a fierce tempest broke, careening the Rainbow dangerously off course. Fearing for the safety of his majesty’s ship, Sir George ordered the sails lowered and anchor dropped. Hours later, when the storm abated, captain and crew found themselves in a narrow channel. The unwilling pilot serving as navigator recognized the place as Oven’s Mouth in the Cross River.

While it was still dark, Sir George ordered a party of marines into two boats, a launch and cutter to carry on the search for the mast ship. The armed party set out rowing westward to the Sheepscot River heading upriver to Whitchcassett. 

“In the dawning of the morning light, the expedition, as yet undiscovered, passed this village (Wiscasset) and three miles north of the settlement found a mast ship loading spars on the shore and seized her,” continues R.K. Sewall, basing his story again on Sir George’s account. At dawn the next day, the Rainbow navigated its way back to the Sheepscot and around noontime dropped anchor in Wiscasset harbor much to the shock of the natives. 

A message was sent ashore under a flag of truce, with Sir George promising he had no intention of injuring persons or property – unless compelled to do so. His objective, he stated, was the seizure of any and all ships engaged in the theft of his majesty’s masts. He warned against resistance stating, he’d tolerate no interference in carrying out his objective.

Sir George also laid the village under contribution for supplies reckoning loyal British subjects would have no objection contributing to his cause.  R.K. Sewall writes, it was Thomas Rice, a leading citizen of the community who received the message. Rice had arrived in Pownalborough as a young man of letters in 1762; he was Harvard-educated, having studied medicine and law. Within a year of his arrival, he was named justice of the Common Pleas Court and in 1775 had represented Pownalborough at the General Court of Massachusetts. He also kept up a medical practice.

Quoting again from Sir George’s journal, R.K. Sewall writes the citizens of Whitchcassett were warned “not to assemble the militia, or other armed men, since the so doing can answer no purpose, except the bringing on of hostilities, which may end in the destruction of the town.”

The commodore demanded the surrender of two cannon known to be in the rebels’ possession along with the rigging and sails of the mast ship and any other masts. Sir George also insisted, “two respectable inhabitants be delivered into his hands as hostages, for the due performance of these engagements.”

Sir George’s knowledge of the cannon and mast ship must have set Judge Rice’s mind reeling. Obviously, loyalists were operating within the community determined to compromise the struggling American war for independence. After weighing the options, he reasoned the best course of action was give the commodore what he wanted rather than risk destruction of the village.

Judge Rice began his reply by telling Sir George he was speaking as a private citizen, not for the community as a whole. The townspeople, he explained, couldn’t possibly assemble to discuss the commodore’s terms until the following day.

Of the two cannon, he continued, one had already been carried off. As for the mast ship, it was anchored a few miles upriver from the village. He closed by urging Sir George to drop his demand for hostages.

The following morning, the Rainbow lay with ports open, her guns trained on the defenseless village. Unknown to Sir George, however, was his men had already carried out their mission having captured the mast ship the day before. The British expedition sent out from Oven’s Mouth had discovered the ship “moored to the shore under very high headlands.”

According to R.K. Sewall, the ship was captured near the Upper Narrows of the Sheepscot River near “Flying Point.” (This is close to where the railroad crosses the river today.)

Shortly after sunrise, the British marines had surprised and boarded the mast ship, encountering no resistance from her crew. They’d quickly secured its cannon and made plans to return with their prisoners to the Rainbow. What the British marines didn’t know was news of their success had been carried to town.

In an upcoming edition, part 2: The Sons of Liberty strike back