On May 24, three days after British General Thomas Gage sent four sloops to tiny Grape Island near the town of Weymouth to pick up some recently harvested hay from the loyalist Elijah Leavitt, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety ordered all livestock and hay removed from nearby Noddle’s and Hog Island. The two contiguous islands lay east of Charlestown and formed a peninsula that reached from the town of Chelsea toward Boston to the southeast with the town of Winnisimmet on the opposite shore directly north.
Those who sold their goods to the British faced the wrath of rebels, just as Elijah Leavitt had, and those who sold to the rebels faced the wrath of the British. One resident of Hog Island had been warned that if he sold anything to the British, the rebels would take all the cattle from the island and … handle him very roughly.
On the evening of May 26, American General Artemas Ward sent Colonel John Nixon of Sudbury and Colonel John Stark and his New Hampshire regiment to implement the committee’s directive. On the morning of May 27, approximately 500 rebels waded across the Chelsea-Hog Island channel, which at low tide became an easily fordable, knee-high creek with wide mudflat banks. A detachment of 30 men continued on to Noddle’s Island to corral livestock and burn hay. About 40 British marines occupied buildings on the island to warehouse stores and stockpile hay there for its horses in Boston.
As the rebels rounded up sheep and cattle, British Admiral Samuel Graves was celebrating his promotion to vice admiral of the white squadron. His nephew, Lieutenant Thomas Graves, commander of the schooner Diana, sailed into Boston Harbor and joined the festivities.
Amid the pomp of his promotion ceremony, Admiral Graves was aware of an urgent message from General Gage dated two days before, reporting that “the Rebels intend this Night to destroy, and carry off all the Stock & on Noddles Island for no reason but because the owners having sold them for the Kings use.” This piece of intelligence may have come from Dr. Benjamin Church, but Church wasn’t Gage’s only spy and at that time, Church was on the road to Philadelphia to deliver missives from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to the Continental Congress.
Around 2:00 p.m., the admiral was notified that smoke could be seen rising from Noddle’s Island. Stark and Nixon and their men had set fire to a barn full of hay and had killed some of the livestock drawing the attention of the marines stationed on the island. Admiral Graves responded by ordering his nephew to sail Diana up the narrow waterway that lay between the islands and the mainland while 170 marines were sent to pursue the rebels on foot on Noddle’s Island. Armed with four six-pounders and a dozen smaller swivel guns, Diana fired on the rebels on Noddle’s Island while the larger force of marines splashed ashore from longboats. The Noddle’s Island rebel forces slaughtered some of the livestock they had corralled and retreated across Crooked Creek.
Half the rebels continued on with the livestock while the other half jumped into a ditch and commenced a rear guard action to keep the schooner and the marines at bay. By 5:00 p.m. Diana was in the shallows between Hog Island and the mainland. Diana exchanged heavy fire with the rebels on Hog Island and the rebels on the Chelsea mainland. Under heavy rebel fire and with an outgoing tide threatening to ground his schooner, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Graves, sought the aid of a dozen longboats to tow him back down the creek in the dying breeze. In hopes of ambushing Diana before she reached the safety of the harbor, the rebels rushed down the north shore of Chelsea Creek toward Winnisimmet.
By 9:00 p.m., the sun was setting. Colonel Israel Putnam and Dr. Joseph Warren arrived at Newgate Landing with two field pieces and more men. Putnam directed his cannon fire at Diana that was now slowly drifting south along the shore.
The Royal Navy marines had transported several cannons to a hill on Noddle’s Island. Out of the darkness, cannonballs whistled down at the rebels as they waded into the creek and fired at the longboats towing Diana past the Winnisimmet shore. The rebel cannons returned fire with such effectiveness that the British longboat crews were forced to abandon Diana. The schooner soon drifted toward shore and grounded on the wooden rails extending from the ferry dock.
Lieutenant Graves and his men attempted to use their anchor to drag the schooner to deeper water, but as the tide ebbed, the schooner began to roll onto her side. They had no choice but to abandon her for the sloop Britannia anchored in deeper waters. Later that night, the rebels plundered Diana of her guns, rigging, and equipment, and then set her on fire. Around 3:00 a.m., the fire reached the vessel’s powder magazine and the schooner exploded.
That night, Israel Putnam and Joseph Warren returned to Cambridge to report to General Ward.
“I wish we could have something of this kind to do every day,” Putnam crowed.
General Ward was concerned that the engagement might provoke the British to launch a sortie from Boston.
The skirmish at Chelsea Creek was a humiliating defeat for Admiral Graves and his nephew. It was a clear rebel victory, but it had also consumed a large amount of rebel gunpowder. Joseph Warren had been in favor of an attack on Boston. He now had a more realistic view of his army’s preparedness.
Rather than agree with Putnam, Warren said, “I admire your spirit and respect General Ward’s prudence. Both will be necessary for us, and one must temper the other.”
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.
Borneman, Walter R. American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.