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"Fortified In Such a Manner As To Do Honour" - The Impregnable Newburyport Harbor

August 26, 2019

Recently, the Nerds have been researching why the coastal community of Newburyport quickly became a safe haven for Massachusetts and New Hampshire vessels during the American Revolution. As early as mid-summer 1775, the Newburyport Committee of Safety reported to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress “that the Harbour of this Town … is already become an Assylum for many Vessells, who seek to avoid the Piratical Ships of our Enemies: Yet as there are many small armed Vessells, which are cruising along all the shores of the Province, & frequently crossing this Bay: many Vessells some loaded with Provissions, & some with Fuel & Lumber, have been taken before they coud reach the Mouth of this Harbour, & sent to Boston.”

So why were privateers, merchant vessels and supply ships often fleeing to this particular town? Simply put, after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Newburyport turned itself and the Merrimack River into an impregnable fortress. Recent research has revealed that Newburyport, in conjunction with the towns of Amesbury, Salisbury and Newbury created an early warning network and at least three defensive lines that included coastal fortifications, physical obstructions, floating batteries, interior redoubts and two companies of militia that were on a constant state of alert. In short, the coastal town offered extensive protection from His Majesty’s navy.

It appears two possible events triggered the move to fortify the Merrimack River in 1775. The first was the Ipswich Fright which occured in the days after Lexington and Concord. This particular event was the result of a false rumor that British soldiers had landed in Ipswich and had killed the local populace. As the rumor spread, widespread panic set in among the residents of several North Shore Massachusetts towns and many, including those from Newburyport, fled to New Hampshire.

 

 

The second event transpired the following month when a detachment of British sailors and officers from the HMS Scarborough entered Newburyport Harbor under the cover of darkness to scout the town’s defensive capabilities. According to the Essex Journal, “last Tuesday evening (May 23) a barge belonging to the man of war lying at Portsmouth, rowing up and down the river to make discoveries with two small officers and six seamen.” Unfortunately, the mission was an utter failure as the “tars not liking the employ, tied their commanders, then run the boat ashore, and were so impolite as to wish the prisoners good night, and came off.” Upon entering Newburyport, the deserters alerted the town of the mission and the location of the officers. However, “the officers soon got loose and rowed themselves back to the ship” before they were apprehended.

The two events rattled Newburyport. Many residents realized that if a Royal Navy warship entered the Merrimack, it could easily sail down the river and not only bombard the town, wharves and shipyards, but it could also raze Salisbury and Amesbury. As a result, officials from the three towns and Newbury agreed that the mouth or the river, as well as the harbor itself, needed to be fortified.

The first step the locals took to protect the harbor was to place an obstruction at the mouth of the Merrimack. Local lore suggests that a pair of ships were sunk to block the river entrance. However, two period accounts reveal that it was actually piers that were sunk. According to a 1785 request for compensation from the citizens of Newburyport to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “the said town in order to guard and defend themselves and the neighbouring towns from the apprehended invasions and attacks of the enemy then infesting the sea. coasts, and making depredations on the maritime towns of the state, prepared and sunk a number of piers in the channel of Merrimac river, near the mouth thereo.” A second description noted that the obstruction included a narrow passageway for friendly vessels and that a nearby raft could be submerged into the opening to close off the river if an enemy vessel approached. As loyalist Stephen Kemble described, “all the Vessels from Cape Ann are in the (Merrimack) River, and the mouth of it shut up by driving Piles or Stakes into the Bottom, except a small passage, which is Ieft open for Vessels, where a Raft is moored, to be sunk occasionally.”

Shortly after blocking the river, the towns of Salisbury and Amesbury began to build a coastal fortification on Salisbury Point, which was located near the river entrance. Known as Fort Nichol, this earthwork was a nine gun battery that was manned by militiamen from the two towns. Across the river on Plum Island, the towns of Newbury and Newburyport agreed to construct their own coastal fortification. “We are now about erecting a small Battery or Breast-Work with 3 or 4 heavier Cannon which can be procurd, to defend ourselves against any Attacks by Water.” When the redoubt was completed, it was named Fort Faith and was manned by militiamen from Newbury and Newburyport. 

As an aside, iIn addition to receiving wages, the men stationed at Fort Faith were also provided with “candles and sweetening for their beer.”

Behind the two forts and sunken piers was a second line of defense. At some point in 1775, the residents of Newburyport constructed and launched a floating battery. A floating battery was a watercraft that carried heavy armaments but carried little else to qualify as a war ship. According to a period account, Newburyport “constructed a floating battery, built a barge and made a number of gun carriages.” 

 

 

There is some evidence that there may have been a third defensive line of redoubts on Coffin Point in Salisbury and near the Joppa Flats in Newburyport. Strategically, both locations would be ideal for the placement of batteries as the Merrimack River narrows between those two points.

Finally, Newburyport had several militia companies stationed inside the town, of which two were in a constant state of readiness. “There are now in the pay of the Government, two Companies stationed in the (town of) Newbury Port, out of which Companies, it is probable, a large Part of the necessary Complement wou'd readily engage.”

Massachusetts officials who inspected Newburyport’s defensive works in 1776 were impressed with what they saw. As one official noted “The Town of Newbury Port is fortified in such a Manner as to do Honour to the gentlemen concerned. The Noble Exertions that have been made by that Town for the Defence of such an important Port of the Colony demands the most grateful Returns from every Well Wisher to American Liberty.” 

In total, at least twenty artillery pieces of various sizes, including “ten nine pounders, 8 sixes and two fours”, protected Newburyport Harbor. 

Of course, the importance of Newburyport did not go unnoticed by British military leaders. As early as June 15, 1775, General Thomas Gage reported to Admiral Samuel Graves that a “Mr [Benjamin] Hallowell informed me this Morning that the Rebels have Vessels out watching for the Trade bound to Marblehead and Salem, and to give them notice to put into Newbury Port in Order to avoid your Ships.” Later that same day, the admiral notified his officers about the significance of Newburyport. “In consequence of intelligence this day the Admiral acquainted the Commanders of the cruizing Vessels that the Rebels had fishing Boats, out watching for their homeward bound Trade to direct them to avoid our Cruizers by going for Newbury Port.” 

The Royal Navy often probed the outer defensive works and would pursue privateers, merchant vessels and American supply ships right up "to the mouth of the river” to test the harbor’s outer defenses. 

In August 1775, the commanding officer of the Scarborough, then anchored off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recommended that the harbor be breached and Newburyport bombarded. In response, Admiral Graves admitted such an operation was unlikely due to the lack of ships. “I observe what you say about Newbury; that place and all others indeed require to be strictly attended to, but where are the Ships?” Two months later, Admiral Graves ordered Lieutenant Henry Mowat, of the HMS Canceaux to burn Newburyport and other Massachusetts seaports to the ground. Fortunately for Newburyport, Mowat had other plans and attacked Falmouth, Maine instead.

As the war progressed, Newburyport slowly scaled back its harbor defenses. By 1777, many of artillery pieces had been removed and loaned to the Continental Navy. The floating battery was sold in 1778. That same year, a flood washed away part if not most of the sunken piers located at the river entrance. Fort Faith remained in existence until the end of the war when a hurricane destroyed it. Fort Nichol was renamed Fort Merrimac and remained in use until the American Civil War. In 1865, a Nor’easter struck and the redoubt slipped into the ocean.      

  

 

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