April 3, 1779

If the world weren't already awash in irony, I'd venture a sardonic smile at the notion that two hundred years ago, my home town made a mark on history by setting it's arms against America's staunchest ally of today. Strange but true, and made vividly real when I took my kids down to Surf Drive on a sunny Spring afternoon to watch an amazing full scale reenactment of the Battle of Falmouth.

It was April 1779, and the British were having a hard time keeping their army fed1.  They were a long way from home and the locals had proven to be more resolute on the battlefield and less accommodating as hosts than their commanders had anticipated.  Cape Cod was normally easy pickins for a quick raid to gather up supplies prior to making more important forays on targets to the north.  The Cape was, after all, 40 miles out to sea, lightly defended and exposed to attack. During the course of the Revolutionary War, the Cape's ports were blockaded, crops and livestock were seized, and, as Falmouth was soon to find out, her towns were attacked.

On the night of April 2, 1779, Colonel Joseph Dimmick was awaked by a lanky, breathless lad.  He was the son of John Slocum, the innkeeper at Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island1.  Slocum was a Tory and he struggled to walk the thin line between his honest opinion that the fledgling colonies needed the support of Britain to survive, and a sympathy for the views of his fellows who were tired of the abuse and arrogance of the distant and demanding England

Unfortunately for the British, their soldiers were uncommonly rude and abusive to Slocum's family that evening1, and when he heard them crafting a plan to burn the town of Falmouth the next day, he'd had all he could stand.  So, in an act of enduring patriotism, he dispatched his son to warn the Falmouth Militia.  This was no small matter, and one can easily imagine the feelings young Slocum must have had as he approached the task.  It was dark, and late, and the fate of the town was riding on his shoulders. The story of Paul Revere's historic ride was known throughout the colonies and it's easy to imagine the boy recalling it as he saddled the family horse in preparation for his journey. 

Tarpaulin Cove is some ten miles of rough horseback riding from the east end of Naushon Island.  Even today, the trail is rough and at night, riding fast, with a load on your mind and the weight of history on your shoulders, it must have been exciting.  When he arrived at the Sheep Pen cove on the east end, he tied up the horse and manhandled the family's dory down to the water.  The distance across Woods Hole Passage is only a half mile, but it represents some of the most treacherous, malevolent water on earth.  During the race of a full tide, the current can run as much as eight knots in places, way faster than most people can row.  In the middle of the pass, the water surges and boils over Red Ledge, a nasty reef that has sucked many a ship into its spiny maw over the years. Beyond, lies the more subtle hazard of Grassy Island, unmarked but for the slight change in the wave pattern as the mass of water rolls over it, or maybe the bark of a grouchy harbor seal disturbed from his sleep.

Having applied his wit and wile to overcoming the Woods Hole Passage, the boy was now confronted with the task of beaching the dory, finding a horse and galloping the final ten miles to arrive sweating, breathless and overwrought at the door of Colonel Demmick  Demmick was a veteran commander of the Falmouth Militia, having been appointed in 1775 to drill them into a fighting force capable of defending the town against British attack.  There had been minor skirmishes before but, listening to the boy's story, Demmick decided that this could be the real thing.

There had been an skirmish the previous day; a British landing party came ashore bent on stealing a few of Falmouth's prized cattle and whatever provisions they could easily lay their hands on2.  The Militia had arrived quickly on the scene and deprived them of their booty.  Apparently, the British fleet was now bent on revenge as well as supplies.  Colonel Demmick summoned the Falmouth Militia and the men quickly and quietly dug entrenchments along the beach in preparation for the attack2.

In the early morning of April 3, 1779, two British schooners and eight smaller sloops appeared off the coast and at eleven o'clock proceeded to bombard the town center of Falmouth with cannon-balls, double-headed shot and grape shot.  A landing party of about 220 English soldiers attempted to make their way to shore, but were repulsed repeatedly by the 50 militiamen commanded by Colonel Demmick. In the afternoon, Demmick sent for reinforcements and men from the neighboring town of Sandwich joined the fight.  Militia from Barnstable also responded but were met along the way and informed that the situation was well in hand and their help wouldn't be needed.  The battle had been won.

In the following days, Demmick pressed his advantage1.  A Falmouth schooner full of corn had recently been captured by the British and he decided to get it back.  In a bold move, Demmick lead three boats of Falmouth militiamen down Vineyard Sound to the stolen schooner under the cover of darkness.  As they approached, they could see the British fleet anchored in close proximity.  The element of surprise was on their side, and despite being discovered and fired upon by the Brits, they were able to board the high jacked schooner without suffering any causalities.  The militiamen returned fire as the schooner was made ready to sail free, but amidst the fog of war, the ship was run aground on the fine white sand of Tarpaulin Cove.  For many hours, the undaunted militiamen fended off the British fleet in a pitched battle while they waited for the rising tide to free the ship.  Once the vessel floated free, they backed the sails in a clever feat of seamanship and sailed their boat full of food home to Woods Hole.

In a final display of audacity, Demmick organized a troop of twenty five militiamen to travel to Marthas Vineyard and confront the British stronghold in Vineyard Haven Harbor.  In the middle of the night, they swarmed aboard the British ship General Leslie, overpowered the ship's crew and sailed their trophy back to Hyannis along with a complement of captured British prisoners.

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1 Sheedy & Coogan (1999)
Smith (1986)


Sheedy, J & Coogan, J. (1999) Cape Cod Companion, MA: Harvest Home Books
Smith, M. (Ed) (1986) The Book of Falmouth, MA: Falmouth Historical Society

These are not sources, but they have some great pictures of the 1999 reenactment...


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