June 11, 1775 The Lexington of the Sea

Called by some the “Lexington of the Sea”, the little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution, and ended in victory for the Patriot side. 

In the Passamaquoddy tongue, “Machias” roughly translates into “bad little falls”, after the river that runs through the place. Five hours and 15 minutes drive-time from Boston, Machias Maine sports a campus for the University of Maine, a municipal airport and, even today, a year-round population barely exceeding 2,000.

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Machias-area residents who discussed downtown revitalization Tuesday evening said the Bad Little falls was the town’s most distinctive element. (KATHERINE CASSIDY PHOTO)

Not necessarily a place where you’d expect the first naval combat of the American Revolution.

In 1775, the modern state of Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Machias itself, a small fishing village on the “Downeast” New England coast, had been a thorn in the British side, since the earliest days of the Revolution.   A local pilot intentionally grounded the coastal patrol schooner HMS Halifax that February, in Machias Bay.  The place also served as a base from which privateers preyed on British merchant shipping.

In April, a British foray from the occupied city of Boston had culminated in the Battle at Lexington Green.  While the King’s troops held the ground in the wake of the early morning skirmish, the decision of the afternoon’s battle at nearby Concord was quite different.  The colonial’s response to the column of “Regulars” was that of a swarming behive, resulting in a Patriot victory and a British retreat under fire, all the way back to Boston.

Siege-of-Boston-1-ABBoston was all but an island in those days, connected to the mainland only be a narrow “neck” of land.  A Patriot force some 20,000 strong took positions in the days and weeks that followed, blocking the city and trapping four regiments of British troops (about 4,000 men) inside of the city.

For General Thomas Gage, in charge of all those troops, the best hope for resupply was by water.

British Royal Navy Admiral Samuel Graves wanted the guns from the wreck of the Halifax, concerned they would otherwise fall into rebel hands.  Gage wanted lumber, with which to build barracks.  So it was that the wealthy merchant and Tory loyalist Ichabod Jones was enlisted to help, blissfully unaware of the dim view in which his activities were held by fellow colonials.

Jones arrived at Machias on June 2 aboard the merchant ships Unity and Polly, under guard of the armed schooner HMS Margaretta, commanded by Midshipman James Moore.  They had come to trade food for lumber but the townspeople were split, and voted against doing business with Jones.  This provoked a threat from the Margaretta, which moved into range to bombard the town.  The action resulted in a second vote and the trade was approved, but Jones’ response was ham-fisted.   The merchant would only do business, with those who had voted with him in the first place.

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HMS Margaretta

Local militia leader Colonel Benjamin Foster conceived a plan to seize the merchant, and saw his opportunity on June 11, when Jones and Moore were in church.  They almost had the pair too, but Jones saw some twenty men approaching, and fled for the woods.  Moore was able to get back to the Margaretta, but events soon spun out of control.

Colonel Foster and his brother, a man with the delightful name of Wooden Foster, seized the Unity.  A group of thirty began to construct breastworks to serve as protection, while others commandeered the coastal packet Falmouth.   There was gong to be a fight.

machias_meA group of Machias men approached Margaretta from the land and demanded her surrender, but Moore lifted anchor and sailed off in attempt to recover the Polly.  A turn of his stern through a brisk wind resulted in a boom and gaff breaking away from the mainsail, crippling the vessel’s navigability. Unity gave chase followed by Falmouth.

Musket fire was exchanged from both sides and hand grenades were thrown onto the decks of the Unity.   Soon, the Margaretta was boarded from both sides, the fighting hand to hand.

Called by some the “Lexington of the Sea”, the little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution, and ended in victory for the Patriot side.  Four Royal Navy seamen were killed outright and another ten wounded including Moore himself, who received a musket ball to the chest and died the following day.

Patriot losses amounted to ten killed and another three wounded.

HMS Margaretta served out the remainder of the Revolution as the renamed Machias Liberty.  British payback came on October 18 when Falmouth Massachusetts, the modern-site of Falmouth Maine and not to be confused with either of the modern-day towns of  Falmouth Massachusetts, or Falmouth Maine, was burned to the ground.

British forces attempted a second assault on Machias, with an amphibious landing of 1,000 troops over the 13th – 14th of August, 1777.  The attempt was beaten back by local militia and their Passamaquoddy and Penobscot allies, with both sides claiming victory.  The nearby village of Castine would be occupied in 1779 as would Machias itself during the War of 1812.  On both occasions, captured territories were re-dubbed the Crown Colony of “New Ireland”, a refuge for Loyalists and a base for future military operations.

The Crown Colonies of New Ireland survived for four years in the first instance and eight months in the second.  The failed Penobscot expedition of 1779 to retake the colony would result in the most catastrophic defeat suffered by American Naval forces until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 162 years later, but that must be a story for another day.

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Britain defending New Ireland from the Penobscot Expedition by Dominic Serres
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June 10, 1944 Ghost Village

The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-four years ago today.  It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

On D+4 after the Normandy invasion of WW2, the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS was passing through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” had been ordered to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

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Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly unaware of their own confusion between the two villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population of the village was there, plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding their bicycles at the wrong place, and the wrong time.

Oradour-sur-Glane-ChurchThe women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town.  The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds, where the machine guns were already set up.

The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 3Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church, and gunned down 247 women and 205 children as they tried to escape.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some pea bushes where she hid until next morning.

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby who’d been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the “old” village remain as it is;  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malignity of collective punishment.

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Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but that came to naught.  Within days, Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre, had been killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

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And on.  And on.  And on.

Oradour-sur-Glane-StreetsFrench President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-four years ago today.  It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: “Down this road, on Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 5a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

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