Wiscasset in the American Revolution

Part 2 of 2 – The Sons of Liberty strike back
Tue, 03/27/2018 - 7:30am

During the Revolutionary War, Wiscasset was the scene of a dramatic standoff between the Sons of Liberty who were fighting for American independence and a British naval commander, Sir George Collier, captain of HMS Rainbow. The story began Sept. 10, 1777, when the Rainbow, a 44-gun frigate, dropped anchor in Wiscasset harbor threatening to rain destruction on the small village known then as Whitchcassett, a part of Pownalborough.

On Sept. 10, the same day, an armed party of British marines from HMS Rainbow captured a ship loading masts for the American cause. The Sons of Liberty began arming themselves to strike back. It wasn’t long before they were taking cover behind rocks and trees on a wooded bluff overlooking the enemy.

The place was the Upper Narrows of the Sheepscot River, a few miles north of Whitchcassett village. Some of the braver lads began taking aim and firing their muskets at the redcoats hoping for reinforcements from the militia.

The attack seemed to catch the British completely by surprise. They’d been led to believe most of Pownalborough was loyal to the crown. The marines barricaded the deck facing the shore with timber and returned fire. The officer in charge gave the order to push off to safety but the mast ship wouldn’t budge, being hopelessly grounded in low water. Fearing American reinforcements would soon arrive to prevent their escape, the officer ordered his men to take what spoils they could and prepare to strike oars with their prisoners.

Before abandoning the mast ship, the British hacked holes in its hull hoping to render it useless. As darkness descended, they dropped oars and rowed swiftly downriver to the Rainbow. Along with suffering one casualty and several wounded, the British were forced to leave the cannon behind. No casualties were reported among the Americans.

All of these facts appear in R.K. Sewall’s “History of Lincoln Lodge,” a pamphlet the attorney and historian wrote and published in 1863 for the Masonic Lodge he belonged to in Wiscasset. Sewall explains he got a good deal of his facts from a journal kept by British Naval Commodore Sir George Collier, captain of the Rainbow.

Sewall included the story because David Silvester, Lincoln Lodge’s first Master, played a minor role in the Rainbow affair. Sewall likely filled in the gaps here and there from stories passed down from one generation of Wiscasseter to the next.

Further details of the mast ship skirmish appeared much later in a newspaper article appearing in the Bath Independent, published in Bath. The story is dated Aug. 10, 1918 but was reprinted from an earlier account written by the Reverend Henry Otis Thayer.

Rev. Thayer, a graduate of Bowdoin College in 1862, was for many years pastor of the congregational church in Woolwich. He was also active in the Maine Historical Society serving as secretary for the organization and publishing a number of historical papers.

The pastor’s version identifies the mast ship captured by the British as the Gruel; the vessel being under the supervision of Timothy Parsons, a merchant residing in Whitchcassett and acting as agent for the Massachusetts War Board.

Rev. Thayer writes the Rainbow had been delayed at Cross River by fog on Sept. 9. That night, Sir George ordered two boats with 40 marines to row up the Sheepscot River to locate and secure the Gruel. Around dawn the following morning, the British expedition had successfully carried out its mission. They captured Joseph Proctor, the ship’s captain along with three members of his crew, and took possession of a small cannon, a 3-pounder.

According to Rev. Thayer, the ship’s cook alerted the townspeople of the Gruel’s capture. After spending the night in the village, he’d returned the following day to discover the mast ship in the hands of the redcoats. Thayer adds when the news reached the major in charge of the militia he refused to order a call to arms. It was then that a regimental colonel took charge; he mustered a group of volunteers to retake the Gruel. Who these two commanders were is a mystery, since neither is named by the reverend.

The skirmish  at the Gruel is also mentioned in the meeting proceedings of the Wiscasset Fire Society for Aug. 20, 1908. The minutes were printed in the Sheepscot Echo, a weekly newspaper from those times based in Wiscasset. No source is given.

According to this version, the British attempt to take and hold the mast ship was “repulsed by the vigorous action of the local militia.” They also include the names of the Sons of Liberty appearing on the muster rolls.

Among them figuring prominently in the fight was a Montsweag Company of militia under the command of Captain Solomon Walker and included: William Holmar, Aaron Abbot, David McKenney, William Hilton, John Hilton, Jr., Ebenezer Hilton and Sgt. Solomon Walker, Jr., Capt. Walker’s son. Another name associated with the skirmish was Thaddeus Bailey.

This account puts the location of the Gruel skirmish a bit further upriver, closer to Sheepscot Falls.

When the British expedition returned to the Rainbow and Sir George learned of the rebel resistance, he was furious. He ordered the immediate seizure of all vessels within the frigate’s reach. This included sloops belonging to Dr. Rice, Squire Silvester, leading citizens of the village and Capt. William Patterson of Edgecomb. The commodore then threatened to rail a hail of destruction on the village if there were any further acts of hostility.

Sewall and Rev. Thayer agree, it soon dawned on Sir George HMS Rainbow was in a precarious spot anchored far upriver and prone to attack on her return trip to the sea. Reports were that American reinforcements led by Colonel McCobb were on their way from Boothbay. The commodore was a capable military commander and knew full well a gun battery placed at Doggett’s Castle on Westport Island could prove formidable.

What resulted was a parlay between the British and Americans. Sir George offered to return the prisoners he’d taken along with the vessels seized, weigh anchor and leave. In return, the colonials would withdraw any forces from the river heights allowing the Rainbow to make its way unmolested.

The following day Rainbow left the harbor on the outgoing tide. For good measure, Sir George took Judge Rice and Squire Silvester along with him. As promised, after his ship cleared the mouth of the river the commodore had his “guests” returned unharmed to shore.

Following America’s War of Independence, Judge Rice served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and senate. He was also a convention delegate for ratifying the American Constitution in 1788.

Judge Rice, Dr. Rice if you prefer, lived a long life. His Wiscasset home built in 1762 still stands near the corner of Route 1 and Lee Street. A few years after his arrival in Pownalborough, he married Rebecca Kingsbury; they had 13 children. Dr. Rice remained in Wiscasset until his death, April 21, 1812 – just a few months before the second war with Great Britain was declared.

Squire Silvester, too, lived in Wiscasset the remainder of his days. He was a successful merchant, ship owner and magistrate. One of his ships was named the Wiscasset. He, too, represented the town in the General Court of Massachusetts and was a delegate in the Constitutional Convention held in Boston. He also served as a selectman and town clerk.

R.K. Sewall writes that Silvester became the first Mason raised within Lincoln Lodge on June 19,1792. A few months thereafter, he was named the Lodge’s first Worshipful Master.

Silvester died on Feb. 25, 1798. He was the first member of Lincoln Lodge laid to rest with full Masonic honors. His grave can be seen in Wiscasset’s Ancient Cemetery.