Battle of Chelsea Creek, Glory, not the Prey

March 7, 2020

Boston had been under siege for a month by the end of May, 1775, following the failed British march on Lexington & Concord in April. Those battles brought thousands of militiamen from across New England, who quickly blocked off the major land access points to the city.

Only one area around the city had yet to be secured by the Patriots: Noddle’s Island & Hog Island (today these islands are connected to the mainland, and make up most of East Boston). These islands are home to several loyalist farms and thus, an abundance of supplies in the form of harvests and livestock. Although not occupied by the British, Noddle’s & Hog Island serve as a much needed resource for General Gage’s men occupying Boston.

But the Patriot militias are even more in need of supplies, so the “Massachusetts Committee of Safety” (council of rebels - including John Adams, John Hancock & Joseph Warren - overseeing the war effort in MA) issues orders to raid and clear the islands of its goods.

“Resolved, as their opinion, that all the livestock be taken from Noddle's Island and Hog Island, and from that part of Chelsea near the sea coast, and be driven back; and that the execution of this business be committed to the selectmen of the towns of Medford, Malden, Chelsea, and Lynn, and that they be supplied with such a number of men, as they shall need, from the regiments now at Medford.” - Meeting minutes from the MA Committee of Safety, May 14, 1775

The “regiments now at Medford” are none other than the men from the Granite State.

Over a thousand from New Hampshire are already within the Patriot ranks, with more arriving each day. Their headquarters is on the south side of Winter Hill (in what today is Somerville MA), with Colonels John Stark of Manchester & James Reid of Fitzwilliam in command of the two regiments. After receiving their orders, Colonel Stark volunteers to lead the operation, and selects 300 men from his ranks to join him.

Just after midnight on May 27th, they set off on their march East towards Chelsea.

British map from late 1775 showing the immediate Boston area at that point the siege, Noddle’s and Hog Islands immediately to the right/east of Boston & Charlestown. Chelsea Creek lies between the islands & Chelsea.

Note how the geography of the greater Boston area has changed significantly in the years since 1775, when the waterways around the city consisted of a maze of islands & narrow peninsulas, which the British Navy actively patrolled to limit Patriot movements throughout the siege.

Stark put a great deal of thought into the timing of his march, ensuring the operation coincided with both low illumination (complete darkness from a waning moon phase) and low tide. Because of this, when Stark’s men reach the shore of Chelsea near the convergence of Belle Isle Creek & Chelsea Creek, they are able to easily evade British boat patrols around the islands and wade across the water to Hog Island. They begin quietly ferrying livestock across the creek to the mainland, then over to Noddle’s Island to do the same.

The operation takes hours, going until late morning, but it’s a complete success: the Patriots now possess hundreds of new horses, cattle & sheep for their young army. With the sun now high in the sky, they know it’s time to begin moving the regiment back to Winter Hill. But Stark, not wanting to leave any supplies behind for the British to obtain, orders his men to begin setting fire to the remaining hay stacks and barns. When the rising smoke becomes visible in Boston, Vice Admiral Samuel Graves - General Gage’s naval commander in the waters around the city - orders his navy to surround the islands & land hundreds of marines on Noddle’s to combat the rebels.

By midday, the New Hampshire men are decisively engaged with the British on Noddle’s Island, while also enduring cannon fire from the ships around the islands. This is the Granite Stater’s first taste of real combat against British Regulars, and a tough one at that. But Stark’s men - although scattered in small teams about the islands - are able to hold off the 400+ redcoats, most using the low marshland beside the creek separating Noddle’s & Hog Island as cover, forcing the British ranks back to the inland of the island.

With the sun now setting, the British commanders on the ground opt to cut their losses, considering the damage done and the day lost.

“Before we got from Noddle’s Island to Hog Island we were fired upon by a Schooner. But we crossed the river and about fifteen of us squatted down in a ditch on the marsh and stood our ground. And there came a company of Regulars on the marsh on the other side of the river and the Schooner, and we had a hot fire until the Regulars retreated. But notwithstanding the bullets flew very thick yet there was not a man of us killed. Surely God has a favor towards us. Thanks be unto him that so little hurt was done when the balls sung like bees round our heads.” - Private Amos Farnsworth, from his Diary

The Schooner Amos refers to is the HMS Diana - a 120 ton, 18-gun warship commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Graves - Admiral Graves’ nephew.

The Diana isn’t the largest or most formidable ship in the Boston fleet, but she is one of the fastest and most capable for her size. In fact, she was built at the Boston shipyards in 1774, then acquired by the British shortly after and fitted for combat; Admiral Graves personally selecting her for his fleet:

“I have taken it upon me to purchase the Diana schooner of 120 tons, about eight months old, so exceedingly well built that she is allowed to be the best vessel of the kind that has yet been in the King’s Service.” - Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, in a letter dated January 8th, 1775

Because of her speed and maneuverability, combined with her firepower, the Diana is instructed to cut off the Patriot’s escape route back across to Chelsea by navigating north of Noddle’s Island and into Chelsea Creek with the high tide. Here, they become engaged with the rebels, such as Amos Farnsworth.

But as the battle wears on and British Marines are forced back on land, the wind and tide also turns in favor of the Patriots: the crew of Diana finds themselves without the conditions needed to navigate back east towards the Mystic River and out into Boston Harbor. She signals for assistance from the main fleet, who dispatched two ships & a dozen barges up the Mystic to help tow the Diana out of Chelsea Creek before low tide.

This is where the story should have likely ended: the Battle of Chelsea Creek is only the 2nd major engagement of the war (Lexington & Concord serving as the first), and the Patriots had won the day decisively. They’d succeeded in their mission, making it back to the mainland with a bounty of supplies, while also holding off a combined force of British Regulars, all with minimal casualties. It’s now been over 18 hours since they first stepped off towards Chelsea, and the only task that remains is an easy march back to Winter Hill.

But the story doesn’t end there. The New Hampshire men see an opportunity to chalk up yet another win for the day. They assume fighting positions along the shoreline and engage the struggling Diana and her would-be rescuers. As night sets in, Colonel Stark sends a rider back to Cambridge requesting reinforcements & additional ammunition to keep up the fight.

At their Headquarters in Cambridge, the Patriot commanders are elated at Stark’s report: not only had the mission been carried out successfully, but the regiment had been decisively engaged with the enemy and came out the victors. Without hesitation, reinforcements led by General Israel Putnam rushes out of Cambridge into the night towards Chelsea Creek.

Side note: Dr. Joseph Warren - Chairman of the “Massachusetts Committee of Safety,” famous Son of Liberty from Boston’s North End, and soon-to-be hero of Bunker Hill fame - was present at the Cambridge Headquarters when the rider arrived. Upon hearing Stark’s report, he volunteered to join Putnam’s men on their march: Dr. Warren did not want to miss the chance to witness what he believed to be history in the making, but was unable to join the fight. What he witnessed that evening at Chelsea Creek motivated him to take the field again - this time as a Private within the ranks - at Bunker Hill a month later, where he would be killed in action while fighting honorably.

It’s now late in the evening, and Putnam’s reinforcements join Stark’s men along the north shore of Chelsea Creek, exchanging fire through the darkness with the British on the water. After hours of attempting to tow the Diana back to deeper waters while under constant fire from the Patriots, the tide finally recedes beyond her waterline: her keel runs aground, settling into the sands just off the shore of Chelsea. Lieutenant Graves orders abandon ship.

The British have a difficult go at it, but are able to use the darkness to transfer her crew over to the HMS Britannia - one of the vessels dispatched to help the Diana. Once aboard, the British tow themselves back to safety in the deeper waters of Boston Harbor, leaving the Schooner Diana behind.

It’s now the early morning hours on the 28th. The musket & cannon fire finally silences, replaced with a loud cheer as the Patriots swarm abroad the abandoned vessel, now listing heavily on one side as the tide continues to recede. They go to work stripping her of any valuables: her 18 guns, powder, shot & supplies and then some, then load bales of hay to set the Diana ablaze, burn the ships.

But before sparking the flame, they have one more trophy to take from the Diana: Her 76’ tall, New England grown, White Pine mast. Yes, these mad lads - now over 24 hours on mission - took the time to cut off HMS Diana’s mast and carry it with them all the way back to Winter Hill.

Not sure there’s any better way to give a nod to the fighters of NH’s Pine Tree Riot.

Months later, her mast would be carried up Prospect Hill - the highest point around Boston, and thus, the most visible to the British held up in the city. There, by order of General Washington himself, the mast was planted to fly the first American Flag. Today, the spot atop Prospect Hill is marked by the "Prospect Hill Monument;” a 4-story structure of stone from which a flag still flies. The City of Somerville continues to raise a new flag every year at their annual Flag Raising Ceremony; 2020’s being the 244th year.

“Orders given from the General for scouting parties to fire at all times whenever they have the opportunity. The same day raised the mast that came out of the schooner that was burnt at Chelsea, for to hoist our new flag upon, in the fort upon Prospect Hill, seventy-six feet high.” - Lieutenant Paul Lunt, from his Diary August 1, 1775