Local History: The Battle of Falmouth

Local History: The Battle of Falmouth

(Excerpted from http://wickedyankee.blogspot.com 10/25/11)

When you think of the sites of significant battles in the history of our country, you probably don’t generally think of Cape Cod. In fact, for most of the extensive history of warfare in this country, Cape Cod has been spared. Certainly the citizens of Cape towns and villages participated and served in combat, but the Cape itself has hardly been touched. However, during the American Revolution, Cape Cod found itself consistently plagued by Great Britain due to its location. In particular, Falmouth seemed to be a leader in the colonial rebel movement, and realized how vulnerable it was going to be during a colonial conflict with Great Britain. As the Cape had some of the best harbors at the time and was surrounded by many small islands in the Atlantic, the risk of being blockaded and starved was serious. In fact British warships had already been seen in the Vineyard Sound and had landed on the Elizabethan Islands by 1774.

The town’s “Committee of Correspondence” decided to secure arms and ammunition for all men from age 16 to 60, which was paid for out of the town’s own budget. The town raised a company of minutemen under the command of a Major in the local militia named Joseph Dimmick. Major Dimmick was entrusted with training the Falmouth minutemen at least two days a week until they were ready for combat.

In 1775 the British ship, Faulkland, landed in Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island. The Captain of the Faulkland harassed and threatened the inhabitants of the island, confiscating 200 sheep, destroying a portion of the Naushon’s boats, and doing their best to intimidate the islanders into submission to the Crown.

The raids on Naushon continued. The defenders were often left on the Island to fend for themselves against British warships. During the winter of 1776 to 1778 the Island was raided time and again. Finally in spring of 1778, only five defenders remained. The British landed and made a clean sweep of the livestock and provisions of known rebels. The properties of the many Tories (loyalists) on the Island were left untouched or were paid for. The Island was now defenseless and Falmouth was in easy striking distance.

In 1779, things finally came to blows in Falmouth. For months British ships had been running low on supplies. They often used Naushon Island’s Tarpaulin Cove as a staging ground for raids on Cape farms and livestock. However, the people were not defenseless. In return for these raids, Joseph Dimmick led counter raids on British ships. He and his men were often successful in regaining stolen Falmouth property. When they weren’t, they were successful in aggravating the British. As Dimmick was establishing a reputation for piracy of sorts, the British were becoming more and more annoyed by the resistance of Falmouth’s militia. Yet, it was one final incident that seemed to push the sentiment from annoyed to violent.

The British had once again run short of supplies. Seeing an opportunity, they landed a small group of soldiers at Little Harbor in Woods Hole on the evening of April 1, 1779. Although there had been a night watch in Falmouth posted during the war years, the British were able to avoid being seen. Using a local guide, they raided the farm of Ephraim and Manassah Swift, rounded up twelve head of cattle, and drove them back to their boats at Little Harbor, where they killed them. This is the modern location of the Steamship Authority and the Coast Guard in Woods Hole.

As the soldiers were busy killing the stolen cattle on the beach back at Little Harbor, they were ambushed by a group of minutemen led by Joseph Dimmick. The local militia harassed them so badly that the British were forced to abandon their stolen provisions and return to their ships hungry.

The British had had enough. They were annoyed by the incident in Woods Hole and fed up with the resistant locals. On their return to their fleet, they decided to burn the town of Falmouth to the ground on April 3. It’s possible that these plans would have been successful if not for the assistance of a Tory named John Slocumb. Slocumb, the owner of a tavern on the island of Pasque, was entertaining the British the night of April second. During the evening, Slocum overheard the officers of the fleet discussing their plans to destroy Falmouth and sent his son to Woods Hole during the dead of night to warn Cape Codders that the British were planning to invade early the next morning and fire the town.

Word came to Joseph Dimmick and the other defenders of the coast. Falmouth began to prepare for invasion by improving the already existing trenches along the beaches close to the town’s main harbor, which is today Surf Drive Beach and Surf Drive Road. Dimmick also called for reinforcements from the towns of Sandwich and Barnstable, both of which responded quickly. In all, about 200 men arrived at the entrenchments to meet the enemy.

At 11:30AM the British ships opened fire on the town. The ships fired what the militiamen called “hoits,” a sort of artillery meant to cause initial impact damage, then spread fire throughout the town. However, as New Englanders know, winter is just wrapping up in early April around here. In April of 1779, the town of Falmouth was just beginning to thaw out. This thaw actually protected Falmouth by preventing cannon balls from ricocheting off the ground and spreading damage. The “hoits” would land and only cause damage to whatever they actually hit, but the thawing ground prevented the damage and fire from spreading.

The British soon launched ten boats from their small fleet. All together, these boats contained about 220 soldiers. The British attempted to land in several places near Old Stone Dock and along Surf Drive. However, Major Dimmick and the militia were already there to meet them. The British did manage to at least land their boats on the beach several times, but the fire from the militiamen was too fierce to allow them to carve a foothold. The British continued to fire at the town and exchange small arms fire with the militia until 5:30PM. However, they soon began to understand that their attempts were not going to be successful. At a signal from their flagship, the smaller boats returned to the warships and the entire fleet moved off toward Nobska Point and Woods Hole. The militia followed.

The British attempted again to land in Woods Hole, but were repulsed by the Militia. At this point the British took refuge on Nonamesset Island, where they instantly began to slaughter the livestock. The British vented their frustration at the islanders, threatening them. The British soldiers stated that the “Damn rebels” had been killing them and that the rebels “fought like Devils.”

Over the next couple days the British fleet slowly broke up and headed away from the Cape. The ships did attempt to fire on the town again, but the militiamen stayed in their trenches and the enemy did not make another attempt at a landing.

Although other parts of the Cape and Islands suffered additional attacks and invasions, Falmouth never again needed to meet the Empire of Great Britain in combat, at least in the Revolutionary War. The town’s destruction had been prevented by the skill and bravery of a couple hundred farmers and fisherman who refused to let their homes be destroyed. Joseph Dimmick, of course, deserves recognition for the major role he played in Falmouth’s defense.