The Battle for Boston Light

Photo by Christopher Klein

Remember that old Sesame Street segment with the song “One of these things is not like the other“? (What’s up with Grover’s voice in that clip, by the way? Sounds like he had a Freaky Friday moment with Cookie Monster.) You get four choices and have to tell which one is dissimilar from the others. Well, let’s play:

Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, the Boston Harbor Islands.

If you said the Boston Harbor Islands because the other three were locations of Revolutionary War battles, then you’re, well, wrong. Although little-known to even life-long Hub residents, the islands of Boston Harbor were also stained with the blood of patriots and British forces.

This month marks the 236th anniversary of the Revolutionary clashes on Little Brewster Island. Perhaps no island was of more strategic importance than Little Brewster because it was the location of historic Boston Light, the first lighthouse in North America when it was built 1716. The lighthouse was still in British hands in July 1775 when the patriots, seeking to disrupt British control of the harbor, launched two daring raids on Little Brewster Island.

Maj. Joseph Vose of the Continental Army led a raiding party onto the Nantasket peninsula on the southern shore of Boston Harbor from which they set off in whaleboats for Little Brewster Island, where they landed on the morning of July 20, 1775. The patriots burned the wooden parts of the lighthouse, and removed three casks of oil, gunpowder, and furniture. Seeing the beacon in flames, several British barges, a cutter, and an armed schooner attacked Vose’s detachment, but only two patriots were wounded in the action.

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library

A letter from Brigadier General William Heath to George Washington, dated July 21, 1775, recounted the actions of Vose’s detachment, both on Little Brewster Island and on other islands in Boston Harbor:


I have the Pleasure to inform your Excellency that Major Vose of my own Regiment; beside[s] securing the Barley on Nantasket; yesterday morning Landed on the Light-House Island with Six or Seven Boats, the Light House was set on Fire and the wood work Burnt, the Party brought off Three Casks of Oyl, all the furniture of the Light house, about 50 wt of Gun Powder, a Quantity of Cordage &c. (an Inventory of which will be forwarded to your Excellency;)

Some of the Brave men who effected this with their Lives in their Hands, have just now applied to me to know whether it was to be consid[ered] as Plunder, or otherwise; I was not able to detirmine this matter, but told them that I would Lay the matter before your Excellency; I would beg leave to add that these Brave men, were some of them at Grape Island, Deer Island & at Long Island when each of those Islands were Stripped of their Stock &c.

I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s most obedient & very Humble Servt

W. Heath

The British quickly deployed Loyalist workers, protected by a guard of marines, to repair Boston Light. “With this Party,” Vice Admiral Samuel Graves wrote, “the Engineers were of opinion the Light House might well be defended, until Succours arrived, against 1000 men, and the Admiral expected to have the Building soon repaired and a Light shewn as before.”

And it appears the British did proceed quickly in their repair of the light. In a letter to John Adams, James Warren reported that by the night of July 29 the British efforts to rebuild the beacon were “in such forwardness as Actually to shew a Light.”

However, the other assessment by Graves as to the ease of defending Boston Light would soon be put to the test. Stay tuned to this blog to hear what happened next…

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