1500-1799 | Burning towns and cities | Collective punishments | Punitive operations | United States


John Newton – print of the Burning of Falmouth – c. 1782 –
Library of Congress via Wikimedia

17 OCTOBER 1775

On 6 October 1775, a squadron of Royal Naval ships, commanded by Captain Henry Mowat, sailed from Boston. Vice Admiral Samuel Graves ordered Mowat to discipline coastal towns deemed sympathetic to the American Revolutionary cause, which earlier that year had erupted into a full scale war against the tyranny of British colonial rule. On 16 October, the British ships anchored off Falmouth, a small lumber trade port with a population of 2,000.

The townsfolk showing no attempt at resistance, Mowat dispatched an officer with a proclamation that explained that he had received orders ‘to burn all the towns from Boston to Halifax,’ since the people had ‘been guilty of the most unpardonable Rebellion.’ His Majesty’s ships were now duly required to ‘execute a just Punishment.’1 As darkness fell, householders hurriedly attempted to pack all their valuables. However, there was insufficient transport available to enable a speedy evacuation and when at about 9.30 am the following morning the British navy opened fire, many of the town’s residents were still in their homes.

During the next nine hours, a total of 3,000 projectiles rained down on the town. One witness recalled the ‘wanton destruction the missiles immediately wrought. They crashed through the warehouses, they plowed up the streets, they cut off the limbs of the trees, they sank the shipping, they set fire to the dwellings.’ The oxen, pulling the overloaded carts of those still attempting to flee with their possessions, were petrified ‘by the smoke and report of the guns,’ and ‘ran with precipitation over the rocks, dashing every thing in pieces, and scattering large quantities of goods about the streets.’2

Observing the destruction, Mowat was anxious that the southern section of the town was not burning easily, so he sent men ashore to torch the storehouses. The fires from these soon merged with others generated by the shelling and engulfed most of the remaining buildings. Mowat’s logbook noted that they still raged the following morning. Three quarters of the town was left a smoking ruin. Hardly a wharf or shop survived the inferno and hundreds of Falmouthians faced the prospect of a harsh winter in which temperatures might sometimes plummet to 19 C below zero, with no prospect of employment nor even a roof over their heads. The indiscriminate destruction, described by George Washington as ‘an outrage exceeding in barbarity and cruelty every hostile act practiced among civilised nations,’ only served to harden anti-British sentiments.3


  1. Pearson Jones, A letter from Falmouth, 16 October 1775, ‘Saturday’s and Sunday’s Posts: America, The Manchester Mercury, 26 December 1775, p. 2 and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, Crown, New York, 2017, p. 86.
  2. Holger Hoock, op. cit., pp. 86-87.
  3. Jared Sparks ( editor ), The Writings of George Washington, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1858, Volume III, p. 129.

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