The Almost-Battle of Marshfield

An 1885 depiction of the action along "Battle Road," April 19, 1775 from "A Brief History of the United States"

I have been writing quite a bit lately (separately from this blog) about the start of the Revolution…a long term project which I hope to publish…well, in this lifetime would be ideal. As one researches the provincial militia and minuteman companies that were engaged in the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 it is striking just how many communities responded. Men had been preparing and drilling for this day for months, and when the word came, they were ready. Companies engaged that day came from as far as Dracut on the New Hampshire border and Marblehead on the North Shore. And there were companies en route from all over New England that did not arrive in time to see action.

However, only a few Plymouth County companies marched for Lexington that day. On the South Shore of Massachusetts, the minutemen had Redcoats of their own to deal with. This is one of those curious episodes in history that emphasizes how confusing must have been those first days of revolution.

Marshfield, Massachusetts, about 30 miles south of Boston, was a highly unusual community in 1775 in that loyalists were dominant there. The town’s leading men were for the King. Fearing for their safety amidst so many patriots in neighboring towns, the gentlemen of Marshfield actually petitioned General Gage in Boston, requesting a detachment of the King’s troops be stationed in their town.

Gage was only too happy to grant their request, pleased that someone in Massachusetts had, for a change, asked for his help. He sent a detachment of 100 men from the 4th Regiment of Foot under the command of Captain Nesbit Balfour. They brought with them two artillery pieces and 300 muskets to be used by the gentlemen of Marshfield against the rebels.

On January 23, 1775 the redcoats landed at the North River and marched unhindered through town to the estate of Marshfield’s leading Tory, merchant Nathaniel Ray Thomas. They set up barracks and prepared for a long stay. Gage wrote the citizens of Marshfield, “I feel great satisfaction in having contributed to the safety and protection of a people so eminent for their Loyalty to their King.”

Over the ensuing months, the soldiers made their presence felt in towns surrounding Marshfield. They seem to have kept their marching and drills confined to the safety of that Tory town, however the soldiers and officers, in small groups, visited taverns and homes of loyalists in Duxbury, Kingston, Plymouth and elsewhere.

In the shiretown of Plymouth, the presence of British officers raised particular furor. Balfour, during a visit there, was warned by a Plymouth Tory not to bring his men there as the people were in “a great state of excitement and alarm.” In one case, a British officer accused of threatening an inhabitant of Plymouth was chased into a Tory’s shop by a small mob. He was not allowed to emerge until he had surrendered his sword which was promptly broken into many pieces.

So, with tensions rising, the men of Plymouth County knew what their objective would be whenever violence finally erupted. They would march on Marshfield and deal with Balfour’s Redcoats.

The news of shots fired at Lexington and Concord reached Plymouth at some point in the afternoon of April 19. Even if the Plymouth County regiment had marched for Boston that day, they would not have arrived in time to participate in the running fight along the “Battle Road.” Instead the various militia and minuteman companies formed up and began to gather in the vicinity of Plymouth. It seems, from vague early sources, that the companies from Plymouth, Kingston and Duxbury were gathered together within a few hours. But they did not march to Marshfield.

The man in charge of the Plymouth County regiment was Colonel Theophilus Cotton of Plymouth. He was an ardent patriot but also, apparently, a cautious man. He allowed the night of April 19 to pass without action. Then, on the morning of April 20, he held a council of war with his subaltern, Lt. Col. Briggs Alden and other officers at Alden’s house in Duxbury (still standing and known as the John Alden House). There is no record of their discussion but the result was another day of inaction. One must presume that Cotton was either waiting for reinforcements to arrive or hoping that the British would simply go back to Boston.

Nathaniel Ray Thomas House, Marshfield, aka the Daniel Webster Estate. A 1909 postcard depicting the estate as it appeared in 1859. In 1775 there were no croquet players here, but encamped Redcoats.

Finally on the morning of April 21, around 7 am, Cotton marched his regiment to Marshfield, taking up a position around Anthony Thomas’s farm, about a mile from the British garrison. By now, new companies had arrived from Rochester and Plympton.  Plus, the crews of many fishing vessels from these seafaring towns, eager for a fight, had followed along. By noon, Cotton had about 500 men to Balfour’s 100.

But Cotton did not attack. Around 3 pm, the commander of the Kingston company, Capt. Peleg Wadsworth, grew so impatient with the delay that, without orders, he advanced his company to within firing range of the British position. It finally looked as though something might happen.

Unbeknownst to Wadsworth, Capt. Balfour had arranged his escape. Two British vessels had arrived off the shore of Marshfield and Balfour immediately began loading his troops. Balfour later reported that, if he had been attacked, he would have surrendered without firing a shot.

It is a peculiar episode. Blood had been shed in Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy and Cambridge. The day for which the patriots planned was at hand. Cotton’s objective was self-evident. He could have captured or obliterated the entire British detachment. But, when his moment came, Cotton chose to do nothing.

And I don’t blame him one bit. I think this episode is indicative of the sense of shock and disbelief generated by the events of April 19, 1775. My guess is that Cotton probably had some trouble grasping the notion that Revolution was finally at hand. And he was probably aware that the small garrison would flee if he gave them enough time.

Balfour was seriously wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill but eventually went on to become a trusted aide to Gen. Charles Cornwallis, ended his military career at the rank of Major General and became a Member of Parliament. A bright career that might have come to an early end had a less prudent man than Theophilus Cotton been in command on April 19, 1775.

[Sources: Justin Winsor, History of Duxbury (1849), p. 120; Cynthia Krussel, Of Tea and Tories (1976); James Thacher, History of Plymouth (1832), p. 210]

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

5 responses to “The Almost-Battle of Marshfield

  • Michael Lynch

    This is interesting. I’ve heard of Balfour–he served under Cornwallis and commanded the British troops occupying Charleston during part of the war in the South.

    –ML

  • Bruce Dunham

    Excellent article! I had 5 ancestors (James, George, Robert, Josiah and Amos Dunham) in the detachment of militia that marched on Marshfield and I had heard the story but never in the detail that you provided.

    Thanks.

  • Bruce Dunham

    Patrick,

    As a fellow historian I’d like to talk with you off line sometime about similar interests and articles that I’m writing for our enealogy site. How can I reach you(email you) directly?

    Bruce

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