Sunday, January 13, 2008

The "American Army of Two"

Approximately 15 miles north of the historic settlement of Plymouth, the town of Scituate, Ma. was settled in 1627 by members of Plymouth Colony. By the late 1700's, Scituate had a thriving fishing fleet and a growing population.
By the early 1800's, the local mariners petitioned the town selectmen for a lighthouse to mark the entrance of Scituate Harbor. Due to shallow areas and mud flats, the harbor could be treacherous to enter, especially in foul weather, without the aid of a lighthouse to show the way. The selectmen referred the problem to their local congressional representative, and federal funds were appropriated in 1810 to build a lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor.
The Scituate Lighthouse, pictured above, was completed in 1811 and put into service in April of 1812. Simeon Bates, a local ship captain, was assigned the job of keeper, and moved into the adjacent keeper's house with his wife and nine children.
These were treacherous times in America. The War of 1812 had broken out, and many towns along the coast were plundered and burned by British warships. In early June of 1814, the harbor of Scituate was attacked, and although they didn't make landfall, ten fishing vessels were burned by the British.
Upon the British attack, the local militia was called out to stand guard over the town in the event of another Redcoat visit. Sentinels were placed at the lighthouse, as well as other strategic spots within town, with the expectation that the British would soon return.
As summer wore on, there was no sign of the British. The lighthouse sentinels befriended the Bates family, especially daughters Rebecca, (age 21), and Abigail, (conflicting sources place her age somewhere between 15 and 17). Abigail was taught how to play the drums, and could replicate the different military signals, and Rebecca was taught four different military songs on the fife, of which "Yankee Doodle" was the one she felt she did especially well.
After months of no British activity, the militia was slowly called back from their posts. By late summer, all of the sentinels, including the ones at the lighthouse, were no longer posted.
It was on one of these late summer days, when Simeon Bates was away from the lighthouse, during one of his frequent trips to town, that the British returned. Remaining at the lighthouse were only Rebecca, Abigail, and their mother. As Rebecca was beginning to prepare the evening meal, she spotted through the kitchen window the British frigate HMS Bulwark anchored outside the harbor. Running to the top of the lighthouse to get a better look, she and Abigail saw first one, then a second barge filled with Redcoats being lowered from the ship and headed toward the harbor.
Memories of the earlier British attack were still in the girls' memories. Knowing that once again what was left of the town's fishing vessels were in danger of being destroyed, let alone the town itself, brought great trepidation to the Bates girls. Also to consider were the two cargo ships which lay anchor in the harbor, their holds filled with flour. Food was scarce at this juncture of the war, and the flour would be just as coveted by the British soldiers as it was by the townfolk.
Knowing that the girls could never get to town quick enough to warn the citizens, Rebecca had to think fast to try to save the town. The girls ran back down the stairs of the tower and to a storeroom, where the sentinels had left their muskets. Considering the action of using the muskets to fire upon the British, Rebecca quickly dismissed the idea because she knew that not only were they outnumbered greatly by the soldiers, but that would also draw cannon fire to the lighthouse from the warship. Quickly considering other plans of action, she came upon another idea.
Rebecca and Abigail grabbed their drum and fife from the storeroom, and ran as quickly as they could to the water's edge. Hiding behind a grove of trees near the beach, Rebecca instructed Abigail to play "Roll Call" on her drums, while she fervently belted out "Yankee Doodle" on her fife. The girls played as loudly as they could, and the sound drifted upon the approaching British.
Looking through the thickets and trees, the girls could see that the British in both barges had stopped rowing. "Could it be that they've heard us?", Rebecca thought to herself, and played her fife with even more spirit than before. Indeed, not only the sailors in the barges heard the girls, but those on the frigate as well. Not able to see who was actually playing the instruments, the British assumed that the local militia had been alerted to their arrival and was gathering to meet them. A signal appeared from the frigate, and the men on the barges turned around and returned to the ship. It wasn't long afterwards that the frigate raised its anchor and left Scituate for the open sea.
Recounting the story years later, Rebecca was adamant that the story was true, despite the fact that there were a number of "naysayers" which scoffed at the idea. Upon review by many local historians, although the story hasn't been 100% corroborated, many believe it to be the truth.

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