In one of the most remarkable engagements of the American Revolution, the tiny militia of Truro captured more than 400 sailors and marines from the massive British warship HMS Somerset.
It was probably the smallest military unit to take one of the biggest prizes of the war.
The militiamen had some help from Mother Nature. A fierce nor’easter that killed several dozen Cape Codders also hurled the Somerset onto the dreaded shoals near what is now Highland Light.
The Somerset had a long and storied history in North America before crashing on shore outside of Provincetown on Nov. 2, 1778.
Launched in 1748, she was one of the British Navy's biggest ships of the line. She had 64 cannons and her crew of about 480 included Royal Marines.
Somerset saw action in the French and Indian War at the capture of the Fortress at Louisbourg and Quebec City.
Then he said 'Good-night!' and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Somerset rescued British troops from the American militias.
She was the flagship of the British fleet at the Battle of Bunker Hill, though the broadsides she fired at patriot forces didn’t do much harm.
In 1777, Somerset took part in the Siege of Fort Mifflin, in which British ships captured forts along the Delaware River in order to provision the British forces holding Philadelphia.
By the autumn of 1778, Cape Codders had suffered at the hands of the British fleet. Fishing and whaling vessels stayed in harbor rather than risk capture by the British and having their crews pressed into service by the navy. The British also blockaded the import of staple goods like cloth, flour and sugar. Most able-bodied men were fighting the war or serving on privateers.
Somerset, under the command of Capt. George Ourry, was sailing from New York to confront the French fleet in Boston Harbor.
Then, on Monday, Nov. 2, 1778, Somerset got caught up in a deadly nor’easter. Waves crashed over her decks and her sails ripped to shreds. The ship ran aground on Peaked Hill Bars. Then she lost her rudder and broke open at the stern.
Somerset sat 600 feet from the beach as huge waves crashed over her decks. The crew cut away the masts and threw cannons overboard, hoping to lighten the ship enough so it would float off the sandbar and closer to shore.
By Tuesday morning, everyone in town knew about the wreck, but the surf was so high, no one could board it. By afternoon, three boats came from Somerset, but one sank, drowning 21 men. Capt. Ourry, in the second boat, asked for the principal man. When told it was Isaiah Atkins, a selectman, Ourry handed him his sword and said, “Save the men and the ship will be yours.”
By Wednesday the storm subsided enough that the Somerset crew could come ashore safely. Several hundred men and women of Truro, eager to plunder the wreck, met them on shore. Schoolteacher John Greenough described the scene:
Almost all the inhabitants of Truro came down to the wreck, they say as militia, although I could never learn that they were in any military arrangement nor under any command, order or discipline...Others were trading with the seamen for clothing, etc., brought from the ship; and a great number cutting up and carrying off sails, rigging, etc.
The warship, one of the two biggest British ships destroyed in the American Revolution, made quite a prize. Massachusetts authorities stepped in before the Cape Codders could pick the wreck clean. Two schooners and four sloops sailed to Cape Cod to salvage what they could for the war effort. Sixteen cannons were entrusted to Lt. Col. Paul Revere for fortification at Castle Island in Boston.
Today, houses built with timbers from the ship that once bombarded Bunker Hill still stand on Cape Cod.
The Long March
On Wednesday night, three or four unarmed militia men under the command of Capt. Enoch Hallett escorted the 400-odd sailors and marines off the beach. They went to the homes of Truro’s 250 families for shelter during the night.
Massachusetts gave the Somerset officers the courtesy of taking them to Boston by ship. However the men – many bleeding and hurt – had to march 120 miles from the tip of Cape Cod to Boston in the winter cold. They had little food, and the storm had soaked the Somerset’s provisions. When asked how to feed them, the Governor’s Council responded,
If you have not bread for the prisoners
let them live without as many better
men have done before them.
Local militias escorted the prisoners off the Cape, and the towns bore the cost of feeding them. The ragged horde passed through Eastham, Harwich, Yarmouth, Barnstable and Sandwich. Once they left Sandwich, the Cape militiamen decided their part of the journey had ended. Plymouth raised a company of 28 men to guard the prisoners, but some managed to wander off to freedom.
Sheriffs were dispatched to round up the missing sailors and marines. Traffic sentinels stood guard from the outskirts of Plymouth to Boston.
Fate of the Somerset Crew
When they arrived in Boston, a special guard set up at Boston Neck took them to their new home: a decrepit old French hulk called the Penet.
The Somerset’s purser, Edward Cyron, was an old man injured in the wreck. He collapsed during the march and disappeared for several days. On December 5 he petitioned for his release, which was granted. Many of the British sailors and marines were exchanged for American prisoners. Fourteen volunteered to join the American forces and were accepted.
The wreck was buried in the sands, its skeleton exposed by storms and erosion only three times: in 1886, 1973 and 2010. The last time it happened, the National Park Service assumed the timbers would slip beneath the sands again. It recorded an image of the remains using three-dimensional imaging technology.
This story was updated in 2019. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read about the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, America's worst naval disaster until Pearl Harbor, here.