The Army of Two: The Mass. Girls Who Turned Back the British Navy

The War of 1812 lasted nearly three years. It was fought in four different theatres: the ocean’s shipping lanes, along the American coast, on the western American frontier and the Gulf Coast.

It made heroes, like Andrew Jackson, and changed the political landscape of America by destroying the Federalist Party. But for all that, one of the most interesting stories of the war might still be the time two young girls turned back the royal British Navy at Scituate,Mass.

Rebecca and Abbie Bates. Illustration from St. Nicholas Magazine for Girls and Boys.

Rebecca and Abby Bates. Illustration from St. Nicholas Magazine for Girls and Boys.

By 1814, Britain’s Navy was engaging in a war of harassment along the coast. A ship would zero in on a small town or harbor, sometimes soldiers would ransack the town for supplies. Other times they would burn the boats in the harbor.

In Scituate, in June and July of 1814, British ships invaded the harbor three times to burn some fishing vessels and steal others. The local militia stood guard against any troops intending to land.

The Army of Two

For much of the summer, the militia stood guard, but by September the men had gone home. And that was the state of play one day when Rebecca (21) and Abby (15) Bates, daughters of Scituate Light lighthouse keeper Simeon Bates, observed a British ship making directly for the harbor. It seemed that the fears of the residents had come true, but no one was ready to repel the landing force.

With their father away, the Bates girls dispatched their brother to run for help. Then they came up with a plan. As the British ship drew near and began offloading sailors onto barges, the two struck up their fife and drum. Hidden from sight, the two girls sounded for all the world like an approaching army force.

Suddenly, the idea of harassing the boats in Scituate or coming ashore to cause even more damage didn’t seem so appealing. The sailors returned to their ship and departed, leaving a relieved town of Scituate.

Over the years, some questioned the facts of the story, but the Bates sisters never varied from their version of events, and later in life they took to retelling it and providing affidavits attesting to its accuracy.

And over the years, the story has been retold in children’s literature, including an 1874 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls and several books.

This story was updated in 2019.

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