When the War of 1812 came to Cape Cod, only a few towns such as Falmouth resisted the British. In response, the British bombarded Falmouth. The town still remembers the attack, and evidence of British cannonballs can be seen to this day.
The War of 1812
America entered the War of 1812 after the British began boarding U.S. ships and impressing sailors onto Royal Navy vessels.
Most New Englanders, heavily dependent on maritime trade, didn’t want to go to war. They knew the British could easily blockade the coast and stifle trade — as well as bombard their towns.
When the U.S. entered the war on June 18, 1812, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution calling the declaration “an event awful, unexpected, hostile to your interests, menacing to your liberties, and revolting to your feelings.”
Massachusetts Gov. Caleb Strong refused to commit the state’s militia to the war effort. In response, President James Madison refused to send troops to defend Massachusetts.
By the end of the war, several New England states came close to seceding from the United States.
Westerners and southerners, however, wanted war. They wanted to expand westward into the Northwest Territory, some of which was still under British control.
Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod’s southern shore, strongly supported the war. “Falmouth best upheld the honor of the Cape,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison.
During the War of 1812, Cape Cod bore the brunt of British aggression. The British Navy blockaded all the Cape ports, raided the harbors and seized vessels with abandon. They came ashore to steal crops and livestock.
They extorted money from every Cape Cod town but Barnstable, Falmouth, Sandwich and Orleans. And they cut off shipping to Nantucket, and the starving islanders voted neutrality during the war.
But Falmouth stood firm against the British. Not only did Falmouth refuse to bribe the Royal Navy, the Falmouth Artillery Company routinely fired guns at British ships that passed by. That made the town an especially appealing target.
On Jan. 20, 1814, David Nye wrote to Secretary of War John Armstrong about the vulnerability of Falmouth. Since the local government couldn’t help, they turned to the federal government. “We have nothing to expect, should we fall into their hands, but to be treated with all the insolence and barbarity which is so peculiar to the British and their savage allies,” he wrote.
The British Bombarded Falmouth
At about the time of David Nye’s letter, the H.M.S. Nimrod, an 18-gun cruiser that would capture or destroy 50 U.S. vessels during the war, anchored off Naushon Island nearby. The captain, Nathaniel Mitchell, heard about a U.S. sloop that ran aground off Woods Hole in Falmouth. He sent sailors in small boats to attack the vessel.
But the Falmouth Artillery Company got wind of the planned attack and hastened to Woods Hole. They arrived in time and fired on the British, killing one sailor and wounding another.
When he learned of the failed attack, Capt. Mitchell wanted revenge. So he sailed the Nimrod to Falmouth, raised a white flag and sent a boat ashore. When the landing party came onto the wharf, it demanded that Falmouth turn over two cannon and sloop.
The Artillery Company commander, Weston Jenkins, supposedly replied with words that echo today. “If ye want the cannon, come and get them, and we will give ye what’s in them first,” he said.
The British replied that the Nimrod would bomb Falmouth in an hour. Falmouth evacuated the women and children from the town. One woman stayed behind: Weston Jenkins’ wife Elizabeth, who cooked for the 200 men who stayed in town.
Then the cannonballs began to fly. The British bombarded Falmouth all afternoon and into the evening. Though the cannonballs damaged buildings they didn’t kill anyone. One of those buildings, for many years the Nimrod restaurant, has a hole made by a cannonball in its men’s room from the time the British bombarded Falmouth.
The Nimrod finally gave up and sailed toward Rhode Island. In June, the Nimrod sailed into Buzzard’s Bay and anchored offshore Wareham, which borders Cape Cod.
Wareham had no use for the War of 1812. So when Capt. Mitchell sent 200 men ashore under a flag of truce, Wareham welcomed them. The British demanded to know which ships belonged to Falmouth. Wareham officials told them. The British then set afire 17 ships, mostly belonging to Falmouth.
The Nimrod then ignominiously ran aground in Buzzard’s Bay. Capt. Mitchell ordered the cannon thrown overboard to lighten its load.
In the final Cape Cod engagement of the war, Admiral Lord Richard Howe demanded bribes from Brewster and Eastham to protect their saltworks. Orleans, however, refused. Howe ordered an attack on Orleans, but his vessel, the HMS Newcastle, couldn’t navigate the marshy coastal waters. The Newcastle’s cannonballs fell short of the town.
The local militia skirmished with the HMS Newcastle when it tried to land in Rock Harbor.
In 1987, a diving crew recovered five of the Nimrod’s artillery pieces. The Falmouth Historical Society now has one on display.
This story was updated in 2020.