Private James Stevens of Captain Thomas Poor's Company of Andover Minutemen kept a journal of his service in the American Revolution. Between the Battles of Lexington and Concord (to which the Andover men came late) and Bunker Hill (when he was home on leave) young Stevens and some of his comrades fought in a little known engagement that has the distinction of being the first capture and destruction of an enemy war vessel by the Americans in war.
It happened between Hog and Noddle's Islands along Chelsea Creek in what is now East Boston. The islands were leased as farm and pasture by Henry Howell Williams, who up until April 19th of 1775 seems to have done well for himself supplying the British in Boston. After Lexington, his livestock were vulnerable to foraging by besieger and besieged alike and the British stationed a number of marines on the Williams farm to protect it from the Patriots.
On May 27th, Col. John Stark with 300 New Hampshire men and additional units from Chelsea and other Massachusetts towns was ordered to remove all the livestock from Hog and Noddles Islands to deny them to the British. They waded across the shallow tidal creek to Hog Island and and rounded up over 400 sheep as well as some horses and cows. 30 volunteers moved on across the inlet to Noddles Island. Home, barns and hay were put to the torch, and what livestock they could not remove were destroyed.
The marines, meanwhile, had been reinforced by 400 regulars, and light skirmishing turned to heavy fire and forced the raiders back into the marsh to rally by a muddy ditch. According to the website of the Chelsea Historical Society:
"The British advanced slowly in drawn-up lines until they were a few feet from the waiting Americans. The entrenched Patriots opened with a deadly fire, killing and wounding a large number of the British. The British were forced to retreat. The Americans taking advantage of the break in hostilities, withdrew across to Hog Island. The British Regulars on Noddles Island began firing by platoons across the creek at the fleeing Americans."
Other sources put the British losses at only a couple of killed and wounded. The Americans were able to withdraw to the mainland via Chelsea Neck, but now came under fire from the Schooner "Diana", whose light armament of 4 six pounders and 12 swivels nonetheless could make things very hot for troops struggling through the marshes. The wind died, however, and the schooner was in shallow water with a falling tide. It was at this moment in the battle when 300 reinforcements from the Patriot camp in Cambridge, including James Stevens and volunteers from Poor's company, arrived in support of Stark's men with two cannon of their own. Steven's journal entry, with its unique spelling kept intact, was reproduced in Bailey's Historical Sketches of Andover (1880):
"As soon as the reglers saw our men they fired on them, the firing began on both sides & fired very warm, there com a man & ordered us over a nol rite into the mouths of the cannon. we got onto the top of the nol & the grap shot & cannon bauls come so thick that we retreated back to the rode & then marcht down to the ferry, the regerlers shouted very much. Our men got the cannon & plast them & gave them two or three good broad sides & the firing sest in a measure & there was a terrabel cry amonst the regelers, they fired onst in a while all night. about 10 o'clock the scooner ran on the ____& stuck fast; there cum a slup for her relief & they left the sconer." (Bailey 311)
The British tried to row the "Diana" off the mud with marine barges but about midnight she became hopelessly mired near the Winnisimmet Ferry and by 3:00 a.m. she rolled on her side and the British abandoned ship. In the fading darkness the Americans offloaded her guns and whatever else they found of value. They set hay in the stern and below decks in preparation to burn the vessel. Stevens' journal picks up the story:
"This morning about day they com with thare barges to bord the sconer. Cornel Putnam com & ordered us down to the wharfe & we fired so that they retreted back to the sloop our men run down & fired the sconer it burst very fast, the slup begun to of in about three quarters of an hour after it was sot fire, the magersene Blod up & blod out some plunder, they fired from Nodles iland on us about an hour...we are retren back to our packs & go at our Brekfast, the slup drad of to Boston. there was of our men wounded fore non cild." (Bailey 311)
The "Diana" was a bitter loss despite her light armament. She was locally built and had been purchased by the British just the year before. Admiral Samuel Graves wrote the British Admiralty on January 8th, 1775:
"I have taken upon me to purchase the DIANA Schooner of 120 tons, about eight Months old, so exceedingly well built that she is allowed to be the best Vessel of the Kind that has been yet in the King's Service, her first cost is 3750 pounds Sterling and as I have thought it best for his Majesty's Service that she should be an established armed Schooner, I have directed the necessary alterations to be made in her hull and for her to be fitted in all respects like other Vessels of her class. She will have the St. LAWRENCES's Guns. On this Occasion I have appointed Lieut. Thomas GRAVES of his Majesty's Ship Lively to command the DIANA SChooner, and Mr. William LECHMERE of the Preston to be Lieutenant of the Lively. The Diana will soon be ready for Sea, and I shall send her to Rhode Island."
Lieutenant Thomas Graves was the nephew of Admiral Samuel Graves and would later himself be made Admiral. He was severely burned on the face trying to recapture his schooner. His brother Lieutenant John Graves rescued the 30 men of the "Diana" with the "Britannia", the tender of HMS "Somerset", which accounts for the sloop mentioned in Steven's journal.
The Battle of Chelsea Creek and the taking of the schooner "Diana" was James Steven's first time under fire and the first time Col. John Stark fought the British. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Vol XXI, 1877) sums up the engagement as "a bright, smart and successful affair (that) did much good by inspiring and giving confidence to the rebels, and the property captured was valuable to them."
Today, Noddles Island accommodates airplanes instead of livestock, and East Boston is dominated not by muddy creeks and salt hay but by Logan Airport.