Americans have a longstanding fondness for David and Goliath stories, particularly those in which our scrappy homegrown underdogs beard the oppressing giant. They are an established part of our national myth and cultural heritage. Longfellow captivates his readers with tales of "...how the farmers gave them ball for ball / From behind each fence and farmyard wall" and turned back the British after Concord. "John Henry drove his fifteen feet, An' the steam drill only made nine, Lawd, Lawd..." And for those of us or a certain age or older, The Miracle on Ice. Even after suffering tremendous losses, we are quick to salvage something of our own, such as Doolittle's bombing raid on Japan, a forlorn hope that became a great propaganda victory just 4 months after Peal Harbor.
Local history abounds with these stories, from Sybil Ludington's Ride to Barbara Fritchie waving the flag of Union at Stonewall's confederates as they marched toward Pennsylvania. I came across a classic tale of this sort recently from the maritime history of Massachusetts during the War of 1812, the story of the two daughters of a lighthouse keeper who by pluck and invention saved their town from the British marauders. The tale, like all good yarns, may have grown in the telling, but young Rebecca and Abigail Bates are widely remembered in New England lore, poetry and folksong as the "American Army of Two".
The story goes that Simeon Bates was the keeper of the lighthouse at Scituate on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and lived there with his family during the War of 1812. He had a number of children, but the two principals in this tale are Rebecca, who based on her obituary would have been about 20 at the time this story takes place, and Abigail, who was about 13. Early in September, 1814, a British warship was sighted offshore and prepared to launch barges toward the lighthouse. Simeon Bates was away from the Lighthouse and only his wife and the two girls were on hand. The girls, knowing the militia would not get there in time, decided to hide from view and play a fife and drum to make the enemy think the soldiers were coming. They struck up Yankee Doodle, the British ceased to row, and the warship recalled them and left, much to the joy of the young saviors of Scituate, the Army of Two.
It is a wonderful story. It delighted young readers of St. Nicholas Magazine, which ran the story "Rebecca the Drummer" in July 1874 written by Charles Barnard and based on an elderly Rebecca Bates' recollection of the event. Rebecca Bates went so far as to sell affidavits of her story for 10 cents. There were apparently contemporary doubters of the tale, as well as at least one modern one. Nonetheless, Becky's sister Abby (who survived her) was reportedly borne to her grave by uniformed G.A.R. veterans and since then her account has been widely repeated as if factual. If the extensive research by the Scituate Historical Society concludes the story is likely true, we are not likely to settle the matter further with some on-line sleuthing, but let us see what further details we can add from the historic record.
The blockading British apparently approached Scituate by sea on three occasions between June 11 and July 9th in 1814. The June 11th raid two place as barges from two British ships entered Scituate harbor and burned or carried off a number of vessels. Captain John Mason, a boy of about 9 years at the time of the raid, later recalled that the British took three fishing vessels as prizes - "Orient", "Sophronia", and his own father's "Rosebud", and burned five or six others. A History of Scituate published in 1831 says that "ten vessels, fishing and coastal craft, were lost". Mason also stated that the barges belonged to the British frigate "Nymph" and 74 gun "La Hogue", though the latter named vessel has not been discovered among the navy list at the time and the Scituate History referenced above claims they came from the 74-gun "Bulwark".
It is not clear whether he was referring to this raid or a subsequent landing, but a biographical entry for Captain Mason records that he "remembered once when a fleet of these boats were coming in, that the women began to carry off their beds and furniture, but an officer in one of the British boats cried out, "Good women don't carry your beds off, we ain't going to hurt you." The British did not disembark when burning the ships in the harbor on June 11th. Six days later on June 17th, according to committee reports from the 30th United States Congress; "a British ship-of-war, two brigs, and several small craft came to anchor near Scituate harbor..." Col. John Barstow's militia were called out on July 9th when a British warship, variously identified as the "Bulwark" by some and by Congress as the "Nymph", demanded provisions from the town which were not furnished. The militia remained on guard that summer but the British did not reappear.
It is no wonder that these three events became tangled up in people's minds. Whether "Bulwark" or "Nymph" demanded vegetables or burned ships is a matter for those with access to the logs in the admiralty records. As to the fourth and final British approach - the one reportedly thwarted by the musical Becky and Abby Bates - that took place in late summer, either August or early September, and is recalled by one additional eye-witness, Ensign Otis, who "upon rising early saw a English ship anchoring off the harbor and warned the inhabitants of the little village." The version of the story printed in St. Nicholas (which has Rebecca as the drummer, unlike other accounts where she is said to have played the fife), also describes the British arriving offshore in the morning at low tide, and only launching boats at high tide around 2 p.m. This tale conflates events from previous raids and was written to inspire young readers with the heroism of the Bates girls so must be taken with a heavy dose of salt.
C. Wellington Furlong, who as a small boy summered in Scituate, later recalled;
"Next door to the Merritts lived Becky Bates, then a very old woman, who, in boyish wonderment I often watched her pull her corn cob pipe and listen to her story. During this war the British four gun HMS Bulwark in 1814 sent boats into the harbor and burned the shipping because the selectmen of the town, descendants of the Men of Kent, obstinately refused their demand for supplies. Not long after, Becky told me, another British warship, the HMS La Hogue appeared, dropped anchor a mile or so offshore and her barges loaded with marines pulled toward the harbor with obvious intention of burning the town. Becky, then about 16 was alone in the lighthouse with her younger sister Abigail. Becky quickly seized her brother’s fife and her younger sister Abigail the drum. Sneaking out of their lighthouse home they followed behind the cedar covered sand hills of the point, beating a lively tattoo to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” The marines, who had believed the town undefended, hearing the rhythmic strains wafted toward the ship’s boat, thought the town garrison was marching out, returned to the ship and the La Hogue sailed away."
Whether or not things transpired as later remembered and long repeated, no churlish iconoclast has definitively debunked the legend of the American Army of Two, and far be it from me to do so. Becky and Abby Bates remain heroines in the hearts of many, and why not?