Battle of Grape Island

Battle of Grape Island
21 May 1775

General Gage and Admiral Graves, seeking to obtain fresh provisions for the British troops in Boston, and fodder for the livestock, cast their eyes on the many islands in Boston Bay. One of these islands was Grape (or Grafs) Island, laying in the southeast part of Boston Bay. The island was owned by  Elisha Leavitt of Hingham, Massachusetts and had hay, livestock and a barn on it. Leavitt was a Loyalist and apparently sold or gave the hay and livestock on the island to the British army.1

On Sunday morning, 21 May 1775, Graves sent out two sloops and an armed schooner2 (or four sloops) to obtain the hay,3 with about 100 soldiers aboard.4 These sailed down toward Grape Island, in the southeastern part of the bay.5 This little fleet anchored before Great Hill. Rumors soon spread ashore that Weymouth was being burned. The militia began to collect, nearly 2000 of them, but the real target was the hay on Grape Island.6 General John Thomas received the news at his headquarters at Roxbury about 1000. He ordered out three companies to observe the British.7

Grape Island. Detail from Joseph F. W. Des Barres chart of Boston Bay, published about 1776. Library of Congress.


When they arrived on the scene the British were busily gathering the hay. The militia moved to a point near the island, but almost beyond range, and began firing at the British. The Americans had no boats and couldn’t cross over, so the British largely ignored the firing. Finally, one sloop fired a few swivel guns at the crowd, but the shots were too high. After a few hours of this desultory activity the tide came in. Some lighters, grounded on the mainland, floated.8 About the same time a little sloop came down from Hingham.9 The Americans crowded into the craft and set out for the island. As they stormed ashore on the nearest point the British hastily departed from the other end and sailed away. When the British passed by Horse Neck the sloops fired heavily on the crowd of militia, which returned the fire. The Americans burned the rest of the hay, about eighty tons, and a barn, and removed the livestock. Three British were reportedly wounded in the action.10

This minor affair scarcely deserves its name but it marked the beginning of the “Provision War” in the harbor islands.

1 Hingham, Massachusetts. History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts. Cambridge: Uiniversity Press, John Wilson and Sons. 1893, I, 288-289

2 Frothingham, Richard, History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill Also an Account of the Bunker Hill Monument. With Illustrative Documents. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1896. 422pp., 108-109

3 NDAR, “New England Chronicle, Thursday, May 25, 1775,” I, 522

4 History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, I, 288, from the Diary of Paul Litchfield.

5 NDAR, “New England Chronicle, Thursday, May 25, 1775,” I, 522

6 NDAR, “Portia (Abigail Adams) to John Adams,” I, 515-517. According to Abigail the British force was three sloops and a cutter.

7 NDAR, “Portia (Abigail Adams) to John Adams,” I, 515-517

8 NDAR, “Portia (Abigail Adams) to John Adams,” I, 515-517

9 NDAR, “Portia (Abigail Adams) to John Adams,” I, 515-517

10 NDAR, “New England Chronicle, Thursday, May 25, 1775,” I, 522; “Diary of Ezra Stiles,” I, 510

Posted 30 January 2009 ©