By Edward T. O’Donnell
Two hundred twenty-seven years ago this week, on June 12, 1775, Captain Jeremiah O’Brien was elected captain of a private sloop then in hot pursuit of a British warship. He and his crew would soon overtake the Margaretta off the coast of Maine and seize it after a pitched battle. Occurring only a month after the Battle of Lexington and Concord and five days before Bunker Hill, O’Brien’s seizure of the Margaretta is considered the first naval battle of the American Revolution.
Jeremiah O’Brien was born in Scarborough, Maine. in 1740, the son of Morris O’Brien of County Cork. He grew up to join his five brothers in working for their father, a successful lumber merchant in Machais, Maine. The town, according to legend, was staunchly patriot in its sentiments and when news arrived of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, its citizens erected a liberty pole. Only a few days later, the British warship Margaretta arrived as the escort for two sloops that were to be loaded with lumber to build fortifications in Boston.
Trouble began the moment the captain of the British ship noticed the town’s liberty pole and demanded it be removed. When the people of Machias refused, he threatened to fire on the town. The townspeople responded first by trying to seize and imprison the British officers while they attended church services. When that plot failed, they decided to seize the ship Margaretta. O’Brien volunteered the services of one of his lumber sloops and loaded with 60 men (including O’Brien’s five brothers and more than a few Irishmen with names like McNeil, Foster, Shannon, Mitchell, and Berry) they chased and eventually boarded the Margaretta. Fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued, in part because O’Brien and his men were only lightly armed. The men of Machias won the day, killing 10 British, including the captain, against four losses of their own.
The first naval engagement of the struggle soon to be called the American Revolution had been won by the colonists, courtesy of Captain Jeremiah O’Brien. But the colonists had little time to savor their victory, for five days later it would be overshadowed by the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Having tasted combat and found it to his liking, Capt. O’Brien decided to go into the business full time. He took the guns from the seized Margaretta and transferred them to his sloop, which he then renamed “Machias Liberty.” Soon thereafter, while patrolling off the Maine coast, he seized his second British ship, the Diligent, which had been dispatched to retake the Margaretta.
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In August 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress officially announced that Jeremiah O’Brien was “hereby commissioned as commander of the armed schooner Diligent and the sloop Machias Liberty, for the purpose of guarding the sea coast, for the sum of 160 pounds lawful money of this Colony of supplying the men with provisions and ammunition.” In other words, O’Brien received permission to operate as a licensed pirate against British shipping, or what in more polite circles was called a “privateer.” O’Brien’s brothers, John and William, served as lieutenant’s aboard the two ships. For the next year and a half, O’Brien cruised up and down the New England coast, seizing several British ships. His brother John took command of the Hibernia and likewise scored several prizes, including the British vessel General Pattison, which carried a number of high-ranking British officers heading for England.
In 1778, Jeremiah O’Brien took command of the ship Hannibal, built in Newburyport, Mass., by his brothers. Unfortunately, the ship was seized in 1780 by two British frigates off the coast of New York and O’Brien was imprisoned aboard the guard ship Jersey anchored on New York’s East River. For most men (as many as 10,000 colonists by war’s end), imprisonment aboard the Jersey meant a sentence of death by disease. O’Brien survived the ordeal for six months and was then transferred to a prison in England, from which he later escaped.
Returning to America at the end of the war, O’Brien resumed work in the family lumber business and eventually landed a government patronage job as collector of the port. He still held the position when he died in 1818 at the age of 78.
The O’Brien name lived on in the person of O’Brien’s son Jeremiah Jr. He became a prosperous Maine lumberman and shipper. He later enjoyed a successful political career (including a stint in Congress, 1823-29), helped along no doubt by his father’s famous name.
Jeremiah O’Brien was later remembered in the naming of a World War II liberty ship. These bulky vessels (FDR called them “dreadful looking objects” and they were popularly known as “ugly ducklings”) were built to carry 9,100 tons of vital cargo — human and military — across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien was built in South Portland, Maine, and launched on June 19, 1943. It participated in the original D-Day operation and was the only liberty ship to return in 1994 to participate in the 50th anniversary commemorations. Of the 2,710 built for the war, only two remain and only the O’Brien has not been modified. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is currently home ported at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
June 13, 1795: Theobald Wolfe Tone sets sail for America to raise money and support for the United Irishmen cause.
June 14, 1794: Commodore John Barry receives a commission from George Washington to train the first cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy.
June 16, 1904: James Joyce takes a job as a teacher at the Clifton School in Dalkey. He will later use June 16, 1904 as the setting for his monumental work “Ulysses.”
June 13, 1865: Writer William Butler Yeats is born in Dublin.
June 14, 1906: Photographer Margaret Bourke-White is born in the Bronx.
June 18, 1896: Playwright Phillys Barry is born Rochester, N.Y.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.