The Lighthouse Girls:   An Army of Two

"Once upon a time, two young women saved their town from an attack by the British Navy."   Sounds like the first line of a fairy tale, doesn’t it? But in fact, this event actually took place, and during the Regency, as it happens. Once I learned of the incredible, but true, exploits of these two young ladies, it occurred to me that any or all of the facts related to the event might provide inspiration for a Regency author writing a story set along any coastal area during our favorite period.

How two clever and brave young women used the power of sound to save their town . . .

This remarkable event took place in America, during the War of 1812. Despite the state of war, the British needed American grain and other food stuffs to feed their troops fighting in the Peninsula. Therefore, they continued to trade in several New England ports and were only blockading the ports to the south. But by the spring of 1814, with Napoleon defeated and the British Peninsular army demobilized, there was no further need of trade with New England and all of the American ports were put under blockade. In the summer of 1814, the British Royal Navy was engaged in a campaign of harrassment against the coastal towns along the Atlantic seaboard, including those of New England. Through the summer, British ships would target small towns which were unlikely to have any military protection. They would sail their ship into a harbor where they would ransack the town for food and other supplies, then burn or steal any ships which happened to be in port, before sailing away to pillage yet another small unprotected port town.

Initially, Scituate, a small coastal town on the South Shore of Massachusetts, thought they might be spared these depredations. Their harbor was very small and the shallow water and mud flats at its mouth made entry difficult for any ships but those with the most shallow draft. In fact, a lighthouse had been built on Cedar Point, at the entrance to the harbor, only three years before, to aid mariners in navigating the treacherous waters of the harbor mouth. But on 11 June 1814, the hopes of the town were dashed when a British warship ship dropped anchor at the entrance to the harbor and sent sailors out in smaller boats to burn the American ships then at anchor in Scituate harbor. The lighthouse-keeper, Captain Simeon Bates, twice fired his small cannon at the British ship, but it was too far out of range. The British ship then sailed away without any damage, leaving the smoking wreckage in Scituate harbor in its wake.

There were two more attacks on Scituate in the weeks that followed, when the British burned a few more fishing vessels and stole some others. The local militia was called out and they were in time to prevent the British soldiers from landing and thus were able to avoid any worse damage on shore. After that, there were militia men posted at several look-out points around the town for the rest of the summer. Two of those militia men were regularly stationed on Cedar Point, near the Scituate lighthouse. Simeon Bates, the lighthouse-keeper, had a wife and nine children. Two of those children were comely young ladies, Rebecca, aged twenty-one and Abigail, aged fifteen. To while away their long hours on duty, the young men taught the girls to play military music on the fife and drum. Rebecca became quite proficient with the fife, while Abigail could match her on the drum. Certainly, the girls were able to enliven more than one summer day for their large family with their newly-acquired musical talents.

It is unknown whether the British Navy off the coast of New England was aware of the militia men posted around Scituate harbor, but there were no further attacks there that summer. However, with the approach of autumn, many members of the militia needed to return to their farms as harvest time was approaching. Since there had been no more attacks, gradually the guards left their posts to work their land. One day in September, Simeon Bates, and most of his family, had to travel to a nearby town. Captain Bates left his daughters, Rebecca and Abigail, behind, along with their younger brother, to keep the lighthouse running. Both girls knew how to operate the great light and their father had faith they could handle the responsibility for a couple of days.

Late in the afternoon, a day or two after her family’s departure, Rebecca was preparing to put the kettle on when she glanced out the window and saw a large British warship dropping anchor at the mouth of Scituate harbor. She immediately called for her little brother and told him to run into the town to raise the alarm. But as she watched dozens of British sailors and marines clambering over the side to take their places in the warship’s launches, she was well aware that, with most of the able-bodied men out working their farms, it would be nearly impossible to assemble enough men in time to repel the British attack. She also knew that there were two ships tied up at the Scituate wharf, both of which had recently slipped through the British blockade. Those ships were carrying cargoes of flour which the townspeople would need to get them through the harsh New England winter. The loss of that flour would be just as disastrous for the town as British soldiers pillaging their homes and shops. The British attack had to be stopped. But how?

The militia men who had been stationed on Cedar Point that summer had left some muskets, ammunition and a few other pieces of equipment in the storeroom of the lighthouse. Initially, Rebecca thought to grab a musket and fire at the British when they came closer to shore. But almost immediately, she rejected that idea, knowing that even if she were able to aim well enough to wound or kill one or two, the others would storm ashore, perhaps taking their revenge on the townspeople. Such an effort might also draw cannon fire from the warship to the lighthouse itself. Then, she got a better idea and told her sister, Abigail, to grab the drum, even as she herself picked up the fife. "What good will that do?" Abigail demanded. "We are going to scare them," Rebecca replied. "They will assume that a fife and drum are at the head of a company of soldiers." Squelching any misgivings, Abigail followed close behind her older sister as they slipped out the back door of their house, out of sight of the harbor, and scurried through the brush to a dense stand of cedar trees further out on the point. Rebecca warned her sister they must keep out of sight of the British, for " . . . if they see us they’ll laugh us to scorn."

Abigail played Roll Call on her drum, while Rebecca launched into a rousing rendition of Yankee Doodle, her favorite piece and the one she considered her masterpiece. The two girls could just glimpse the redcoat-filled launches through the thick stand of trees and at first, there was no reaction to their playing. But they played on, louder and louder, doing their best to give the impression that a large company of American militia men were massing out of sight, about to march down to the shore. Even as they were beginning to loose heart, there was single shot from the British warship and a flag was run up the mast. The signal to return. The redcoats in the launches stopped rowing for a moment, then, they all turned and rowed back to the ship, apparently unwilling to face a company of armed militia as they tried to come ashore, particularly as sunset was drawing near. The girls played even louder, to encourage their enemies on their way. It was not long before all the soldiers were back on board the warship, it raised anchor and sailed away from Scituate, once and for all. And so it was that Rebecca and Abigail Bates became an army of two who prevented a British attack on their small town, armed only with military music.

There were a few nay-sayers to this tale, but most of those living in Scituate at the time supported Rebecca and Abigail’s story. Some years after the event, both sisters provided signed affidavits attesting to the accuracy of what took place that day out on Cedar Point. In later life, both Rebecca and Abigail received pensions from the United States Congress in recognition of their quick thinking and heroism. After their deaths, some residents of Scituate occasionally caught sight of the two girls playing their fife and drum near the stand of cedar trees where they had so deftly hoodwinked the British Navy all those years ago. There are those, even today, who claim that the sound of the fife and drum can sometimes be heard drifting on the wind around Cedar Point in Scituate.

The story of the brave and clever girls from the lighthouse who saved their town from attack with only music was published in various magazines and anthologies of children’s stories during most of the nineteenth century. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, it was very little known outside the town of Scituate, Massachusetts, and remains so, even in the twenty-first century. But it is a charming story of courage, quick wit and self-reliance in which those supposedly without power were able to successfully defend themselves and their town against the overwhelming might of the British Navy. Surely there are a host of elements in this tale which might be incorporated into a Regency romance or three so that the exploits of the lighthouse girls are not lost to history?

Dear Regency Authors, how might you use parts of the story of the brave and quick-thinking lighthouse girls to embellish one of your romances? Could it be that the heroine and her sister, or very close friend, are the daughters of military men and spent some time following the drum? They both learned to play the fife and drum during their time with the army. Will they be able to put those skills to good use when a dangerous band of smugglers, or is that slavers, attempts to come ashore near their home? Mayhap the heroine, newly married to a man she believes to be a very proper young officer, hides her past following the drum with her father. But when her husband, a spy for Wellington, is captured in Spain and held hostage by a band of French spies, what is to be done? The British forces are stretched too thin to mount a rescue, and though she dreads exposing her less than gracious past to her beloved husband, the heroine decides she will find a way to save him herself. She teaches a pair of local women to play the fife and drum, which they do, at a distance, to draw off her husband’s captors, while she slips into the house where he is being held and frees him. How else might the efforts of Rebecca and Abigail to save their town inspire an upcoming romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to The Lighthouse Girls:   An Army of Two

  1. elfahearn says:

    What a lovely story, and I’m sure there are tons more out there that are now lost to history. Women may be considered the inferior sex, but we’re the unrecognized work horses who defended the hearth single-handed while men marched with their buddies and muskets.

  2. what a wonderful story! one which ranks with that of Sybil Ludington whose name didn’t rhyme as easily as that of the more famous, but less heroic, Paul Revere.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am sorry to ruin your day, but there are no original contemporary records of any kind to support the ride of Sybil Ludington and most scholars of American history of the period consider it no more than a charming myth. There are also still a bunch of myths floating around, to this day, about Paul Revere’s ride on the night of 18 April 1775. Most of them derive from a poem written almost a century later by the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In fact, were it not for Paul Revere, there may never have been a successful American Revolution.

      Full disclosure, a long time ago, I was Curator of the Paul Revere House here in Boston for some years. I thoroughly researched his entire life, including that famous midnight ride. Revere’s primary mission was to get to Lexington, to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, leading lights of the revolution, that the regulars were coming for them. On the way, he did stop at a few select homes, to warn members of the local militias that the army was on the move. For the record, however, he never rode though the streets shouting “The British are coming!” since at the time, he considered himself British, as did most of the people whose houses he passed. He stopped at the homes of some of the militia leaders and warned them “The regulars are out.” Then he continued his ride to Lexington. When he got there, not long before the Redcoats, he had to hustle Hancock and Adams out of the tavern where they were staying, as Hancock, in particular, seemed to think he could take his time, when in fact, he was minutes ahead of a rope. Even after Hancock and Adams were spirited out the back door of the tavern, as the regulars were forming ranks on Lexington Common, Revere had to go back into the tavern because Hancock had forgotten the case in which he carried all his papers. Papers which would have led to charges of treason for several men beyond Hancock and Adams. By the time Revere found the case and once again got out the back door, the bullets were flying and he was very nearly hit, more than once. But he completed his mission, and Hancock and Adams got safely away, leaving no incriminating documents behind them.



      • Now that’s very interesting. These myths and memes keep being perpetuated, like the one that Josephine Bonaparte collected roses, when there’s no mention of them in any of the contemporary letters of gardeners who visited her gardens, a myth I had believed until I read a serious [hard copy] history of roses. And I even wrote a poem about Sybil Ludington in the same metre as the midnight ride of Paul Revere just to show it was possible, lol!

      • elfahearn says:

        Wow, I never knew that. How cool are you, Kat.

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