On July 4, 2015, hundreds of Americans watched the fireworks from the deck of the World War II Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien, on display at San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf. The ship's namesake won the nation's first sea battle without such fireworks. He led a crew of angry Mainers who brought down the HMS Margaretta with pitchforks, axes, muskets and bare hands.
He was a lumberman, not a sailor.
Born in 1740 in Scarborough, Maine, which then was part of Massachusetts, O'Brien was the son of an Irish immigrant. O'Brien volunteered for the French and Indian War, and was part of the Siege of Louisbourg in 1758. Afterward, he settled in Machias, Maine, and entered the lumber business.
By 1775, he had six sons working with him when war with England finally erupted. The townspeople erected a liberty pole to celebrate the American victory. However, on June 2, 1775, when supply ships arrived, so did the HMS Margaretta. The British demanded lumber on top of money in exchange for the vital supplies. Captain Ichabod Jones, a leading citizen of Machias, readily agreed to this demand,but the townspeople did not. And throwing kerosene on the flame, the commander of the Margaretta, ordered Machias take down the liberty pole and threatened to fire upon the town.
The people of Machias had other plans. They decided to take on the Margaretta and elected O'Brien their captain. Sixty men led by O'Brien chased down the British and the Tory Ichabod Jones. The British escaped but not Captain Jones. The Americans later boarded Captain Jones's boat, Unity, with the idea of ramming the Margaretta and boarding the ship.
And that is exactly what they did. The English commander had 16 swivel-guns and four-pounders but thinking the Americans were friendly allowed the boats to come close until it was too late.
On June 12, 1775, the Americans shot and killed the helmsman and mortally wounded the commander in a brief firefight. In a letter to the Massachusetts legislature two days later, the crew described their battle.
“About forty men, armed with guns, swords, axes, & pitch forks, went in Capt. Jones’s sloop [Unity], under the command of Capt. Jeremiah O’Brien; about twenty, armed in the same manner & under the command of Capt. Benjamin Foster, went in a small schooner. During the Chase, our people built them breastworks of pine boards, and anything they could find in the Vessells, that would screen them from the enemy’s fire. The Tender, upon the first appearance of our people, cut her boats from the stern, & made all the sail she could-but being a very dull sailor, they soon came up with her, and a most obstinate engagement ensued, both sides determined to conquer or die; but the tender was obliged to yield, her Captain was wounded in the breast with two balls, of which he died next morning; poor Avery was killed, and one of the marines, and five wounded. Only one of our men was killed and six wounded, one of which is since dead of his wounds,” according to the crew.
Mainers say this was the first naval victory for America, but considering how Americans destroyed the HMS Gaspee on June 9, 1772, off the coast of Rhode Island, I would say taking the Margaretta was the first naval victory of the Continental Navy, even though it was not formed until four months later.
The Patriots rechristened the ship the Machias Liberty and Captain O'Brien enjoyed a new career as a privateer, who later captured two armed British schooners and delivered his prisoners to George Washington. Upon the general's recommendation, O'Brien the lumberman received the first captain's commission in the Massachusetts State Navy in 1775. He patrolled the coast in the Machias Liberty until a brother built and launched the Hannibal, which O'Brien then commanded.
However, the British eventually captured Captain O'Brien. After six months, he escaped and lived in Brunswick, Maine.
But at 71, he served his nation again, when President Madison appointed him customs collector for Machias, a job he held until his death on October 5, 1818. His service covered the War of 1812.
As for the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, it is one of six ships named in his honor over the years. It is the only one that survives and along with the SS John W. Brown, it is one of only two of the 2,710 Liberty Ships that is still working Liberty ships.
The SS Jeremiah O'Brien was one of 6,939 ships that participated the Normandy invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Manned by a crew of World War II veterans and cadets from the California Maritime Academy, she sailed through the Panama Canal to attend the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.
Americans win wars with superior firepower, but our countrymen can win battles with pitchforks if necessary.