ON THIS DATE 200 years ago (September 1, 1814), nineteen-year-old Rebecca Bates and her fifteen-year-old sister Abigail played a clever ruse that scared off British soldiers intent on sacking their Massachusetts harbor town during the War of 1812.
Rebecca and Abigail Bates, sometimes called the Army of Two, have been the subject of children’s books.
As the story goes, Rebecca and Abigail, daughters of a lighthouse keeper, spotted a British warship off the coast of Scituate Harbor, located 25 miles south of Boston. The ship had dispatched boats full of soldiers intent on destroying U.S. fishing boats or vessels carrying flour (stories differ), and perhaps ransacking the town.
Simeon Bates, the girls’ father, was away with the rest of the family. Desperate to save their home and town, the girls played a fife and drum, instruments associated with military maneuvers. The British heard the music without seeing the girls and assumed a U.S. military unit must be afoot. They scurried back to their warship, and disaster was averted.
Sixty-two years later, The New York Times dismissed the fife-and-drum story in an obituary for Abigail Bates. “The sober history of Scituate relates that only once did the Britishers approach the place,” wrote The Times. On that occasion, soldiers in two small British boats entered the harbor and burned some local sea vessels. According to The New York Times, “No resident of the town was known to have especially distinguished himself.”
The Bates sisters insisted on their own, more colorful, version of events, and an 1880 entry from Proceedings of the Massachussets Historical Society supported their story. The British had been after “two vessels laden with flower” and would have taken the goods and imprisoned any men on board, according to the Historical Society. The Bates sisters prevented British mischief by “hiding behind a bluff” and playing “so vigorously upon their instruments that the marines in the barges … hurriedly rowed off seaword.”
Late in life, Rebecca and Abigail Bates signed affadavits claiming their tale was true. The older sister signed her statement, “Rebecca, the Fifer,” and the younger sister refers to herself as “Abbie, the drummer, one of the American party of two.”