An American Army of Two Saves the Day.
Some arguments are not easy to settle. For example, many people say Rebecca and Abigail Bates were real heroes of the War of 1812. Others think that's just not so.
What did Rebecca and Abigail do? They saved their town from a British warship. At least that's what Rebecca claimed in 1874, the year St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, published the first of several versions she gave of her story.
The Bates family lived in Scituate, Massachusetts, a fishing and farming village about thirty miles south of Boston. In early June 1814, the British attacked the village. Two barges from a British warship entered the harbor and set fire to Scituate's fishing fleet. Ten ships were lost, and the militia was called in to defend the town.
For twenty-year-old Rebecca, the raid hit close to home. Her father, Simeon Bates, was keeper of the town's lighthouse at Cedar Point on the north side of the harbor. Rebecca and her family lived next to the lighthouse in the small keeper's cottage.
As keeper, Mr. Bates operated the lanterns in the light tower each night. But during the day he and other family members were sometimes away from the lighthouse. After the June attack, however, full-time lookouts were needed. The militia posted guards.
Weeks passed. No new enemy ships were sighted, and the militia was told to go home. But for a while, guards continued to stand watch at the lighthouse. To pass the time, they taught the Bates children to play the fife and drum. Rebecca learned four tunes and thought her "Yankee Doodle" was especially good.
But more and more, the lighthouse was left unguarded. This was the case one late-summer day in 1814.
According to Rebecca, she, her mother, and sixteen-year-old Abigail were alone in the cottage. As Rebecca was about to boil water for the evening meal, she spotted a British warship from the kitchen window. Too large for the town's shallow harbor, the warship had anchored just beyond the lighthouse.
It was early afternoon and the harbor was quiet. Rebecca and Abigail ran to the lighthouse for a better look and watched as a boat was lowered from the warship. The barge, full of soldiers, headed toward the harbor. Then Rebecca and Abigail saw a second barge follow the first. The memory of burning ships was still fresh in their minds.
But more than Scituate's boats were in danger. Tied to the town wharf were two merchant vessels, each carrying a full cargo of flour. Food supplies were extremely scarce at this time, and the raiding parties were sure to seize the cargoes. Losing the flour would be devastating to the town.
Rebecca thought fast. The guards' muskets, fife, and drum were still at the lighthouse. She and Abigail could use the muskets to shoot at the boats, but that would be risky. The soldiers might answer with cannon fire.
Then Rebecca had a bold idea. Calling to Abigail to follow, she dashed to the room where the firearms were stored. But instead of reaching for the muskets, she grabbed the fife and the drum. Rebecca handed the drum to Abigail and explained her plan.
The two young women ran down the wooded path that led to the edge of the water. When they reached the shore, Rebecca cautioned Abigail to stay low. "We must keep out of sight," she warned. "If they see us they'll laugh us to scorn."
Hiding behind tall cedar trees, Abigail and Rebecca played the instruments. Abigail beat out "Roll Call." Rebecca joined in with "Yankee Doodle." The sound of military music drifted across the bay. When Rebecca looked up, she saw that the soldiers had stopped rowing. Was it because of the music?
The girls continued playing. A moment later, a flag was raised on the warship--the signal for the barges to return. Once everyone was on board, the enemy vessel raised anchor and set sail for the open sea.
The British were fooled. They thought the town militia had been warned and was coming to stop them. Instead, they were chased away by two young women with a borrowed fife and drum.
Today, a plaque at Scituate Light honors the bravery of Rebecca and Abigail Bates--"The Army of Two."
What Really Happened?
Is Rebecca's tale true? We will never know for sure. The late-summer raid of 1814 isn't mentioned in any British warship log book, but the log of the British H.M.S. Spencer does have a curious entry dated August 24, 1814. It simply reads "Scituate Light." Was the ship's captain too embarrassed to explain what really happened?
Scituate did not have a newspaper in 1814, and no one wrote Rebecca's story until 1874, in St. Nicholas. In this version, Rebecca played the drum, not the fife. The writer even got her age wrong! In 1878, Rebecca told her story again for Harper's New Monthly, to the same author. This time she was the fifer. In both accounts, the author took Rebecca at her word. At the time, many people--even a relative--questioned the story's truth.
In old age, Rebecca retold the tale to friends and visitors, sometimes changing details. Scituate historians believe the version told here is the most accurate.
OLD SCITUATE LIGHTHOUSE
DURING THE YEAR 1810 THE U.S. CONGRESS VOTED 4000 TO BUILD A LIGHTHOUSE AT SCITUATE HARBOR. DURING THE WAR OF 1812 ABIGAIL AND REBECCA BATES YOUNG DAUGHTERS OF THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER PREVENTED A BRITISH NAVAL FORCE FROM SACKING THE TOWN BY PLAYING A FIFE AND BEATING A DRUM, THEY HAVE GONE DOWN IN HISTORY AS "THE ARMY OF TWO" AND THEIR COURAGEOUS ACT HAS BEEN RECORDED IN MANY TEXTBOOKS AND STORY BOOKS.