The Battle of Shirley Gut

A battle of dramatic importance took place in the Revolution less than four miles from our observation post in the Custom House. It was fought in a swiftly moving body of water then separating what is now Winthrop from Deer Island.

The Battle of Shirley Gut was fought in May 1776. On the 17th of that month Captain James Mugford was cruising aboard the privateer Franklin in outer Boston Harbor, watching for a powder ship he had reason to believe was on the way from England. The American forces desperately needed powder, and the ship's capture would be an important victory.

Late that afternoon he sighted the vessel, the ordnance ship Hope of Bristol, England. She was no match for brave Captain Mugford, who boarded and took her in plain sight of the British fleet at Nantasket Road. With the capture of the vessel, Mugford ran for Shirley Gut, a dangerous thing to do at that time of day because of the fast-ebbing tide, but there was no alternative. All went well until he reached the western end of Shirley Gut, where the Hope grounded. Mugford sent to Boston for aid to unload the valuable powder, and he anchored the Franklin close at hand.

Within an incredibly short time a great fleet of scows, sloops, schooners and barges reached the powder ship, and the cargo was unloaded. The Hope, floating off at high tide, sailed triumphantly into Boston and was safe in British hands again.

All of this activity rankled in the hearts of Commodore Banks and the other officers of the British fleet anchored nearby, and they swore vengeance on Mugford. Two days later, on Sunday evening May 19, when Mugford sailed the Franklin out toward Shirley Gut, they watched the Continental cruiser as she proceeded toward the treacherous waters. Then the unexpected happened--just as the Franklin entered the Gut, it ran aground. The accompanying ship, Lady Washington, in command of Captain Cunningham, stood by to render assistance.

The two men, awaiting the incoming tide, went ashore at Deer Island to observe the British fleet. They found that the English had watched the stranding of the Franklin and were even then loading thirteen whaleboats to be sent in an attempt to capture the privateer. Hastening back to their vessels, the two American leaders prepared their ships to repel boarders. The Franklin was swung so that her broadsides would sweep the straits; the lower lanyards were cut and the shrouds were soaped so that no boarder could secure a hold. Boarding nettings were spread fore and aft on the cruiser, and the long pikes ground sharp and tallowed halfway from point to grip.

A dramatic sight thrilled the onlookers at Shirley Gut in the late afternoon light that May Sunday in 1776.

Just as the last rays of the sun were disappearing, an alert lookout shouted, "Boats coming, sir!" All hands went to quarters except those manning the windlass bars, which kept the Frankin's broadsides facing the enemy.

"Boats, ahoy," cried Mugford. "Keep off or we fire into you."

"We are friends," came the answer. "We are on our way to Boston." But the regular cadence of the oars as the man-of-war stroke hit the water revealed a different story.

"Keep off, or I fire," was Mugford's final warning.

"For God's sake, don't fire. We are going to board you," said a British voice, but it was swallowed up almost at once in the roar of the Franklin's broadsides as they crashed into the oncoming whaleboats. This first gunfire destroyed the artillery of the enemy. The survivors, nevertheless, came steadily on, throwing grapnel hooks and boat hooks aboard in a vain effort to gain the deck of the Franklin. But the Americans were too strong for them. It is said that one Yankee speared nine Britishers in succession as they attempted to climb aboard. In the entire engagement not a single Englishman set foot on the decks of the Franklin. It was a great show of the fighting effectiveness of the Americans.

At the very height of the battle, however, with the contest still in doubt, Captain Mugford was fatally wounded in the side. Dropping his sword, Mugford shouted out, "I am a dead man, but do not give up the vessel. You will be able to beat them off."

The most successful feat of the Americans showed the ingenuity of the Yankees. The patriots seized the tall masts of the boarding craft with lengthened boat hooks, careening them violently so as to swamp the British boats. The occupants, thrown into the water, were soon pulled under by the swirling current of Shirley Gut. Time and again this maneuver was repeated, until finally the surviving British forces saw the battle was lost and gave up the fight.

As Mugford lay on his deathbed, the sound of the oars of the retreating Britishers was sweet music to his ears, and he passed away happy in the knowledge that the Battle of Shirley Gut had become an American victory. Mugford's remains were taken to his home in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

The morning after the battle, two children were walking along the beach near what is now Sunnyside, Winthrop. Suddenly one of them observed an overturned British whaleboat to which they both ran. The horrified children found the body of a British marine near the boat with a pike wound in his breast. He was later identified as Thomas Dwiffe and was buried on the shore.

The funeral of Captain Mugford occurred in Marblehead, May 23, 1776, and a monument was later erected to the memory of the only American who lost his life in the Battle of Shirley Gut.

This story is from the book Boston Bay Mysteries and Other Tales by Edward Rowe Snow, published by Dodd, Mead, & Company. I have reproduced this utterly without permission. This is a low-traffic, non-commercial, personal website; if the publisher wishes to contact a Mugford Organization representative about this matter, please press on the small dot below. This book and others by the same author are available at and other fine booksellers. Several of his fine and entertaining books have been recently re-released as "Snow Centennial Editions."