In the early 1700s, Morris O’Brien, a native of Co. Cork, emigrated to America and settled in Kittery (near Ports-mouth), then Scarborough (near Portland), Maine. He was a volunteer in the expedition against Louisburg in 1745 which was considered one of the most extraordinary military achievements of the New England Colonies. Louisburg, on the Island of Cape Breton, belonged to the French who threatened the New England lumber industry and spent millions of dollars in erecting fortifications. The New Englanders attacked and won the fort.
In 1765, O’Brien moved to Machias, about 50 miles up the Maine coast from Bar Harbor, where he engaged in the lumber business with his six sons: Jeremiah, born in 1740, Gideon, John, William, Dennis and Joseph. When the Revolutionary War began and news came of the battle at Lexington, the people of Machias erected a liberty-pole in the town center. It was a tall pine tree with all but the very top branches stripped off, an increasingly common symbol of defiance in the colonies. Some time later, an armed BritIsh schooner, Margaretta, entered the harbor, escorting two sloops that were to retrieve lumber for British defensive works in Boston. The Captain of Margaretta threatened to fire on the town if the pole was not taken down. The citizens decided to capture the British officers while they were at a meeting on shore, but the Brits saw them coming and hastened aboard their ship and sailed down the river, firing shots over Machias as they fled. Some Machias men fired musket shots at the ship from small boats and canoes, as well as from shore. The firing lasted until Margaretta was out of range.
The next day, June 12th, 1775, 233 years ago, the men of Machias commandeered one of the lumber sloops, Unity, armed themselves with muskets, pitch-forks and axes and then set out after Margaretta. When the Brit Captain saw Unity coming, they weighed anchor and sailed off, but a brisk wind broke Margaretta’s main boom, crippling its navigability. As a result, O’Brien’s crew overtook the crippled ship. On the approach of Unity, Margaretta opened fire, but the Machias crew managed to avoid the fire and pulled alongside Margaretta and stormed aboard. Captain O’Brien’s brother John led the boarding party. In an exchange of shots, the Brit Captain fell with a musket ball to the chest. With their commanding officer down, the British quickly surrendered to Captain O’Brien. The surviving British crew were handed over to the Provincial Congress.
This was the first naval battle of the American Revolution. The armament of Margaretta was transferred to the sloop Unity, which was renamed Machias Liberty with O’Brien in command.
The Brits sent the ship, Diligence and a tender from Halifax to recapture Margaretta, but O’Brien captured them as well. This gave the Machias residents two armed ships of war.
Liberty, with Jeremiah O’Brien as captain and his brother William as lieutenant, and Diligence, on which his brother John was lieutenant, were commissioned by the provincial government and ordered to intercept supplies destined for the British troops.
The O’Briens cruised the coast for a year and a half, taking several prizes. In 1776 and 1777, different British officers received orders to go and destroy Machias, but the residents with-stood these efforts to such an extent that Machias became known as the “Hornet’s Nest” to the British admiralty. One British officer, presumed to be Sir George Collier, said “The damned rebels at Machias were a harder set than those at Bunker Hill.” Jeremiah’s brother, John, while in command of a privateer called Hibernia, also captured the Brit ship General Pattison, having on board a number of British officers returning to England. Jeremiah then assumed command of the privateer Hannibal that his brother John and others had built at Newburyport. However, while cruising off New York, his vessel was chased by two frigates and captured. He was confined for six months on the notorious prison ship Jersey in Brooklyn, and then sent to England’s Mill prison, from which, after a few months, he succeeded in escaping back to the war. In later years, he was appointed the federal customs collector for the port of Machias. A position he held until his death in October, 1818.
The capture of Margaretta is considered the first time British colors were struck to those of the United States. Even though Unity was not formally a member of the Continental Navy, the U.S. Merchant Marine claims Unity as its member and this incident as their beginning. Five U.S. Navy ships have been named USS O’Brien for Jeremiah O’Brien including the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty ship built during WWII and now a floating museum based in San Francisco.
It is the sole survivor of the 6,939-ship armada that stormed Normandy on D-Day, in June, 1944, and one of only two currently operational WWII Liberty ships afloat of the 2,751 built during the war. Appropriately built in South Portland, Maine, and launched on June 19, 1943, this class EC2-S-CI ship not only made four perilous round trip wartime crossings of the Atlantic and served on D-Day, but later saw sixteen months of service in both the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean calling at ports in Chile, Peru, New Guinea, the Philippines, India, China, and Australia, keeping the name of a proud and patriotic Irish American afloat.