THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Researchers take aim at a forgotten battle

Will map colonial skirmish at Chelsea Creek, seek sunken ship

Vic Mastone, an archeologist for the state, showed the area where the HMS Diana was grounded during a battle in 1775. Vic Mastone, an archeologist for the state, showed the area where the HMS Diana was grounded during a battle in 1775. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / July 5, 2010

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Vic Mastone, a state archeologist, is an excited bundle of animation as he scans the Revolutionary War battlefield. Like a general on high ground, he surveys a checkerboard of fuel tanks, mountains of road salt, rotted wharf pilings, and a jumble of shoehorned tenements.

Welcome to Chelsea Creek.

“There was a running battle here,’’ Mastone said, his mind’s eye imagining the flash of cannon, the sound of muskets, and the burning hulk of a British man-of-war.

The two-day fight in May 1775 is largely forgotten, overshadowed by the momentous clashes at Lexington and Concord the month before, and the Battle of Bunker Hill in June. But that obscurity, even among many local residents, could soon change.

Buoyed by a grant from the National Park Service, Mastone and two researchers have launched an unprecedented project to map the battlefield, search for the sunken British warship, and illuminate the public to a long-overlooked event on the American road to independence.

“This is a pivotal piece of the whole siege of Boston,’’ said Mastone, director of the state Board of Underwater Archeological Resources. “If this didn’t happen, we might not have been able to get the British out the way we did a year later.’’

The Battle of Chelsea Creek can claim a few Revolutionary firsts, including the first loss of a British warship and the first use of artillery by the colonists, who initiated the fight by crossing to Hog and Noddle’s islands on May 27 to drive away livestock, burn hay, and deprive the besieged British of supplies.

British Vice Admiral Samuel Graves had been celebrating a promotion aboard his flagship when he noticed smoke rising from the islands, which today are part of the mainland.

“It kind of ruined the day for him,’’ said Craig Brown, a University of Massachusetts Boston graduate student who is working on the project.

The HMS Diana, a 120-ton schooner armed with four pieces of 4-pound cannon and 12 smaller swivel guns, was dispatched up Chelsea Creek to cut off the American withdrawal.

An estimated 20 British vessels, 500 marines, and 300 regulars joined the fight, which morphed into an all-night, running engagement up and down the waterway with about 900 American soldiers.

“There was a lot of lead flying,’’ Brown said.

Despite all that lead, most of it fired at long distance, the Americans reported only three wounded. The British said they had two dead and several wounded, but Loyalists in Boston recounted seeing a few dozen funerals, Brown said.

The HMS Diana, under the command of Graves’s nephew, ran aground in the creek. The British attempted to tow the ship to safety, but the vessel ran aground again near the landing for the Chelsea ferry to Charlestown and Boston.

There, near today’s Meridian Street Bridge between East Boston and Chelsea, the Americans concentrated fire and forced the British to abandon the Diana. The guns were seized, the ship was burned, and the Americans pressured the British to withdraw even tighter into Boston proper.

“This is when they really knew they were going to be in a war with us,’’ said Nadine Mironchuk, chairwoman of the Chelsea Historical Commission. “The British said we have to do something about this, because this is going very badly.’’

As opposed to Lexington and Concord, the raid on the islands had been a planned military operation. The colonials had shown they could fight, and they obviously were not leaving.

More than two centuries of urban development have long buried the battleground, but Mastone and his researchers will use old maps, contemporary accounts, military muster rolls, and educated hunches in the effort to recreate the ebb and flow of battle.

However, one potential trove of information was lost forever in 1908, when a devastating fire tore through Chelsea and destroyed the city’s early records. “We lost all of our history in one day,’’ Mironchuk said.

But if his team’s detective work pays off, Mastone said, the mud-encased remains of the Diana might be discovered in the narrow creek now used by hulking tankers.

“If we find something, I’ll be in the water,’’ said Mastone, 56, who is a diver. Any discoveries will bolster the historical record, but officials also see a chance to give the affected communities something to crow about.

“The city turns over so often with immigrants that people who come to Chelsea really don’t feel a part of Chelsea history,’’ Mironchuk said. “If some significant find were to happen, the newcomers could feel this belongs to them, too.’’

Mastone, whose mother’s roots are in Chelsea and his father’s in Revere, has a personal stake in the project.

“People say it’s all so urban over there. It’s all so yucky and industrialized,’’ Mastone said. “It gets a bad rap. This will be a chance to say, ‘Wait a minute. A very important thing happened here.’ ’’

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