15 miles north of the historic settlement of Plymouth Massachusetts in the town of Scituate you will find the Scituate Lighthouse. Constructed in 1811 through $4,000 of federal funding, it was completed and operational in April of 1812. Simeon Bates was assigned the job as keeper of the Lighthouse and moved in with his family to the lighthouse in the same month. Bates and his wife, Rachel, had nine children, including two daughters, Rebecca and Abigail. These two sisters would become heroic figures in the history of American lighthouses.
These were times of war for America. The War of 1812 had started and many towns along the east coast of America were being sacked and burnt by British Warships. On June 11, 1814, British forces plundered and burned a number of vessels at Scituate. Keeper Bates fired two shots from a small cannon, angering the captain of a British warship as it departed.
Upon the British attack, the local militia was called out to stand guard over the town in the event of another Redcoat visit. Sentinels were placed at the lighthouse, as well as other strategic spots within town, with the expectation that the British would soon return. As summer wore on, there was no sign of the British. The lighthouse sentinels befriended the Bates family, especially daughters Rebecca, (age 21), and Abigail, (conflicting sources place her age somewhere between 15 and 17). Abigail was taught how to play the drums, and could replicate the different military signals, and Rebecca was taught four different military songs on the fife, of which “Yankee Doodle” was the one she felt she did especially well. After months of no British activity, the militia was slowly called back from their posts. By late summer, all of the sentinels, including the ones at the lighthouse, were no longer posted.
Less than three months later, Keeper Bates and most of his family were away, leaving 21-year-old Rebecca and 15-year-old (or, according to some accounts, 17-year-old) Abigail in charge. The sisters were horrified to see a British warship anchored in the harbor. In a magazine article many years later, Rebecca was quoted:
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” says I to my sister, “Look here, you take the drum and I’ll take the fife.” I was fond of military music and could play four tunes on the fife — Yankee Doodle was my masterpiece. . . . “What good’ll that do?” says she. “Scare them,” says I. “All you’ve got to do is call the roll. I’ll scream the fife and we must keep out of sight; if they seeus they’ll laugh us to scorn.”
The British thought the sound of the fife and drum signaled the approach of the Scituate town militia, and they hastily retreated. Indeed,
not only the sailors in the barges heard the girls, but those on the frigate as well. Not able to see who was actually playing the instruments, the British assumed that the local militia had been alerted to their arrival and was gathering to meet them. A signal appeared from the frigate, and the men on the barges turned around and returned to the ship. It wasn’t long afterwards that the frigate raised its anchor and left Scituate for the open sea. Thus was born the legend of Scituate’s “Lighthouse Army of Two.”
The Bates sisters lived to be quite elderly. Rebecca later sold affidavits for ten cents apiece, always asserting the truth of her story in spite of doubters. Some people have claimed that the ghosts of Rebecca and Abigail Bates haunt Scituate Light. Fife and drum music, they say, can be heard blending in with the wind and waves. Having visited this location many times, there is an eerie feeling even on warm sunny days. Especially from the end of the 450 foot wall rock that jets out into the ocean. When storms approach the New England coast, this is a favorite spot to quickly get into position to see large swells and breakers against the rocks.
The next time you are in the New England area, plan a visit to the Scituate Lighthouse. Wonderful harbor scenery and good food in this
seaside town make for a memorable visit. And be sure to visit the Quarterdeck antique shop on the pier! Expect to spend a good amount of time browsing the Quarterdeck!
Scituate Light circa 1900