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American Revolution Began in New Hampshire

Raid by Ralph Morang



For Portsmouth historians there remains one cavernous gap in the story of the American Revolution. Textbooks continue to assert and people continue to believe that the war began in Massachusetts with the Battle at Lexington and Concord in 1775. I protest. In the tradition of local historians before me, I contend that the first shots of the War for Independence were fired four months earlier at New Castle, NH on December 14, 1774. (Continued below)



UPDATE: Two new books on the Portsmouth Powder Alarm

The raid lasted only a few tense minutes, and no one was killed in the fracas, but the battle for public attention drags on an on.

Local writer Nancy Grossman updated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous old poem a few years ago. The corrected version begins like this:


LISTEN now, children, and you shall hear 
Of the daylight ride of Paul Revere, 
The thirteenth December, of Seventy-Four; 
Hardly a student of Portsmouth lore 
Remembers that famous day and year ...

SEE PHOTOS OF RAID by Ralph Morang

How it went down

In short, Paul Revere rode into town from Boston with dreadful news. The British were coming, he said, to guard the guns and gunpowder stored at the dilapidated FortWilliam and Mary near the wooden lighthouse recently built by New Hampshire royal governor John Wentworth. Wentworth was a local boy whose father Mark (his house still stands near Nancy Grossman’s house in the South End) was possibly the wealthiest man in the state. Wentworth’s uncle Benning had been Royal Governor and Surveyor of the King’s Forest before John. But the New England colonists had been quarrelsome lately, and according to Paul Revere, the government planned to ban the import of munitions to the Colonies in order to quash the insurgency.

The Committee of Safety met immediately with Paul Revere on Tuesday night, perhaps in a local tavern, or some say in the wooden structure next to the NorthChurch in Market Square. That building was razed a few years back to make way for the commercial complex at 18 Congress Street. Revere possibly met with Samuel Cutts and his committee roughly where Popovers stands today. The next morning, following the sounds of fife and drum, 400 local citizens made their way to New CastleIsland and confronted the men guarding the fort, now an historic ruin next to the preserved Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

Captain John Cochran, who was guarding the fort with only “five effective men,” later reported to Gov. Wentworth that he ordered the mob not to enter the fort “on their peril.” But they would not disburse, Cochran says, and he was forced to fire. I often call these  “the shots NOT heard round the world.” It has been suggested, based on the lack of bloodshed, that Cochran’s men simply fired warning shots in the air. The Captain offered this account of the historic moment:

“I immediately ordered three four pounders to be fired on them, and then the small arms; and, before we could be ready to fire again, we were stormed on all quarters, and they immediately secured both me and my men, and kept us prisoners about one hour and a half, during which time they broke open the powder-house, and took all the powder away, except one barrel; and having put it into boats and sent it off, they released me from confinement.”

CONTINUE Raid on William & Mary



First armed aggression


This is heady stuff. Imagine 400 Seacoast residents storming the Pentagon today and driving off with tanks, guns, and ammunition. According to John Wentworth’s letters to his colleagues in England, the rebels took away 100 barrels of gunpowder. Legend says this powder was stored in a Durham church and later used at the Battle of Bunker Hill. A much larger force of citizens returned the following day and carried away many light cannon and 60 muskets.

The leaders of the Portsmouth insurgents were committing treason against their king, a crime punishable by death. And worse, Paul Revere was misinformed. There were no British troops on the horizon. The warship Scarborough did not arrive for many weeks. Governor Wentworth was sympathetic to his townspeople. He personally condemned the rising British taxes and the order to ban arms to colonists. In a private letter to British General Gage, Wentworth openly blamed “the imbecility of this government” for not protecting its own fort with adequate troops.

On December 26 Wentworth issued a stern proclamation that was delivered at the Portsmouth State House. He demanded that the “high-handed offenders” should return the stolen munitions. The citizens of Portsmouth “are arming and exercising men as if for immediate war,” Wentworth wrote to his friend Lord Dartmouth in England.

Although the governor publicly pretended not to know who was behind the raid, it seems likely from his private letters that he knew the main culprits, yet he never turned them in. Revolutionaries John Langdon and John Sullivan, like Wentworth, were educated, white, wealthy, slave holders. Both men would become early governors of the sovereign state of New Hampshire where only property-owning males received the freedom to vote in the American Revolution.

CONTINUE Raid on William and Mary




A new kind of history book


But Todd Andrlik says there is hope yet for Portsmouth. That’s because he doesn’t get his best history from textbooks or TV specials. Andrlik reads newspapers, very old newspapers. He has collected and read hundreds of antique papers that lay out the details of the American Revolution day by day as it unfolded. He is currently assembling photocopies of actual articles drawn from 275 newspapers. The best of the 18th century primary sources will be published in a book tentatively titled Reporting the Revolution planned for release in 2012. Andrlik has asked 30 historians, this writer included, to annotate the original articles with a collection of short essays.

Andrlik discovered John Wentworth’s official proclamation about the New Castle raid reprinted in a copy of the Boston Evening Post. He says he was fascinated to discover a battle he never knew existed in which colonists stormed “The Castle” as it was called, and stole the king’s munitions. I caught up with Andrlik by cell phone recently. A marketing director by trade, he was stuck in a traffic jam somewhere between downtown Chicago and his home in the suburbs.

“I’m not a degreed historian,” Todd Andrlik admits, “but I’ve always had an itch for history.

Andrlik was researching his wife’s Civil War ancestry in Illinois in 2007 when he stumbled onto his first early newspaper featuring an account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He was shocked to see a vintage paper in perfect condition.

“I was a marketing and PR guy. I went to business school,” he says. “I didn’t know the history of paper making. So I learned about the rag-content paper, and how newspapers prior to 1870 are often in better condition than yesterday’s New York Times.”

Andrlik immersed himself in the collectible newspaper trade and studied up on paper conservation techniques. He partnered with the former head of conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library, he says, to restore old papers. He often works with the Library of Congress and other institutions to help them source and procure papers for their collections.

“One thing begat another,” Andrlik continues, and over time his passion shifted from the Civil War to the American Revolution. That “love affair” with old print led to this current project to create a sourcebook of early newspapers that he calls “a first draft of history” including the 1774 raid on Fort William and Mary. The sourcebook, covering the period from the controversial Sugar Act through Washington’s resignation, is built on articles taken from prominent papers like The New Hampshire Gazette, first printed in Portsmouth in 1756.

“I was reading things that hadn’t been read in centuries, Andrlik says. “I felt like I was there in the 18th century experiencing it for the first time. It was exhilarating. Newspapers were the main media of the period. They were the unifying tool of the colonies.”

Not all of the 275 issues will appear in the sourcebook, but those who purchase the book will receive an access code to the entire collection online with more than 1,000 scanned newspaper pages. Reporting the Revolution, Andrlik estimates, should run about 400 pages in print, “coffee-table style” from Sourcebooks, Inc., an independent Illinois publisher. He hopes it will appeal to educators intent on teaching from primary sources. There was less editorializing in those days, he says, and no journalists as we known them today. Editors were essentially aggregators of the news who reprinted private letters, government documents, and local accounts in an era when most papers went to press only once each week.

“There’s a lot of drama, a lot of cliff-hanging,” Andrlik says. “You get the preliminary details of a battle, and you have to wait another week for the next newspaper. It’s riveting if you put yourself in their shoes. It has kick-started my interest in American history. News is history in its purest sense.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His 10th history gift book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, is now available at select local shops and online as a “collectible” item in the author’s bookstore.

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