Reviving the Portsmouth Powder Alarm 1774
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3
They’re plotting again. A small group of patriotic insurgents are meeting secretly to plan another raid on the king’s fort at New Castle. As any true Seacoast resident knows by now, a mob of some 400 locals stormed Fort William and Mary in New Castle on December 14, 1774. They attacked the royal militia, stole the king’s gunpowder, tore down the British flag, and generally thumbed their noses at authority. (Continued below)
It was an act of treason for which the leaders, including merchant John Langdon of Portsmouth and lawyer John Sullivan of Durham, could have been hanged. And it was, no matter what your history book says, the first major conflict of the American Revolution, four months before the battle at Lexington and Concord.
Eight history enthusiasts met at an undisclosed location in September to discuss re-enacting the battle that should have made New Hampshire famous. Only six men stood guard at the fort (later renamed Fort Constitution) when Boston activist Paul Revere rode into town on December 13, 1774. Revere warned seacoast residents that the British were sending troops to secure the king’s powder and weapons at the fort from getting into rebel hands. After a tense meeting in a local tavern, the next morning an angry crowd walked, rowed boats, and rode horses to Great Island. They taunted the soldiers and then stormed the armory.
Captain John Cochran commanded the five soldiers at the fort that was in poor condition. Shots were fired. Cochran resisted and there was a short-lived battle in which at least one man was wounded.
“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,” Cochran reported to New Hampshire governor John Wentworth at his home on what is now Pleasant Street.
Two revolutionaries reborn
“It’s a groundswell,” says Doug MacLennan of Durham, NH who has been inciting locals to riot again. This time it’s a battle for public relations in an effort to remind New Hampshire of its key role in the American Revolution. Curiously, MacLennan owns the house that once belonged to John Sullivan, one of the leaders of the 1774 raid. The site of the house at Oyster River Landing in Durham has been dated to 1717. Sullivan bought it in 1764 (when he was only 24) and it had been abandoned for 40 years before MacLennan and his wife began a lengthy restoration.
Sullivan may be better known in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island for his Revolutionary War exploits than here in his home state. Sullivan served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and as an early state governor. But he is sometimes remembered better as a heavy drinker, heavy litigator, slave owner, and for his scorched earth campaign against the Iroquois nation. Despite being listed as one of the top historic sites to see in Durham, the Sullivan house has always been in private hands and never open to the public.
“He [Sullivan] was either the worse SOB who ever came out of New Hampshire or the best SOB who ever came out of New Hampshire, depending on who you ask,” MacLennan says.
Among MacLennan’s co-conspirators in the planned raid is Concord attorney Thomas F. Kehr who occasionally re-enacts the role of merchant and shipbuilder John Langdon. Langdon’s restored historic home still stands on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth. Kehr admits that he is a bit obsessed by the often-forgotten Langdon, who also served on the Continental Congress and as a New Hampshire governor. Both men were wealthy business owners and rising political stars in their mid-30s when they spearheaded the Portsmouth raid.
“He [Langdon] was no John Sullivan who would go off on anything,” Kehr says. “He was quieter. He was a sea captain, just a fascinating guy. He was all about doing things, getting things done.”
POWDER ALARM CONTINUED
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