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Reviving the Portsmouth Powder Alarm 1774

Raid_1774_by_Ralph_MorangHISTORY MATTERS

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

 

Doug_MacLennan“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


 

 

The Portsmouth powder alarm

 

Two new books may help drive the historic raid back into 21st century consciousness. Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News was released last month by Sourcebooks. The 400-page, four-pound hardcover by amateur Chicago historian Todd Andrlik contains reproduced pages from hundreds of newspapers printed during the Revolutionary, plus commentary by over 30 history experts. Among those essays is one by this author on the 1774 raid. With 40,000 copies in print, the Portsmouth story is finally being given its rightful place in the lead-up to war.

Portsmouth_Alarm_cover_SmallMore importantly for New Hampshire readers is a new paperback by local writer Terri A. DeMitchell. Her newest book for young readers The Portsmouth Alarm: December 1774 tells the explosive story from the viewpoint of three young boys. Andrew Beckett, Jack Cochran and Joseph Reed are fictional characters placed smack into the well-researched background. DeMitchell reminds us that these were confusing and frightening times when only about a third of the population was in favor of a break with Mother England. Another third were loyal to the king, while the rest were undecided. Each boy in The Portsmouth Alarm represents a different position just as Paul Revere comes galloping mysteriously into town.

Andrew is hoping that his family connections to the generally well-liked Governor Wentworth will get him into Harvard College. Joseph, the son of a cooper, sides with the Sons of Liberty and despises the wealthy Gov. Wentworth. Jack, whose father is captain at the fort, gets caught in the crossfire.

“You’re going to have to decide which side you’re on,” Joseph tells Andrew in the streets of Portsmouth. “Things are going to get bad…Parliament will close our port just like they did in Boston. You wait and see.”

DeMitchell has done her homework. A former elementary school teacher, college lecturer, and lawyer, she strikes a neat balance between defining the heady times and reporting the action. Why has Paul Revere come 60 miles from Boston in the worst of winter weather? Can the governor control the increasingly riotous citizens? Who really owns the gunpowder and the guns – King George or the people of New Hampshire? Is the raid an act of patriotism or mob rule?  DeMitchell wants young readers to make up their own minds.

Paul_Revere_Rides_Again in 1974 Bicentennial of the Powder Alarm (Portsmouth Atheneum)

CONTINUE THE PORTSMOUTH POWDER ALARM


 

Were we really the first battle?

 

New Hampshire has no action to rival the bloody battles that followed four months later in Massachusetts. But the Portsmouth Powder Alarm was a key factor in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of war. Those details are artfully spelled out in the bestselling book Paul Revere’s Ride by the highly-respected scholar David Hackett Fischer. British General Gage, as Fischer explains, planned to disarm the troublesome New Englanders by “a series of small surgical operations—meticulously planned, secretly mounted, and carried forward with careful economy of force.” He wanted to prevent, not incite a war. But Gage’s plan backfired.

Reporting_the_Revoluionary_WarBy successfully capturing the powder supplies in Boston during a nighttime raid in September 1774, Gage triggered the Powder Alarm that followed. Thousands of colonists were ready to respond. Secret committees formed across New England to prevent another surprise attack. Paul Revere was influential among the colonists who spied on the Tories, while Gen. Gage, in turn, spied on Revere and other insurgents. Gage’s plan to obtain the powder from the armory at Worcester was abandoned, but Portsmouth was the likely next target. Although British troops were not immediately en route to Fort William and Mary when Revere rode into Portsmouth, the alarm was real. Citizens in other New England towns quietly removed the ammo from their forts and a follow-up march by Gage’s men to Salem, Massachusetts failed. Before the march on Concord in April 1775, the only violent confrontation of the campaign came here at Portsmouth.

Whether Captain Cochran’s men fired directly into the mob on December 14, 1774 is unknown. No one in the crowd was injured. When one Yankee rebel knocked one of Cochran’s soldiers in the face and knocked him down with the butt of a gun, the Revolution, from a New Hampshire perspective, had begun.

“These were truly the first blows of the American Revolution,” writes David Hackett Fischer.

According to Gage, the citizens of Portsmouth had been needlessly provoked by Paul Revere’s alarmist message. But the precedent was set. Despite Gov Wentworth’s stern condemnation of the raid, the powder and arms taken by local citizens were not returned. It was possible for citizens to raid the king’s armory, tear down the British colors, flaunt the law, commit treason – and get away with it. While Wentworth certainly knew that John Langdon and John Sullivan were among the ringleaders, he knew it was too risky to order them arrested and hanged. Within the coming year, Wentworth himself would be branded an enemy of the people and driven from his house (now the Mark Wentworth Home) never to return under penalty of death.

King George lost more than guns and powder here. After the powder alarm, Fischer writes, both New Englanders and British troops felt “a growing sense that conflict was inevitable.” The coming war was only a matter of time, and the colonists were determined that, to justify their cause, it was essential that the British should enticed into firing first. No one knows who fired the first shot at Lexington on April 19, 1775 where eight colonists were killed, but this is where most history books begin the story.

And that’s why MacLennan and Kehr, like Sullivan and Langdon before them, have their sights set on New Castle. But this 240th anniversary event will be a more polite and organized affair. The fort is owned by the state of New Hampshire and there is very limited access and clearly not enough parking for a sizeable mob. And the date needs tweaking.

“Doing it on December 14, it’s been nuts,” MacLennan says. Previous re-enactments staged on the precise anniversary have met with chilling weather. MacLennan imagines a more tourist-friendly event held sometime in July or August while re-enactors are traditionally encamped at Strawbery Banke Museum and the American Independence Museum.

Attacking a fort isn’t as easy as it used to be. There are food concessions to worry about, traffic police to hire, parade permits, re-enactors, canon, gundalows, media coverage, and so many logistics. The committee admits it needs help. But the mission to raise public awareness is clear.

“It’s devastating,” MacLennan says of the lack of information on the importance of the 1774 raid. “I mean I grew up in New Hampshire. I liked history in high school and I had a really good history teacher, but never heard a word about this. I mean, it was like New Hampshire wasn’t even in the war. It’s terrible.”

Even poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow got much of the history wrong in his memorable poem about Paul Revere. Portsmouth’s claim to fame should be a matter of record, MacLennan says.

“Shots fired, prisoners of war, flag hauled down – if Longfellow had written about that, and if somebody had been killed, this would have been Lexington and Concord.”

AUTHOR LINKS

Terri DeMitchell author web site

Reporting the American Revolution at Amazon.com

 

Copyright © 2012 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 SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER. His signed collectible books are available on Amazon.com and in local stores

 

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