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Reviving the Portsmouth Powder Alarm 1774

 

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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Thursday, November 23, 2017 
 
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