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The Day the Fort Exploded

Tourists at Fort Constitution/ Courtesy Boiling Smith on

It was supposed to be a celebration. It turned into a tragedy. On July 4, 1809 seven soldiers stationed at Fort Constitution in New Castle, NH were blown up when ammunition accidentally went off. Here is the story from reporter Charles Brewter.




Fort Constitution -- The Explosion in 1809.

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. -- JDR

ABOUT Charles Brewster 


In our last Ramble some reference was made to incidents occurring at this point of our harbor defense. We take this occasion to give a sketch of a disaster which took place at this fort in 1809, when the garrison was under command of Col. Walbach. The circumstances will be new to many of the present generation.

On the 4th day of July, 1809, there were two public political celebrations in Portsmouth. The Federalists marched to the Old South Church to listen to an oration from Isaac Lyman, Esq., and partook of a dinner at the old Assembly House. The Democrats marched to the North Church, were addressed by Joseph Bartlett, Esq., and dined at Davenport's.

There were a few, however, who accepted an invitation of Col. Walbach to dine with him at the Fort, -- among them Dr. L. Spalding, Capt. Jacob Cutter, the officers of the Fort, and a few others. The company were enjoying the hospitalities of the Colonel in his quarters, and the outside visitors were just collecting on the platform on the northwest corner of the Fort, where a fiddler just arrived had invited them to form a contra-dance. On the northeast point of the Fort, two of the 24-pounders had been removed to make way for a brass 6-pounder from which it was intended to fire salutes after dinner. Two ammunition chests, containing about 350 pounds of powder, and one containing balls, were placed on the side of the platform near the house where the company were at dinner, and on the platform were also seventeen cartridges of two pounds each, for the salute.

Soldoers pose on the gate of Fort Constitution in New Castle. NH /

At Fort Constitution

The company had been at the table about three-quarters of an hour, when a tremendous explosion took place -- the sides and ceiling of the room were driven in, the tables upset, and everything on them shivered to atoms! The company were prostrated, and the lady of Col. W. came running into the room, bloody from slight injuries. None of the company were, however, materially injured. They ran out to witness the distressing scene of men dead and alive, their clothes burning, and the ground covered with fragments of timber and boards, scattered balls and pieces of iron on every side. The sides and wainscot of the house were beaten in; balls were sent through the windows, and five 24-pound balls were carried beyond the house. One poor fellow was carried over the roof of the house, and the upper half of his body lodged on the opposite side near the window of the dining room; the limb of another was driven through a thick door over the dining room, leaving a hole in the door the shape of the foot; parts of the other bodies were carried nearly a hundred yards from the fatal spot. Of the killed were three soldiers, one citizen and three boys. Six soldiers and several citizens were wounded. The scene was heart-rending.

Col. Walbach exclaimed, "I have faced death in its most dreadful form -- I have witnessed the desolations of war, and have mingled in all the hazards and havoc of battles, but never before did I feel a pang so terrible and intolerable as this."

The persons killed were Ephraim Pickering, Esq., of Newington, (a brother of the late Joseph W. P. of this city,) James Trefethen and Joseph Mitchell, lads of Newcastle; another lad named Paul, belonging to Kittery; Sergeant Joseph Albertz; privates Peletiah McDaniels and Theodore Whitham.

It appeared that the seventeen small cartridges, which were to have been placed in the ammunition chest on the rampart, the sergeant thought best to leave for a short time in the sun, as he fancied they felt damp. A spark from one of the lighted linstocks was probably driven by the wind to the exposed cartridges, and was the occasion of the explosion.

We have before us a short record of the event, made in the Fort morning report of the 5th. It appears that there were stationed at the Fort at that time, a captain, two 2d lieutenants, one surgeon's mate, three sergeants, four corporals, four musicians, six artificers, and fifty-three privates -- in all seventy-four.

The body of McDaniel was found near the light-house below low water mark. The remains of the three soldiers were buried with the honors of war in the same grave on the 8th of July. The countersign given out on the 4th was "Dreadful."

Capt. Davidson, now at the Fort, is the connecting link between the days when Col. Walbach was stationed here and the present time. Through his gentlemanly attentions we are enabled to give such of the above facts as appear on the records of the Fort.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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