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One More Shot at William & Mary

See amazing Morang photos of re-enacted raid

Fort William and Mary Even Seacoast school kids know that the first shot heard round the world was fired at Fort William and Mary in nearby New Castle, not Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts like the encyclopedia says. It's just one of those twisted New Hampshire truths we all take for granted, like the fact that the American circus started in Dover. We know the Republican Party was born in Exeter where they drafted a prototype US Constitution.

We know that, if it weren't for New Hampshire, the Pilgrims would have starved, the British would have taken Bunker Hill and Lincoln would never have been elected President. That's probably why, in "The Devil and Daniel Webster," our most famous orator shouted, "I'd fight 10,000 devils to save one New Hampshire man!"

But that devilish bluster can get a New Hampshire guy in a peck of trouble. After attending my biased harbor history cruise last fall, a Massachusetts newspaper reporter wrote that New Hampshire had no need for text books. We just make up our own history, he said.

But that's only Massachusetts moaning now that we're reclaiming our heritage, at last. The media focus is shifting. According to the Boston Globe, the Portsmouth area is now the Cambridge of the Northeast and the latest e-commerce center. Years ago the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce paid Boston colunist Mike Barnacle to malign the Granite State at a $75 a plate formal dinner. Now Barnacle's getting the bad press and we're the new media darlings, best place to live in the USA -- like we didn't know already.

So the phone rang the other day and it was Portland, Maine Channel 6 reporter Bill Green looking to do a story on Fort William and Mary. He read somewhere that we actually kicked off the American Revolution. Would I be willing to go on camera and tell the world the truth about the raid? Err, I hedged. I told Bill that I'm not really an historian, and, er, don't know much about the fort and -- "Can you study up and meet me out by the lighthouse?" he asked. "I love zinging those Massachusetts people, when I get the chance."

Zinging, I like, so I hit the libraries hard. After a brief study binge, for my money, I'd say this event is the defining moment in New Hampshire history at least. I faced down the video cameras, took a stand, and here's the story in a nutshell:

Before the Revolution, Portsmouth was getting along fairly well with king and crown. Business was booming and, although locals complained about pompous British Royal Governor Benning Wentworth, they generally liked his handsome young successor John Wentworth. He had a modest mansion on Pleasant Street, but liked to mingle with normal folk. He was building roads throughout New Hampshire, chartering new towns. He even had a giant summerhouse built in the wilds of Wolfeboro. But the rabble-rousers in the Mass Bay Colony were ready to split from the English king. The tension was in the air.

Fearing worse insurrections than the Boston Tea Party, King George ordered a ban on selling weapons and ammunition to colonists. One of the British munitions sites was at New Castle island, near Portsmouth. Gov. Wentworth had recently built a nifty little fort and a lighthouse at what was then called "The Castle." British fortifications had come and gone on this spot since as early as the 1630s historians tell us. Wentworth warned the king that his force of six men was hardly enough to protect the ammunition there in such trying times.

Enter Paul Revere whose patriot underground heard that British forces were headed to New Hampshire to protect the little fort. They weren't, but that's what Revere believed. On December 14, 1774 Revere came clattering into Portsmouth on his horse announcing that the British were coming. Around here we call that Paul Revere's "real" ride. The Committee of Safety met secretly at Stoodley's Tavern and decided to take action.

Gov. Wentworth reportedly sent a drummer around town to warn citizens that a raid on the fort was a bad idea. Local rabble rousers including John Langdon and John Sullivan, now called "patriots" sent a drummer around town to enlist a makeshift war party. By the time they reached the fort by boat the next day some 400 men faced off against the scanty British defenders.

Fort William and Mary To make a short story even shorter, with the full possibility of British troops arriving on the horizon, the local militia overtook the fort and stole 97 kegs of gunpowder. As many as 2,000 reportedly returned the next day and removed a number of canons and weapons. The powder was cleverly split up and stored in many local towns, some of it hidden, legend says under the pulpit of a Seacoast church. Eventually a portion of the powder may have made its way to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Shots were definitely fired, even the British commander of the fort noted this in his report. Langdon apparently tried to finesse the powder away by saying he had been sent to pick it up. That didn't work. He was sent back out of the fort and a mini-battle ensued, some say a mock battle. The odds, after all, were 400 to six, but that doesn't diminish the danger these men faced. Stealing from the King, in direct defiance of a new decree, was treason punishable by death.

John Wentworth chose not to name names in his report to the king, saying no local jail would ever hold the perpetrators of the crime. Soon after the fracas at Lexington and Concord, Portsmouth-born Gov. Wentworth and his family were mobbed at their Pleasant Street house, now a nursing home. They escaped to Fort William and Mary where a British ship eventually transported them to Nova Scotia where John became the homesick Royal Governor and Lady Wentworth lived a life fit only for racy novels. Both "raiders" Langdon and Sullivan, meanwhile, went on to become governors of New Hampshire. Langdon made his fortune as a privateer and shipbuilder and built his own mansion just a few doors up Pleasant Street from the exiled British governor's home.
Fort William and Mary Renamed Fort Constitution in the 1800s and rebuilt during the Civil War, the New Castle site is the state's greatest military landmark. Hidden on the campus of the local Coast Guard station and maintained by NH Division of Parks and Recreation, it remains practically a secret. Visitors are required to park out of view and walk a thin, unwelcoming line through the Coast Guard parking lot. There are no brochures, no booklets, no park guides to tell the fascinating story. Exactly 225 years after the raid, there is still no "Friends of the Fort" organization, no made-for-TV-movie.

This is America, after all, where we like our landmarks bloody. No one died at Fort William and Mary, but it is important all the same. Patriot attacks in Rhode Island and North Carolina claim "first shot" status too, but New Hampshire's claim is more than bluster. These men plotted and carried out an armed rebellion against the crown. They didn't disguise themselves as Indians and attack British teabags. They rose up, fully visible members of the community, attacked the king's own fort and stripped it of weapons. Imagine, if you can, a rebel group stealing tanks and missiles from an Army base today. We've got their pictures on camera, carting off the weapons, but Governor Shaheen decides not to press charges. Not likely.

This largely forgotten event, more than other colonial instances of civil unrest, historians agree, upset King George. Had John Wentworth named names and prosecuted his neighbors or called in a full throttle British reprisal, Portsmouth could easily have been the pilot light of the American Revolution. Instead, for reasons no one knows, the last British governor saw the handwriting on the wall. It was, he knew, the beginning of the end for the colony called America. He knew this because he knew the people of Portsmouth. Resistance was futile and bloodshed would solve nothing.

It may not be the Alamo, folks, but Fort William and Mary is the best we have -- another of those twisted New Hampshire truths. This December the Newmarket Militia is sponsoring a re-enactment of Paul Revere's frigid ride into Market Square. Perhaps we should all follow the troops out to New Castle and reclaim this abandoned bit of history from the state of New Hampshire. It shouldn't be much of a battle; there's thousands of us now. Gov. Wentworth, at least, cared enough about the place to post half a dozen guards.

Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

For more information:
Click here for an extraordinary online exhibit on the Capture of Fort William and Mary by the University of New Hampshire Special Collections. This detailed site reprints the 1903 account by Charles Lathrop Parsons (b. 1867) and incorporates many primary source documents and images.

Read Brewster's version of the story

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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