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December 13, 1774

Paul Revere First he rode to Portsmouth

Months before his horseback ride into American history (April 18, 1775) made legendary by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere was on the icy Boston Post Road to warn the citizens of New Hampshire of a potential British troop landing. Had the British been more aggressive and the weather less ferocious, Revere's "Portsmouth Alarm" may well have signaled an earlier start to the American Revolution. As it turned out, the resulting raid on Fort William and Mary by the seacoast area militia is still considered by many as the first strike of the battle for independence.

Paul Revere and his watchful "mechanics" were well known to the British who kept an eye, in turn, on them as they patrolled Boston streets alert to signs of English military movements. Revolution, pungent as wood smoke, was in the winter air. Revere had learned early in December that a new English Order in Council prohibited import of arms and ammunition into any part of North America. Portsmouth, an imperial port, had a large store of ammunition at the poorly defended Fort William and Mary on New Castle Island. The order also required that the munitions currently in the Colonies should be immediately protected.

With just a half dozen soldiers defending the armory at William and Mary, and with word of heavily manned British ships on their way from England, it was a natural leap of logic to assume they were heading toward New Hampshire. Among them was the ship of the line HMS Somerset with a large crew of British Marines. Nearing the Portsmouth latitudes, the Somerset met an almost insurmountable winter storm.

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Portsmouth Alarm

On December 13, Revere started toward Portsmouth in the same harsh weather. A combination of deep snow and slushy thaw had suddenly frozen into sharp icy furrows on the crude roadway. Revere's 40 mile ride up the North Shore, across the Merrimack River to Hampton Falls and to Portsmouth was made more difficult by a biting west wind.

Revere arrived the same afternoon and met immediately with the local Whigs at the waterfront home of merchant Samuel Cutts. The Portsmouth Council of Correspondence learned from Revere that two regiments of British soldiers were coming by sea to protect the stockpiled ammunition at Fort William and Mary. In fact, they were not. The troops were assigned to more pressing duties with British General Gage in Massachusetts. But Revere and the Portsmouth leaders feared the worst. New Hampshire's British Royal Governor John Wentworth had already dismissed meetings of the local Assembly. He had railed against the "infectious & pestilential disorders" of firebrands like Revere. Would British soldiers be billeted in the Seacoast? Would the munitions blockade snuff out plans for the upcoming Contiental Congress? The men of Portsmouth decided to act quickly.

Meanwhile, Loyalists in town immediately told Gov. Wentworth that the notorious Mr. Revere was holding a secret Whig meting in town. Wentworth warned the half dozen soldiers at the fort and sent a courier immediately to Massachusetts requesting emergency British support from Generals Graves and Gage.

Graves ordered the sloop HMS Canceaux toward Portsmouth, but it arrived too late. A day after Revere's alarm, 200-400 Portsmouth area men had stormed the garrison, hauled down the British flag and disappeared into the falling snow with 100 barrels of stolen gunpowder. The next day, roused by word of Revere's message, a thousand men assembled in Portsmouth and returned to the fort to remove muskets and cannons. These munitions would soon be dispersed throughout the seacoast and find their way to a crucial battle at Bunker Hill, where NH men would again play a key role.

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The Final Straw

Paul Revere was safely back in Boston before the HMS Canceaux arrived at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. Adding insult to injury, a local Yankee pilot guided the warship into shallow water where it was stranded for days When the rerouted HMS Scarborough did at last arrived on December 19, there was nothing to do but stand by the pilfered garrison as a warning against more aggression to the King's property.

But the handwriting was on the wall for the British rule in Portsmouth. Gov. Wentworth complained to his British patrons that the Massachusetts influence of men like Paul Revere and Sam Adams had turned his quiet New Hampshire townsmen into a violent mob. Yet, taking the pulse of the times, Wentworth wrote sadly, "no jail would hold them long, and no jury would find them guilty."

HMS Scarborough ended its military vigil over Portsmouth Harbor on August 23, 1775, shortly after Bunker Hill and the battles at Lexington and Concord. Aboard the departing British warship was the last British Royal Governor, his possessions and his family. His Excellency John Wentworth, born in Portsmouth, educated at Harvard. had been driven from town by his own subjects. His fear of dangerous men like Paul Revere, in the end, was well deserved.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

Primary source: Paul Revere's Ride by David Hacket Fischer, Oxford University Press, 1994.

This article is reproduced on our new site here.


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