Paul Revere in Portsmouth streets!!
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December 13, 1774
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
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
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
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.
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.
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