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Another Shot at William & Mary"
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December 14, 1774
TRAVELED SLOWLY in Colonial New England, but
even though it was spread by word of mouth, by
letter and by well worn newspapers, it traveled
in exorably. Residents of Portsmouth were, after
the passage of some weeks, as disgruntled as those
of Boston over the actions of Parliament. By the
middle of December 1773, they were excited over
reports of the Boston Tea Party and were looking
toward 1774 with apprehension.
Nevertheless, the first cargo of tea destined
to bear the hated tax was unloaded at Portsmouth
without incident 'and locked in the customs house.
A special town meeting was called which requested,
in the interests of the peace, that the chests be
reshipped to Halifax. Although this was done, Governor
Wentworth kept officers and magistrates on alert
to suppress possible violence. A second cargo was
also rerouted to Nova Scotia, but the merchant who
had ordered it felt the consequences of a growing
revolutionary spirit. The windows of his house were
smashed by a mob.
By May of 1774 the news on every one's lips
was the closure of the port of Boston. The Crown
expected the "salt-water tea" to be paid for and
the citizens of Boston to show some evidence of general
remorse. The New Hampshire Committee of Correspondence,
in a note which revealed its own stand on this paramount
issue of the day, swore, ". . . ever (to) view your
interests as our own." Obviously, Bostonians could
count on support from New Hampshire.
Governor Wentworth was aware of a radical
shift both in public opinion and in the makeup of
the provincial assembly, and attempted to garrison
Portsmouth's only military post, Fort William and
Mary in New Castle. In May, 1774 the assembly voted
to grant him 200 pounds for that purpose. No doubt
he felt this grossly inadequate, but an officer and
three men were appointed to administer the fort in
the king's name-a less than formidable army with
which to stave off revolution.
The Assembly, which did not appear intimidated
by either the "army" at the fort or the governor's
ire, voted later in the same month to establish a
second Committee of Correspondence. The assemblymen
were not dissuaded from their purpose by frequent
adjournments and "cooling off" periods forced upon
them by Wentworth and the Rockingham County sheriff.
Dismissed from the assembly chamber for holding an
illegal meeting, they retired to a local tavern and
in that congenial atmosphere made plans for a Provincial
Congress to be held at Exeter in July.
Aid To Boston
The Exeter meeting, unfettered by the trammels
of royal intervention, recommended that New Hampshire
towns, on their own, send some sort of material aid
to the poor of Boston. This aid, which issued rapidly
from the surrounding towns in bags, barrels, coffers,
and on the hoof, also included letters of moral support.
The meeting in Exeter provided proof, however seminal,
that representative government in New Hampshire was
peacefully changing hands.
By December, 1774, news of additional parliamentary
misdeeds had reached Portsmouth both by messenger
and through the New Hampshire Gazette, which told
of the passage of the Massachusetts Government Act
the Quartering Act and the Quebec Act. It was said
that the king had imposed a secret embargo on the
export of arms and ammunition to his colonies. Moreover,
patriots in Rhode Island had already seized powder
and shot from the royal garrison in Providence. What
about Portsmouth? Would there be troops and ships
coming from Boston to keep the same thing from happening
The answer came on the afternoon of December
13, 1774, when Paul Revere
galloped up the Old Boston Post Road into
the city to deliver confirmation of the rumors. Yes,
it was thought that troops and ships were on their
way, and yes, if the' powder stored at William and
Mary were not to remain in the king's hands, something
had better be done about it.
The Raid Begins
The way seemed appallingly clear. A few
minutes before noon on December 14, a drummer, his
beats muffled by the falling snow, marched through
the streets of the city sounding the call that everyone
recognized. Before long, he had collected an entourage
of more than two hundred men and boys.
At the fort, guarding the king's powder,
were the defenders-Capt. Cochran and five men. At
about one o'clock, this tiny garrison received word
that an angry mob was on its way from town, growing
larger as citizens from Rye and New Castle hastened
to join. By the time they reached the gates of the
fort, the attackers numbered more than 400.
At about three o'clock in the afternoon
a few shots were exchanged, but no one was injured.
Before a second volley could be fired, the fort was
overwhelmed, and Cochran's band was in the hands
of the attackers. Three huzzas were shouted and the
king's colors were lowered.
Cochran, though overwhelmed, showed no signs
of allowing the keys to the powder magazine to leave
his possession. Substituting shoulders for keys,
the attackers broke down the door and were able to
make off with 97 barrels of powder which they loaded
onto moses boats and gundalows for dispersal to the
various surrounding towns. The captain of the defenders
wrote in his note to Governor Wentworth, "I did all
in my power to defend the fort, but all my efforts
could not avail against so great a number." With
odds of four hundred to six, neither the governor
nor posterity could fault him.
Governor Wentworth, caught in an impossible
situation, hastily requested ships and troops from
Boston. Obviously, he had need of help, for the next
morning men from the surrounding countryside began
to pour into the city, lured by rumors of the previous
day's events. John
Sullivan of Durham and his men surrounded
the state house and demanded information about possible
reinforcements. "None were expected," said Wentworth.
The mob dispersed, only to reassemble later that
evening to remove remaining military stores from
the fort. Again the trophies were loaded at the river.
The powder was soon distributed. Kingston
received 12 barrels, Epping 8, Poplin (Fremont) 4,
Nottingham 8, Brentwood 6, and Londonderry 1. Remaining
stores were distributed in Durham, which received
25 barrels, and in Exeter, where 29 barrels were
retained. Four barrels remained in Portsmouth. The
precious dust was destined for the powder flasks
of the local militia units, the building blocks of
the nascent continental army. The powder and the
power no longer belonged to King George III, it was
in the hands of the people. In New Hampshire, at
least, the Revolution had begun.
By Anne and Charles Eastman, Jr.
Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles
Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976.
Reprinted by permission of the authors.
John Langdon House
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