J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Gen. Gage Secures the Provincial Powder

On 1 Sept 1774, I believe, the American Revolution became a military contest. There was no direct confrontation between military forces (that would not come until December), and there was no violence. But the events of that day and the next seem to have convinced the competing factions that they had to use military as well as political means to thwart the other side.

Before daybreak on that Thursday, 280 British soldiers under Lt.-Col. George Maddison landed from boats in the Mystic River and marched over the hills to the provincial gunpowder storehouse in what’s now called Somerville. That stone building is still standing. (Photograph from Flickr thanks to Bunkosquad. More details from The British Redcoat.)

Gen. Thomas Gage had sent those soldiers after receiving a letter from a general of the Middlesex County militia, William Brattle of Cambridge. It’s a curious missive, written in a courtly third person and never directly coming out and saying what Gage should do. As a member of the Massachusetts Council, Brattle had been a thorn in the side of Gov. Francis Bernard in the 1760s. However, in recent years he had come to side with the Crown authorities. On 27 August he wrote:

Mr. Brattle presents his duty to Governor Gage. He apprehends it his duty to acquaint his Excellency, from time to time, with every thing he hears and knows to be true, and is of importance in these troublesome times, which is the apology Mr. Brattle makes for troubling the General with this letter.

Capt. [Jonas] Minot of Concord, a very worthy man, this minute informed Mr. Brattle that there had been repeatedly made pressing applications to him, to warn his company to meet at one minute’s warning, equipt with arms and ammunition, according to law; he had constantly denied them, adding, if he did not gratify them, he should be constrained to quit his farms and town. Mr. Brattle told him he had better do that than lose his life and be hanged for a rebel: he observed that many captains had done it, though not in the Regiment to which he belonged, which was and is under Col. Elisha Jones, but in a neighboring Regiment. Mr. Brattle begs leave humbly to query whether it would not be best that there should not be one commission officer of the militia in the Province.

This morning the selectmen of Medford came and received their town stock of powder, which was in the arsenal on quarry-hill, so that there is now therein the King’s powder only, which shall remain there as a sacred depositum till ordered out by the Captain-General. To his Excellency General Gage, &c. &c. &c.
Gage didn’t take the drastic step of canceling all militia commissions, but he did send those soldiers to secure the “King’s powder” in the powderhouse before anyone in the countryside thought of removing it. He had legal authority to issue those orders: that powder belonged to the province of Massachusetts, and as governor he was the commander (“Captain-General”) of its militia.

Therefore, dawn on 1 September found Maddison and his soldiers waiting outside the powderhouse until the Sun rose—you don’t go into a gunpowder storeroom with a lit lantern. The men probably took off their boots as well so there was no chance the nails in their soles would set off sparks on the stone floor. As soon as the light was good, they started moving 250 half-barrels of gunpowder from that building onto waiting wagons. Meanwhile, about two dozen soldiers went to Cambridge common, met royal sheriff David Phips, and took possession of two small brass cannons used by the Middlesex County militia.

The wagons of gunpowder and the cannons were all wheeled through Cambridge, Roxbury, and Dorchester to Castle William, the fort in Boston harbor that the army had been using since 1770. The whole operation was over by noon. It had met no opposition. Gage felt secure enough to issue a call later that day for new legislative elections. But the reaction was just beginning.

TOMORROW: The militia rises.

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