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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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Militiamen Rise Up Against Gen. Gage—in 1774

Yesterday’s posting described how on 1 Sept 1774 Gen. Thomas Gage, using his authority as governor of Massachusetts, ordered British soldiers to empty the provincial gunpowder storehouse in Charlestown (a part that’s now Somerville) and collect two small brass cannons from the militia in Cambridge.

Local people noticed. (It’s hard for over 200 redcoated soldiers to roll cannons and gunpowder wagons through a town without people noticing.) They started asking questions. And then, according to merchant John Andrews, this happened in Boston:

The Governor walking up the main street to dine with Brigadier [Robert] Pigot of the 43d, who improves a house just above Liberty tree, by chance or design, in pulling out his handkerchief, dropt a letter from Brigadier [William] Brattle of Cambridge
Andrews thought Gage deliberately dropped that letter “to exculpate himself from being thought to take such a measure of his own head”—i.e., to let people know that he’d acted only after a note from Brattle, their own militia general (shown above). Some historians have suggested that a Whig stole this note and made up a cover story about it falling from Gage’s pocket. And, of course, the general could truly have lost it by accident.

In any event, Cambridge quickly learned what Brattle had done. On 2 September, Andrews wrote that the people of that town “did not fail to visit Brattle and [Attorney General Jonathan] Sewall’s house last evening, but not finding either of ’em at home, they quietly went off.” Actually, these local crowds made a lot of noise, broke windows, and then went off. Even before they came, Brattle had hurried into Boston and taken refuge in the army camp, knowing how upset his neighbors would be.

And that was just the beginning of the provincial reaction. As word of the removal of the powder and cannons spread out from Cambridge, the rumors became more dire. Eventually people were hearing that the army had attacked a crowd of people, set fire to the town. (Which town? Rumors disagreed.) Men mustered in their militia companies and marched toward Charlestown.

That was how the militia system was supposed to work in a world before electronic communication. A military emergency allowed no time to wait for commanders to gather, confer, and bring back orders. The companies in each town prepared themselves to march to where it seemed they were needed.

And they marched with notable speed. Andrews later wrote:
Though they had an account at Marlborough of the powder’s being remov’d, last Thursday night, yet they were down to Cambridge (which is thirty miles) by eight o’clock Fryday morning, with a troop of horse and another of foot.
These two companies from Marlborough joined a crowd of 3,000, then 4,000 men from Middlesex County massing on Cambridge common early on 2 September. The town itself contained only 1,582 people according to the census of 1765. The militiamen had stacked their muskets somewhere along the way when it became clear that there was no imminent danger. Nevertheless, their numbers were enough to intimidate anyone in Cambridge who supported Gen. Gage’s actions. Even Boston’s Patriot leaders—men like Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Thomas Young, and town clerk William Cooper—were alarmed by this crowd, and hurried out to Cambridge to urge the crowd not to do anything violent or rash.

The government in London had appointed three Cambridge gentlemen to the new Council under the Massachusetts Government Act: Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, Samuel Danforth, and Joseph Lee. The crowd insisted that all three publicly resign their seats, and they did. Sheriff David Phipps had to apologize for helping the army remove the powder and cannons, and promise not to enforce as writs under the new act. By that evening Attorney General Sewall and Lt. Gov. Oliver joined Brattle in Boston, and over the next couple of weeks most other Loyalist families in Cambridge left their homes as well.

That night, William Tudor of Boston wrote in his diary: “at 5 P.m. came on hard Thunder & Lightning with a great Shower.” And the next morning: “It Rain’d plentifully all last Night.” The storm encouraged the crowd to disperse and return to their homes. But those militiamen had already shown Gen. Gage, the province’s Whig activists, and themselves that they would oppose any further changes to their ability to defend or govern themselves. On 2 Sept 1774, months before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, it was also clear that the royal government’s power no longer extended farther than the gates of Boston.

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