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, December 15, 2013

Web Exhibit about the Raids on Fort William & Mary

At the same time that Rhode Island’s preparations for war included moving cannon from Newport to Providence, where they would be beyond reach of the Royal Navy, the New Hampshire militia was taking similar but more dramatic action.

This website from the University of New Hampshire library preserves an exhibit on the militia raids on Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth’s harbor on 14-15 Dec 1774. The exhibit is largely based on chemistry professor Charles Lathrop Parsons’s The Capture of Fort William and Mary, published in 1903. It provides a good overview of this lesser-known event.

There are still some glitches in the online exhibit. The link labeled “The Gunpowder at Bunker Hill” leads instead to a letter from the governor; I haven’t found a webpage on powder. The webpage titled “Gentleman in Boston writing to a Mr. Rivitigton of New York” actually refers to James Rivington, printer of the Loyalist New York Gazetteer. That letter, as transcribed in American Archives, clearly did not endorse what had gone on in Portsmouth starting the night of 14 December:
With difficulty a number of men were persuaded to convene, who proceeded to the Fort, which is situated at New-Castle, an Island about two miles from the Town, and being there joined by a number of the inhabitants of said New-Castle, amounted to near four hundred men; they invested the Fort, and being refused admittance by the Commander of it [John Cochran], who had only five men with him, and who discharged several guns at them, scaled the walls, and soon overpowered and pinioned the Commander; they then struck the King’s colours, with three cheers, broke open the Powder House, and carried off one hundred and three barrels of Powder, leaving only one behind.

Previous to this expresses had been sent out to alarm the country; accordingly, a large body of men marched the next day from Durham, headed by two Generals; Major [John] Sullivan, one of the worthy Delegates, who represented that Province in the Continental Congress, and the Parson of the Parish [John Adams], who having been long-accustomed to apply himself more to the cure of the bodies than the souls of his parishioners, had forgotten that the weapons of his warfare ought to be spiritual, and not carnal, and therefore marched down to supply himself with the latter, from the King’s Fort, and assisted in robbing him of his warlike stores.

After being drawn up on the parade, they chose a Committee, consisting of those persons who had been most active in the riot of the preceding day, with Major Sullivan and some others, to wait on the Governour [John Wentworth], and know of him whether any of the King’s Ships or Troops were expected. The Governour, after expressing to them his great concern for the consequences of taking the Powder from the Fort, of which they pretended to disapprove and to be ignorant of, assured them that he knew of neither Troops or Ships coming into the Province, and ordered the Major, as a Magistrate, to go and disperse the people.

When the Committee returned to the body, and reported what the Governour had told them, they voted that it was satisfactory, and that they would return home. But, by the eloquent harangue of their Demosthenes [i.e., Sullivan], they were first prevailed upon to vote that they took part with, and approved of, the measures of those who had taken the Powder.

Matters appeared then to subside, and it was thought every man had peaceably returned to his own home, instead of this Major Sullivan, with about seventy of his clients, concealed themselves till the evening, and then went to the Fort, and brought off in Gondolas all the small arms, with fifteen 4-pounders, and one 9-pounder, and a quantity of twelve and four and twenty pound shot, which they conveyed, to Durham, &c.
Two opposing military forces facing off against each other (albeit one comprising only six men). The royal troops firing muskets and cannon, and the colonial militia storming a fortification and capturing the men inside (albeit with no killed or wounded on either side). Territory, gunpowder, and ordnance changing hands. The end of royal government in New Hampshire as Wentworth sought shelter and then departed for Boston. One might even think that a war had begun.

The Rev. John Adams, minister at Durham from 1748 to 1778, suffered from what we’d now call bipolar disorder, according to the description of the Rev. John Eliot:
For he was in his best days, and when he was not exposed to peculiar trials of his ministry, very much the sport of his feelings. Sometimes he was so depressed as to seem like a being mingling with the dust, and suddenly would mount up to heaven with a bolder wing than any of his contemporaries.
Local tradition says that he allowed some of the gunpowder from Fort William and Mary to be hidden under his pulpit. It probably seemed like a good idea at that moment.

1 comment:

Byron DeLear said...

Well at least they left one barrel of powder behind!