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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Friday, September 02, 2016

“An Intimation of the Bombardment of Boston”

Today is the anniversary of the militia uprising in 1774 that Richard Frothingham dubbed the “Powder Alarm” in his biography of Dr. Joseph Warren.

On 2 Sept 1774 up to five thousand Massachusetts militiamen crowded into Cambridge, forcing every royal appointee in town to resign or apologize.

That event demonstrated the end of royal rule in the province outside of Boston, a few harbor islands, and (later) parts of Marshfield—places where the British military was stationed.

Those militiamen were reacting to the British army’s seizure of gunpowder and militia cannon on 1 September. Or, to be more accurate, many of them were reacting to exaggerated accounts of the previous day.

A traveling merchant named McNeil told the Rev. Ezra Stiles that in Shrewsbury he was woken in the middle of the night by “somebody violently rapping up the Landlord, telling the doleful Story that the Powder was taken, six men killed.”

From Hartford, Titus Hosmer informed Silas Deane that “[William] Brattle at Cambridge, a high tory, had petitioned [Gen. Thomas] Gage for troops to protect him at his house, which Gage granted; a mob gathered and demand of Brattle to renounce his toryism or whatever you may term it; but after a short parley the troop fired, kill’d some right out, a large number wounded.”

The Rev. Stephen Williams, minister of Longmeadow (shown above), and his congregation heard that “the [Royal Navy] Ships in ye Harbour—of Boston, & ye Army on ye Land Side were allso fireing upon ye Town so yt. it was like ye Town was Demolishd.” [For more of the Williams diary, visit the Longmeadow Library. Thanks to Ray Raphael for pointing me to that source.]

And one of my favorite responses came from young Joseph Plumb Martin, then thirteen years old and living in Milford, Connecticut:
In the afternoon, one Sabbath day [4 Sept 1774], while the people were assembled at meeting, word was brought that the British (regulars, as the good people then called them) were advancing from Boston, spreading death and desolation in their route in every direction. . . .

I went out of the house in the dusk of the evening, when I heard the sound of a carriage on the road, in the direction of Boston; I thought they were coming as sure as a gun; I shall be dead or a captive before to-morrow morning; however, I went to bed late in the evening, dreamed of “fire and sword,” I suppose; waked in the morning, found myself alive, and the house standing where it did the evening before.
The dire rumors traveled at least as far as Philadelphia, where John Adams wrote about “an Intimation of the Bombardment of Boston—a confused account, but an alarming one indeed.” More accurate stories about what had happened in Cambridge followed, but by the time they arrived people’s thinking about the royal government had started to change.

I devote the first two chapters of The Road to Concord to the gunpowder seizure and Powder Alarm of September 1774 because they’re so important to the political shifts in New England and the start of the Revolutionary War that started.

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