The commencement of large-scale rebellion in the American colonies began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. As Emerson wrote of the Old North Bridge in Concord, “Here the embattled farmer stood, and fired the shot heard round the world.” However, four months earlier, on December 14, 1774, an incident took place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that could rival Concord and Lexington’s claim to fame.
I have to admit up front, I do have a bias in this regard. I grew up in the vicinity of Concord and am very proud of that region’s history. Patriot’s Day (April 19) was a big deal in my home town. I happily remember participating as a youngster in the annual march to Concord along the route that the Minutemen followed. Since then, I’ve devoted considerable time to the study of the actions at Lexington and Concord…a day of such clear significance that it really cannot be “unseated” as the start of the Revolution. But still, there is this Portsmouth episode…
Gen. Thomas Gage came to Boston in May 1774 as the new Royal Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay…a province on the verge of rebellion. His primary task: to bring stability back to Massachusetts and avoid any widespread violence. It was, in my opinion, an impossible task. Boston had been under military occupation for roughly five years and was about ready to explode. Through the diligent efforts of the committees of correspondence, the unrest had spread throughout the province and beyond. It was far too late to bring Massachusetts back into the fold.
Gage gave it his best shot, however. But he found resistance at every turn. In the late summer of 1774, finding himself at loggerheads with Sam Adams, John Hancock and others, Gage disbanded the provincial legislature. Massachusetts was now under a state of martial law. Additional British regiments arrived in Boston. The provincial Minutemen were busy drilling as vigorously as possible. By September 1774, things looked very grim.
Still hoping to avoid bloodshed, Gage arrived at a simple plan to prevent a protracted rebellion…Take away the gunpowder. If the provincials had no access to gunpowder, they could not fight a war. In going about this, Gage did not wish to further incense the provincials and was careful to adhere to the law. Initially, he focused merely on collecting royal gunpowder stores and left alone the powder belonging to individual towns.
His first effort to fetch and protect the King’s gunpowder took place on September 1, 1774 when he sent a battalion of redcoats in the dark morning hours to the Provincial Powder House in what is now Somerville, Massachusetts (the stone structure is still there, by the way, in what is now called Powder House Square). The movement was a perfect success…the King’s powder removed, plus two cannons taken from Cambridge, all before the populace really knew what was happening. But that morning, such rumors flew from town to town until most of New England believed that the Regulars were firing upon civilians in the streets of Cambridge. Thousands upon thousands of armed militia marched to Cambridge, only to find that there had been no bloodshed and that the redcoats were safely back in Boston. Still, the massive response from the colonials was a sobering incident for Gage.
His next effort was to take the gunpowder and armaments from Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That was not his province, but as commanding general of the King’s forces in North America, Gage had to see to the safety of the King’s munitions throughout the colonies. And royalist Governor John Wentworth of New Hampshire agreed that Portsmouth’s fort represented a major problem.
Located on a peninsula at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, Fort William and Mary guarded the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor. But it was manned only by a skeleton crew of six British soldiers. Although Wentworth might have liked to have additional troops to bolster the fort and create a stronghold against the rebels, he apparently did not want the outrage that would be caused by an occupied Portsmouth. So, he enthusiastically agreed with Gage’s plan to remove all munitions from the fort.
But no plan, on either side, could be kept secret in Boston. The Sons of Liberty quickly learned of Gage’s intentions and on December 13, Paul Revere made one of his famous rides to warn the inhabitants of Portsmouth. The provinicials of New Hampshire wasted no time. By December 14, 1774, four hundred colonial militia had gathered in Portsmouth. And the Regulars had not even left Boston yet.
At around three o’clock that afternoon, the colonial militia converged on Fort William and Mary. Imagine the dismay of Captain Cochran, in command of the fort, as he saw them coming by land and by boat. Much to the credit of the six soldiers manning the fort, they managed to fire three cannons before the colonials completely overwhelmed the ramparts. And they struggled in hand-to-hand combat even as the militia surrounded them.
Triumphant, the colonials hauled down the King’s flag…an act which outraged Capt. Cochran. He tried to stop them but was wounded in the act. The colonials then proceeded to haul away more than 100 barrels of gundpowder, sixteen cannons, and a large number of muskets. Days later, when the troops from Boston finally arrived, they discovered how badly the mission had been botched.
How do you define the beginning of a Revolution? There may not be set parameters, but the Portsmouth incident has several factors that might qualify it for such a distinction. A large body of rebels acting in organized fashion, firing upon uniformed troops of an occupying force. Both sides acting in pursuit of broader strategic goals. And the flag of the occupying force symbolically hauled down. Indeed, there are some parallels here that remind me of the assault on Fort Sumter which commenced the American Civil War. Of the Portsmouth Alarm, historian David Hackett Fischer wrote, “These were truly the first blows of the American Revolution, four months before the battles of Lexington and Concord.”
What the incident does not have going for it are numbers and…well…glory. An assault on six of the King’s soldiers is hardly an inspiring episode on which a new nation might hang its hat.
So the Battles of Lexington and Concord will and should remain the definitive start of the American Revolution. But, if any proud residents of New Hampshire wanted to make the argument that the Revolution began in their state on December 14, 1774, I really wouldn’t be inclined to argue…much.
[Source: David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). This is, in my humble opinion, the best book ever written about the events of April 19, 1775. A “must read” for anyone interested in the Revolution.]