On Dec. 13, 1774, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth, N.H., to warn the redcoats were coming. It was a much less famous ride – but perhaps no less important – than the one he made four months later.
Tensions were rising in December 1774 as the Revolutionary War approached. Fearing an armed rebellion, King George in October had issued a confidential Order in Council forbidding the export of arms and ammunition to the American colonies. The order was followed by a letter from Secretary of State Lord Dartmouth to all the royal governors. It ordered them to seal every port against the import of munitions that could aid a rebellion.
The American patriots feared the British would seize their gunpowder and munitions – again. On Sept. 1, 1774, British troops had removed gunpowder from the powder house in Charlestown, Mass. (now Powder House Square in Somerville).
The patriots moved arms inland from Newport, R.I., Providence and New London, Conn. A rumor spread in Boston that a large contingent of redcoats were on their way to seize powder from Fort William and Mary in New Castle, N.H.
The stone fort stood at the mouth of the Piscataqua River guarding access to the Portsmouth harbor and to Kittery, Maine. It was manned by a handful of troops who reported to the royal governor, John Wentworth.
The Less Famous Ride of Paul Revere
Paul Revere and his network of patriots caught wind of the new policy. Revere knew the lightly guarded fort in New Castle was vulnerable to attack. He decided to warn the people of New Hampshire that the British were sending an expedition to Fort William and Mary.
Early on the morning of Dec. 13, Revere mounted his horse and began his difficult 60-mile ride to Portsmouth. The roads were rutted with frozen slush and a stiff west wind pierced his clothing. He arrived in Portsmouth that afternoon and went straight to the home of Samuel Cutts, a patriot merchant.
Cutts quickly convened the town’s committee of correspondence and Revere reported the news: British troops were on their way to Fort William and Mary and the king had banned importation of munitions to the colonies. What Revere didn’t know was that British troops would only head toward the fort after it was learned Revere was in Portsmouth.
A Loyalist townsman told Wentworth of Revere’s arrival. Wentworth sent a rider to Boston to ask for help from Gov. Thomas Gage. Gage ordered a small vessel to sail to Portsmouth with a detachment of marines and a 20-gun frigate to follow. They wouldn’t arrive until the raid was well over.
Early the next morning, a fife and drummer marched through the streets of Portsmouth summoning men to raid the fort. Four hundred men were mustered by noon, and a fleet of small boats was collected. As a snowstorm began at 3 pm, some of the men paddled down the Piscataqua River and some marched overland.
The raiders approached the fort and demanded the surrender of the six soldiers inside. Capt. John Cochran told them ‘on their peril not to enter.” The New Hampshire men rushed the fort as Cochran and his five men tried to fend them off with cannon fire, shot and hand-to-hand fighting. Finally Cochran offered to surrender his sword, but the raiders let him keep it. Then Alexander Scammell, a Harvard-trained lawyer from Durham, pulled down the British flag flying over the fort. Cochran drew his sword and was pinioned by the raiders. Another soldier tried to stop them and a raider knocked him down with the butt of his pistol. Cochran and his soldiers were confined.
The raiders broke open the powder house. They took 100 barrels of gunpowder later used in the Siege of Boston.
Start Spreading the News
Couriers fanned out across the countryside spreading the news. John Giddinge, an Exeter doctor who participated in the raid wrote to Josiah Bartlett, then serving on the Committee of Correspondence from Kingston. Wrote Giddinge:
This Town is at this time happily furnished with seventy two barrels of Powder--part of which think might be well deposited with the Patriotick sons of Liberty in Kingstown. The personal Attendance of a Number of them at Exeter to Consult & Advise with the sons of Freedom here I think would be very necessary & pleasant.
Bartlett wrote one of the many letters that circulated after the raid. His letter was to the citizens of Sandown, N.H.:
Kingstown, December 15 1774
To the citizens of Sandown
Last Night about Eleven of the Clock I Received a Letter by Express from the Committee of Correspondance at Exeter informing that it was Expected that the Regulars would forthwith take Possession of the Fort at Portsmouth in which there is a large Quantity of Powder & other military Stores. The Town of Portsmouth have notified the Neighbouring Towns. Exeter was to be Ready to go to their Assistance this morning. This Town & the East parish are meeting to Consult upon the Occasion. As it is a matter of the utmost importance I Should think it would be best to Consult on the affair among yourselves. I am in haste your Humble Servt. Josiah Bartlett
To Jethro Sanborn Esqr.
Capt Joseph Tilton
Mr. Moses Hook and any & every of the Inhabitants of Sandown
The Second Raid
Bartlett’s letter was too late. At daybreak on Dec. 15, a thousand armed men from across New Hampshire and Maine began to appear in Portsmouth. John Sullivan led them to the parade in front of the colonial State House, where Wentworth and the General Court were meeting in emergency session. They stood outside and demanded to know whether Royal troops were on the way to protect the fort. Wentworth said they weren’t.
Sullivan and the men gathered at Tilton’s tavern, the Marquis of Rockingham, to await nightfall. Wentworth ordered another tavern keeper, James Stoodley, to round up 30 men to guard the fort. As Langdon had done the day before, Stoodley and a drummer walked the Portsmouth streets trying to enlist supporters. Not one person volunteered.
After dark, Sullivan led his men on a second assault of the fort. Without being fired upon they took the rest of the powder, muskets, bayonets, cartouche boxes and 16 cannon.
Gideon Lamson recalled the experience 50 years later:
We rode into Portsmouth after daybreak, and stopped at Major Stoodley’s inn, [revealing] no appearance of the design…We had coffee about sunrise. Major Stoodley looked queer upon such guests, with guns and bayonets. At nine, Colonel Langdon came to Stoodley’s and acquainted General Folsom and company with the success of the enterprise,--that General Sullivan was then passing up the river with the loaded boats of powder and cannon.
The gunpowder was shipped to Durham by boat and then carted to inland hiding places. Some was stored in the homes of patriots. The prisoners were released and the militiamen returned home unpunished and, for the most part, unknown.
Furious British authorities knew who was responsible for provoking the people of New Hampshire. Wentworth wrote the trouble started with 'Mr. Revere and the dispatch he brought with him, before which all was perfectly quiet and peaceable in the place.
The raid was deemed high treason. It was also the first -- and last -- Revolutionary War battle in New Hampshire.
Remnants of New Hampshire’s State House have been recovered and the state is considering restoring it. Fort William and Mary, now Fort Constitution, is part of a state park on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public.
With thanks to On the Road North of Boston: New Hampshire Taverns and Turnpikes 1700-1900 by Donna-Belle Garvin and James L. Garvin and Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer.