The Raids on Fort William and Mary

​Four months prior to Paul Revere’s famous “Midnight Ride,” he made a lesser-known, though still important, ride to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, arriving into the snow-covered port around four in the afternoon on December 13, 1774. At the end of 1774, talk of revolution was in the air in Boston. The city’s network of patriots and rebels learned that King George had recently issued a confidential order prohibiting the export of arms and ammunition to the colonies, and ordered authorities to secure the Crown’s gunpowder and weaponry. After catching wind of the new policy, Revere made his way to Portsmouth to warn the people of New Hampshire that the British were sending personnel to Fort William and Mary (now Fort Constitution) in nearby Newcastle. Ironically, the British hadn’t planned to head to the fort until learning of Revere’s presence in Portsmouth. A messenger was sent to Boston to inform Governor Gage, who then ordered a vessel of marines to travel to Fort William and Mary. They wouldn’t arrive in time.

​The next morning, a gathering of patriots, lead by John Langdon and others from local chapters of the Sons of Liberty, marched through the streets of Portsmouth, organizing in what is now known as Market Square, spreading the plan to seize gunpowder and munitions from Fort William and Mary. The crowd reached roughly 400 men by noon when Chief Justice and Secretary of the Province, Theodore Atkinson, arrived and warned that any attempt to raid and remove gunpowder from the fort was an unlawful act of treason. His warning had no effect.

​In the early evening, the 400 or so men endured another snowstorm, some marching towards the fort, while the rest paddled down the Piscataqua River. When the men arrived, there were met with just five soldiers, and one officer, Captain John Cochran, who were stationed there. Greatly outnumbered, Captain Cochran boldly refused the mob’s demands. As colonists rushed the fort, Captain Cochran ordered cannon and musket fire. Still, they were greatly outnumbered. The raiders restrained Cochran and his soldiers for a short period of time, took 97 barrels of gunpowder, and proudly dismantled the British Flag atop the fort, before releasing them. No deaths occurred during the raid.

​The following day, on December 15, Major John Sullivan and additional forces overran the fort a second time, taking 16 cannons, muskets and other supplies. Much of these supplies would end up at the Battle of Bunker Hill. As Emma Demeritt, descendent of Captain John Demeritt, states in an article from 1910, “It was stated on the best authority that had not the powder arrived at so opportune a moment, the fate of the day would have been far different. For it was with this powder that the New Hampshire troops, with two regiments from Connecticut, guarded the flank at Bunker Hill twice driving back the British.”

[Next in the series] More NH ties to Bunker Hill, from Goffstown, NH (research inspired by a walk through the graveyard across from my house)

 

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