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1774 Two Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

December 2023
2min read

Rebellion in New Hampshire

On December 13 Paul Revere rode into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with distressing news from Boston that required immediate action. On orders from Gen. Thomas Gage, warships would soon arrive in Piscataqua Harbor to keep Fort William and Mary, in the town of Newcastle, from falling into rebel hands. Boston’s Sons of Liberty had learned of Gage’s plans the day before and had sent Revere, their most reliable courier, to alert the local patriots. Not quite a year earlier he had been chosen to bring word of the Boston Tea Party to New York City, and in September he had carried the Suffolk Resolves to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

After riding sixty miles through snow, ice, and mud, Revere arrived in Portsmouth and gave the news to a member of the local Revolutionary committee. It spread quickly. John Wentworth, the governor of New Hampshire, heard the rumblings and warned Capt. John Cochran, commander of the fort, to be alert. With only five men under his command, however, alertness would not be good for much.

Early in the afternoon of December 14, the streets of Portsmouth resounded to the beating of a drum. Some four hundred men heeded the summons and assembled in the center of town. Since the Revolution was still a clandestine affair, their identities were never definitively recorded, but tradition numbers John Langdon, Thomas Pickering, and Andrew McClary among the leaders. Ignoring an order to disperse, they marched to the fort and demanded its surrender. Cochran vowed to “defend it to the last Extremity.” His beleaguered little garrison was augmented by Elijah Locke, a tradesman who had chosen a bad time to visit the fort and had been unwillingly drafted into its defense. Sarah Cochran, the captain’s wife, also grabbed a bayonet and did what she could to protect her husband.

The motley defensive force fired three cannon and unleashed a musket volley—the first shots of the Revolution, by some reckonings. (A few days earlier Rhode Island patriots had seized forty-four artillery pieces from Fort George in Newport Harbor, but that installation was undefended at the time.) Before they could do any more, the mob knocked down the doors and overpowered them. The raiders made off with ninety-seven kegs of powder, which they distributed to hiding places in neighboring towns.

The next day, as patriots from the area poured into Portsmouth, including a party from Exeter led by Nathaniel Folsom, Governor Wentworth issued a call for the militia to suppress them. No one responded. He met with John Sullivan of Durham, who had taken charge of the rebels, and succeeded only in gaining a little time. (Sullivan and Folsom had made up New Hampshire’s delegation to the Continental Congress.) That evening Sullivan and his band rowed over to the fort. The forty-odd Durham men were accompanied by about two hundred others.

This time Cochran put up no resistance to the intruders. Working through the night, they took sixteen light cannon, sixty muskets, some cannonballs and carriages, and assorted other matériel, leaving behind forty-five heavy cannon. Before they could return to liberate them, HMS Canceaux sailed into Piscataqua Harbor, to be joined two days later by HMS Scarborough . The warships’ arrival ended the uprising, leaving the citizens of New Hampshire quiet but sullenly resentful, and—like the gunpowder they had captured from the fort—needing only a spark to set them off.

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