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The Capture of Fort William & Mary

New Castle, New Hampshire December 14-15, 1774

View of the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor, circa 1705 from a selected portion of “The prospect draft of the Fort William and Mary on Piscataqua River in ye Province of New Hampshire on the Continent America.” From the Library of Congress.

Few events in the history of New Hampshire have excited more interest or caused more controversy than the successful attack upon Fort William and Mary, in Portsmouth harbor, on December 14, 1774; the removal of the powder contained in its magazine on the same afternoon; and the second capture of the fort, together with the small arms and other stores, on the night of the following day. Too much has been written that is not history, and many statements concerning these events are generally accepted as facts which have had their rise in the fertile imagination of some writer. Many articles have appeared in the public press, but only a few really scholarly attempts have been made to determine the actual facts.1

Throughout the year 1774 the people of Portsmouth and vicinity shared in full measure the unrest that was felt throughout the whole country. Much sympathy was expressed for the people of Boston, and the populace were beginning to show signs of resisting the odious domination of the British ministry. The assembly had shown a disposition to refuse to vote the necessary supplies and men for Fort William and Mary. In May a message was sent from the committee at Portsmouth to the committee at Boston, promising assistance in anything agreed upon by the colonies.2 On June 8th, Governor Wentworth dissolved the assembly which he had from time to time adjourned to prevent action toward the appointment of delegates to a provincial congress.3 On July 4, twenty-seven chests of tea had been quietly brought into Portsmouth. A town-meeting was immediately called, the consignee was forced to export the tea, and the vessel carrying it was kept under guard, until it finally sailed for Halifax.4 On July 6, Governor Wentworth ordered the sheriff to direct the committee of correspondence, who had met to choose delegates for a general American congress, to disperse and keep the king’s peace. This they did, but only to meet privately later in a tavern where they chose delegates to assemble in Exeter.5 On August 29, Governor Wentworth wrote the Earl of Dartmouth that the assembly had met in Exeter, and adds “I think this Province is much more moderate than any other to the southward, although the spirit of enthusiasm is spread and requires the utmost vigilance and prudence to restrain it from violent excess.”6 Again later, Governor Wentworth reported the arrival of a second consignment of tea with results similar to the first. On November 15 he reported continued discontent throughout the province, and fears that disturbances will continue unless quiet is restored in Massachusetts Bay.7 On December 2, he wrote that there is a growing unrest and a disposition on the part of the people to follow all the “Resolves of the Congress and to approve them fully.”8

Location of Fort William & Mary (in red), New Castle, New Hampshire

Thus it will be seen that when Paul Revere brought his message on December 13, 1774, from the committee in Boston to Mr. Samuel Cutts of the Portsmouth committee, announcing that troops were to be sent to reinforce the fort, and bringing information, also, of the removal of the military stores in Rhode Island, and of the king’s order in council prohibiting the exportation of gunpowder and military stores to America, the people were in a state of mind ready for revolt. Mr. Cutts immediately called the committee together, and they proceeded to plan for the capture of the powder upon the following day. Governor Wentworth seems to have had some intimation of what might happen, for he sent word to Captain Cochran, commanding at the fort, to be upon his guard. In Wentworth’s report on the affair, however, he states that “before any suspicion could be had of their intentions, about four hundred men were gathered together.” Certain it is that, about twelve o’clock on Wednesday, December 14, all secrecy ended; for members of the committee, accompanied by drum and fife, paraded the streets of Portsmouth and called the citizens together. By order of Governor Wentworth the chief justice of the province made proclamation that what they proposed was open rebellion against the king, but they did not waiver, and having finally gathered together a company of their townsmen, and such others as could be obtained from the adjoining towns of Newcastle and Rye, in all about four hundred men, they proceeded to Fort William and Mary. There they were warned by Captain Cochran not to enter, and were fired upon both by cannon and small arms. No one appears to have been injured, however, and they immediately stormed the fort, and easily overcame such resistance as the one officer and five effective men could offer. Having captured the fort, they proceeded to haul down the king’s colors, and then removed all of the gunpowder in the magazine, with the exception of one barrel. About one hundred barrels of powder were so obtained, and these were sent up the Piscataqua to Durham, that same evening, with a letter to General Sullivan, who had not been in Portsmouth that day.

On the following day, Thursday, December 15, 1774, a party of men came from Durham to Portsmouth, and, that night, together with other citizens, under the leadership of John Sullivan, they again took the fort and carried off the lighter cannon and all of the small arms. On Friday, a party under command of Captain Nathaniel Folsom of Exeter, came to Portsmouth and remained on guard all day; until in the afternoon, on the rising tide, the arms were sent up the river. They finally reached Durham; but only after many weary hours of cutting through the ice, which had just formed in the branch of the Piscataqua, which leads up to that town.

The main details of the proceedings of the three days may easily be gathered from the following official documents and letters of the time which have fortunately been preserved to us.

Governor John Wentworth’s Accounts of the Attacks:

Governor Wentworth, from a pastel by John Singleton Copley once in the possession of Mrs. Gordon Abbott of Boston.

Other Accounts of the Two Attacks:

This closes the list of documents of the immediate period bearing upon the affair, and they seem to be sufficiently clear and to agree so closely as to leave little room for the controversies that have taken place. It is true that they mention but few names and give few details from the patriot’s standpoint. Neither do they state anything authentic as to the disposal of the military stores nor of the influence this uprising had upon the future course of the Revolution.

The main questions in dispute have been (1) the disposal of the powder and military stores , (2) the names of the leaders in the affair and such of their men as could be determined: (3) whether the tradition of the use of this powder at Bunker Hill is founded on fact: and (4) whether or not this was the first real uprising of the Revolution. A study of some of the later documents that bear upon these questions will help our conclusion, and where tradition aids it will be considered as tradition and not as history; giving weight to traditional statements in accordance with the nearness of their origin to the date of the occurrence or to the actor concerned therein.”

The Aftermath of the Capture of Fort William & Mary:

Charles Lathrop Parson’s Bibliography of Sources

Footnotes

  1. An especially fortunate find was made in the library of Mr. Lucien Thompson of Durham, N.H., consisting of several early copies of the New Hampshire Spy and the New Hampshire Mercury of the year 1789, which appear to be the only known ones extant and which contain descriptions of the affair over the signatures of two of the participants. [Now part of the New Hampshire Newspaper Collection (MC 2), UNH Special Collections]
  2. American Archives, by Peter Force, Vol. 1, p. 337.
  3. Letter of Governor Wentworth, American Archives, Vol. 1, p. 393.
  4. Letter of Governor Wentworth to Earl of Dartmouth, American Archives, Vol. 1, p. 513.
  5. American Archives, Vol. 1, p. 516, 536.
  6. American Archives, Vol. 1, P. 744.
  7. American Archives, Vol. 1, p. 982.
  8. American Archives, Vol. 1, p. 1014.

Exhibit Note

U.N.H. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Charles L. Parsons, 1912.

This exhibit is almost exclusively based upon the work of Charles Lathrop Parsons (b. 1867) and was created by scanning in the N.H. Historical Society reprint of Parsons’ published work, The Capture of Fort William and Mary, December 14 and 15, 1774 (1903).

Other information used in creating this exhibit, such as Captain Eleazer Bennett’s 1849 account of the Capture of Fort William & Mary, the numerous images, and M.P. Thompson’s writings on the event, come from the holdings of the Milne Special Collections Department and can be found in: