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The Disposal of the Powder

Among the more important data to which we can give unquestioned weight is an article heretofore unnoticed in the New Hampshire Mercury of 1785 and in the New Hampshire Spy of 1789. In one of these General Sullivan refers to an anonymous attack made upon him in the New Hampshire Mercury of April 19, 1785, of which no copy appears to be in existence, although diligent search has been made. It is probable, however, that the article was the same as one appearing in the New Hampshire Gazzette of about the same date and signed “Honestus,” which contains nothing new except that the author speaks of the powder as having been sent to Exeter, where eventually much of it was undoubtedly stored. General Sullivan also refers to an act of congress of Tuesday, July 31, 1781, when the continental congress ordered1 “That the board of treasury pass to the credit of General Sullivan the following sums in specie, viz. : One hundred dollars as a compensation for the expenses incurred by him in securing the military stores and ordinances at Fort William and Mary, New Hampshire, in the year 1775, and distributing them in various parts of the country for the use of the United States, one thousand dollars for the extraordinary expenses, necessarily incurred by him as the commanding officer in a separate department, for which no provision or compensation has been made; and four hundred dollars as a reimbursement of the expense incurred by him after his resignation for the recovery of his health which he had lost in the service and was thereby induced to retire.”

The article of General Sullivan above referred to appeared in the New Hampshire Mercury of May 3, 1785, and was addressed to “The Impartial Public,” and is as follows:

Although I have no desire to satisfy or even to answer, a malicious, false, and cowardly writer, who under a feigned and very unproper signature, has endeavored to wound my reputation, by a publication in the New-Hampshire Mercury of the 19th ultimo: yet in as much as I am conscious of having acted with uprightness in every part of my political conduct, I shall for your satisfaction answer the three charges which his malice has suggested, and which his knowledge of their falsity has prevented being signed by his proper name.

  • The first charge is obtaining a considerable sum from Congress by false representations, respecting the taking powder from Fort William and Mary.
  • Secondly, Giving up the fishing-ground. And,
  • Thirdly, Receiving a bribe in my office of Attorney-General, which prevented my complying with my duty in endeavoring to confiscate a valuable estate by which I suppose he means, Col. Boyd’s.

To answer the first it will be necessary to relate the manner of taking the stores from the fort.

When I returned from Congress in 1774 and saw the order of the British King and Council, prohibiting military stores being sent to this country ; I took the alarm, clearly perceived the designs of the British ministry, and wrote several pieces upon the necessity of securing military stores; which pieces were published in several papers.

On the 18th of December [date is evidently given from memorv and is wrong] some gentlemen belonging to Portsmouth, went to the fort and took sundry barrels of powder and sent in a gondola one hundred and ten barrels to my care; which myself and others deposited in places of security. The next day a report was spread that two vessels of war were coming from Boston to take possession of the fort and harbour.

I went down with a large number of men and in the night following went in person with gondolas, took possession of the fort, brought away the remainder of the powder, the small arms, bayonets, and cartouch-boxes, together with the cannon and ordnance stores; was out all night, and returned to Portsmouth next day. I might here add that I bore the expense of all the party. The gondolas, with the stores, were brought to Durham, after several days spent in cutting the ice, Durham river being then frozen over; the cannon, etc., was then deposited in places of security. These are facts known to almost every person in the State–and to all them concerned, that almost the whole expense was borne by me; not withstanding which I never applied for a single farthing to Congress, or any other body, for this service, and when a committee of Congress, who were appointed to report what was due for my allowance in separate departments where I commanded, reported one hundred dollars for this service, I warmly opposed it, and told Congress I never expected, or desired a single farthing for it–for the truth of this I appeal to the Hon. Judge Livermore, who was with me in Congress, at the time, and knows every fact relating to it, he is now on the circuit through the state, consequently any gentleman may satisfy himself, by asking him whether these facts are true or false.

But to prove whether Congress has been generous to me in their grants, I beg leave to mention that by a resolve of Congress of the 15th of June, 1775, general officers in separate departments, were to be allowed one hundred and fifty dollars per month, over and above their wages: I served thirty months in separate departments, and Congress made me a grant of thirteen hundred dollars only, in lieu of four thousand eight hundred which was my due : it is true one hundred of it was reported for the above-mentioned service, but upon my objecting to it, was not in reality granted in that light–and further, to prove the generosity of Congress to me, I now say, that for near five years’ service, I have never received only the nominal sum in paper money for my services, and am the only officer in America that has received no depreciation or allowance therefor.

Durham, April 23, 1785

JOHN SULLIVAN.

These letters leave absolutely no doubt that, in the first instance, the powder and other military stores were brought to Durham to be from there distributed. Whether or not part of the powder was lodged under the pulpit of the Durham meetinghouse must remain, as heretofore, a matter of tradition but the fact that the Rev. Mr. Adams was of the party, and that, with the exception of General Sullivan’s own house, it was one of the nearest buildings to the landing where the powder was unloaded, lends probability to the report. We know positively, as the family tradition has always held, that some of the powder was stored in the house of Ebenezer Thompson, which is still standing in Durham, and is still occupied by a descendant of the judge in the person of Mr. Lucien Thompson. There is little doubt, too, that, in the subsequent distribution, a considerable portion of the powder was left with Maj. John Demerit of Madbury. Such has been the unvarying tradition in Durham. Powder and balls from Fort William and Mary, which had been kept in the original magazine built in the Madbury home, are now in the possession of the New Hampshire Historical Society, donated in 1887 by Mr. John Demerit (now also major) of Madbury, N.H., a direct descendant and namesake of Major Demerit.

Major John Demerit residence, Madbury, New Hampshire, circa 1900

Miss Mary P. Thompson, writing for the Independent Statesman of Nov. 17, 1887, states that the wife of Major Demerit’s grandsons who had had charge of Major Demerit during the last six years of his life, related to her the accounts of the capture of the fort and the preservation of this powder, as she had heard it from Major Demerit. Also, in Brewster’s Rambles about Portsmouth, it is asserted that Daniel P. Drown, calling upon Major Demerit in 1799 or 1800, was given two charges of this powder for his rifle with the statement that it was taken from Fort William and Mary.

It is certainly true that a large part of the powder was afterwards distributed among the several towns. This is indicated by General Sullivan’s letter and by the journal of congress, and has also been well brought out bv Hon. John G. Crawford in an article read before the New Hampshire Society Sons of the American Revolution.1 Several documents quoted in the New Hampshire Provincial Papers, Vol. VII, also show this to have been a fact. The arms brought from Portsmouth were repaired and put in order at Durham, for in the Durham town records2 it is recorded that at March 31, 1783, town-meeting it was “Voted that the selectmen be directed to allow Thomas Wille 20/9 in full for repairing the guns brought from Fort Wm and Mary.”

Footnotes

  1. Proceedings of the N.H. Sons of the American Revolution, 1889-97.
  2. Vol. II, p. 220.