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The First Overt Act of the Revolution?

There is no question that previous to Dec. 14, 1774, bodies of men had destroyed private property owing to their disapproval of British methods, and in a few cases had even assaulted the royal power. But the capture of Fort William and Mary was the first organized fight of the Revolutionary War, and on Dec. 14, 1774, the first gun of that war was fired.

It is true that on Dec. 5, 1774, the assembly of Rhode Island ordered the powder and shot in Fort George to be removed to a place of safety, and it is further true that it was done with the same intent and purpose, and undoubtedly influenced the subsequent action at Portsmouth. It was accomplished without opposition and was simply the confiscation of stores already in their possession. The taking of the schooner Gaspee, eight guns, commanded by Lieutenant Duddington, at Gaspee Point, R.I., on June 9, 17721 has been held to be the first assault against the crown, but erroneously, for it in nowise differs in principle from the act of firing upon the schooner St. John in July, 1764;2 the seizure of the Maidstone’s boat at Newport3 in May, 1765, or the scuttling of the British armed sloop Liberty at Newport, in 1769.4 All were directed against the vessels of the British navy carrying the king’s colors, but they were directed against the particular vessel that suffered on account of real injuries to the participants or to the community, and not from any uprising against the general authority of Great Britain. Arnold states in his account of the destruction of the Gaspee that “Lieut. Duddington, the commander, had practiced every arrogance upon vessels in the bay, detaining them often without a colorable pretext, stopping even market boats, and in some cases plundering people on shore.”

The “Battle of Alamatice,” in North Carolina, on May 16, 1771, was entirely of a local nature, and was fought between a band of so-called “regulators” and volunteer militia of their own province. Also, according to Hildreth (History of U.S., Vol. II, p. 570), the regulators themselves became staunch supporters of the royal authority. The three and one half years intervening between this affair and that of William and Mary is sufficient in itself to separate it from the Revolutionary period.

The opinion of Rev. Alonzo H. Quint, D.D., in regard to the capture of Fort William and Mary, is often well quoted in the words:

“The daring character of this assault cannot be overestimated. It was an organized investment of a royal fortress, where the king’s flag was flying, and where the king’s garrison met them with muskets and artillery. It was four months before Lexington, and Lexington was resistance to attack, while this was a deliberate assault. When the king heard of this capture it so embittered him that all hope of concessions was at an end. It made war inevitable.”

Footnotes

  1. Arnold’s History of Rhode Island, p. 309.
  2. Ibid, p. 252.
  3. Ibid, p. 255.
  4. Ibid, p. 297.