Sunday, May 27, 2018

Episode 046: Powder Alarm

Last week I discussed General Gage’s early attempts to enforce the Coercive Acts and cow the colonists into submission following the Boston tea party.  He quickly learned that the rebellious leaders were not ready to roll over and that the people were most certainly not ready to tolerate the new government. The free people of New England were heavily armed and not afraid to use their weapons against anyone they saw as threatening their liberties.  Tens of thousands of armed colonists who were ready to confront the British regulars were no match for the force that Gage had under his command. He sent increasingly frantic letters to London indicating that he needed a much much larger army by spring if he was going to be able to regain control of the colony. In the meantime, Gage hunkered down in Boston and left the rest of the colony to run itself for the rest of the fall and winter.

Gage’s decision to retreat into Boston and await reinforcements was not a strategy that many of his junior offices supported.  Col. Alexander Leslie (soon to be Gen. Leslie) still believed that a military show of strength would force the locals to back down and submit.  Gage did not think the colonists were particularly capable, but just in terms of large numbers, they could overwhelm the Regulars.  Once Gage realized it was not just Boston in rebellion, but all of New England, he kept his defensive posture until he could get a bigger army.

Powder House

Most of the mob activity designed to intimidate judges, sheriffs, Council members, and other government officials came from mobs armed only with clubs or cutlasses.  But Massachusetts had one of the most heavily armed citizenries that the world has ever seen.  Almost every free man between the age of 16 and 60 had a firearm and ammunition at home.  Colonial law required almost everyone to own and maintain them for use in militia duty.  Decades of regular threats from the French or Indian tribes had caused the people to be prepared for attack at any time.  In the last few years, Massachusetts had even purchased several more canon because, well you know, we might need them for Indians or something.

One weakness though, was the fact that the colonies did not make their own gunpowder.  All of that was imported from England.  Colonies always kept plenty on hand in case of immediate danger, but then had to rely on imports for any extended need.

The Powder House on Quarry
Hill (today Somerville) still
stands today (from Wikimedia)
They kept very little of the powder on hand in their homes.  Powder was very dangerous, especially in homes with candles, fireplaces and other open flames.  Storing large amounts of powder in the home was too great a danger.  Instead, most of it was stored in powder houses.  These were large stone buildings, usually in some isolated area so that in case they blew up, they would not take out a bunch of neighbors.  Different local militia groups, and even some individuals might store extra powder in communal powder houses.

Boston stored much of its powder in a stone powderhouse a few miles north of town, up near the Mystic River at a place called Quarry Hill.  Militia units from towns around the region stored their powder there.  As tensions increased, many townships reclaimed their powder before the government decided to cut off their access to it.

When Gage heard rumors that colonists were removing their powder, he sent a note to William Brattle, asking for information about the powder house stores.

Gen. Brattle, at this time in his late 60’s, was generally a loyalist by ideology, but had tried to remain on the good side of the radical Whigs as well.  He had started showing some fondness for Whig ideals as far back as 1765.  Remember when Gov. Bernard made Hutchinson the head of the Massachusetts Court in 1765, causing James Otis to quit his job and become an advocate for smugglers because he thought his father should have gotten the appointment?  Well Brattle was upset too, not for Otis, but because he thought he should have gotten the appointment.  Brattle also started associating with radical Whigs, but never really joined their cause.

In 1774, he was a militia general and commander of the Middlesex militia and in charge of the Powder House.  When Gage inquired about status, Brattle made the mistake of answering honestly. He reported to Gage that the Medford militia had removed their portion of powder from the powder house.  With that, the only remaining powder was the King’s powder, that is belonging directly to the colonial government.  He further implied that the remaining powder might be at risk of seizure.  His second mistake was to send this as a letter, which somehow never made it to Gage, but got printed in a patriot newspaper.  Colonists saw Brattle as a collaborator.

Powder Raid

Gage did get the information though, and acted on the information quickly and decisively.  He had concerns about marching his regulars miles into the countryside for fear the militia would assemble and confront them.  Gage did not fear an armed battle, but wanted it on his terms and timetable.

William Brattle
(from Wikimedia)
On August 31, Gage sent the local sheriff to collect the powder house key from Brattle.  Since Brattle did not want to be a part of the dispute, he cheerfully turned over the key.

Before dawn on September 1, Gen. Gage deployed about 260 regulars from the 4th Regiment under the command of Lt. Col. George Maddison.  The Regulars crossed the Charles River and rowed up the Mystic River to within a mile of the powder house, arriving there before sunrise.  The soldiers took the remainder of the gunpowder, over 200 barrels, put them on boats and brought them back to Boston.  On the return, a contingent of soldiers marched back through Cambridge.  There, they took two militia cannon back to Boston as well.  Once in Boston, Gage ordered the artillery and powder to a more secure location on Castle Island in Boston Harbor.

By late morning the mission was complete.  Gage had secured his powder and returned his soldiers to Boston before the colonists could react.

Powder Alarm

Before raid began, by the evening of August 31, patriot leader Joseph Warren was aware that the regulars were up to something.  He observed the regulars assembling in Boston for an unusual night mission.  However, he did not have a system in place to warn the surrounding countryside.

It was not until the next morning, when the regulars were already on their way back to Boston, that word spread throughout the region that the soldiers had conducted a raid of some sort.

Map showing route of the regulars to the powder house at
Quarry Hill (from
Rumors spread through the countryside that British soldiers had raided local militia and killed six men in a showdown.  Thousands of men from all over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and elsewhere in New England, began to descend on Boston with muskets in hand, ready to do battle.

Although some estimates say as many as 30,000 armed men started out for Boston, most turned back when they learned the rumors of colonists being shot were not true.  By Friday morning, September 2, about 4000 men had congregated around Cambridge, just across the river from Boston.

A mob visited the home of Gen. Brattle.  Wisely, Brattle had already decided to flee to Castle William for protection.  Next, the mob moved on his neighbor, Attorney General Jonathan Sewall, who also had left home.  The mob threw rocks through a few windows, but could not find a good target for their wrath.

Several key leaders, including Samuel and John Adams, were away at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The remaining patriot leaders in Boston did not want to see this immediate crisis turn into an armed battle.  Neither did Gage, whose regiments of British regulars were already outnumbered by the armed militiamen gathering nearby.

Newly appointed Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, no relation to the former Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver who died in 1773, lived in Cambridge.  He observed the groups of men passing his home heading toward Boston.  Many of them were men he knew from neighboring towns.  He went with them to Cambridge Common, where everyone seemed to be congregating.  At one point a rumor spread that Gage was sending soldiers to disperse them.  Oliver agreed to go into Boston, and see if he could resolve all this without bloodshed.

On his way into Boston, he met with Joseph Warren, William Mollineux, and several other leaders headed from Boston to Cambridge to speak with the growing mass of angry colonists.  The men met with the colonists and dispelled the rumor that anyone had been shot.  They assured them that the powder removed had belonged to the King’s forces and not to any local militia.  In short, they made every attempt to calm the situation.

Thomas Oliver
Two of the men sent to pacify the colonists sat on the Governor’s Council, as did Lt. Gov. Oliver.  The crowd demanded that they publicly resign on the spot since the Council was unconstitutional.  Two of the Council members had already tendered their resignations to Gage and readily announced that to the crowd.

The situation seemed like it was coming to a peaceful end, when Customs Commissioner Benjamin Hallowell decided to ride past the crowd in his carriage.  The crowd quickly turned on the hated commissioner who fled toward Boston.  More than 100 men mounted their horses and chased him.  Hallowell had a good lead on them, but his carriage broke down as he sped along the road.  He jumped on his servant’s horse and continued at a full gallop.  The horse then faltered and fell a few hundred yards from the Boston Neck defenses.  Hallowell then took off on foot running the final distance to the safety of the British guards at Boston Neck.

During the confusion Oliver slipped back to his house in Cambridge.  A group soon came to his door still demanding his resignation from the Council, but not as Lt. Governor.  After some debate, Oliver reluctantly signed his resignation, noting coercion by the crowd of 4000 men surrounding his house.  Later that day, Oliver would slip into Boston since Cambridge was no longer a safe place to live.

Meanwhile Gage continued to monitor the situation from Boston, sending out soldiers dressed as civilians to spy on the militia.  The militia began to return home by the end of the day.  Gage, however, increased his defenses, building a better defensive gate at Boston Neck, adding several artillery pieces there, and getting Admiral Graves to move several navy ships into the rivers to prevent any river crossing of angry patriots.

Boston was the only place in Massachusetts where Gage could assert any government authority, and the only safe place for anyone who cared to express Tory opinions.  Even there, some Tories were not safe.

Castle Island, Boston Harbor (from Wikimedia)
A few days after the raid, local newspapers published accounts of Brattle’s involvement in informing Gage about the powder.  Although Brattle argued he had simply done his duty to keep the Governor informed about the state of the powerhouse, Patriots deemed him an informant worthy of punishment.  Brattle would spend the remainder of his time in the colony, living out on Castle Island in the harbor under military protection.  He could not even return to Boston.  When the British evacuated Boston in 1776, Brattle went with them to Canada, where he died of natural causes later that year.

Patriot leaders realized that it has taken them more than 24 hours to muster a response to the raid on the powder house.  They needed a better warning system.  On September 21, they met in Worcester to discuss the problem.  The solution was to organize a group of the most patriotic militiamen, to agree to turn out at a minute’s notice if there was any future alarm.  These so-called minutemen could produce an army of thousands from among the population for almost immediate use to confront any future raids.

Paul Revere

Since all the regulars were in Boston, patriots needed men in Boston willing to ride out and warn the population of any imminent raids.  Joseph Warren was in charge of intelligence, but someone else needed to handle the communications network.  That job went to a local Boston patriot named Paul Revere.

Now, Revere was not an elected official, nor a big speaker or writer, but involved himself in all of the major events leading up to this point.  He produced a famous illustration of the Boston Massacre and appears to have been one of the gang leaders at the Boston Tea Party.  He had also served as a reliable messenger to bring news of major events to New York, Philadelphia, and other towns and cities.

Revere was a silversmith by trade, born and raised in Boston. Besides the Sons of Liberty, Revere was part of many other associations around town, including one of the local Masonic lodges.  Revere worked closely with Joseph Warren to create a network of about thirty workers around town to gather and disseminate intelligence.  Warren would rely on Revere to serve as a primary messenger if the British tried anything.

Paul Revere (from Wikimedia)
Paul Revere rose to fame decades after the war, often attributed to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous 1861 poem about his ride before the battles of Lexington and Concord. By the early twentieth century, historians downplayed his importance, arguing that he was merely one of many riders and did not even complete his famous ride.  I think Revere’s reputation came most under attack in the 1920’s when Vice President Charles Dawes, tried to play up the importance of his ancestor William Dawes, who was one of the other riders sent out just before Lexington and Concord.  As William Dawes’ importance in that event was raised by historians, Revere’s necessarily fell.

Personally, I think this revisionism went too far in the other direction.  Sure, there are many riders who played important roles that may not be as well known.  But Revere was an important player in many of the early events, and was more than merely a messenger boy.  He was a key player in the early strategic efforts and coordination of the patriot cause.

Revere would spend much of the winter planning and organizing communications networks across the colony.  He knew the key militia leaders in every town and where they lived.  He knew who needed to be contacted to spread any alarm as quickly and efficiently as possible.  He would make numerous visits out to Concord and other key patriot strongholds.  He worked with all the top patriot leaders including Hancock, Adams, and Warren.  Revere’s organization and planning was critical to the movement.  In short, Revere did more than ride. He helped build the network necessary to implement an early warning system for future raids.

The next time Gage attempted to move his soldiers out of Boston, the patriots would have this early warning network in place.  They would be ready to confront the regulars before they could reach their objective.

Securing Arms

The patriots also used the Powder Alarm, as it became known, to secure any remaining arms.  Guns, equipment, powder, and ammunition in other colonial powder houses were emptied, their contents hidden from any future British search and seizure missions.

The "Hancock Cannon" one of the brass  three pounders the
Patriots stole from Gage. (from Wikimedia) - special thanks to J.L. Bell
Across the river from Boston, Charleston had a battery of large cannon and shell in place to prevent any naval assaults.  Gage received reports of activity in the battery, and on September 7 sent a night time party of soldiers to investigate and secure the weapons.  Upon arrival they found all of the cannon and ammunition gone.

Only in Boston, could Gage order that the local ordinance be secured.  Many private citizens as well as local militia kept powder stored in powder houses in order to reduce the risk of explosion by keeping it at home.  Gage refused everyone in Boston access to their powder.  Boston also had four brass field cannon, two two pounders and two three pounders (referring to the weight of the cannon balls they could fire.  The guns themselves were several hundred pounds each).

One night, the two pounders simply disappeared.  Gage put sentries to guard the three pounders, which were stored in an armory right next to the British camp.  When an officer brought in a party to move the cannon, he discovered that they too had disappeared, despite the guards.

The other 3 pounder, known
as the Adams Cannon.
(from Jake @
The hunt for guns and ammunition continued throughout the fall.  Several private citizens in Boston owned cannons, although most of them were keeping it secret at this time, so no one knows exactly how many.  They continued to try to smuggle them out of occupied Boston to safe patriot strongholds in the country.  One morning, British soldiers found several cannons stuck on a mudflat in the water north of town.  Evidently the rowboat got stuck as smugglers tried to move them overnight.  John Hancock later received reimbursement from Congress for four cannon that he donated to the cause around this time.  William Mollineux died suddenly from an illness in October.  Among his effects, authorities found two swivel guns and four mortars.  The Navy stopped another shipment of 12 cannon from London to Thomas Cushing.

There were also lots of smaller items.  When soldiers searched a Bostonian’s wagon leaving Boston, they found 19,000 rounds of ammunition.  They confiscated it.  The man then angrily demanded the return of his property.  The officer asked him why he needed 19,000 rounds of ammunition, he just said it was for personal use.  He did not get them back.

British officers also found several merchants in town with heavy artillery, light weaponry and thousands more rounds of ammunition, which they took possession, paying for them of course.  On at least one occasion a mob of patriots attempted to stop a merchant from delivering his weaponry to the army.  Merchants selling arms to the British were deemed collaborators.  They received death threats and saw their shops trashed.  Even in occupied Boston, enough patriots remained to influence behavior.

Both sides were now in all out competition to arm themselves.  Neither would admit why yet, but everyone knew a showdown as coming.

Next Week: The people of Suffolk County resolve to run the colony without the Governor.

Next Episode 47: The Suffolk Resolves

Previous Episode 45: Governing from Salem

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites 

The Big Mystery of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver

A Description of Occupied Boston, 1774-75:

VIDEO: Jane Triber discusses her book: True Republican: the Life of Paul Revere, CSPAN 1998:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bolton, Charles (ed) Letters of Hugh, Earl Percy, from Boston and New York, 1774-1776, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902.

Cushing, Harry (ed) The writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 3, New York: G.P. Putnum's Sons, 1907.

Dana, Elizabeth Ellery (ed) John Barker diary - The British in Boston, 1774-1776, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1924 (Barker was a British officer stationed in Boston).

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1851.

Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Smith, Whitney (ed) Concord town records: manuscript transcripts, 1774-1776, Boston, 1774.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Labaree, Benjamin W. The Boston Tea Party, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Viking, 2013.

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Unger, Harlow American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011.

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