Powder Alarm of 1774Revolutionary War

The Powder Alarm of 1774

The first large engagement in the American struggle for Independence was by a spontaneous mob of thousands of ordinary people who traveled to Boston armed only with sticks and clubs, upon hearing a rumor on Sept. 1, 1774 that the city had been destroyed by the British, who were heading west destroying and killing everything in their path. The Powder Alarm of Sept. 1, 1774 predated the battles at Lexington and Concord by seven months.

The Literary Diary of Eliza Stiles

November 9-1 7, 1774 Pages 477, edited by Franklin Bowditch Dexter

Taking the Powder

“On Thursday Morning the first day of Sept. last a party of the Kings Tories, by Order of Gen. Gage passed silently by Water in 13 Boats around by Mystic River to Quarry Hill at the upper end of Charlestown, where there was a public Arsenal at the N. W. Corner of Charlestown & nearly ill the Concurrence of several Towns Corners as Cambridge, Medford etc. This Arsenal stands about a Mile from the Water. Hither the Soldiery arrived early, between one o’clock and Day, and waited for Break of day as it was dangerous to enter a powder House with a Lantern. Sheriff Phipps delivered them the Province Powder & Mr. Mason· the Canon, Mr. Phipps having received the Keys of Gen. Brattle· the Evening preceding . It is said some other Powder of Towns and private persons was also taken.

“The Party received the 2 Guns & 250 Barrels of Powder on board their Boats, being the whole stock of Powder there, & departed early between Break 0′ day and Sunrise. This was on Thursday Morning. The Thing was done most secretly; the Soldiers were opposed by none, because nobody knew it till they were gone off. Whether at going off they were perceived, or by inquiry afterwards, it became however that day known both at Cambridge & at Boston that Gen. Gage had seized & carried off the Powder from the Arsenal.

Somerville powder house
Removal of munitions by the British on Sept. 1, 1774, triggered the great New England Powder Alarm. The tower still stands in Somerville.

Alarming News

“This was very alarming as a few days before, Medfield, and it was said some other Towns upon ordering their Town stock of Powder to be examined in their respective Town Powerhouses, had found their Town stock of Powder taken away by the Governors Order.

“The same day, Thursday afternoon, a Report began to be spread in the neighboring Towns, that the Governor had sent a party of Soldiers to Cambridge, who had seized & carried off the Powder; that the people opposed them, a Skirmish ensued, & that the Soldiery had fired upon them & killed six Men. Who originated this false Story is a secret; but this much is certain that it had propagated itself above forty Miles to as far as Shrewsbury by Midnight on Thursday night, as I was informed by Mr. McNeil of Litchfield, who came from Springfield & lodged at Shrewsbury that night. This Story passed with some mutilations, but under all carrying an account that in Taking the powder, the Soldiery fired upon the people & killed six of them.

Plaque on the Somerville Powder House

Armed with Sticks

“The Spirit of obliging Councilors to resign had gone forth. Sundry had resigned, & it was strongly meditated by the people in the Towns adjacent to Cambridge to try the same Deforcement upon the Lt. Gov. & other Councilors at Cambridge. “On Friday Morning some Thousands of them had advanced to Cambridge, armed only with sticks.” On perceiving the concourse, the Committee of Cambridge sent express to Charlestown, who communicated the Intelligence to Boston, and their respective Committees proceeded to Cambridge without Delay.

“When the first of the Boston Committee came up, they found some thousands of people assembled before the Courthouse, and Judge Danforth standing on the steps “declaring his Resignation as a new Councilor. Judge Lee was also on the steps & declared his Resignation, and also as a new Councilor. Col. Phipps also resigned as Sheriff.

“About Eight o’clock, his Honor the Lieut. Gov. Oliver set off from Cambridge for Boston, and informed Governor Gage of the true State of matters. On Mr. Oliver’s Return, he assured them that in Case the mind of the whole Province collected in Congress or otherwise, appeared for his resignation, he would by no means act in opposition to it.

Powder alarm mob with sticks
The powder alarm mob was armed with sticks

Benjamin Hallowell’s escape

“This seemed satisfactory to the Committee, when Commissioner Hallowell came through the Town on his way to Boston. The sight of that obnoxious person so inflamed the people, that in a few minutes above one hundred & sixty Horsemen were drawn up & proceeded in pursuit of him in full Gallop. Capt. Gardner of Cambridge delivered his mind very fully in dissuasion of the pursuit, & was seconded by Mr. Davins of Charlestown & Dr. Young of Boston, and in a little time the Gentlemen dismounted their horses & returned to the body.

“But Mr. Hallowell did not entirely escape, as one Gentleman of a small stature pushed on into Roxbury & stopped him in his Chaise. Mr. Hallowell snapped his pistol at him, but could not disengage himself, till he quitted the Chaise, & mounted his Servants Horse, on which he drove into Boston with all the speed he could make, till the horse failing within the Gate, he ran on foot to the Camp, through which he spread Consternation, telling him he was pursued by some thousands which would soon be in Town & destroy all friends of Government before them.

“A Gentleman in Boston observed the Motion in the Camp, & concluding they were on the point of marching to Cambridge from both Ends of the Town, the Alarm was communicated to Dr. Roberts, then at Charlestown ferry, who having a fleet horse, brought the news in a few minutes to the Committee then at Dinner: the Intelligence was instantly diffused, and the people, whose arms were nearest, sent persons to bring them, while horsemen were dispatched both ways to gain more certain Advice of the true State of the Soldier. The Dispatch soon returned & assuring the body that the soldiers still remained, and were likely to remain, in their Camp, they resumed their Business with Spirit.

“This is the account of the Transaction as it was at Boston & Cambridge. The Report that went through the Country was different. Col. Putnam in a publication Oct. 3, ascribes the Alarm to Mr. Hallowell’s Affair which he judged first occasioned it, but he is mistaken, for it was propagated 50 Miles or more with Effect before this Affair happened.

Humbling sundry Tories

“The Week following, I rode a Journey into Connecticut, and on the 8th of September rode from Littlerest to Norwich in Company with Mr. McNeil of Litchfield who gave me very particular & extensive Information of what he was an Eye Witness. He had a singular Opportunity. He was at Springfield on 30th August when he saw three thousand people assembled about the Courthouse and obliged the Judges & all Officers of the Court to promise not to sit & renounce holding any Office under the new Establishment & saw them humble sundry Tories there.

 “The next day he set out for Boston, from thence to Plymouth & I think to Falmouth on the Cape, thence returned through Newport in his Way to Hartford & so home to Litchfield. He has been a Merchant or Trader, is a young Man age 30 or under, a European, married a rich Farmer’s Daughter in Litchfield, somewhat observant, of a still Turn, rather a son of Liberty, and yet has a regard for European Regulations.

“Mr. McNeil told me he, proceeding from Springfield, journeyed towards Boston and on Thursday the first Day of Sept. reached Shrewsbury in the Evening and lodged there. I asked him, where did he meet the public Tumult? He said at Shrewsbury, a few miles nearer Boston than Worcester. He went to bed without hearing anything. But about midnight or perhaps one o’clock he was suddenly waked up, somebody violently rapping up the Landlord, telling the doleful Story that the Powder was taken, six men killed, & all the people between there & Boston arming & marching down to the Relief of their Brethren at Boston; and within a quarter or half an hour he judges fifty men were collected at the Tavern, although now deep in Night, equipping themselves & sending off Posts every Way to the neighboring Towns.

“They called up to McNeil to tell the Story of the Springfield Affair, which was News. He said he had to repeat and tell the story over & over again to Newcomers till day, so he had no more Rest that night.

Bullets & biscuits

“The Men set off as fast as they were equipped. In the Morning, being Friday Sept. 2, Mr. McNeil rode forward & passed through the whole at the very Time of the Convulsion. He said he never saw such a Scene before; all along were armed, and rushing forward some on foot some on horseback, at every house Women & Children making Cartridges, running Bullets, making Wallets, baking Biscuits, crying & bemoaning, and at the same time animating their Husbands & Sons to fight for their Liberties, though not knowing whether they should ever see them again.

“I asked whether the Men were Cowards or disheartened or appeared to want Courage? No. Neither the tender Distresses of weeping Wives & Children softened effeminated and overcome the Men and set them Weeping? No, nothing of this, but a firm intrepid Ardor, hardy eager & courageous Spirit of Enterprise, a Spirit for revenging the Blood of their Brethren & rescue our Liberties, all this & an Activity corresponding with such Emotions appeared all along the whole Tract of above forty Miles from Shrewsbury to Boston.

“The Women kept on making Cartridges, & after equipping their Husbands, brought them out to the Soldiers which in Crowds passed along & gave them out in handfuls to one and another as they were deficient, mixing Exhortation & Tears & Prayers & spiriting the Men in such an uneffeminate Manner as even would make Cowards fight. He thought if anything the Women surpassed the Men for Eagerness & Spirit in the Defense of Liberty by Arms. For they had no Thoughts of the Men returning but from Battle, for they all believed the Action commenced between the Kings Troops & the Provincials. The Women under this Assurance gave up their Husbands Sons to Battle & bid them fight courageously & manfully & behave themselves bravely for Liberty; commanding them to behave like men & not like Cowards-to be of good Courage & play the men for our people & for the Cities of our God-& the Lord do as seemeth him good. They expected a bloody Scene, but they doubted not Success & Victory.

“Six men killed”

“Mr. McNeil never saw any Thing like it in his Life. He said, they scarcely left half a dozen Men in a Town, unless old and decrepit, and in one town the Landlord told him that himself was the only man left! Thus he rode through the midst of the people all day. I was surprised they did not find their Mistake sooner. He said that all the way those that came forward to hasten them kept up the story of six killed, and it was positively affirmed to him, within six miles of Cambridge by one he met, that six Men were killed, so that he did not meet with the contradictory Report till within two miles of Cambridge.

Oliver’s Confession

“Upon coming to Cambridge he made a Stop & mixed in with the Multitude, who were formed & standing before Lt. Gov. Oliver’s House. He judged those drawn up regularly in Lines were about Two Thousand & not three, & that the Bystanders were I think a thousand more. In general he thought less than had been represented. He said there was no Tumult, but an awful Stillness, Silence through the Lines, and among the surrounding Body of People.

“All was negotiated by the Committee but in the presence of the Body, the Committee communicating by the Officers Information through the Lines, so that all knew what was transacting. It was the later part of the Day.

“Gov. Oliver had a number of Gentlemen with him in his House & seemed very reluctant at the Transaction. After some length of waiting, he endeavored to have the people satisfied with what he had said in the Forenoon. But a weighty Spirit began to show itself by some Gentlemen, & Officers nearest, pressing through the Gate into the Governor’s Yard with (though not as yet Violence yet with) marks of Earnestness & Importunity which the Gov. and his friends saw was at length become irresistible.

“Thereupon the Gov. Oliver came forth abroad accompanied with a few Friends, and made and signed his Submission; which was immediately handed along the Lines & read publicly at proper Distances till the whole Body of the people were made to hear it. Upon which Satisfaction was diffused through the whole Body, which thereupon dissolved; the solemn Silence broken & succeeded by a cheerful murmur or general universal Voice of Joy. This was finished about sun an hour high or less.

Massachusetts Lt. Governor Andrew  Oliver

“Early in the morning a number of inhabitants of Charlestown called at my house to acquaint me that a large body of people from several towns in the county were on their way coming down to Cambridge; that they were afraid some bad consequences might ensue, and begged I would go out to meet them, and endeavor to prevail on them to return. I was desired to speak to them.

I accordingly did, in such a manner as I thought best calculated to quiet their minds. They thanked me for my advice, said they were no mob, but sober, orderly people, who would commit no disorders; and then proceeded on their way. I returned to my houseSoon after they had arrived on the Common at Cambridge, a report arose that the troops were on their march from Boston…My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their command I sign my name.” —Lt. Governor Oliver

Mobilization of the Troops

“Mr. McNeil went to Boston that Evening & put up with an Acquaintance who was a Baker to the regular Troops, & heard their Talk everyday. McNeil himself went into the Camp & observed all Hurry, Activity, lively preparation, & he said Anxiety. He was interrogated in Camp concerning the Affairs he had seen. He saw the Guns all saddled & ready to be seized at a moment. Though Baker told him that the General had sent out all day several trusty soldiers in Sailors Habits to loiter on the road from Roxbury to Cambridge & return & bring accounts unnoticed-that they were greatly apprehensive that the Provincials would rush into Boston at night-and at sunset or a little after the Welch fusiliers 260 or 300 Men marched without Music, slowly, stilly, to set the Watch on the Neck; and then returned into Camp. That these were the best of the Troops, & the only ones that had seen service, & could be depended on. The Baker told him that just before this, the General held a Council of War & proposed to send a Detachment to break up the County Congress at Roxbury; and that the service was so disagreeable that several Officers declared they did not think this for his Majesty’s Service & in Case it was pressed they should give up their Commissions; the Baker was confident the Troops did not want to fight us in this Cause.

“This was servant Intelligence, but it was genuine. Gen. Gage dare not venture his Troops, the most of which are newly raised & never in Action, besides that 210 had already deserted, & there was reason to believe that in a real Action would turn upon our side-although a number of Soldiers & most of the new Officers are highly incensed & full of Wrath against us.

“Mr. McNeil told me that the most of the men left their arms at Watertown; only another Body of 250 had already brought Arms into Town, & they were stationed in a yard at a miles distance or here left their Arms under Guard. These I supposed seized their Arms at the Alarm at Dinner Time; but laid them aside at the Treaty with Gov. Oliver. McNeil abused the Lords day and journeyed from Boston to Plymouth &c. He lodged in Newport 7th Sep. and we rode together next Day.

Map of New England in 1774 showing the travel of the Powder Alert rumor

Wave of the Report

“Let us follow the spreading of the Wave of the Report, which began on Thursday perhaps before Sunset, probably by some of the people convened about the Attorney General’s house at Cambridge. It seems to have gone off in three grand Directions: due West for Springfield; Northwest for the parts that way, and Southwest for Connecticut. For about fifty miles each way round there was an almost universal Ferment, Rising, seizing Arms & actual March into Cambridge.

“In other parts, wherever they took arms, the proportion was from one third to two thirds of the fencible Men. In the Northwest Direction it raised even into New Hampshire and across over to Otter Creek, where the Head of the Bennington Body of 2000 armed men received the News (& gave out they should be ready to march) before the Contradiction overtook them.

“In the Western Direction it reached Connecticut River in Massachusetts & through the County of Berkshire, the West End of that province, & actually brought into Springfield and North Hampton two River Towns: 2000 Men from Berkshire and York Govt. In two Divisions of I1200 & 800, who there met the Contradiction & so returned.

“Even at Albany the Dutch set off a number of Wagons of Provisions for their Supply. And Mr., Johnson with the Mohawk Indians (40 or 50) actually set off from the Indian Country beyond Hudson River in full march for Relief of Boston. This was the Effect of the Report in the Western Direction.

” From Oxford a little below Worcester, the Report took its Direction into Connecticut. Squire Woolcott of Oxford hearing the news by an Express, said to have set out from Boston the preceding Evening, posted his son off towards Boston to learn the Certainty of the report; & when he came to Grafton about 35 Miles from Boston, he heard a further Confirmation of it, and returned immediately back to Oxford, when his Father sent him to Dudley to Carters Tavern, where one Mr. Clark of that Town, a Trader happened to be, & he (passing out of Massachusetts into Connecticut) came to his father’s, Capt. Clark of Woodstock, who came to sd. Keyes.

The letter of Israel Putnam

 “Capt. Keys brought the News to Col. Putnam of Pomfret in Connecticut on the 3d of Sept, Eleven o’clock before noon being Saturday. Col. Putnam wrote the following Letter to Capt. Aaron Cleaveland of Canterbury:

 Mr. Keys this moment brought us the News that the Men of War and Troops, began to fire upon the people last Night at sunset at Boston, when a Post ‘was immediately sent off to inform the Country, He informs that the Artillery played all night, that the people were universally rallying from Boston as far as here, and desire all the assistance possible. This first commencement of Hostilities was occasioned by the Country being robbed of their Powder, from Boston as far as Framingham; and when found out, the Persons who went to take the perpetrator of the horrid Deed, (who had fled to the Camp) were immediately fired upon-six of our number were killed the first shot, & a number wounded; and beg you will rally rally all the forces you can, and be upon the March immediately for the Relief of Boston and the people that Way.‘ –Captain Israel Putnam

“Col. Putnam believed the story & mounted his Horse & set out for Boston accompanied by four Gentlemen, ” Having proceeded as far as Douglass, which is about 30 miles from my house, I met Capt. Hill of that Town with his Company who had been down within about 30 Miles of Boston & just returned; he informed me that the Alarm was false, & that the forces of Worcester & Sutton were upon their Return. I then turned my Course homeward without Loss of time & reached my house Sunday Morning about sun rising & sent the Contradiction along to stop the Forces marching or rallying.”

“Col. Putnam’s Letter of Saturday morning, as soon as it came to Norwich, was printed off & circulated to the Towns every Way through’ Connecticut in Handbills; while the Original itself went forward by special Posts from Town to Town & signed by one Committee after another till it came to the Congress at Philadelphia; where it was examined, & sundry gentlemen knew Col. Putnam’s Handwriting & the signatures of Mr. Law & others.

“Being issued on Saturday it had the Effect of putting the whole Colony of Connecticut into an Alarm & Motion on Lords Day. In perhaps two Thirds of the Congregations it was brought in time of service-& Col. Putnam’s Letter was read publicly in most of the Congregations in Connecticut. It was brought into the worshipping assemblies at New Haven just at the beginning of Afternoon sermon or before three o’clock P.M. & there read publicly. The Western Counties of New Haven & Fairfield did not arm, except the Revd. Jonathan Todd of E. Guilford and his Congregation. As far as I can learn, the most of the Towns in the rest of the Colony armed & marched or prepared to march. On that Lords Day, Forces marched from Preston, Lyme, Saybrook, Haddam, Chatham etc. A large body (1200) from Farmington & the Company of Litchfield marched as far as Hartford.

Sixty Thousand Men Armed

“When I was there the next Week I enquired some particulars. East Guilford, 83 armed, with Mr. Todd their pastor. Pachauge 38 out of 6o marched to Rope Ferry. Chester, as forward-doubly equipped-2 lbs. powder apiece. Hadda, 100 armed and animated by Rev. Mr. May. Saybrook, 200 marched almost to N. London. Lyme & Lebanon: 100 marched. Chatham, I00 marched with Rev. Mr. Boardman, Pastor. It was estimated to me at Colchester etc. that on this Occasion there were Twenty Thousand Men in Arms in Connecticut & marching or equipped for march towards Boston. It has also been estimated that forty thousand in Massachusetts Province and New Hampshire also took Arms.

“Sundry Meetinghouses in Connecticut were almost shut up: all being employed Men & Women in providing Equipments. There are in Connecticut 192 thousand souls, while implying near fifty Thousand fencible men. The Counties of N. London, Windham, Hartford, Litchfield raised probably Two thirds their number.

First Continental Congress
“When the horrid news was brought here of the bombardment of Boston, which made us completely miserable for two days, we saw proofs of both the sympathy and the resolution of the continent. War! war! war! was the cry, and it was pronounced in a tone which would have done honor to the oratory of a Briton or a Roman. If it had proved true, you would have heard the thunder of an American Congress.”
– John Adams

Spread of the Rumor

“The news flew like Lightning, reached N. York on Monday Evening, and in 70 hours from the Date of Col. Putnam’s Letter, it reached the Congress sitting at Philadelphia-where the City convened & were meditating something very weighty, which the Congress prevented.

“In 100 hours it reached the 3 Delaware Counties, where they instantly armed to over 1000 Men. The News proceeded to Maryland & Virginia before it was overtaken by the Contradiction. Thus in about 5 or 6 days the Alarm spread through above a Million of People. It is said that Col. Washington, a Member of the Congress, received a Letter from Virginia purporting that, had the News not been contradicted, Ten Thousand Men would have been instantly raised in Virginia to march off under Col. Washington for Boston.”

February: Leslie’s Retreat

The Revolutionary War almost began on February 1775, when General Gage sent Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie with the 64th regiment by ship to Marblehead with instructions to march to Salem with 240 troops and seize the cannons and munitions from the Patriots in that city. Men from the south side of town rushed to the river and raised the drawbridge. Leslie demanded that the leaf should be immediately let down but the assembled multitude utterly disregarded him. The comical story is known as Leslie’s Retreat.

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