From the archives: First act of war

Map of Fort Constitution in 1842 by the US Corps of Army Engineers.

Map of Fort Constitution in 1842 by the US Corps of Army Engineers. Courtesy

Fort Constitution on the Piscataqua River in 2013.

Fort Constitution on the Piscataqua River in 2013. WIkimedia


For the Monitor

Published: 12-02-2023 4:00 PM

Ashley Miller shares this month’s story with ConcordTV. Watch the episode on YouTube.

Among the first acts of the American Revolution, the Raid on Fort William and Mary was a pivotal moment for the patriot cause. In the wake of the September 1774 Powder Alarm, where panic caused by British troops’ removal of gunpowder from a magazine in Boston meant certain war, tensions were at an all-time high. Though a false alarm, this tension forced both sides across New England to secure weaponry.

Fort William and Mary, now Fort Constitution, is located in New Castle and was built by the British prior to 1630. It was designed to guard access to Portsmouth’s harbor and served as the colony’s munitions depot. Moreover, it served to protect Kittery, Maine across the harbor, which had been raided numerous times by indigenous tribes. The fort’s walls were six to eight feet high with thirty stations for cannons. Its stores held approximately one hundred barrels of gunpowder and numerous muskets, yet only six men were assigned to guard it. Rumors swirled that there were more on the way.

Well before his famed midnight ride, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth. Revere acquired intel that British General Thomas Gage was planning to secure the arsenal at Fort William and Mary. In the early morning hours of December 13, 1774, Revere was sent by the Boston Committee of Correspondence sixty miles to warn the New Hampshire committee of the impending arrival of British troops. Revere warned Samuel Cutts, a prominent member of New Hampshire’s Committee of Correspondence, that enemy troops had supposedly left Boston and were preparing to take the fort.

On December 14, John Langdon, a founding father and later governor of New Hampshire, led a mob of several hundred through the streets of Portsmouth to New Castle. Despite the overwhelming numbers against them, the six British soldiers did not abandon their post. Instead, they fought back.

When the mob rushed the fort, shots were fired, but not a soul perished. The defenders opened fire with cannon and musket shot, but were quickly overtaken. Militia quickly absconded with the barrels of gunpowder and a large British flag. Troops returned the next day led by John Sullivan, American general, delegate, and future governor of New Hampshire, to take the remaining military supplies and some cannons.

The supplies captured by the patriots were later used in the siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill, where New Hampshire forces contributed heavily. Today, a plaque adorns the weathered fort, marking the “first victory of the American Revolution.”

From the Archives is a monthly column highlighting the history and collection of the New Hampshire State Archives, written by Ashley Miller, New Hampshire State Archivist. Miller studied history as an undergraduate at Penn State University and has a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in archival management from Simmons College.