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William and Mary, Fort

The following description of a little-known incident in the Revolutionary War was written by Ballard Smith, former editor of the New York World:

It is a curious fact that the most important as well as the most dramatic incident immediately preceding the American Revolution—an incident, indeed, which directly precipitated hostilities— has but slighting mention in any of the histories. It may be well doubted whether even one in every hundred thousand Americans could recall any of the circumstances of this noteworthy event.

This was the attack upon Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth Harbor by a band of young patriots led by John Sullivan, afterwards major-general in the Continental army. The assault was made in December, 1774, four months before the battle of Lexington, and six months before Bunker Hill. It was unquestionably the first act of overt treason. Singularly enough, however, Bancroft makes but a casual reference to it, and in none of the histories is it given more than a paragraph. Yet its immediate consequences were not less momentous than those of Lexington. It was, in fact, the occasion of the conflict at Lexington, and it is more than probable that it saved Bunker Hill from proving a disastrous defeat, if not, indeed, a calamity fatal to further effort for freedom.

Amory's only reference to it in his Military services of General Sullivan is this: “Soon after his return home [Sullivan had been a delegate to the Continental Congress] he planned with Thomas Pickering and John Langdon an attack, on the night of the 12th of December. upon Fort William and Mary, at Newcastle, in Portsmouth Harbor—one of the earliest acts of hostility against the mother-country; and, by the aid of a portion of a force he had been for some months engaged in drilling in their military exercises in preparation for the anticipated conflict, carried ninety-seven kegs of powder and a quantity of smallarms in gondolas to Durham, where they were concealed, in part, under the pulpit of its meeting-house. Soon after the battles of Lexington and Concord had aroused the people to a realizing sense that they were actually engaged in hostilities, these much-needed supplies, or a portion of them, were brought by him to the lines at Cambridge, where he marched with his company, and were used at the battle of Bunker Hill.”

This account is in some respects clearly inaccurate, and it is altogether incommensurate with the importance of the act. The assault was made, not on the 12th, but on the night of the 13th or 14th of December—for there is some conflict of authority on this point, and there is nothing to show that any act of treasonable hostility preceded it. Sparks, in his Life of Sullivan, gives practically the same details, and Bancroft, Botta, and Bryant make only an allusion to the event. In the course of several papers read before the Massachusetts Historical Society, defending Sullivan from aspersions of subsequent disloyalty to the American cause, Mr. Thomas C. Amory, of Boston, who is a grandnephew of the general, furnishes many additional and interesting particulars besides those already quoted; but none of these writers has correlated the facts of the attack, and the exceedingly momentous consequences that directly proceeded from it.

The little village of Durham, New Hampshire, clusters about the falls of the Oyster River, a tide-water stream that ebbs and flows through the broad and picturesque Piscataqua into Portsmouth Harbor. A century ago Durham was a flourishing ship-building town, on the highway to Portsmouth, and a “bathingplace” for the stage from Boston to [375] Portland. Then a long bridge spanned the reach where the waters of the Oyster River and of the “Great Bay” debouch into the Piscataqua. The bridge was carried away by the ice in the first quarter of the century. Another was built from Dover Point, the course of the highway was changed, the neighboring forests were exhausted, and the shipwrights moved up to the Maine coast. The village fell into a sleep from which it will probably never awaken; but one house, built more than a hundred years ago, still crowns one of the village hills, and before it grateful America should erect a monument, for in that house was planned the initial movement of the Revolution. On the proper site for such a monument was buried a store of powder, which, carted down to Charlestown, saved the wearied battalions of Prescott and Stark from capture or annihilation.

Sullivan was born at Somerworth, New Hampshire, in 1740. His father was in the Pretender's service, and fled from Ireland to America. His mother also emigrated from Ireland when a young girl. During the voyage a passenger laughingly asked of her, “And what do you expect to do over in America?”

“Do?” was the reply; “why, raise governors for them, sure.” (One of her sons was governor of Massachusetts; a grandson was governor of Maine, another was only lately a United States Senator from New Hampshire, and still another was lieutenant-governor of Illinois.)

The most famous of her sons, John Sullivan, was married at twenty, and opened a law office in Durham. There were then but two lawyers in the entire colony. The profession was apparently not regarded with favor, for, on the coming of Sullivan, it is a tradition that the good citizens about Durham Falls resisted his settlement among them with prompt vigor. They gathered about his house one bright evening and threatened to tear it down if he did not promise to leave. Haranguing them from an upper window, Sullivan offered to submit the question to the test of single combat. It will be remembered that New Hampshire alone of the New England colonies was settled, not by the Puritans, but by needy sons of the Cavaliers—sent out with Capt. John Smith on his first voyage to these shores. There was doubtless a survival of the chivalric spirit of the tournament among the young fellows of the village, and the challenge was accepted. But John Sullivan was renowned for his strength, and it was found that no fitting opponent could be secured. Then James Sullivan—afterwards successively judge, attorney-general, and governor of Massachusetts—volunteered in his brother's stead, the battle was fought, and James was victor. John remained to do great honor to his adopted home; but, as John Adams afterwards wrote of him that his profession had yielded him a fortune of £ 10,000, perhaps the fears of his village neighbors were not so groundless after all.

From the beginning of the controversies between the colonies and the mother-country, Sullivan took a most active share in the discussions, and, when the time came, was even more prominent in action. For at least a year before Lexington it is clear that he considered an armed conflict to be inevitable. He had held a royal commission on Governor Wentworth's staff, and had gathered about him and drilled thoroughly a company of young men in and about the village. In the spring of 1774 he was sent as a delegate from New Hampshire to the Congress. Returning in September, it seems that he believed the appeal to arms could not much longer be delayed.

On the afternoon of December 13, Paul Revere (the same who escaped the vigilance of Howe's guards four months later, and spread the news along the road from Boston to Lexington of Pitcairn's intended march) rode up to Sullivan's house in Durham. One of the survivors of Sullivan's company died only some thirty years ago, and from his lips, shortly before his death, was obtained the story of what happened that day. Revere's horse, he said, was “nearly done” when pulled up at Sullivan's door. The rider had been despatched with all speed from Boston the day before with messages from the Massachusetts committee of safety that “the King in council had prohibited the importation of arms or military stores into the colonies,” and that two regiments were forthwith to [376]

Paul Revere bringing news to Sullivan.

march from Boston to occupy Portsmouth and the fort in its harbor. After “baiting” his wearied beast, Revere rode on to Portsmouth.

In Sullivan's mind the hour had evidently come for decisive action. The story of what followed is briefly told by Eleazer Bennett, the survivor before mentioned: “I was working for Major Sullivan,” he said, “when Micah Davis came up and told me Major Sullivan wanted me to go to Portsmouth, and to get all the men I could to go with him. The men who went, as far as I can remember, were Maj. John Sullivan, Capt. Winborn Adams, Ebenezer Thompson, John Demeritt, Alpheus and Jonathan Chesley, John Spencer, Micah Davis, Isaac and Benjamin Small, of Durham; Ebenezer Sullivan, Captain Langdon, and Thomas [377] Pickering, of Portsmouth; John Griffin, James Underwood, and Alexander Scammell. We took a gondola belonging to Benjamin Mathes, who was too old to go, and went down the river to Portsmouth. It was a clear, cold, moonlight night. We sailed down to the fort at the mouth of Piscataqua Harbor. The water was so shallow that we could not bring the boat to within a rod or shore. We waded through the water in perfect silence, mounted the fort, surprised the garrison, and bound the captain. In the fort we found 100 casks of powder and 100 small-arms, which we brought down to the boat. In wading through the water it froze upon us.”

What a simple story of heroism! The

The surrender of Fort William and Mary.


Transporting powder from the Fort.

men took off their boots that they might not make a noise in mounting the ramparts, and after getting back to the boat it is of record that they again took them off, “lest a spark from the iron-nailed soles might ignite the powder.” And this was in December, in the severe winter of northern New England.

The “gondola” —pronounced by the natives gundolo, with accent on the first syllable—is an unwieldly, sloop-rigged vessel, still in use in the shallow waters of the New England coast. It is apparently named on the lucus a non lucendo principle, being of almost the exact shape of an old-fashioned wooden kneading-dish —broad and flat-bottomed—with bow and stern but little rounded, and carrying a large lateen-sail. Not possibly could a boat be constructed more unlike the gondola of the Venetian canals. The “gundolo” sailed quietly down with the tide to a dock in Portsmouth town, 9 miles below. There perhaps half a dozen men were taken on board, including Captain Langdon, afterwards first president of the United States Senate and governor of New Hampshire. From Governor Wentworth's correspondence with the Earl of Dartmouth it would appear that he warned Captain Cochran, in command at the fort, of the intended attack; but it is a tradition in Durham that the garrison was awakened from sleep as the party mounted the ramparts. No blood was shed on either side. In his letter to Lord Dartmouth, Sir John (Governor) Wentworth gives some further details. “News was brought to me.” he says, “that a drum was beating about the town to collect the populace together in order to take away the gunpowder and dismantle the fort. I sent the chief-justice to them to warn them from engaging in such an attempt. He went to them, told them it was not short of rebellion, and entreated them to desist from it and disperse. But all to no purpose. They went to the island. They forced an entrance in spite of Captain Cochran, who defended it as long as he could. They secured the captain, triumphantly gave three huzzas, and hauled down the King's colors.” Captain Cochran made his [379] report. “I told them,” he wrote, “on their peril not to enter. They replied they would. I immediately ordered three 4-pounders to be fired on them, and then the small-arms, and before we could be ready to fire again we were stormed on all quarters, and immediately they secured me and my men, and kept us prisoners about an hour and a half, during which time they broke open the powderhouse, and took all the powder away except one barrel.”

The powder being loaded aboard the “gundolo,” the vessel was sailed back to Durham on the flood tide, arriving in the early morning. The larger part of the powder was buried under the pulpit of the old “meeting-house” in front of Major Sullivan's residence—under the pulpit from which venerable Parson Adams had for years back been inculcating lessons of patriotism. Two or there mounds still exist to show where the foundations of this church were laid. Over against the now vacant space, and in a little plot adjoining Sullivan's former residence, a plain marble slab gives token that the remains of the soldier-statesman were buried there.

The captured powder, as before intimated, played an important part at the battle of Bunker Hill. In the Continental army gathered about Boston there was a terrible lack of ammunition. “It is a fact,” says Bancroft, referring to the day before Prescott occupied Breed's Hill, “that the Americans, after collecting all the ammunition north of the Delaware, had in their magazine, for an army engaged in a siege and preparing for fight, no more than twenty-seven and a half barrels [kegs?] of powder, with a gift from Connecticut of thirty-six and a half barrels more.” When, as the British were forming for a decisive charge on his hotly defended works, Prescott discovered that he had barely one round of ammunition among his men, and gave the order to retreat, both his and Stark's men would undoubtedly have been cut to pieces or captured except for the galling fire with which Stark, from behind the

Bringing the powder to Bunker Hill.

[380] grass-stuffed fence on Bunker Hill, met the Welsh Fusileers who were marching to cut off the retreat to Cambridge. It is of tradition and some part of record that, until within even a few moments of the fusileers' charge, Stark was no better equipped with ammunition than was Prescott. But an ample supply of powder arrived in the nick of time. It had been brought over from Durham, 60 miles away, in old John Demeritt's ox-cart, and it was a part of the store that had been buried under Parson Adams's pulpit. Failing it, Prescott might on that day have shared the martyrdom of Warren, and Molly Stark might indeed have been a widow that night.

It is interesting to note in Sullivan's correspondence that this lack of ammunition was a grievous care to Washington after he took command. Later on in the campaign Sullivan wrote to the New Hampshire committee of safety: “General Washington has, I presume, already written you on the subject of this letter. We all rely upon your keeping both the contents of his letter and mine a profound secret. We had a general council day before yesterday, and, to our great surprise, discovered that we had not powder enough to furnish half a pound a man, exclusive of what the people have in their powder-horns and cartridge-boxes. . . . The general was so struck that he did not say a word for half an hour. Should this matter take air before a supply arrives, our army is ruined.” There is apparently no record to show whether or riot the New Hampshire committee responded to the call, but as old Mr. Demeritt took to Cambridge only a part of the store captured at William and Mary, it is possible that Sullivan's daring assault of the December before again served the American troops in good stead.

That act was by no means passed unnoticed by the royal authorities either at home or in the colonies. Governor Wentworth promptly issued a proclamation, “declaring the offenders guilty of treason, and offering a reward for their apprehension.” But the defiant citizens of Durham “moved in procession to the common near the meeting-house, where they kindled a bonfire, and burned the commissions, uniforms, and all other insignia connecting them in any way with the royal government.” And, for his part, Sullivan was no less contumacious. On December 24 he published a stirring address to the people of the province. Referring to the order which had led to his attack on the fort, he said: “I am far from wishing hostilities to commence on the part of America, but still hope that no person will at this important crisis be unprepared to act in his own defence should he be by necessity driven thereto. And I must here beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the people on this continent whether, when we are by an arbitrary decree prohibited the having of arms and ammunition by importation, we have not, by the law of self-preservation, a right to seize upon those within our power, in order to defend the liberties which God and nature have given us.”

The news of the assault caused the greatest excitement in England. Parliament almost at once adopted the address to the King, which was practically a declaration of war, and which was presented on Feb. 9, 1775. “The King in his reply,” says Bancroft, “pledged himself speedily and effectually to enforce obedience to the laws and the authority of the supreme legislature. His heart was hardened. Having just heard of the seizure of ammunition at the fort in New Hampshire, he intended that his ‘language should open the eyes of the deluded Americans.’ ” Thus, while war was doubtless ultimately inevitable, Sullivan's bold action was the immediate cause that led to it. Orders were forthwith despatched from London to seize all arms to be found in the colonies, and Pitcairn's march to Lexington was the result.

Sullivan was the first man in active rebellion against the British government, and he drew with him the province he lived in. In a recent address on the history of that part of New Hampshire, the Rev. Dr. Quint, of Dover, referred briefly to the attack on the fort. “The daring character of this assault,” he said, “cannot be over-estimated. 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 [381] Lexington, and Lexington was resistance to attack, while this was deliberate assault.”

On Dec. 13, when Paul Revere rode through Durham, there was a young student in Sullivan's law office named Alexander Scammell. He accompanied his chief on the expedition to William and Mary, and it was he who pulled down the King's colors from over the fort. He became the adjutant-general of the army, was beloved by Washington as was no other man in the command, and, it is said, no other person's quips and jokes ever brought a smile to that grave countenance during the progress of the war. Scammell fell at Yorktown almost as Cornwallis was laying down his arms. Thus, a participant in the first act of the rebellion, he died as that rebellion was crowned with perfect and fateful victory. It was a noble span of patriotic service.

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