Colonial Boston’s secret patriot network crackled with the news. Regiments of British troops were on the move, bound for points north to secure military supplies from the rebels. Paul Revere mounted his horse and began a feverish gallop to warn the colonists that the British were coming.
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Except this ride preceded Revere’s famous “midnight ride” by more than four months. On December 13, 1774, the Boston silversmith made a midday gallop north to Portsmouth in the province of New Hampshire, and some people—especially Granite Staters—consider that, and not his trip west to Lexington on April 18, 1775, as the true starting point of the war for independence.
With talk of revolution swirling around Boston in the final days of 1774, Revere’s patriot underground learned that King George III had issued a proclamation that prohibited the export of arms or ammunition to America and ordered colonial authorities to secure the Crown’s weaponry. One particularly vulnerable location was Fort William and Mary, a derelict garrison at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor with a large supply of munitions guarded by a mere six soldiers.
When Boston’s Committee of Correspondence, a local group of citizens opposed to British rule, received intelligence that British General Thomas Gage had secretly dispatched two regiments by sea to secure the New Hampshire fort—a report that was actually erroneous—they sent Revere to alert their counterparts in New Hampshire’s provincial capital. Just six days after the birth of his son Joshua, Revere embarked on a treacherous wintry journey over 55 miles of frozen, rutted roads. A frigid west wind stung his cheeks, and both rider and steed endured a constant pounding on the unforgiving roadway.
Late in the afternoon, Revere entered Portsmouth, a major maritime trading port that had recently imported Boston’s hostility to the royal government. He drew his reins at the waterfront residence of merchant Samuel Cutts, who immediately convened a meeting of the town’s own Committee of Correspondence. With Revere’s dispatch in hand, Portsmouth’s patriots plotted to seize the gunpowder from Fort William and Mary the following day.
Learning of Revere’s presence in the capital, New Hampshire’s royal governor, John Wentworth, suspected something was afoot. He alerted Capt. John Cochran, the commander of the small garrison, to be on guard and dispatched an express rider to General Gage in Boston with an urgent plea for help.
The next morning, the steady beat of drums reverberated through the streets of Portsmouth, and 200 patriots soon gathered in the town center. Ignoring the entreaties of the province’s chief justice to disperse, the colonists, led by John Langdon, launched their boats into the icy Piscataqua River and rowed toward the fort on the harbor’s Great Island.
The logistics of overtaking a woefully undermanned fort were not daunting, but the sheer brazenness of the mission, and its dire consequences, should have given the men some pause. As the chief justice had just warned, storming the fort “was the highest act of treason and rebellion they could possibly commit.”
A snowstorm cloaked the colonists’ amphibious attack and muffled the rhythmic dipping of hundreds of oars as they approached the fort. When the patriots came ashore around 3 in the afternoon, they were joined by men from neighboring towns to form a force of approximately 400.
Langdon, a future New Hampshire governor and signer of the United States Constitution, demanded that Cochran hand over the fort’s gunpowder. Despite being outnumbered, the commander refused to yield without a fight. “I told them on their peril not to enter,” Cochran wrote to Wentworth. “They replied they would.”