Cochran ordered the five soldiers manning the ramparts “not to flinch on pain of death but to defend the fort to the last extremity.” On his command, the soldiers fired muskets and three four-pound cannons, but the shots missed the invaders. Before the troops could fire again, the patriots swarmed over the walls from every side and broke down the doors with axes and crowbars. The provincial soldiers put up a valiant fight—even Cochran’s wife wielded a bayonet—but math was not on their side. “I did all in my power to defend the fort,” Cochran lamented to Wentworth, “but all my efforts could not avail against so great a number.”
The patriots detained the soldiers for an hour and a half as they loaded 97 barrels of His Majesty’s gunpowder onto their boats. With a chorus of three cheers, the rebels defiantly lowered the King’s colors, an enormous flag that had proudly proclaimed British dominion over the harbor, and released the prisoners before dissolving into the falling snow as they rowed back to Portsmouth.
Couriers bearing news of the attack circulated through the New Hampshire countryside and recruited volunteers to retrieve the remaining armaments before British reinforcements could arrive. The following day, more than 1,000 patriots descended upon Portsmouth, turning the provincial capital of 4,500 people into a rebel hotbed.
Wentworth ordered his militia’s commanding officers to recruit 30 men to reinforce the fort. They couldn’t even scrounge up one, no doubt because many members were participants in the uprising. “Not one man appeared to assist in executing the law,” a disgusted Wentworth wrote in a letter. “All chose to shrink in safety from the storm, and suffered me to remain exposed to the folly and madness of an enraged multitude, daily and hourly increasing in numbers and delusion.”
That evening, hundreds of patriots led by John Sullivan, himself a provincial militia major and a delegate to the Continental Congress, again shoved off for the island garrison. Facing a force more than double that of the previous day, Cochran realized this time that he could not even muster a token defense. He watched helplessly as the colonists overran the installation and worked straight through the night loading their plunder.
By the time they left the next morning, Sullivan’s men had seized 16 pieces of cannon, about 60 muskets, and other military stores. The booty was disseminated through New Hampshire’s serpentine network of interior waterways on flat-bottomed cargo carriers called “gundalows” and hidden in hamlets throughout the region.
British reinforcements finally arrived on the night of December 17 aboard the HMS Canceaux, followed by the frigate HMS Scarborough two nights later. The uprising was over, but the treasonous assault was humiliating for the Crown, and Revere was a particular source of its ire. Wentworth wrote to Gage that the blame for the “false alarm” rested with “Mr. Revere and the dispatch brought, before which all was perfectly quiet and peaceable here.”
A plaque at the fort, now named Fort Constitution, declares it as the location of the “first victory of the American Revolution.” Other rebellious acts, such as the torching of the HMS Gaspee in Rhode Island in 1772, preceded it, but the raid on Fort William and Mary was different in that it was an organized, armed assault on the King’s property, rather than a spontaneous act of self-defense. Following the colonists’ treasonous acts in Portsmouth Harbor, British resolve to seize rebel supplies only strengthened, setting the stage for what happened four months later at Lexington and Concord.