Dec. 14-15, 1774, several hundred men overpowered the small British garrison at Castle William & Mary, now Fort Constitution, New Castle, and removed quantities of military supplies. These raids, set off by Paul Revere’s ride to Portsmouth on Dec. 13, were among the first overt acts of the American Revolution.
Located near the intersection of Main Street (NH 1-B) and Wentworth Street in New Castle.
Fort Constitution was listed on the National Register in 1973.
ASK ANYONE outside of New Hampshire about Paul Revere’s ride and they’ll tell you about one he never even finished. In 1774, he rode all the way to Portsmouth where he helped start the Revolution months before Concord and Lexington.
Word of the tea party in Boston reached Portsmouth in December of 1773, and while no tea was spilled in New Hampshire waters, a merchant who had prudently removed a tea shipment from his Portsmouth warehouse to Halifax, Nova Scotia, had his house windows broken by an angry mob.
When Royal Provincial Governor John Wentworth pushed to strengthen the garrison at Fort William and Mary against local unrest, the Provincial Assembly balked, granting only enough money for an officer, three men, and their equipment. When Governor Wentworth later threw the assembly out of their chamber for holding what he called an illegal meeting, they moved to a local tavern and planned for a Provincial Congress to meet later in Exeter. That body moved to send aid to the occupied and blockaded Boston. Word of restrictive Acts of Parliament and a rumored secret arms embargo against the colonies traveled just ahead of Revere, and his arrival bolstered other rumors of a British ship from Boston carrying troops to occupy Portsmouth.
The very next day, about 200 men gathered in Portsmouth and started to march to the fort. The small garrison at Fort William and Mary (a Captain Cochran and five men) were warned that this angry mob was headed their way. By the time the mob reached the gates of the fort, it had swelled to 400 with the addition of men from New Castle and Rye.
Shots were fired. No one was hurt, but the defenders were overwhelmed. Nearly 100 barrels of gunpowder were spirited out of the fort and loaded on moses boats and gundalows to be hidden in nearby towns—half of it in Durham and Exeter.
Meanwhile, back in Portsmouth, Wentworth sent word to the British command in Boston to send ships and soldiers, pronto. John Sullivan and other men from Durham surrounded the Province House, demanding to know if British reinforcements were coming—remember, that’s how this whole thing started—the Governor coyly replied that “none were expected.” The Durham men dispersed but reassembled later to finish pillaging the fort.
Then things started happening fast. By the end of May, 1775, rebel militia started to occupy Portsmouth. On the 13th of June, the Governor found it prudent to move from his mansion to the fort, now back in Crown hands and under the protective guns of the H.M.S. Scarborough.
On the 17th, New Hampshire men outnumbered those from either Massachusetts or Connecticut at Bunker Hill, and it’s likely that some of the powder seized during these raids found its way there.
On June 23, the Governor and his family boarded the Scarborough and sailed to British-occupied Boston.1 When Governor Wentworth sailed out of Portsmouth Harbor, New Hampshire was completely free of British occupation and rule, the first of the thirteen colonies to be so.
1 The Governor’s career wasn’t quite over, though it did take a step or two back. After a multi-stage retreat (Boston-to-Nova Scotia-to-London), Wentworth returned to North America as the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia and spent the rest of his life there. When he died in 1820, he was buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Church in Halifax, which still stands, making it the oldest building in Halifax (1750), and the oldest surviving Protestant church in Canada. When the Diocese of Nova Scotia was created in 1787, it became the seat of the Bishop and the first Anglican cathedral outside of Great Britain.