Most Americans are familiar with the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, but very few are aware of a rather similar incident that occurred a full four months prior to that famous jaunt.
It all began in the latter part of 1774, when George III initiated a prohibition on the “export of arms and ammunition to America.” He also demanded that all weapons belonging to the Crown be secured. Concern was mounting that the unrest amongst the colonists was reaching a fever pitch and could soon boil over.
A subsequent false report soon circulated that British General Thomas Gage had sent two groups of soldiers to “lock down” Fort William and Mary, located at the entrance of Portsmouth Harbor on the island of Newcastle.
The Fort, while run-down and guarded by only a handful of redcoats, housed a formidable cache of gun powder that could prove a great asset to the rebel forces.
In response to the threat, the yet-to-be famous silversmith, Paul Revere set off on this frigid winter day in 1774, on a 55 mile ride over icy, uneven roadways. Upon his arrival to Portsmouth, the rebel forces quickly formulated a plan to “capture” the gun powder from the fort the following day.
Royal governor, John Wentworth, sensing that something unsettling was brewing based on Revere’s arrival to town, notified British Captain John Cochran, who was in charge of the fort. He also sent an urgent message via “express rider” to General Gage in Boston imploring him to send help.
By late morning the subsequent day, 200 rebels had gathered together prepared to set sail over the ice-cold Piscataqua River and on to Fort William and Mary. And as fate would have it, a snow storm provided the perfect distraction as the patriots approached the fort.
Led by John Langdon, the men advanced on the Fort while he demanded that the gunpowder contained there be handed over. Although woefully outnumbered, British Captain Cochran flatly refused. But the Brits were no match for the throngs of determined patriots who handily seized 97 barrels of powder while lowering the British flag.
Wentworth continued to try to rally British support to no avail. His pleas seemed to fall upon deaf ears as “all chose to shrink in safety from the storm.”
The next evening, yet another emboldened Patriot, John Sullivan, orchestrated the seizure of “16 pieces of cannon, about 60 muskets, and other military stores.”
At long last, on the evening of December 17th, 1774, a sizable group of British reinforcements arrived but alas, as they say, it was too little, too late. The damage was done and British forces would be haunted by this embarrassing incident as the rebellion progressed.
So what was the significance of Paul Revere’s first ride? Well, it led to the seizure of Fort William and Mary which was a well-planned offensive on the property of the Crown. And as such is considered by some to be the “first victory of the Revolution.”