Saturday, October 3, 2015

Places: Fort William and Mary

The scenic town of New Castle, New Hampshire is the site of the ruins of Fort William and Mary. Like the college in Virginia, the fort was named in tribute to the (sort of) iconic British rulers of the Glorious Rebellion fame. It is ironic that each played a role in establishing the British monarchy in america under the rubric of a revolution. But it did and some claim here the first armed resistance to royal authority began long before Lexington and Concord.

The Agitation

Royal Governor Wentworth
In May of 1774 the closure of Boston's port had most New Englanders inflamed. British authorities demanded the "salt-water tea" be paid for and Bostonians to show concede. In New Hampshire, the  Committee of Correspondence vowed to make Boston's fight their own.
Royal Governor John Wentworth knew there was now a radical shift  in public opinion.  Recognizing a potential threat to Royal authority the governor tried to install a garrison at his only military post, Fort William and Mary in New Castle. But the Assembly, now antagonistic to the British, voted to grant him only 200 pounds to the enterprise. But Wentworth appointed an officer and three men  to administer the fort, thus demonstrating the King's authority.  Not much of an army to stave off a revolution.

The Politics

The Assembly was not intimidated by Wentworth's measures. They voted later in the same month to establish a second Committee of Correspondence. Wentworth and the Rockingham County sheriff tried to intimidate and shut down the Assembly and dismissed them from the chamber for holding an illegal meeting. Undaunted, they retired to a local tavern and in that congenial atmosphere made plans for a Provincial Congress to be held at Exeter in July. Over the next few months the situation around Boston went from simmer to boil and the impact spread across New England like a forest fire.

The Action

On December 13th 1774, Paul Revere rode south to Portsmouth to report  the ban importing military stores by the British and that rumors of expected British troops were the worst sort of rumors:  true rumors. John Sullivan, a Patriot leader and firebrand who just returned from the First Continental Congress, decided to take action. Along with local Patriot merchant John Langdon, he vowed to take the bastion of Royal authority
John Sullivan
sitting under their noses at New Castle. On the 14th, Langdon made his way through Portsmouth with a drummer rattling away. When he had collected a crowd, he spoke to them. About 400 joined him, forming a mob that went to take the powder from the fort. A single volley rang from the fort and was answered by some shots from the crowd, but there were no injuries. They stormed into the fort in a rush.  Breaking into the magazine, they removed about 100 barrels of powder. Overwhelmed, the fort's commandant, Captain John Cochran, quickly surrendered his four-man garrison.This marks Fort William and Mary as the setting for one of the first overt actions of the American struggle for independence. Some likened it to Lexington and Concord, but the lack of bloodshed make it a little less compelling. Still, it was the first organized resistance to the King.

Fort William and Mary 1704

The Take

The next day, John Sullivan led additional rebel forces now streaming in from across the colony. They first surrounded the governor's home, but violence was avoided there, as Wentworth gave in to their demands. That evening, December 15th, they returned to the fort and removed all of the arms and supplies as well as some cannon.The action resulted in the Americans taking some booty, a tangible benefit. This included some sixty muskets, sixteen cannon and one hundred barrels of precious powder. The gunpowder was quickly moved inland and spread among various armed groups in New Hampshire. Some of it may have gone to the Patriots around Boston. In a land starved of ordnance this was a minor trove desperately needed.

Gunpowder from the fort moved in land over ice

The Place

History is about a sense of time, people and place. So on a picturesque promontory overlooking the ocean, a colonial people, inflamed by perceived injustice, made their mark. In fact, New Castle is a scenic town of around 900. It is also the smallest town in the state and the easternmost. Its narrow streets are lined with colonial style houses. The fort itself was built at the beginning of the 18th century upon the site of an earlier fort built to deter pirates. Its major landmark is the Fort Point Lighthouse built in 1877 on the site of an earlier lighthouse built in 1771. Until the latter was built, the only navigational aid for the rocky harbor was a lantern hung high on Fort William and Mary.

Site of Fort William and Mary today

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