The Powder Alarm sets the stage for revolution

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Powder House Square in Somerville today
Powder House Square in Somerville today

MILLBURY, Mass. -  The Powder Alarm was a massive popular reaction to the theft of colonial gunpowder from a magazine in Somerville (then Charlestown)  by British soldiers under orders from General Thomas Gage, royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, on Sept. 1, 1774.

American colonists in response to another perceived provocation from the British and also amid rumors of further bloodshed,  organized as far away as Connecticut preparing for inevitable war with Britain.

This action provided a "dress rehearsal" for the Battles of Lexington and Concord seven months later in the famous "shot heard 'round the world". This did however, inflame already heated feelings on both sides and would spur actions by both British and American forces to secure both powder and cannon to secure locations.

Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts in May 1774, was enforcing the imfamous Intolerable Acts, which the British Parliament had passed in response to the Boston Tea Party. Gage, believing that to prevent outright civil war the best course of action would be to confiscate arms and ammunition and place them firmly under British control.

There were several places in Massachusetts and elsewhere where the British army had stockpiled weapons and equipment. One locked powderhouse near Boston, in what was then Charlestown, now Powder House Square in Somerville, was controlled by William Brattle, the local leader of the militia. Brattle, in a letter to Gage told him that the surrounding towns had removed all of their powder and only that of the British remained.

On Aug. 31, Gage sent the Middlesex County sheriff David Phips to Brattle with orders to secure and remove the British gunpowder. He also alerted the troops in Boston for action the next day, which alarmed local residents. It was rumored that Gage feared that Massachusetts colonists would steal the powder.

Early in the morning of Sept. 1, approximately 260 British regulars from the 4th Regiment of Foot, under Lieutenant Colonel George Maddison, rowed secretly up the Mystic River in Boston to a point in the Winter Hill area of Somerville (later made famous by Whitey Bulger). They marched to the Powder House, which at that time held the largest supply of gunpowder in Massachusetts. Then the troops returned to Boston with all of the powder in their possession. They split off a small force and marched to Cambridge to recover two artillery pieces there and returned to Boston.

Tensions, already stretched tight, were at the breaking point. Rumors abounded that the British had regular troops marching; that the towns powder stores were seized, people had been killed and that Boston was being bombarded by British warships. The fact that none of this was true had little impact on the events as they unfolded.
The false alarm spread as far as Connecticut. Colonists began arming themselves and organizing, with the intent on going to Boston. One person in Shrewsbury reported that in just 15 minutes, 50 men had gathered, equipped themselves, sent out messengers to surrounding towns, and left for Boston.

By Sept. 2, a mob of several thousand men gathered in Cambridge and sought violence on those Loyalists who in their minds had turned against their own people. Both Brattle and Phips fled to Boston to safety under British control. The men soon found out that the rumors of the day before had been untrue and returned home.

Gage had planned a second operation to Worcester to secure the powder and shot there, but seeing the violent reaction of the colonists, cancelled it. He then proceeded to concentrate his men in fortifying Boston, calling for reinforcements from England. Seeing the forth coming war with the colonists, Gage wrote, "if you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty; if one million is thought enough, give two; you save both blood and treasure in the end." Parliament thought his letter ridiculous at the time, dispatching only a further 400 Marines in response to his request.

On Sept. 21, 1774, Patriot leaders met in Worcester including citizens from the North Parish of Sutton (Millbury) and at town meetings urged them to organize a third of the militias into special companies of minutemen in constant readiness to march. They also instituted the system of express riders and alarms that would prove to be critical at the upcoming battles of Lexington and Concord.

Gunpowder, arms and equipment were to be stockpiled away from the coast (more than a convenient day's march), to make attempts to seize them more difficult. The largest stockpiles were located at Concord and Worcester.

Also in Sept., 1774, local colonists from the Boston Artillery Company would steal back two three pound cannons from the British while the troops held a changing of the guard. Acting quickly, the men pried open the door, slipped inside, dismounted the cannons and ran off with them to a nearby school house where they were hidden inside a wood shed. The two other cannons belonging to the company were taken off two days later much to the embarrassment of the British military.

The cannons were snuck out of Boston and it is believed they were taken to Concord, then being used as a colonial military supply depot. Once in Concord, the cannons were added to the growing colonial arsenal. They were deposited at the farm of Col. James Barrett of the Concord militia and according to local tradition, were buried in a field. All told, by the spring, the colonists had amassed enough arms and equipment between Concord and Worcester for an army of 15,000 men.

In an effort to seize and destroy these military supplies and equipment, including the stolen cannons, and hopefully avoid outright civil war, Gen. Gage sent 700 soldiers under the command of Lt. Col. Smith to Concord on the 19th of April, 1775. And that as they say, is the rest of the story…

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