Building to a Revolution: The Powder Alarm and Popular Mobilization of the New England Countryside, 1774-1775
Johnston, Patrick, Historical Journal of Massachusetts
Abstract: This article explores a relatively unknown but significant event that illuminates the growing conflict between Great Britain and the American colonists. As a result of the Powder Alarm of September, 1 774, the New England countryside underwent a popular mobilization. The aftermath of the Powder Alarm, seven months before the first battles at Lexington and Concord, heralded the coming outbreak of hostilities.
"War! War!" These emotional cries shattered me reserved decorum of me first Continental Congress meeting at Philadelphia in early September, 1774. The rumor of a possible British attack on Boston put a charge to the men who had garnered to coordinate a colonial response to recent Parliamentary actions known as the Intolerable Acts. Delegates from various colonies quickly assured me New England representatives that they would support me embattled province. John Adams was convinced mat if the news had "proved true, you would have heard the thunder of an American Congress."1
The rumor that threatened to embroil the English- American colonies in civil war emanated from a simple military maneuver undertaken by British troops stationed in Boston. On September 1, Thomas Gage, acting as Royal Governor in Massachusetts and Commander in Chief of the American colonies, sent a detachment of soldiers to secure and remove gun powder stored in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Conducted in secrecy, the operation proved to be a success, and by early afternoon all the powder had been removed to Castle William, securely guarded by the king's troops.
The following day, rumors about the operation circulated throughout New England and quickly ballooned to epic proportions. Many in the New England countryside heard that British troops had fired on a group of Bostoniane and killed six. As the day wore on, the rumors were embellished to include a naval bombardment of the city that virtually leveled the seaport. One observer noted that "the news flew like lightning.... [In] about five or six days the Alarm spread thro' above a Million of People."2 In New England alone, an estimated sixty thousand men mobilized, armed, and marched toward Boston fully intending to engage the English troops in battle. In the end, the rumor of war was disproved before the two sides collided.
Despite its failure to produce an actual clash of arms, the Powder Alarm of 1774 greatly altered future interactions between the New England colonists and British authorities. Because this event did not result in the opening salvo in the Revolutionary War, however, it has been largely overlooked by historians. Yet the Powder Alarm had significant and enduring consequences, particularly in the reactions of the country people of New England. These colonists resided outside the city of Boston in close knit communities consisting mostly of farmers and artisans. When the revolution finally came, these men formed the backbone of the early colonial army. Their actions in the months before, during, and following the Powder Alarm signaled, in a very public manner, exactly where this segment of the colonial population stood on the imperial controversy. Their impassioned response marked a turning point that eventually led to war.
Throughout the 1760s, the counties and towns around Boston had remained largely uninterested in provincial and imperial politics. Various non-consumption pacts drew these farmers briefly into a larger political struggle, but their concerns focused primarily on local town issues. The establishment of committees of correspondence, coupled with unpopular actions by the British Parliament, gradually increased the local population's awareness of and resistance to imperial rule. These developments helped establish me groundwork that influenced the sentiments of the greater New England population. However, the widespread mobilization and community actions that occurred during the Powder Alarm proved me spark that solidified me resistance movement in the New England countryside. …