Powder Alarm

Powder Alarm

The Powder Alarm was a massive popular reaction to a raid by British soldiers under the command of General Thomas Gage, royal governor of Massachusetts, soon before the American Revolutionary War. On September 1 1774, British soldiers confiscated gunpowder and other military supplies in a surprise raid near Boston. This expedition alarmed the countryside, and American Patriots sprang into action, fearing that war was at hand. Although it proved to be a false alarm, the Powder Alarm caused all concerned to proceed more carefully in the days ahead, and essentially provided a "dress rehearsal" for the Battle of Lexington and Concord seven months later.


General Gage, in charge of enforcing the highly unpopular Intolerable Acts, sought to prevent the outbreak of war and to keep the peace between the American Patriot (Whig) majority and the Loyalist (Tory) minority. He believed that one way of doing this was to seize military supplies stored in Massachusetts.

Early in the morning of September 1, 1774, a force of roughly 260 British regulars were rowed from Boston up the Mystic River to a landing point near Winter Hill in modern-day Somerville. At that time, this land was part of the town of Charlestown, which was a separate entity from Boston. From there, they marched about a mile to the Powder House, a gunpowder magazine that still stands at Powder House Square, Somerville, where the largest supply of gunpowder in Massachusetts was kept. The county sheriff gave the King's Troops the keys to the building, and after sunrise they removed all the gunpowder. Most of the regulars then returned to Boston the way they had come, but a small contingent marched to Cambridge, removed two field pieces, and took them to Boston by foot over the Great Bridge and up Boston Neck.


This success triggered an aborted march towards Boston over the next day by tens of thousands of irregulars ­­­— many from New England towns outside Massachusetts — who had heard false rumors of armed conflict and continuing British Army troop movements. After they received correct intelligence, these militia units returned home. An angry Patriot mob chased a few Tories out of Cambridge and compelled the sheriff who handed over the Powder House keys to sign an oath that he would never again enforce the Intolerable Acts or obey Gage's commands.

The angry reaction of the populace surprised Gage, and a second planned expedition was canceled. Gage concentrated his troops in Boston, and called for reinforcements from London.


After the Powder Alarm, militia forces throughout New England were more cautious with their supplies and more intent on gaining information about Gage's plans and troop movements. Paul Revere played a significant role in distributing this information due to his geographical position in Boston, his social position as a middle-class craftsman in contact with all social classes, and his political position as a well-known Patriot propagandist and organizer.

On September 21, 1774, New England Patriot leaders met in Worcester and urged town meetings 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 Lexington and Concord. In October, the former legislature of Massachusetts met in defiance of the Massachusetts Government Act and declared itself to be the First Provincial Congress. It created a Committee of Safety modeled after a body with the same name during the English Civil War and it recommended that a quarter of the militia be designated as minutemen.

Stores of gunpowder — typically referred to by Loyalists as "the king's powder" and by Patriots as "the militia's powder" — were carried off from forts in Newport, Rhode Island, Providence, Rhode Island, and New London, Connecticut and distributed to the militias in towns away from the coast. Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, guarded by six British soldiers, was taken over by New Hampshire irregulars on December 15 after a brief exchange of gunfire with no serious injuries, and the supplies there met a similar fate.

On Sunday February 27, 1775, a force of about 240 British regulars was sent to confiscate weapons at Salem, Massachusetts. They were stopped by a small crowd that raised a drawbridge in their path and taunted them while others moved the cannon to safety and sent for help from nearby towns. Eventually, the drawbridge was lowered and the British Army was permitted to search the forge where the cannon had once been. They returned to their ships while being mocked by a growing force of irregulars marching along in lock-step next to them.

These bloodless conflicts over military supplies seemed — both to the participants and to historians with the benefit of hindsight — to be leading almost inevitably to open warfare. However, it should be remembered that were it not for events spiralling out of control during key moments, the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 also might have simply been another Powder Alarm march with no casualties.

ee also

*Gunpowder Incident — a similar event in Virginia


*Fischer, David Hackett. "Paul Revere's Ride". New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-508847-6.
*Raphael, Ray. "The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord". New York: The New Press, 2002.

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