Did you know… The Powder Alarm?

Most Americans have heard of the battles of Lexington and Concord, and “The Shot Heard Round The World”. But the American revolution, or the American rebellion as the British would say, wasn’t something that happened all at once. There were smaller conflicts that led up to the outbreak of war. One of these was The Powder Alarm.

British General Thomas Gage (10 March 1718 – 2 April 1787) was made royal governor of Massachusetts, and tasked with enforcing the “Intolerable Acts” as a punishment on the colony for the Boston Tea Party. The Intolerable Acts including closing the port of Boston (Port Act), the ability to try accused crown officials in England rather than locally (Administration Act), the abolishment of the Massachusetts Charter (which brought all government positions directly under the Crown, and limited town meetings to once a year), and the Quartering Act, which permitted billeting British troops in colonists houses.

The outrage against these acts was severe. Gage responded by moving secretly with troops to confiscate power and arms. These actions alarmed colonists, and several colonial militias, including Somerville, moved their powder to safer, unknown locations. Gage was concerned that the militia might steal British powder from the Somerville Powder house (pictured above in 1935), and sent a letter to the head of the local militia, a Crown official, asking for the key. Major Brattle was a true politician, attempting to placate both the Crown and the colonists, declaring for neither side. He handed over the key but made no attempt to hide the knowledge of British troops on the march.

On September 1, 1774, 260 British infantry under command of Lt. Col. George Maddison rowed up the Mystic River, and marched inland a mile to take possession of the powder. Splitting his force, Maddison had most of the men return to Boston, but a few split off and returned via Cambridge, commandeering small cannon they found along the way, until all the confiscated munitions and weapons made it to Castle Island in Boston harbor, a British stronghold.

These actions provoked an alarm among the colonists. Fearing that war was at hand, militias called, “To Arms!”, and colonial militias from as far away as Connecticut surged toward Boston to stem British tyranny. The rumors circulated talked of battles, skirmishes, men killed, and fanned the flames of rebellion. Seeking to continue straddling both sides, Brattle published a letter in Boston newspapers protesting his innocence, to the effect that he did not warn Gage to come and remove the powder.

Brattle’s letter, republished in the Hartford Courant, Sept. 13, 1774

Brattle’s claim was little believed, and he was forced to hide for his own safety at Castle Island, which he eventually left for England and Halifax.

Gage was surprised at the breadth and severity of the Colonial’s reaction, and delayed another planned confiscation at Worcester. This gave the Colonials further time to organize, devising the system of express riders that culminated in Paul Revere’s ride, and ultimately the battles at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 – the shot heard round the world.