Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
The formation of the Committees of Correspondence by the Patriot leaders of the American colonies in 1772, had made an impact on the British military as well as the Patriots. This triggered already tense relations and motivated British authorities to action of imposing restrictions on the militia of the colonies. General Thomas Gage, commander of the British army, gave out orders that spurred the Patriots into action over what is called the Powder Alarm.
The Powder Alarm set in motion some repercussions from the colonies and became practice for the Battles of Lexington and Concord which would follow seven months later. General Gage, wanting to have better control over military supplies which the Patriots knew they needed for their own army, without any restrictive authorization, caused quite a stir in the countryside.
General Thomas Gage was appointed the governor of Massachusetts in May of 1774. In response to the Boston Tea Party, General Gage was placed in charge of enforcement of the Intolerable Acts, a series of laws passed by Parliament. In hopes of trying to keep peace and not letting tensions escalate, Gage decided on a secret mission to obtain any gun powder that was stored in the colonies. This was not the wisest thing to do, for little did he know that information would leak out. Most of the stockpiled supplies were under the control of British garrisons, but, he knew some was the property of individual towns. He contacted William Brattle, whom the governor had appointed in charge of a storehouse in Charlestown near Boston. Brattle sent a letter to Gage on August 27 to say that the King's powder was the only thing in the storehouse. Gage ordered that the powder be removed and transferred to Boston, then out to Castle Island, where it would be safe under his own watch.
Gage sent David Phips, sheriff of Middlesex County with orders to get the key from Brattle and remove the powder. British troops were ordered to prepare for action the following day. Not only did local town people notice that something was amiss, but, somehow the letter from Brattle to Gage had gone missing.
On September 1, in the early morning hours, the 4th Regiment of British regulars, about 260 troops, were taken up the Mystic River to Winter Hill, which is now Somerville. After landing they marched on foot to the Powder House about a mile from shore. This is where the largest supply of gunpowder in Massachusetts was held. The troops removed all the gunpowder and returned to Boston. A part of the regiment marched to Cambridge and took two field pieces and returned to Boston by foot. The gunpowder and field pieces were then taken to Castle Island for safekeeping.
Now, all this activity was supposedly to be done in secrecy, yet rumours began to spread rapidly throughout all the colonies. As rumours go, they were exaggerated and by the time they got out to all colonies, there was now "a war on, people had been killed, the British were on the march, and Boston was under attack from British warships."
In very short time, Patriots were armed and on the move, sending out messages to every town to ready for battle, for the war had started.
Eventually the actual facts of the "secret mission" spread to the Patriots and they all returned home. Brattle told the returning Patriots that he had nothing to do with the mission and never gave the key to Phipps or anyone. When the missing letter from Brattle to Gage was published in the newspapers the next day, William Brattle left for Boston to be under the protection of Gage, thinking the Patriots would be after him.
There was no battle and no one had been killed. The Powder Alarm, though, had shown the Patriot militia just how quickly they could communicate and be prepared for battle -- which they now knew they would be ready for when the time came for real.