On this date in 1774, British troops seized and removed gunpowder from a magazine in Charlestown, Mass., leading to what became known as the “Powder Alarm.”
In effect, the move was a British gun control measure intended to limit the colonists’ ability to arm themselves.
In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament passed the “Coercive Acts.” Among other moves, the British closed the port of Boston and revoked Massachusetts’ charter, bringing the colony under the total control of the British government. These actions further inflamed tensions between the British and the American colonists. Many colonists saw this as a further attempt to strip them of their right to self-rule and force them into submission.
General Thomas Gage was appointed the military governor of Massachusetts. Thinking the best way to keep the peace would be to disarm the colonists as much as possible, he set in motion a scheme to secretly remove military equipment, including guns and gunpowder, from storehouses across New England.
Most of the gunpowder and weapons stored in these magazines belonged to the provincial governments, but some were the property of individual towns and merchants.
William Brattle served as the leader of the provincial militia and controlled the magazine in Charleston, Mass. On Aug. 27, Brattle sent a letter to Gage, informing him that locals had removed much of the powder from the storehouse. He told Gage that only 250 half-barrels of gunpowder belonging to the provincial government remained in the Provincial Powder House.
A few days later, Gage sent Middlesex County sheriff David Phips to Charleston with orders to remove the remaining powder from the storehouse. Brattle turned the key to the powder house over to the sheriff.
On Sept. 1, Gage sent a force of 250 Red Coats under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Maddison to seize the powder. The detachment of troops rowed up the Mystic River from Boston and landed about a mile from the powder house. Sheriff Phips gave the soldiers the keys to the storehouse and they quickly removed the remaining powder.
Most of the troops returned to Boston, but a small detachment marched to Cambridge and seized two artillery pieces.
In a paper titled How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution, historian David B. Kopel pointed out that Gage’s actions incensed the general public.
Word of the troop movements quickly spread throughout the area, along with rumors that the British troops had fired on and killed some colonists. There were also rumors that British ships were shelling the city of Boston. In response, colonial militia quickly assembled from as far away as Connecticut and streamed toward Boston. As many as 20,000 colonists responded to the call.
The following day, several thousand Patriots gathered in Cambridge. They forced a number of Loyalists, including Brattle, to flee for their lives. They also forced Phips to disassociate himself in writing from all government actions.
It quickly became clear that the rumors of a hot war were false. As the facts overtook the rumors, the colonial militias returned home.
But the threat of more British gun control was still very much on their minds and the incident sparked further action.
On Sept. 21, Patriot leaders met in Worcester. They set up a system of communication that included express riders and alarms and organized one-third of the militia into companies called Minutemen that could be ready at a moment’s notice.
Parliament had dissolved the Massachusetts General Assembly through one of the Coercive Acts – the Massachusetts Government Act. But the body disregarded the British decree and met on Oct. 7 in Concord. It set up a provincial congress, in the event war broke out. Prominent members included John Hancock, who was elected the President and also Chairman of the Committee of Safety that was appointed on Oct. 11. Other members included Joseph Warren, James Warren, Samuel Adams and Elbridge Gerry.
As Kopel notes, the colonial response to the British actions sent a very clear message to British officials.
“If the British used violence to seize arms or powder, the Americans would treat that seizure as an act of war, and the militia would fight,” he writes. “And that is exactly what happened several months later, on April 19, 1775.”
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