Powder Alarm (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

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Powder Alarm (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

POWDER ALARM (CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS). 1 September 1774. As defiance of imperial regulation in Boston became more ominous, Major General Thomas Gage, British commander in chief in North America, decided on a risky move. Through the summer of 1774, agents and supporters of royal government had given him detailed information about the cannon, powder, and other military stores the radicals were collecting and hiding in Cambridge. On 27 August the town of Medford removed from the provincial powder house on Quarry Hill in Charlestown the last of the gunpowder belonging to the towns. All that remained were the 250 half-barrels of powder that belonged to the province and were thus legally under the control of Gage. Believing that keeping the gunpowder out of the hands of the radicals outweighed the risk of inflaming his opponents, he ordered the powder removed to Castle William in Boston Harbor. Before 5 a.m. on the morning of 1 September 1774, about 250 regulars embarked in thirteen longboats from Royal Navy ships in the harbor and were rowed up the Mystic River to the Ten Hills area of Charlestown, where they debarked and marched overland about a mile to the powder house. A detachment continued on to Cambridge, where the soldiers borrowed horses from a tavern keeper and confiscated two small field guns recently procured by the town militia. Both British forces accomplished their mission efficiently and without violence. By noon the munitions had arrived safely at Castle William.

The countryside was inflamed by reports that the redcoats had sallied forth in large numbers. As the news spread (by midnight it was known forty miles away in Shrewsbury), rumors embellished it: the citizens of Cambridge had resisted, the troops had fired, and six Patriots were dead. The Boston garrison was marching out in force! By the morning of 2 September, four thousand armed men had crowded into Cambridge, and more were coming. Word reached Israel Putnam at Pomfret, Connecticut, on 3 September that British ships had bombarded Boston and that as many as thirty thousand militia were moving toward Cambridge. The first Continental Congress, meeting at Philadelphia, learned of the "dreadful catastrophe" on 6 September (Smith, p. 49). According to John Adams, Congress "received by an express an intimation of the bombardment of Boston, a confused account, but an alarming one indeed" (Smith, p. 27). The effect was electric, and helped at a significant moment to strengthen the resolve of those delegates who refused to submit to an imperial government willing to use armed force in this manner. Two days later, after Adams had learned that "no blood had been spilled," he wrote to his wife that "every gentleman seems to regard the bombardment of Boston as the bombardment of the capital of his own province. Our deliberations are grave and serious indeed" (Smith, p. 49).

The excitement died down as the rumors were proved to be false, but the episode had been an impressive demonstration of how ready the radicals were to touch off the powder keg. On 5 September Gage ordered the erection of defensive works on Boston Neck, an understandable military precaution but one that again alarmed the countryside and gave the radicals more evidence of imperial tyranny with which to bolster their calls for resistance. The delegates to the Continental Congress began to worry less about their differences and more about the task ahead.

SEE ALSO Adams, John; Continental Congress; Gage, Thomas.


Alden, John Richard. General Gage in America, being Principally a History of His Role in the American Revolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1948.

French, Allen. General Gage's Informers. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1932.

Richmond, Robert P. Powder Alarm, 1774. Princeton, N.J.: Auerbach Publishers, 1971.

Smith, Paul H., et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. Vol. 1: August 1774–August 1775. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976.

                                  revised by Harold E. Selesky