Through the summer Rebel militiamen from several towns withdrew gunpowder from the Massachusetts Provincial Powder House about six miles northwest of Boston in what is now Somerville. The tower-like stone structure was topped by one of Ben Franklin’s lightning rods.
In some way—probably through a Tory informer—word of the gunpowder removal reached Maj. Gen. William Brattle, the highest-ranking officer of the colony’s royal militia.
Brattle, a remarkable man of many achievements, had not yet personally acted on the crisis. In one of John Singleton Copley’s earliest portraits, the large, imposing Brattle is presented in a dazzling gold-trimmed uniform. He lived a comfortable life in one of the mansions on a quiet street that curved along the Charles River in Cambridge, a street that became known as Tory Row.
In Cambridge the Tories were a people apart. About 90 percent of the fifteen hundred residents were descendants of Puritans. They worshipped in Congregational churches and clung to their opposition to the Anglican Church. The Tories of Cambridge, many of whom owned sugar plantations in Jamaica and Antigua, lived on large adjacent estates along Tory Row and entertained one another with lavish dinners. They were all Anglicans who had built their own Christ Church down the street, near Harvard College. Each Tory family purchased a pew, allotting space in the rear for slaves and servants.
The church and Tory Row formed a little social world untouched by Boston. “Never had I chanced upon such an agreeable situation,” wrote the wife of a Hessian general who had lived nearby for a time. “Seven families, who were connected with each other, partly by the ties of relationship and partly by affection, had here farms, gardens, and magnificent houses, and not far off plantations of fruit. The owners of these were in the habit of daily meeting each other in the afternoons, now at the house of one, and now at another, and making themselves merry with music.”
Brattle, who graduated from Harvard in 1722 at the age of seventeen, had had three successful careers—clergyman, physician, lawyer—in his public life. But when rebellion began to brew, he became best known as a military officer. Outwardly he tried to maintain neutrality between Loyalists and Patriots. But he was secretly informing General Gage about Rebel activity in Cambridge. After learning about the steady removal of gunpowder, he passed the information to Gage.
Gage moved quickly. In a smooth, predawn military operation, 260 Redcoats slipped out of Boston Harbor in longboats, were rowed to a landing near the powder house, got the key from a royal sheriff, and carried off 250 half barrels of gunpowder, which they transported through Cambridge, Roxbury, and Dorchester to military headquarters at Castle William on Castle Island in the harbor.
On September 1, after learning what had happened, Patriots set off what became known as the Powder Alarm. Church bells tolled. Drums banged. Thousands of Rebel militiamen mobilized. Express riders carried wild rumors—warships are shelling Boston, Redcoats are on the march—as far as Connecticut, where more musket-carrying men assembled. A mob of four thousand men swarmed into Cambridge and marched to Tory Row.
Somehow Brattle’s letter to Gage had become public. In the words of John Rowe, a prominent Boston merchant, the letter “exasperated the country people against Brattle, so that he now takes refuge in Boston.” Brattle’s sudden desertion from Tory Row began an exodus of Loyalists to the protection of the Redcoats of Boston, establishing the city as a sanctuary for Tories.
The mob swarmed down Tory Row, shattering the windows of Jonathan Sewall’s mansion. His fast-thinking wife, Esther, talked the mob into leaving the house intact in exchange for the contents of Sewall’s well-stocked wine cellar. The next day mobs marched on the Cambridge courthouse in Harvard Square and successfully exacted resignations from two Tory judges serving as mandamus councillors. Later, Patriots stormed the mansion of Brattle’s good friend, Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, demanding his resignation. Oliver picked up a quill pen and wrote, “My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their demand I sign my name.” Patriot mobs also hunted down Col. David Phips, the sheriff who had given up the powder house key, and forced him to promise he would not enforce the new anti-Patriot laws.
Patriots—” hoodlums,” the Loyalists called them—were openly asserting their power. Rowe’s diary tracks the swiftly growing crisis:
Sept. 2—. A great number of people from the country are collected at Waltham, Watertown, and Cambridge, occasioned as tis reported from the behaviour of Gen1 Brattle… . [General Gage] has reinforced the entrance at the Neck [the only approach to the city by land]. Commissioner [of Customs] Hallowell has been insulted in his way through Cambridge; he fled for shelter to this town [Boston]. Sept 3—[Gage] sent four field pieces to Boston Neck… . Sept. 7—[Gage] has doubled the guards at the Neck, and I believe designs to fortify it.”‘
In October a red flag emblazoned with the words “Liberty and Union” was raised on the town green of Taunton. Enraged Loyalists reacted by claiming that hoodlums were threatening to take over the town. Taunton’s militia was no longer royal; it was commanded by Col. David Cobb, a Patriot. His brother-in-law, Robert Treat Paine, was in Philadelphia, serving in the Continental Congress.
Paine certainly was not a hoodlum. He had been a prosecuting attorney for the Crown in the Boston Massacre trial. Son of a minister and grandson of a Connecticut royal governor, he had graduated with honors from Harvard at the age of fourteen. He had served in the French and Indian War as a Congregationalist chaplain, Though he possessed many of the attributes of a Loyalist, he had chosen the Patriot path.
To Ned Winslow and many angry and fearful Loyalists like him, that path was leading toward civil war. They believed that a stronger military presence was needed in the towns outside of Boston, and they wrote to Gage asking that a warship be sent to Plymouth Harbor to provide an emergency exit for Loyalists whose escape to Boston would be barred by towns “where inhabitants are notorious factions & malicious.”
Gage was obviously aware of Patriot activity in the countryside. Two companies of Redcoats—about one hundred men—patrolled the area around his secondary residence, an estate in Danvers about twenty-five miles north of Boston. But Gage hesitated to commit more of his men to Tory protection duty.
Sometime around the beginning of 1775, two hundred of the “principal inhabitants” of Marshfield, asserting that they had been “insulted and intimidated by the licentious spirit that unhappily has been prevalent among the lower ranks of people in the Massachusetts Government,” asked Gage for troops “to assist in preserving the peace, and to check the insupportable insolence of the disaffected and turbulent.”
Patriot selectmen from Plymouth and five other towns wrote to Gage protesting proposals to send troops out of Boston to protect Loyalists. Patriots in Plymouth threatened to march on Marshfield and drive the Loyalists from their farms. Marshfield Loyalists reacted by sending a horseman galloping off to Gage with an urgent plea for help. Gage ordered three officers and one hundred men of the Queen’s Guards to board two ships that sailed immediately to Marshfield. The ships also carried three hundred “stands of arms,” presumably for civilian soldiers. In those days a stand of arms usually consisted of a musket, a bayonet and a cartridge box, and belt.
The Guards and their officers bivouacked on the vast Marshfield estate of Nathaniel Ray Thomas. “The King’s troops are very comfortably accommodated, and preserve the most exact discipline,” a Loyalist wrote, “and now every faithful subject to his King dare fully utter his thoughts.” The commander of the unit, Capt. Nesbit Balfour, and other officers made themselves at home in Thomas’s mansion, even having a wine cellar built to Balfour’s specifications.
When the Queen’s Guards marched into Marshfield, according to the Loyalists’ rollicking account of the Patriots’ panicky withdrawal, only about a dozen Rebel militiamen appeared—and then quickly disappeared. Gage sent the troops as a show of force against the so called minutemen (a new, more frightening word than the old and familiar “militiamen”) who had begun to roam the country roads beyond the usual reach of his Boston Redcoats. Queen’s Guards escorted Loyalists when they set out on those roads. In one clash between the militiamen and a Redcoat patrol, a British sergeant threatened to shoot the militiamen if they failed to give up their arms. They had handed over their weapons.
“Minutemen” became the Loyalists’ label for a new brand of Patriots—Rebels carrying muskets. In March 1775 a Loyalist had a harrowing encounter with three minutemen who pounded on his door and announced that they were going to carry him off to jail. When they refused to leave,
I then took down my gun from where it hung, and … all three Sprang upon me, Renched ye Gun out my hand, when my sick wife and all my children stood by, Screeching, Screaming & Crying, my wife begging, as if it was for her Life. I then Ran in to my Shop, and took my Sword… and Swore if they did not Leave the House I would Run them through… . I then told my little son to fetch me my horse and put on the saddle, which he did; I then, with my Every Day Clothes, went out of my house and mounted my Horse… . I Rode out, fast.
In Marshfield, as in nearby Taunton, the Patriot-Loyalist conflict was tearing the town apart. Some three hundred townspeople, including members of the Winslow family, belonged to the Associated Loyalists of Marshfield. On January 31, 1774, at a town meeting, a majority approved a resolution pledging loyalty to the king. From a town meeting on February 14 came a counter-declaration pledging that Patriot townspeople would contribute their “last mite for the cause of liberty in the province.”
The arrival in Marshfield of Captain Balfour and his Queen’s Guards temporarily quieted the town. Balfour, making his acquaintance of prominent Loyalists in the neighborhood, became a frequent guest at Winslow’s home. During one visit he offered to station some of his Guards in Plymouth. Winslow declined the suggestion because, he said, local Rebels would be inflamed by the sight of Redcoats on the streets of his town.
When one of Balfour’s subordinates did stroll down a Plymouth street, a crowd surrounded him. He darted into an apothecary shop. Some people followed him in and demanded his sword. When he refused, they snatched it from him, broke it into pieces, and departed, satisfied with merely humiliating the officer.
During a dinner at Winslow’s home, Winslow laid out to Balfour a plan to march some of the Guards from Marshfield to Plymouth to capture the Rebels who essentially ran free there. Balfour turned to one of the guests, John Watson, a member of the now-defunct Old Colony Club, and asked if the Rebels would fight back. “Yes, like devils,” Watson replied. Balfour politely turned down Winslow’s plan.
Late one night in August 1774, a mob attacked Col. Thomas Gilbert of Freetown, about thirty-five miles south of Boston. Gilbert, a tough old soldier, fought off his assailants. Then the same mob fell upon Brig. Gen. Timothy Ruggles, who, “by his firm Resolution,” also emerged from a scuffle unharmed. But, said Tory chronicler Peter Oliver, “in Revenge” men in the mob cut off the tail and mane of one of Ruggles’s finest horses and painted the animal. Another account says that his cattle were maimed and poisoned. Gilbert himself later wrote that several attempts were made on his life.
Gilbert and Ruggles separately began planning the creation of Loyalist military forces that would fight the Patriots and their minutemen without dependence on Gage and his Redcoats. As proud comrades in battle during the French and Indian War, they preferred to be addressed by their wartime ranks. Gilbert, who lived in the Tory-dominated Assonet section of Freetown, in effect took command of armed Loyalists in southeastern Massachusetts. He seems to have become the quartermaster general of the stands of arms that had been shipped with the Queen’s Guards sent to Marshfield. With Gage’s approval, Gilbert stored muskets, powder, and bullets in his home and, in his words, “collected and armed about 300 Loyalists, trained and Exercised them.” This would be the first Loyalist military corps raised in the colonies.
A fifth-generation American, Ruggles could claim, through his wife, a link going back to the beginning of the Plymouth Colony. President of the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, he had launched his career as a staunch Loyalist. But he had refused to sign the Declaration of Rights. He became a wealthy man, the owner or five farms. He kept thirty prized horses and maintained a deer park to entertain his hunting guests.
Ruggles was distantly related to John Adams, who once wrote that Ruggles’s “grandeur consists in the quickness of his apprehension, steadiness of his attention, the boldness and strength of his thoughts and expressions, his strict honor, conscious superiority, contempt of meanness, &c.” After Ruggles became a militant Loyalist leader, Adams changed his assessment, condemning Ruggles’s behavior, accusing him of being governed by “pretended scruples and timidities,” and claiming that he was “held in utter contempt and derision by the whole continent.”
All around him Ruggles saw that the Patriots—” a banditti, whose cruelties surpass those of savages”70—were organizing and uniting for war. Ruggles believed Loyalists should quickly do the same, forming a counterforce that he called the Loyal American Association. Its members would pledge, “with our lives and fortunes,” to “stand by and assist each other in the defence of life, liberty and property, whenever the same shall be attacked or endangered by any bodies of men, riotously assembled upon any pretence, or under any authority not warranted by the laws of the land.” (The First Continental Congress used similar language, resolving that Americans “are entitled to life, liberty & property.”)
Brigadier Ruggles was a stubborn, committed man. When he had been appointed a mandamus councillor and set off to Boston to be sworn in by Gates, he had to cross a bridge on the road out of Hardwick. At the head of a menacing crowd stood his Patriot brother Benjamin, the captain of a royal militia that was rapidly turning rebellious. Town tradition records the scene:
Benjamin quietly faced his older brother and said that if he crossed the bridge he would never be allowed to return.
“Brother Benjamin,” Timothy replied, “I shall come back—at the head of five hundred soldiers, if necessary.”
“Brother Timothy,” Benjamin replied, “if you cross that bridge, this morning, you will certainly never cross it again—alive.”
Timothy Ruggles turned, waved his hand to the crowd, and at a brisk military pace crossed the bridge.
Ruggles’s proposed Loyal American Association would protect “the good people of the province.” Members of the association were to pledge that they would not submit to any rebellious assembly and would instead “enforce obedience” to the king and his laws; they would defend each other if imperiled by “any Committees, mobs, or unlawful Assemblies,” and, “if need be, will oppose and repel force with force.” Finally, if the person or property of any member of the association was injured and “full reparation” was refused, “we will have recourse to the natural law of Retaliation.” Within three weeks, according to an enthusiastic Loyalist, 150 men of Marshfield signed up for the association.
Not long after Ruggles’s plan became public, a band of Loyalists in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed an agreement that they would “defend and Protect Each other from Mob Riots or any unlawful attacks … to the utmost Extremity.” Those Loyalists were reacting to the storming of William and Mary Castle, a crumbling fort about three miles offshore, by Portsmouth Patriots. After easily overpowering the British guards, the raiders carried off cannons, muskets, and one hundred barrels of gunpowder. John Wentworth, the New Hampshire royal governor, appealed to Gage for help. Two Royal Navy warships soon appeared off Portsmouth, and from one of them the governor borrowed twenty stands of arms for his newly formed Loyalist Association. Wentworth boarded one of the warships and, with his wife and infant son, sailed away to Boston hoping in vain that he could persuade Gage to save New Hampshire from the Rebels.
On village greens from New England to South Carolina, Rebel militias were drilling. Patriot couriers were carrying messages from town to town and colony to colony. Georgia, which managed to send only one delegate to the Second Continental Congress, finally showed its solidarity in May 1775, when Sons of Liberty broke into a royal magazine in Savannah, stole gunpowder, and then shared it with South Carolina Rebels. The authority of the Continental Congress was spreading and showing itself, through the creation of provincial congresses and through “resolves” that ranged from military matters to social behavior. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, the Committee of Safety decreed that “Balls and Dancing at Public Houses are contrary to the Resolves of the General Congress” and warned a known Tory to withdraw her plans for a ball at her house. She stubbornly went on with the ball, apparently after some negotiating. But the committee issued a general warning against future dancing.
In Virginia delegates to the Virginia Convention met to approve acts of the Congress. To evade the royal governor—John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore—the delegates met in a church in Richmond instead of the royal capital of Williamsburg. On March 23 Patrick Henry proposed raising a Patriot militia and, to critics seeking conciliation, he declared:
Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
In London, Parliament debated conciliation and then voted against the idea, 270 to 78. War now seemed inevitable; indeed, as Patrick Henry said, it had actually begun. Ruggles’s Loyal Americans was only a proposal. And Gilbert’s three hundred armed Loyalists were not members of a trained armed force. But Ruggles’s and Gilbert’s plans posed a strategic question for Gage: Would the Loyalists fight against their countrymen?