You Will Do What Prudence Directs

The Portsmouth Alarm of December 1774 preceded the outbreak of the Revolutionary War

in by Warren

 Boston, December 12, 1774.

GENTLEMEN, -We think it our duty to inform you, that one of the [British Navy] transports sailed from this port yesterday, in the afternoon, with several hundred soldiers on board. There are various conjectures concerning her destination; but it is generally believed she is designed for Newport, and that the troops are to take possession of the fortress there. The vigilance of our enemies is well known. They doubt not the bravery of our countrymen; but, if they can get our fortresses, our arms, and ammunition into their custody, they will despise all our attempts to shake off their fetters. We are convinced, that you will do what prudence directs upon this important occasion, and are, with great esteem, your friends and humble servants.

Source: In: Frothingham, Richard. Life and Times of Joseph Warren. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1865, p. 398.  Minutes of the Massachusetts Provincial Committee of Safety.  Ms said to be in Joseph Warren’s hand writing.

Commentary: The Massachusetts Provincial Congress charged its Committee of Safety to keep close tabs on British military movements and to blunt their effectiveness.  Joseph Warren was a key member of the committee. Paul Revere was involved in such surveillance and intelligence gathering, which could prove less than precise during the winter of 1774-1775.  Paul Revere triggered the Portsmouth Alarm, departing Boston on December 13th, probably based on concern over this same ship movement. As it turned out the British did not harbor immediate designs on Newport, Rhode Island or Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Nevertheless local patriots took over Fort William and Mary and seized the King’s munitions stored there on December 14, 1774.  Two months later Patriot intelligence in Boston was equally ineffective in not forewarning Patriots of the Salem Alarm.

Popular blogster and historian J.L. Bell points out that a British Navy movement was indeed afoot, though Patriot knowledge of it was imprecise. “On 4 Dec 1774, Adm Graves ordered the Canceaux to prepare to sail up to the Piscataqua harbor. As of 9 December, Gov Wentworth was expecting a man-of-war by the 18th.  So although the Boston Patriots were wrong in believing the royal authorities planned to take over Fort William & Mary, they were right that New Hampshire Patriots would have little chance of doing so if they didn’t act within the week.”

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