New Hampshire did its part in the Revolutionary War to pave way for an Independence Day

Union Leader correspondent
July 03. 2014 10:45AM
George Washington visited the Folsom Tavern, part of the American Independence Museum in Exeter, in 1789. (Courtesy)

DERRY – The story of the Revolutionary War usually focuses a little further south than New Hampshire, from the first shots at Lexington and Concord to the Battle of Bunker Hill and Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown.

Although there were no battles fought within the borders of New Hampshire, the state's residents were every bit as involved as the founding fathers and mothers to the south.

Paul Revere won fame for his midnight ride through the streets of Boston in 1775, but Revere actually rode through New Hampshire four months earlier in December of 1774.

At the American Independence Museum in Exeter, the students who come through for tours learn about the importance of Revere's original ride.

"Without Paul Revere riding through a Nor'easter, the British could have taken control of the ammunition," said museum executive director Julie Hall Williams.

Revere warned residents that the British were coming to Portsmouth Harbor and to protect the military stores at Fort William and Mary in New Castle.

This touched off what may have been the best known Revolutionary-era military operation in New Hampshire before the war was even declared between the colonists and the British the next year.

The Sons of Liberty raided Fort William and Mary and captured 15 cannon and more than five tons of gunpowder, which they hid in the nearby countryside. A day later, British ships did appear in Portsmouth Harbor.

"Later, all that powder that was taken at Fort William and Mary was used at the Battle of Bunker Hill," said Williams.

Although the major military action would move south as the war began, many New Hampshire residents joined the fight for freedom and fought in all the major battles of the war.

According to Derry town historian Rick Holmes, that town was the ground zero of the Revolutionary War in New Hampshire, with almost all the important military leaders from New Hampshire having a connection to Derry.

"I claim the revolution started in Derry in 1769 when we surrounded a bunch of British soldiers and forced the release of a captured Derry resident," said Holmes. "And they were not just screaming at them, they were pointing guns at the soldiers' heads."

The drama of the tension between the loyalists and the patriots was also played out on Derry's stage.

As General John Stark marched his troops to Medford to man the barricades at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Derry Selectman and British spy Stephen Holland was trying to raise loyalist troops to march to Medford as well.

"Stephen Holland was the biggest spy for the British in the Revolutionary War," said Holmes. Even after Bunker Hill, Holland's role as a spy was unknown to the patriots, as Stark sent secret reports about the battle to Holland.

In Pelham, the local historical society has worked hard to keep the stories and memories of those who served in the Revolutionary War alive.

"We had a lot of Pelham residents who served in the Revolutionary War," said Pelham Historical Society President Bill Scanzani.

Those names are listed on a plaque at the Pelham Historical Society building, which was previously the town's library.

"A lot of the old public libraries in New Hampshire have plaques on the wall listing the many people who served in the Revolutionary War (and other wars)," said Scanzani. "When you go down the list in Pelham and see the names on the plaques, you notice that they are the same names of many people who still live in town."

Former Pelham Historical Society Library curator Bill Hayes spearheaded efforts to put much of the town's history, including records from the Revolutionary War, online as part of the Hayes-Genoter History and Genealogy Online Library.

Of special interest those interested in the history of the Revolutionary War are 13 transcribed Revolutionary War pension applications.

Years after the war, military veterans in financial need were allowed to apply to the federal government for a pension. These pension applications usually included details on where and when these veterans served.

One of those who applied for a pension was John Ferguson, who enlisted in the Colonial army multiple times, serving during the Battle of Bunker Hill and later marched to West Point, new York near the end of the war in 1781.

Ferguson's grandfather, also named John, purchased all 400 acres of Pelham center in 1738 and later donated the Pelham Town Common to the town around 1751.

At the American Independence Museum, re-enactors and exhibits help keep the stories of the Revolutionary War alive for younger generations.

"The students can see the reinforcement of what they learn in the classroom and they can see history come to life while standing in a room that was built in 1751," said Williams.

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