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Friday, May 04, 2018 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Today we’re going to conclude our short series about the beginning of the American Revolution in South Carolina by looking closely at the theft of government-owned weapons and gunpowder in Charleston in April 1775. This crime (actually three separate but coordinated burglaries) represents the first major step in our transition from peaceful protest against British oppression to treasonous rebellion. Despite its significance, this important story isn’t well documented, and so historians have had a difficult time incorporating it into the narrative of the Revolution of South Carolina. Let’s take a look at the evidence and see if we can iron out some of the wrinkles in this remarkable story.

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 20th, 1775, the members of the General Committee of the South Carolina Provincial Congress convened in Charleston. After discussing the latest news received from England, and the intelligence contained in the private mail stolen from the post office the preceding night, the president of the Provincial Congress, Colonel Charles Pinckney (1732–1782) appointed William Henry Drayton (1742–1779) to head a “Secret Committee” to execute a series of preemptive covert actions. Their assignment was to take possession of government-owned weapons and gunpowder to prevent local British authorities from taking military action against the rebellious colonists. Such action was illegal and treasonous, of course, but the long-brewing American tensions with Britain had reached a breaking point, inspiring South Carolina’s political leaders to take action. Under cover of darkness on the evening of Friday, April 21st, three teams of operatives set out on their respective missions. Before we delve into the details of the clandestine mission of April 1775, let’s rewind for a moment and take a look at each of their three targets.

 

The Armory in the State House:

Starting in the 1670s, the provincial government of South Carolina began accumulating a collection of weapons for the use of the public in times of emergency. Besides cannon, iron shot, and carriages, the government also purchased “small arms”—muskets, bayonets, pistols, cartridge boxes, lead shot, flints, matches, and cutlasses. In the early days of the eighteenth century, these weapons were kept at various bastions around the fortified town. As the population increased, however, so too did the number of government-owned weapons and the need for a permanent storage facility. South Carolina’s royal government appointed an “ordnance store keeper” and began planning a centralized armory. In 1743, after several years of construction, all of the colony’s unmounted cannon, carriages, small arms, and gunnery tools were moved into a new brick armory near the southwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets. Today this building is under the south wall of the Federal Post Office building at that famous corner.

By the early 1750s, South Carolina’s growing collection of arms had already outgrown the 1743 armory, so the government began looking for overflow storage. A stone’s throw away, at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, workers laid the cornerstone of the colony’s first State House in June 1753. Three years later, in 1756, the building was sufficiently complete to house South Carolina’s legislative assembly (although the finishing details continued for a further nine years). On the ground floor of the new State House stood the colony’s only court room, as well as apartments for a jury, the provincial secretary, and the building’s housekeeper. The upper floor was devoted to the legislative chambers—one for the Commons House of Assembly and another for the Upper House and His Majesty’s Council (the same body with slightly different functions). Above these two finished floors stood a large attic space, secured behind a locked door, that was designed to house the government’s collection of small arms. In the spring of 1757, the provincial legislature paid gunsmith John Milner to move the bulk of South Carolina’s government-owned small arms, including hundreds of muskets, cutlasses, and related accoutrements, into the new “armory” the attic of the State House.[1] The older armory was re-designated an “arsenal,” and continued to house the colony’s collection of cannon and artillery accessories.

The management and oversight of South Carolina’s collection of government-owned small arms was the responsibility of the Ordnance Store Keeper, a part-time position appointed by the governor. The Store Keeper was responsible for making regular reports to the general assembly about the number and condition of the arms, but he contracted with local gunsmiths and other tradesmen to repair and clean the weapons. In October 1773, Lieutenant-Governor William Bull, our chief executive at that time, appointed Irish native John Poaug (died 1780) to the office of “Storekeeper of his Majesty’s Ordnance and Stores in this Province.”[2] Two years later, when the Revolutionary War began in Charleston, John Poaug was still the man with the keys to the armory inside the State House.

Speaking of which, Mr. Poaug wasn’t the only one with keys to the building. Throughout the 1770s, Mrs. Mary Pratt served as housekeeper of the State House, and lived in a small ground-floor apartment within the grand building.[3] We don’t know much about Mrs. Pratt’s life, but we can be sure that she heard and saw nearly everything that went on within the walls of the State House.

 

 

The New Magazines of 1770:

In the spring of 1770, the South Carolina legislature engaged in a hot debate about the storage of gunpowder within the urban confines of Charleston. The colony’s earliest powder magazines had been built on the outskirts of the town, but over the years the expanding residential population had moved beyond the old magazines. Residents had been complaining for years about the inherent danger of living next door to large stockpiles of gunpowder, but the government was slow to act. Finally, in April 1770, the South Carolina legislature ratified an act for building two new powder magazines near Charleston, but well outside the town, and to close the older urban magazines.[4] Shortly thereafter, the government purchased from Miss Margaret Elliott a lot on “the Neck” of the Charleston peninsula, at the head of Shipyard Creek, and another lot from Captain Clement Lempriere (died 1778) at Hobcaw Point, near the mouth of Molasses Creek.

 The two new magazines, completed by the end of 1770, fell under the jurisdiction of Captain James Reid (ca. 1701–1779), an aging mariner who held the title of Powder Receiver of South Carolina from 1760 until his death.[5] For the better management of the new rural magazines, however, the provincial government appointed two neighboring gentlemen to superintend the facilities under the title of “deputy powder receivers”: Captain Robert Cochran (1735–1824) was the brother-in-law of Miss Elliott, and owned a shipyard adjacent to the new magazine on the Neck, while Clement Lempriere’s son-in-law, Charles Prince, superintended the magazine adjacent to his residence on Molasses Creek. There’s nothing left of these 1770 magazines today, although the Hobcaw magazine is memorialized by a historical marker on the west side of Muirhead Road in Mt. Pleasant, near the head (or east end) of Molasses Creek.

 

The Covert Operations of April 21st 1775:

Once the Secret Committee appointed on April 20th had made their plans, preparations began for a series of three covert raids on the following evening. The entire operation was supposed to be a secret, but apparently not everyone followed the script. According to the post-war memoirs of William Moultrie, for example, “a few gentlemen” approached “the King’s [ordnance] store keeper,” John Poaug, and demanded the keys to the armory in the attic of the State House. Mr. Poaug, a man of principle in the king’s employ, replied that “he could not give them up,” but “neither could he hinder them from breaking open the doors.” “This hint was enough,” remembered William Moultrie, “there was no time for hesitation.”[6]

Around 11 p.m. on the evening of Friday, April 21st, a silent party of rebellious Americans, dressed in their normal civilian clothes, convened at the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. Their objective was to remove as many of the government-owned weapons as possible from the attic of the State House at the northwest corner of that intersection. On the opposite side of Broad Street stood the town’s Watch House, or police station, but the rebel thieves encountered no resistance. Did they break open the door to the armory? According to an official publication issued a few days later, the door showed no signs of being forced open. Perhaps a key had been obtained. At any rate, over a period of several hours, they quietly removed at least 800 muskets with bayonets, 200 cutlasses, all of the leather cartridge boxes, and a quantity of match and gun flints. Imagine a bucket brigade of rebels stretching from the attic of the State House, down the stairs, out the north door of the building, and into the courtyard. Waiting there was probably a queue of carts or wagons ready to shuttle the weapons off to multiple secret hiding places, so the entire cache would not be found if the authorities suddenly interrupted the scene.

Who were the men who participated in this raid on the State House armory? In his 1821 Memoirs, John Drayton provides a list of “respectable gentlemen” who “attended” at the State House on that evening, “among whom were Colonel Charles Pinckney, President of the Provincial Congress—Col. Henry Laurens, Chairman of the General Committee—Thomas Lynch, one of the Delegates to the Continental Congress—Benjamin Huger, William Bull, and William Henry Drayton, the two last, nephews of the Lieutenant-Governor [William Bull].”[7] To this list of “gentlemen,” Joseph Johnson, in 1851, added the names of several “mechanics,” or tradesmen, including Daniel Cannon, William Johnson, Anthony Toomer, Edward Weyman, and Daniel Stevens.[8]

Meanwhile, down by the Cooper River, operatives were making preparations to steal the government’s supply of gunpowder from the nearby magazines. Under cover of darkness, two groups, perhaps numbering six to ten men each, embarked in two large rowboats from some point on the Charleston waterfront—probably from the town’s northernmost wharf, owned by Christopher Gadsden. The route from Gadsden’s wharf up the Cooper River to the magazine at the head of Shipyard Creek on the Neck was approximately four and a half miles. The route from Gadsden’s Wharf to the magazine at Hobcaw Point, up the Wando River, near the mouth of Molasses Creek, was almost exactly three miles. To economize their rowing efforts, the two crews probably coordinated their respective journeys with the changing tides. The incoming flood tide would have facilitated the trip from the wharf upriver, while a few hours later the ebbing tide would have carried the powder-heavy barges back downstream to Gadsden’s Wharf with a minimum of effort. 

Years after the conclusion of the American Revolution, a Charleston blacksmith named William Johnson told his son, Joseph, that he and Edward Weyman, a member of the Secret Committee, had taken part in the expedition to break into the magazine next to Robert Cochran’s shipyard. When they arrived at the target, however, they found the magazine empty. It appeared that Captain Cochran had divined their mission and preemptively removed the powder and hidden it nearby. The elder Johnson blamed this failure on his friend Edward Weyman, whom he remembered as being “particularly fond of good cheer” and “addicted to good living.” According to Joseph Johnson’s 1851 publication of Traditions and Reminiscences of the American Revolution, Cochran was sympathetic to the American cause and was soon active in the patriotic resistance to British oppression. As the deputy Powder Receiver in charge of the Neck magazine, however, he would be financially responsible for the disappearance of its contents. Shortly thereafter, Johnson said, Captain Cochran sold the hidden powder from the Neck magazine to the Provincial Congress, and used the money to pay off his obligations for the missing powder.[9]

Whether or not Johnson’s anecdote about the magazine incident with Robert Cochran is true, it appears that the rebels achieved their goal of getting the gunpowder away from government hands in April 1775. Joseph Johnson stated that his father and friends rowed back to Charleston empty-handed and embarrassed, but we may never know if that’s the way it really happened. On the other hand, John Drayton, who published his own father’s Memoirs of the American Revolution in 1821, reported the arrival of only one cargo of stolen powder at Gadsden’s Wharf on the night of April 21st (or the early hours of April 22nd). Drayton simply stated that “Christopher Gadsden attended at [his] wharf, to receive the powder when it was landed there from the Hobcaw Magazine.”[10] From this statement, we can deduce that the mission to raid the contents of the Hobcaw powder magazine went according to plan, without interference from Charles Prince, the Deputy Powder Receiver in charge of that facility. If the theft of the powder under his watch embarrassed Mr. Prince, or caused him financial stress, it was apparently of very little concern to South Carolina’s early rebels. Charles Prince remained steadfastly loyal to the British cause, to the point that he was forced to flee from Charleston in the summer of 1777.[11]

 

The Discovery of the Crimes:

On the morning of Saturday, April 22nd, someone informed Lieutenant Governor William Bull, either at his home on Meeting Street or at his office, about the nocturnal burglaries. Bull immediately summoned his privy council, clerk, and secretary, and convened at the State House. First, he interrogated John Poaug, the provincial Ordnance Store Keeper, who informed the lieutenant governor “that about eight hundred stand of arms, two hundred cutlasses, and all the cartouch [cartridge] boxes fit for service, with several bundles of match and some [musket] flints, were taken out of the public Armoury, in the State House, last night, by persons unknown; and that there was no appearance that the doors of the Armoury had been forced by violence.” Next came Captain Robert Cochran, Deputy Powder Receiver, who stated “that on the same night, the public powder magazine, built on his land [actually it was next-door to his land], about four miles from this town, was broke open, and all the powder therein, being about five hundred [pounds] weight, was carried off by persons unknown.”[12]

The lieutenant governor called in the housekeeper, Mrs. Mary Pratt, who lived in an apartment on the ground floor of the State House, and asked her if she had seen or heard anything unusual during the preceding night. “Although she saw the arms taken away, and the persons who took them,” said John Drayton, “she would not give any information tending to a discovery,” even after William Bull threatened Mrs. Pratt “with the loss of her place, which, was mostly her support.” Was Mary Pratt a silent supporter of American liberties? We’ll never know for certain, but she did lose her job as keeper of the State House when the British army captured Charleston in 1780, and she reapplied for the position at the conclusion of the war in January 1783.[13]

If the lieutenant governor was displeased with Mary Pratt’s feigned ignorance, he was probably furious with the commander of the Town Watch, who was called in to testify next. Every night at sundown, Captain John Stevenson and his paramilitary company of nocturnal watchmen mounted guard across the street, in front of the Watch House at the southwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. In addition, the ambulatory watchmen made rounds through the all the streets at regular intervals during the night. Had any of the watchmen seen anything unusual during the preceding night? Perhaps a few suspicious characters carrying hundreds and hundreds of noisy small arms away from the State House to some unknown destinations? No sir, the watchmen saw nothing. John Drayton, drawing from the notes of his father, William Henry Drayton, stated “although he [the watch commander] saw several persons about the State-House, and knew them, [he] was equally silent.”[14]

Appalled by the serious nature of these “daring offences” and the pretended ignorance of several eye-witnesses, Lieutenant-Governor Bull issued an official proclamation on the afternoon of Saturday, April 22nd, offering a reward of £100 sterling to “to any Person that shall give Information, so that he or they may be brought to condign [formal or fitting] Punishment, hereby strictly commanding all his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, Constables, and other Civil Officers, to use their best endeavours to make discovery thereof. . . . GOD Save the KING.”[15] Printed copies of the lieutenant governor’s proclamation were posted around the town, and it appeared in all of the local newspapers for the next several weeks. The reward was never claimed, and no one came forward to offer any information about the thefts to the king’s representatives in Charleston.

Note that William Bull’s proclamation, issued on Saturday, April 22nd, does not mention the magazine at Hobcaw Point. A few days later, however, on Tuesday, April 25th, Lt. Gov. Bull sent a message to the Commons House of Assembly, stating that in addition to the abovementioned thefts from the State House and Capt. Cochran’s magazine on the Neck, Mr. Charles Prince had informed him of the theft of 1,025 pounds of gunpowder from the Hobcaw magazine on the evening of April 21st. It would appear, therefore, that Mr. Prince didn’t deliver this news to Bull until after he had issued the proclamation on the 22nd. This detail was of little consequence to the investigation, however, for the vast majority of the gentlemen forming South Carolina’s Commons House of Assembly in the spring of 1775 were also members of the colony’s nascent shadow government, the Provincial Congress, and already knew more about the recent burglaries than Lt. Gov. Bull would ever learn.

“Upon so very extraordinary, and alarming an occasion,” continued the lieutenant governor’s message to the Commons House, “it becomes my indispensable duty, to acquaint you therewith, without the loss of time; and earnestly to recommend this important matter to your investigation, and most serious consideration.” How did the rebellious gentlemen of the Commons House react to this urgent plea? According to the memoirs of John Drayton, “the Assembly, laughed at this act of government. However, to carry on the farce, [the matter] was referred to the committee who had been appointed to examine the public arms.” Two days later, on April 27th, the committee returned to the Commons House and reported, with sarcastic self-satisfaction, “that with all the inquiry you Committee have made, they are not able to obtain any certain intelligence relative to the removal of the public arms, and gun-powder, as mentioned in his Honour’s message; but, think there is reason to suppose, that some of the inhabitants of this Colony, may have been induced to take so extraordinary and uncommon a step, in consequence of the late alarming accounts from Great Britain.” The members of the Commons House concurred with the findings of the committee report, and forwarded a copy thereof to Lt. Gov. Bull.[16]

 

I’d like to close this short series about the first sparks of the American Revolution in South Carolina by drawing your attention to the last sentence of that committee report of April 27th, 1775. In fact, it was that sentence that inspired me to launch this brief series of essays. My goal over the past few episodes was to clarify the events surrounding the theft of the royal mail on April 19th, 1775, and the significance of the intelligence gained during that small, but pivotal operation. On the same day that citizens in Massachusetts witnessed “the shot heard round the world” at the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, a small group of rebellious South Carolinians discovered the same intelligence in their stolen mail that their brothers in Massachusetts learned the hard way—that the British government intended to use the military to crush American resistance. This intelligence inspired the first steps of the Revolution of South Carolina—the preemptive raids on the government-owned arms and gunpowder on April 21st, 1775. Six days after that treasonous operation, the investigative report of a committee of the Commons House of Assembly summarized the spark that ignited the war in South Carolina with a touch of sarcastic panache: “there is reason to suppose, that some of the inhabitants of this colony, may have been induced to take so extraordinary and uncommon a step, in consequence of the late alarming accounts from Great Britain.” In short, the information acquired by raiding the post office on April 19th proved to be the last straw for angry Charlestonians. The time had come to take up arms and to fight for liberty.

The events of April 1775 were just the small, opening steps in what became a sprawling, violent struggle for independence, of course, but I’m going to stop here and take a break from the American Revolution. In the coming weeks, we’ll move on to other topics and other eras of history. I go where ever the Time Machine takes me.

 

[1] Terry W. Lipscomb, ed., The Journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, November 20, 1755–July 6, 1757 (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1989), 421. For more information about the State House, see Carl R. Lounsbury, From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capital and Charleston County Courthouse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).

[2] South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 5 October 1773.

[3] Mary Pratt described her tenure as “housekeeper for the State House” in a 1783 petition. See South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Petitions to the General Assembly, 1783, No. 67.

[4] Act No. 997, “An Act for building a Powder Magazine at Hobcaw Point, and another on Charleston Neck, and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 7 April 1770; see Thomas Cooper, ed., Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 4 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1838), 319–20.

[5] South-Carolina Gazette, 24–31 May 1760. This is the man for whom Charleston’s Reid Street is named.

[6] William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far as It Related to the States of North and South Carolina and Georgia, volume 1 (New York: David Longworth, 1802), 58. Moultrie identifies the “King’s store keeper” as Capt. Cochran, but John Poaug held this post in April 1775 and for some months afterward. At some unknown point in the second half of 1775, however either the South Carolina Provincial Congress or the Council of Safety appointed Robert Cochran to be the rebel “ordnance store keeper.” The date of this appointment does not appear in the surviving, incomplete records of those bodies. See “Journal of the Second Council of Safety, Appointed by the Provisional Congress, November 1775,” in Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, volume 3 (Charleston: South Carolina Historical Society, 1859), pp. 35–271. Note also that William Bull’s proclamation of April 22nd states that the State House armory door was not broken open.

[7] John Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution, volume 1 (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1821), 222.

[8] Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (Charleston, S.C.: Walker and James, 1851), 54.

[9] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 52–54. In retelling this story, Joseph Johnson mistakenly identifies Cochran as the keeper of the magazine at Hobcaw, and asserts that William Johnson and Edward Weyman were part of the expedition to that magazine. Cochran was definitely not associated with the Hobcaw magazine, so the younger Johnson must be mistaken about which magazine his father visited in April 1775.

[10] John Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution, 1: 222.

[11] See Hugh Edward Egerton, The Royal Commission on the Losses and Services of American Loyalists, 1783 to 1785 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1915), 132–33.

[12] These quotations are taken from the text of William Bull’s proclamation of 22 April 1775, which appears in in South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 25 April 1775. Note that Bull’s proclamation states that the armory and powder thefts occurred on the “same night.” In 1802, however, Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, 1: 59, stated that the armory raid occurred first, and “the breaking open the magazines” occurred “the next day.” Conversely, in 1851 Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 51–56, asserted that the magazine expeditions took place on April 20th, and the armory raid occurred the following evening, April 21st. Johnson’s rationale for this assertion was based on the purported memory of his father, William Johnson, who was supposed to have participated in two of the three nocturnal operations. Without further investigation and further evidence, I am inclined to be skeptical of Johnson’s chronology.

[13] Drayton, Memoirs, 1: 223. See Mary Pratt’s 1783 petition mentioned above.

[14] Drayton, Memoirs, 1: 223.

[15] The earliest surviving copy of Bull’s proclamation appears in South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 25 April 1775 (Tuesday).