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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"PERFECT THEMSELVES IN MILITARY SKILL": IMPORTANT 1774 RESOLUTIONS FROM THE MASSACHUSETTS PROVINCIAL CONGRESS



When war with England appeared inevitable, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress looked to the colony’s militia to serve as its military arm.  The origins of the Massachusetts militia can be traced back to the reign of Edward I, when Parliament enacted legislation decreeing that every freeman between the age of fifteen and sixty was to be available to preserve the peace within his own county or shire.[1]  In the towns where the freemen were located, they were organized into military units known, by the virtue of their periodic training, as “trained bands”.  However, when Parliament, under the rule of Charles II, revised membership requirements, established payment protocols and appointed officers, trained bands became known as militias.  By the 17th century, militias had become one of the cornerstones of English society.  Thus, when Plimouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were founded, the establishment of the militia followed naturally.  In both colonies, every man over sixteen automatically became a member.  Musters were frequent and mandatory, and punishments were doled out for being absent or not properly equipped.  The governor maintained the sole authority to activate the militia in the time of crisis.  Each time a new town sprung up, a militia company was formed.  As the town expanded, additional companies often were created.  When counties were formed, the various town militias within the borders of each county were organized into regiments.  The governor held the sole authority to activate the militia in the time of crisis.  However, with the elimination of the French threat as a result of the French and Indian War, the need for a militia decreased significantly.  After 1763, companies and regiments of Massachusetts militia rarely assembled to drill and as a result, were of little military value.  By the eve of the Boston Tea Party, a militia muster was not viewed as a military gathering, but rather as a sort of town holiday offering an opportunity for families and friends to get together.   
            The Massachusetts Provincial Congress recognized it had to “consider what is necessary to be done for the defence and safety of the province.”[2]  Quickly, it resolved to wrest control of the militia away from the group of loyalist officers who commanded it.  To achieve this, the Provincial Congress first ordered the militias to “meet forthwith and elect officers to command their respective companies; and that the officers so chosen assemble as soon as may be . . . and proceed to elect field officers.”[3]  Congress also recognized the need to revitalize and further strengthen the colony’s militia system as quickly as possible.  As a result, the congressional delegates set in motion the process of creating minuteman companies.
On October 26, 1774, the delegates set into motion the formation of minute companies within Massachusetts.   As part of its resolution, it declared
[The] field officers, so elected, forthwith  [shall] endeavor to enlist one quarter, at the least, of the number of the respective companies, and form them into companies of fifty privates . . . who shall equip and hold themselves in readiness, on the shortest notice from the said Committee of Safety, to march to the place of rendezvous . . . said companies into battalions, to consist of nine companies each.[4]

            Emphasis on proper military skill and supply was strongly emphasized by the delegates.  On the same day as the creation of minute companies, the Provincial Congress resolved
That, as the security of the lives, liberties and properties of the inhabitants of this province, depends under Providence, on their knowledge and skill in the art of military, and in their being properly and effectually armed and equipped, it is therefore recommended, that they immediately provide themselves therewith; that they use their utmost diligence to perfect themselves in military skill; and that, if any of the inhabitants are not provided with arms and ammunition according to law, and that if any town or district within the province is not provided with the full town stock of arms and ammunition . . . that the selectmen of such town or district take effectual care, without delay, to provide the same.[5]

Finally, the Congress voted to create a Committee of Safety, charged with the responsibility to “carefully and diligently . . . inspect and observe all and every such person or persons as shall at any time attempt or enterprise the destruction, invasion, detriment or annoyance of this Province . . . [The Committee] shall have the power . . . to alarm, muster, and cause to be assembled with the utmost expedition, and completely armed, accoutered . . . march to the place of rendezvous, such and so many of the militia of this Province, as they shall judge necessary for the ends aforsaid.”[6]  To support the logistical needs of the Committee of Safety, a sister committee was created to gather “such provisions as shall be necessary for [the militia’s] reception and support, until they shall be discharged by order of the Committee of Safety.”[7] 
Three days later, on October 29, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress addressed what appropriate military exercise the various militia and minute companies should adopt.  It is unknown what military drill Lexington’s militia utilized.  It is possible that the delegates considered the “Norfolk Exercise”.  Developed in England in 1757, the Norfolk Exercise, or “A Plan of Discipline, Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk”, had been adopted by many New England militia companies by 1768 and was declared the official drill of the colony in the early 1770’s.  However, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress instead ordered that “it be recommended to the inhabitants of this Province that in order to their perfecting themselves in the Military Art, they proceed in the method ordered by his Majesty in the year 1764, it being, in the opinion of this Congress, best calculated for appearance and defence.”[8]  Known as the 1764 Crown Manual of Arms, this was the drill used by the British troops stationed in Boston in 1775.




[1]  Edward M. Harris, Andover in the American Revolution, (Marceline, Missouri: Walsworth Publishing Company, 1976), 37.
[2] Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Saturday, October 22, 1774.
[3]  Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Wednesday, October 26, 1774.
[4]  Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6]  Ibid.
[7]  Ibid.
[8]  Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Saturday, October 29, 1774.

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