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Monday, January 16, 2017

Militia Laws, Resolutions and Minute Men - Five Important Facts to Remember about the 1774-1775 American War Effort

This past weekend, we at Historical Nerdery had the opportunity to share our research on Pre-Lexington and Concord militia laws at a workshop sponsored by Minute Man National Historic Park and the Concord Museum. 

Here are five (5) important points we felt should be shared with you as well:

Militia Laws were detailed and had teeth. Massachusetts Militia Laws were 17th and 18th century legal statutes that were drafted and passed by the legislature of Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, these laws were not simply about listing what equipment a militiaman should own and carry into the field. Instead, militia laws also addressed who was expected to serve in the militia, under what circumstances a militia company would assemble for an "alarm", what authority was vested in company officers and what penalties could be imposed in the event of a violation.  

Despite what many modern authors assert, Massachusetts militia laws of the 17th and 18th centuries carried criminal penalties, including the imposition of a fine or physical punishment.  Period accounts absolutely establish the laws were ENFORCED.

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The Massachusetts Provincial Congress only issued recommendations.  As tensions mounted during the fall of 1774, the Provincial Congress began to pass a series of resolutions that, if followed, would better prepare the militia for a potential conflict with England.  

The relevant resolution states “The improvement of the militia in general in the art military has been therefore thought necessary, and strongly recommended by this Congress. We now think that particular care should be taken by the towns and districts in this colony, that each of the minute men, not already provided therewith, should be immediately equipped with an effective firearm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls.”

These resolves were not laws and did not alter the old militia acts. Rather, they were recommendations that worked within the existing militia framework. It is likely the organization chose the phrase "recommend" so as to avoid the appearance of being in open rebellion against the Crown and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Town responses to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress' recommendations.  Following the recommendations of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, most Massachusetts towns elected to pass resolves adopting Congress’ “recommendations”.  These town laws ordered what its respective minute and militia companies would be armed and equipped with. 


It is likely the towns took it upon themselves to pass these regulations because the colonial legislature was in legal and political limbo and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress stood on shaky authoritative ground. 

The resolutions we researched seemed to fall into three categories: 

  • Vague, often last minute, resolutions passed by towns after January, 1775 that likely relied upon existing militia laws.
  • Highly detailed resolutions that often expanded upon or added to the recommendations of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress as to what a militiaman or minuteman should carry.
  • Resolutions and contractual clauses drafted and issued by “independent” minute companies from several Massachusetts towns. 


Local men were helping minute and militia companies ensure they were properly armed, supplied and equipped.  Local men were hired by their respective towns to make certain pieces of equipment for the militia and minute companies. One resident may have made cartridge boxes for his town’s minute company while another made bayonet carriages. For example, Springfield's Ariel Collins was paid £1. Is. 6d for making "43 cartouch-boxes". Phineas Carlton of Bradford was paid for scouring 22 bayonets and fitting them with scabbards and belts.  John Parker of Lexington was possibly making powder horns.  

As a result of these efforts, there was some semblance of equipment uniformity among the American minute on the eve of Lexington and Concord.


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On April 19, 1775, the Massachusetts militia and minute companies to the field armed and equipped for a military campaign.  Many 19th and 20th century paintings depict the "embattled farmer" armed only with a musket and powder horn. This is simply not correct. The men who fielded on April 19th were equipped with arms and accouterments, including knapsacks, blankets and canteens. In a report to General Gage regarding the Battle of Lexington, the officer stated "On these companies' arrival at Lexington, I understand, from the report of Major Pitcairn, who was with them, and from many officers, that they found on a green close to the road a body of the country people drawn up in military order, with arms and accoutrement, and, as appeared after, loaded."
   

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