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Friday, January 6, 2017

"That Bayonets Are of More Use, as Well for Offence as Defence" - The Availability of Bayonets in Pre-Revolutionary War Massachusetts Revisted

Back in December, Historical Nerdery posted an article on the availability of bayonets in Pre-Revolutionary War Massachusetts. At the time, one of the assertions we made was Massachusetts militiamen were very reluctant to adopt bayonets. We went even further and argued early colonial government policy actually discouraged the use of bayonets.

We would like to make a slight correction based upon some of our findings over the winter break.

It appears that on at least two occasions between 1690 and 1774, Massachusetts Bay Colony did make half-hearted attempts to ensure some of its militia men were issued bayonets.  

In 1713, the Massachusetts General Court passed a law ordering militia men from Boston who did not own swords or cutlasses to be provided with bayonets.  "Every Listed Soldier, and other Householder (except "Troopers") is to be provided with a good Sword or Cutlash, under Penalty in the said Act . . . And whereas it is found by Experience, That Bayonets are of more Use, as well for Offence as Defence; Be it therefore Enacted by the Governor, Council, and Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That, from and after the Twentieth Day of June next, every Person in the Town of Boston, who is obliged by the aforesaid Act to appear upon an Alarm at the Place of Rendezvous, or where the Chief Officer doth appoint, (except Troopers) shall be provided with a good Goose-necked Bayonet with Socket, fit to fix over the Muzzle of his Musket, under the like Penalty, as in the said Act is mentioned, for not being provided with a Sword or Cutlash."

From the text of this resolution, it is clear that bayonets were a "secondary choice" and were only issued to men who resided in Boston.  As a result, one could argue that once again early colonial government policy discouraged the widespread use of bayonets.

18th C. Bayonet, Old Newbury Museum


However, in 1757, the Massachusetts General Court passed a law ordering that half of the men enlisted in the colony's militia companies be issued bayonets at the expense of the government. Specifically, the resolution stated "Be it further enacted, That one half of the Non-Commission Officers and private Soldiers, liable to train, shall be furnished with a good Bayonet with a Steel Blade, not less than fifteen Inches long, fitted to his Gun, with a Scabbard for the same, for which Bayonet and Scabbard there shall be paid out of the publick Treasury not exceeding seven Shillings; and that the Captain or chief Officer of each Foot Company, shall take effectual Care that they be so provided; and an Account thereof shall be presented by said Officer to the Governour and Council for Allowance and Payment; for which Bayonet and Scabbard each Non-Commission Officer and Soldier so provided, shall be accountable to this Government, unless under the Age of twenty-one Years; and for such as are Minors their Parents, Guardians or Masters respectively shall be so accountable: and each Non Commission Officer and Soldier (Drummers excepted) shall upon every training Day Muster, Review or Alarm (after they are provided with Bayonets as aforesaid) appear with the same, on Penalty of two Shillings for each Neglect."

Unfortunately, it is unknown how successful this law was in getting bayonets into the hands of militiamen. It took Lexington over two years to issue bayonets to forty-nine of its militiamen. In 1759, Captain Benjamin Reed notified the colony "[the] following names are a full and Just account of those to whom I the Subscriber delivered Bayonets in the company under my command in Lexington . . . June 5, 1759… [49 militia men listed]”.

Given the returns of militia and minute companies on the eve of Lexington and Concord and the efforts of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to secure bayonets, it's likely the 1757 law had little impact.

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