Saturday, September 19, 2020

“A Plan of Military Exercise, Proposed by Capt. Pickering” - The Pickering Drill on the Eve of Lexington and Concord

It is commonly known that the Nerds are fascinated with Massachusetts’ wartime buildup on the eve of the American Revolution. One of the topics that consistently draws our attention is the various drill manuals that minute and militia companies utilized in preparation for war with England.

Recently, we had the opportunity to review a 2004 research paper that analyzed the development of the Massachusetts Grand Army during the early weeks of the Siege of Boston. While the overall premise of the paper was excellent, there was an error that caught our attention. Specifically, the author argued that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted the “Pickering Drill” in late 1774 as the preferred drill manual for its minute and militia companies. In support of this argument, the author pointed to a December 8, 1774, order that referenced “a plan of military exercise, proposed by Capt. Pickering”.

So, did the Massachusetts Provincial Congress recommend militia and minute companies adopt the Pickering Drill?

In the Fall of 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress correctly surmised war with England was inevitable. As a result it had to “consider what is necessary to be done for the defence and safety of the province.” 

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.”

Emphasis on proper military skill and logistical 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.”

Three days later, on October 29, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress addressed what appropriate military exercise the various militia and minute companies should adopt. 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 and was declared the official drill of the colony in the early 1770’s. 

However, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ultimately 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.” Known informally as the 1764 Crown Manual of Arms, this was the drill used by the British troops stationed in Boston in 1775.

The adoption of the 1764 Crown Manual of Arms was not universally accepted by Massachusetts communities, especially those in northwestern Worcester County. In the weeks following the resolution, multiple militia officers from that region joined together to draft and submit a petition requesting that “the Provincial Congress ... establish the Norfolk exercise, with such alterations as they shall think proper, instead of the exercise of 1764.” Not surprisingly, the petition was ultimately rejected.

At the same time as Worcester was petitioning the Provincial Congress, a Salem, Massachusetts lawyer named Timothy Pickering was quietly promoting a drill manual he had drafted. Entitled An Easy Plan for Discipline for a Militia, Pickering's drill manual borrowed heavily from the Norfolk Drill. By early December, Pickering had drawn enough attention to his proposed manual that on December 8, 1774, the Provincial Congress ordered  “That Col. Heath, Col. Gerrish, Col, Gardner, Capt. Fuller, Col. Thomas, Col. Oriio, and Col. Barnes, be a committee to take into consideration a plan of military exercise, proposed by Capt. Timothy Pickering.”

Unfortunately for Pickering, the proposal died in committee. When the Provincial Congress reconvened the following month, it never again discussed his drill manual. 

If Pickering attempted to build support for his manual by privately selling it to the public in early 1775, he was equally unsuccessful. According to research conducted by Dr. Niels Hobbs* in his work “There is now such a Martial Spirit running through the Country…” The Evolution and Revolution of Manual Exercises in Massachusetts and the New England Colonies, over the years 1764-1776, there were approximately 203 advertisements, news articles, or editorials released between 1774 and 1776 that addressed drill manual exercises. The majority of these were either promoting the adoption of the 1764 Crown Manual or were advertisements selling copies of the same manual. Even in Pickering’s own Essex County, advertisements and editorials in support of the Crown Manual dominated. 

There is no reference to Pickering’s work being promoted or offered for sale on the even of Lexington and Concord.

Nevertheless, Pickering still continued to quietly promote his manual. During the Siege of Boston, the Salem resident wrote directly to General George Washington and unsuccessfully encouraged the Continental Army to embrace his work.

“Sir, Convinced of the utility, the necessity, at all times, of a well disciplined militia, to every free state; when the united wisdom of the continent, referring to the contest with the parent kingdom, called on every colony to prepare for the most unhappy events; and the more immediate recommendations of our provincial congress demanded a diligent application to the military art; deeming the plans of discipline then extant, inadequate to the instruction of men unused to this kind of study, & destitute of living instructors: I gladly embraced the opportunity which then presented, of applying to the service of my country the little knowledge & experience an office in the militia had led me to acquire, by writing the following plain rudiments of the military art. They were designed, as their title imports, merely for the militia; & chiefly written before the predicted unhappy events had called my fellow citizens to arms. This call, & the various avocations & interruptions consequent thereon, greatly retarded the completion of the work; & perhaps have rendered it less useful than it might otherwise have been: Some parts of it, & those perhaps the most essential, I imagine may well prove advantageous in an army hastily assembled, & frequently called from the exercise of arms to the other equally necessary but more laborious occupations of war. This army being, to the joy of every American, committed to your excellency’s care & direction, both duty & inclination lead me to present you the ensuing plan of discipline for a militia, & to Submit to your decision the expediency of recommending or permitting its use among the officers & soldiers under your command. I am, your Excellencys most obedient & humble Servant Tm. Pickering jr.”

Of course, credit should be given when it is due. Pickering did not give up and continued to promote An Easy Plan for Discipline for a Militia. By 1776, the drill manual started to become popular with Massachusetts militia officers and shortly thereafter, the legislature ordered that the drill replace the 1764 Crown Manual as the official drill for militia companies in the Commonwealth. 

*Dr. Hobbs is a historian who holds his PhD in Biology. He is also trained to kill only using a pair of lobsters as his choice of weapons. ;-)