Sunday, November 14, 2021

"To Put Themselves in a Position of Defense Against Their Enemies" - Lexington Prepares for War

247 years ago this month, Massachusetts Bay Colony started its preparation for war with England. The launch of the war-time effort began after the Massachusetts Provincial Congress correctly surmised war with England was inevitable and the peoples of Massachusetts had to “consider what is necessary to be done for the defence and safety of the province.” As a result, the rogue legislative body passed a series of resolutions ordering the creation of minuteman companies, recommending proper drill exercises and the collection of military supplies.

One of the first towns to start their wartime preparations was Lexington. 

Four days after the Massachusetts Provincial Congress call for military readiness, Lexington held an emergency town meeting to plan “military discipline and to put themselves in a position of defense against their Enemies.” A week later, on November 10, 1774, the residents again gathered to discuss expanding the town’s stock of ammunition and powder. At the conclusion of the meeting, the men of Lexington resolved “Voted. That two half barrells of powdere be addede to the Town stocke. Also Voted that a sufficiency of ball for sd powdere be provided. Votede. That there be a suitable quantity of Flints provided for the Towne if there be found a deficency. . . That the Towne provide a pair of Drums for the use of the Military Company in Towne.”


Around the same time as Lexington was discussing the expansion of its military supplies, it also started to explore how to acquire cannons. In his critically acclaimed book, “The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War”, Mr. J. L. Bell discusses how Massachusetts residents were scrambling in late 1774 to obtain artillery pieces. Some of the guns, mostly iron cannons, were taken from coastal defenses around Boston and sent to Watertown.

According to research conducted by historian Joel Bohy and shared with the Nerds, several of the guns caught the attention of Lexington, Waltham, Concord and Lincoln. Its residents quickly pressed the selectmen to acquire a block of the cannons for the respective towns as part of a “bulk purchase”.

In early November, Lexington selectmen relented and announced the issue would be addressed at the next town meeting. Specifically, “Upon a request of a numbre of Inhabitants to see if the Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.” A week later, the town approved the purchase of two guns. “Voted. . . to bring the two pieces of Cannon (mentioned in the warrant) from Watertown & mount them, at the at the Town charge.”

After approving the purchase of two cannons, in true Yankee fashion, the residents of Lexington voted to create a committee to explore the cheapest methods of mounting of the guns on carriages and building of ammunition boxes. “That a Comtee of three persons go to Watertown & see what the cost of mounting sd pieces will be & whether the carriages cannot be made by work men in this town”



It should be noted that the committee included Jonas Parker, an experienced woodworker and carpenter. Parker was later killed at the Battle of Lexington.

By the end of the month, Lexington acquired the two guns of the two cannons. On November 28, the twon “Voted . . . that the Selectmen receive the two pieces of cannon with their beds [from] the Towne of Watertowne and give receipts for the same on behalf of the Towne.”

As an aside, by late February 1775, it appears the guns were mounted on carriages but were rendered useless due to a lack of proper ammunition for the weapons.

In addition to stockpiling arms and ammunition, the town’s training band also assembled on the town common throughout November to drill and practice the evolutions of the 1764 Crown Manual. According to Reverend Jonas Clarke, the Lexington militia was continuously “training” and “showing arms” throughout the Fall of 1774. The 19th Century deposition by Lieutenant William Tidd asserted“that said company frequently met for exercise, the better to be prepared for defense.” Finally, Corporal John Munroe recalled “the company was frequently called out for exercise, and desired to furnish ourselves with arms and ammunition, and to be in constant readiness for action.”

Of course, Lexington did not simply conclude its wartime efforts as winter set in. In a future post, the Nerds will examine how the town expanded its wartime preparation efforts in December 1774, including documentary hints that the town took measures to create a minute company.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

"A Few Had Old French Pieces" - The Muskets of April 19, 1775

 A few months ago, the Nerds gave a presentation on the muskets available to Massachusetts militia and minutemen on the eve of the American Revolution.

Admittedly, the presentation was merely an overview of available weapons and did not cover all possible muskets that were likely used at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. 

Similarly, the Nerds recognize that each weapon discussed during our presentation could be the subject of its own unique presentation.

Nevertheless, we wanted to share with our followers the presentation so as to shed light on the weapons utilized by provincial troops at the outbreak of the American Revolution.

The presentation can be accessed here.

Please feel free to share or use the document as you see fit!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

"Best Calculated for Appearance and Defence" - The Boston Edition of the 1764 Crown Manual

On October 29, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress addressed what appropriate military exercise the various militia and minute companies should adopt in preparation for war with England.  

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 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 as the 1764 Crown Manual of Arms, this was the drill used by the British troops stationed in Boston in 1775.


According to research conducted by Dr. Niels Hobbs, in late 1774 and early 1775, several Boston, Salem and Newburyport print shops acquired copies of the Crown Manual and offered it to sale to the general public. Understandably, many Massachusetts militia officers and NCOs quickly purchased copies to assist them in preparation for the coming war.

For your review, here is a scanned copy of the 1774 “Boston Edition” of the 1764 Crown Manual that was sold by print shops in Eastern Massachusetts on the eve of the American Revolution. Interestingly, the second page of the edition includes the October 29, 1774 resolution from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ordering the adoption of the Crown Manual by Massachusetts militia and minute companies.

Please feel free to share this document with others!


Monday, August 30, 2021

"Dip Arrows in Matter of Smallpox" - The Possible Use of Smallpox as a Biological Weapon During the Siege of Boston

The Nerds must apologize for our prolonged absence over the past several weeks in both podcasting and blog posting. Between catching a nasty cold that resulted in the loss of our angelic voices and moving moody teenagers into college dorm rooms, we’ve been a bit sidetracked.

As we prepared for the future recording of podcast episodes, our attention was drawn to an upcoming topic - smallpox and the Siege of Boston.

The Center for Disease Control notes that the origin of smallpox is unknown. The finding of smallpox-like rashes on Egyptian mummies suggests that the disease has existed for at least 3,000 years. Smallpox arrived in New England during the early years of the seventeenth century and had devastating effects upon the native American population. As one colonizing Puritan would later observe “The good hand of God favoured our beginnings in sweeping away the multitudes of the Natives by the small pox."



At the commencement of the Siege of Boston, the threat of a smallpox outbreak was continuously on the mind of both American and English commanders. Following George Washington’s assumption of command of the Continental Army in July, 17775, he was determined to prevent the spread of the disease among his soldiers. The general worried that an epidemic among the troops would significantly weaken his ability to mount an effective military campaign against the British troops trapped inside Boston as well as deter future enlistment prospects. As a result, Washington made the health of his troops one of his top priorities and ordered strict enforcement of numerous directives so as to contain and control the smallpox contagion.

One concern that the American forces had was the weaponization of smallpox by His Majesty’s forces. Understandably, the apprehension was justified. During Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, military authorities openly discussed the use of smallpox against their Native American enemies. “Could it not be Contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians?” That same year, militia commander William Trent noted that he gave a visiting Indian delegation “two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” He was later compensated for the act by the British commander overseeing the defense of Boston - Thomas Gage.

During the early months of the Siege of Boston, one Boston resident warned “soldiers try all they can to spread the smallpox, but I hope they will be disappointed.” In a May 13, 1775 letter to Asahel Pomeroy, Seth Pomeroy reflected in a letter to a relative that he believed that “If it is In General Gage[’] s power I expect he will Send ye Small pox Into ye Army.” When four British deserters fled Boston and were quickly apprehended, Washington’s aide-de-camp Robert Harrison wrote to the Massachusetts PRovincial Congress to alert them “Four [British] deserters have just arrived at headquarters giving an account that several persons are to be sent out of Boston . . . that have lately been inoculated with the smallpox, with the design, probably, to spread infection to distress us as much as possible.”

As the siege progressed, smallpox began to spread amongst the soldiers and residents inside Boston. According to a December 1, 1775, General Order, “The Small Pox spreading universally about the Town, makes it necessary for the safety of the Troops, that such men as are willing, and have not had that distemper shou’d be inoculated immediately.”



A few weeks earlier, General Howe reversed British policy and allowed certain persons to leave the town. According to the general three hundred of the Inhabitants of Boston were removed from Boston by ship and were bound for Massachusetts seaport communities, including Point Shirley, Plymouth, Salem, Beverly and Newburyport. Although the refugees were “destitute of any thing to help themselves in this inclement Season”, It soon became clear that utmost of the passengers were infected with smallpox. According to Boston’s Thomas Crafts, “The smallpox has broken out in two families that came out of Boston on the first vessels.” Ezekiel Price reported that “the people who came out last from Boston and landed at Point Shirley, have the smallpox among them; that a person at Brookline was taken with it.”

Historians have suggested Howe’s motives were influenced by a desire to remove those who would be a burden on limited supplies and resources. However, Historian Ann M. Becker has argued “[Howe’s] decision to inoculate his troops and send out contagious refugees—along with reports detailing the American belief that the British were attempting to infect the colonials with smallpox—support the idea that smallpox was being used as a military weapon to protect against aggressive American maneuvers.”

Becker’s theory is not without merit. A February 1776 Massachusetts newspaper reported that Thomas Francis, a young indentured servant, had been inoculated with smallpox inside Boston against his will and then forced to board a British refugee ship sailing for Port Shirley. As a result of this calculated exposure, several other passengers on board the vessel contracted the disease.

If Howe’s intentions were to unleash a viral agent into the Massachusetts countryside, he was in part successful. The smallpox virus began to spread. This in turn fueled American suspicions that the enemy had launched a biological attack. In a letter to Congress, Washington warned “The information I received that the Enemy intended spreading the smallpox amongst us, I could not suppose them capable of; I now must give some credit to it, as it has made its appearance on several of those who last came out of Boston.” In a separate letter to John Hancock, the general asserted “The small-pox rages all over the town. Some of the military as had it not before, are now under inoculation. This, I apprehend, is a weapon of defense they are using against us.”

Although there is no direct evidence of Howe or Gage launching a biological attack on American forces, there is a fair inference that measures were undertaken to weaken the rebellion through the introduction of smallpox. That said, by 1777, some British officials were openly advocating to use smallpox as a weapon against the colonists. For example, English officer Robert Donkin proposed to “dip arrows in matter of smallpox, and twang them at the American rebels. . . . This would . . . disband these stubborn, ignorant, enthusiastic savages. . . . Such is their dread and fear of that disorder.”

Monday, June 28, 2021

"It was absolutely necessary to become masters of these heights" - The Battle of Bunker Hill

 



In today’s episode, "the decisive day is come"! We’ll discuss the pivotal battle of June 17, 1775...the Battle of Bunker Hill.


Sunday, June 20, 2021

"That We Will Exert Our Best Abilities to Acquire the Art Military" - How Serious Did Massachusetts View Its 1774-1775 Wartime Buildup Efforts?


The Nerds were recently asked to comment on whether Massachusetts towns and their respective military companies viewed the need for a wartime buildup on the eve of the American Revolution as a matter of great importance or not.

As noted by a variety of historians, by 1774, Massachusetts colonists firmly believed that an immoral British government, having exhausted opportunities for plunder and profit in England and Ireland, was now seeking a dispute with the American colonies as an excuse to enslave and deprive them of their wealth and liberties.

Thus, the short answer is “yes”... the residents of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 saw the coming conflict with England as having potentially grave consequences and thus, did approach military preparations with a sense of importance and urgency.

As a preliminary matter, many town historians from the 19th and 20th Centuries either promoted or expanded upon the erroneous claim that New England militia men who served at the Battles of Lexington and Concord were poorly trained and equipped yeomen who operated on the individual level rather than as part of a larger military body.

However, thanks to research initially conducted by John Galvin, and expanded upon by historian Joel Bohy and the talented rangers at Minute Man National Historical Park, we now know the myth of the independent, untrained “embattled” farmer is just that, a myth.

Following the October 1774 orders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, provincial towns scrambled to put themselves onto a wartime footing. As part of the effort, many militia and minute companies passed resolutions or entered into covenants clearly outlining the expectations of military service. For example, in Lexington, the men of Captain John Parker’s Company resolved to fine those men who did not treat military preparation seriously, were disruptive or engaged in “indecent behavior … two shillings”. Militiamen from the Town of West Brookfield declared “That we will exert our best abilities to acquire the art military: That we will yield a ready obedience to the commands of our officers, and hold ourselves in readiness to march upon the earliest notice from our Commanding officers, and harzard our lives in resisting any armed force that shall attempt by force to put in execution the late revenue Acts.” Finally, Ipswich declared ““We whose names are hereunto subscribed, do voluntarily Inlist ourselves, as minute men, to be ready for military operation, upon the shortest notice ... And that we may obtain the skill of compleat Soldiers, We promise to Convene for exercise in the Art of Military."

However, a strong emphasis was also placed on military drilling and training. Following the recommendations of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Andover ordered “[Soldiers] on the said first said day of December meet together and chuse such person only for leading or instructing as shall appear to them to be most skillful in Military Discipline and that they be well equipped with good guns, and other necessary warlike armour in order for their performing of all military maneuvers.” Amesbury resolved that its minute men would engage in “exercising four hours in an fortnight.” Two weeks later, the town modified its order and instructed its minute men to “[exercise] four hours in a week.” The residents of Boxford voted on March 14, 1775 “that the minute-men shall train one half day in a week, for four weeks after this week is ended.” The Reverend Jonas Clarke noted Lexington's militia was continuously drilling and "showing arms".

The Towns of Haverhill, Andover and Bradford even went as far to hire a British deserter to train their men for war. George Marsden was a grenadier from the 59th Regiment of Foot. He and his regiment arrived in New England in 1768. However, by 1769 the 59th was in Nova Scotia. A muster roll from October, 1770 reveals Marsden was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Unfortunately, by 1774 he was demoted back to a private. The reason for the demotion is unknown but the regimental muster rolls indicate that on July 24, 17774 he deserted from his regiment. Afterwards, Marsden fled to Haverhill. In March and April of 1775, the units from those three towns actively worked with Marsden to prepare for war.

Of course, the dedication to wartime preparation did not stop at covenants and drills. Most towns established pay rates and salaries to ensure their soldiers treated their military responsibilities seriously.

Similarly, towns undertook a variety of steps to ensure its minute companies were somewhat uniformly armed with belting, bayonets and cartridge boxes. In Bradford, the town resolved “Voted, That the Selectmen provide bayonets and cartouch boxes for the Minute-Men on the town cost, to be returned to the town after they are dismissed from the service.” Residents of Brimfield resolved that it “provide for 50 minute men a Cartridge Box, Knapsack, and thirty rounds of cartridge and ball a sett for each private in said Company to be provided imemdiately.” In March of 1775, the Town of Ashburnham voted that Captain Jonathan Gates be instructed to procure thirty-six cartridge boxes for the use of the town’s minute-men at the expense of the town. Finally, Lexington quickly developed a cottage industry whereby men were hired to make powder horns, cartridge boxes and knapsacks, as well as modifying fowling guns to accept bayonets.

So in summation, Massachusetts colonists firmly committed to their wartime preparation efforts against England and adopted a variety of measures designed to ensure their minute and militia companies were properly prepared for a military campaign. The perpetuated myth that colonists were an untrained, poorly equipped and individualist rabble that abandoned their plowshares to engage the regulars on April 19th needs to be buried in the backyard with a shovel.

And then bury the shovel.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Loyalist Plight

 


In today’s episode, we’ll take a deep dive into history and discuss what really happened to New England and New York Loyalists after the outbreak of the American Revolution.