Sunday, January 9, 2022

"Provide for 50 Minute Men a Cartridge Box, Knapsack, and Thirty Rounds of Cartridge and Ball" - Massachusetts Wartime Buildup Efforts On the Eve of Lexington and Concord

247 years ago this month, most of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was on a wartime footing in preparation for a conflict with England. As part of that effort, town officials across the company took necessary steps to ensure its militia and minute companies were adequately equipped for combat.

Despite popular modern misconceptions, Massachusetts minutemen and militiamen were not poorly armed and equipped. Instead, it appears most towns took appropriate steps to ensure their minute companies were well supplied for war.

Shortly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the colonial government drafted and issued a series of laws outlining the requirements and expectations of each militiaman. Statutes defined what was a military emergency and outlined what a civilian soldier was expected to carry for arms and equipment on a campaign. Musters were frequent and mandatory, and criminal penalties in the form of fines and corporal punishment were doled out for being absent or not properly equipped. As the years passed, the Massachusetts government continued to update its militia laws.

When the Massachusetts Provincial Congress passed its resolutions in the Fall of 1774, these resolves did not alter the old militia acts. Rather, the recommendations encouraged a defensive military system that worked within the colony’s existing militia framework. However, as tensions between the army in Boston and colonists continued to escalate, Massachusetts towns instinctively assumed the role of the Massachusetts government and began to issue its own detailed resolutions that often expanded upon or added to what a militiaman or minuteman should carry. Many towns also passed Resolutions that agreed to provide specific equipment items to militia and minutemen at a cost to the town.

For example, on December 26, 1774, Roxbury ordered “Militia minutemen [to] hold themselves in readiness at a minutes warning, compleat in arms and ammunition; that is to say a good and sufficient firelock, bayonet, thirty rounds of powder and ball, pouch and knapsack.” The following month, Braintree required each soldier furnish himself with “a good fire lock, bayonett, cartouch box, one pound of powder, twenty-four balls to fitt their guns, twelve flints and a knapsack.” In Bridgewater, it was expected "each soldier to provide himself with a good fire arm, a steel or iron ram rod and a spring for same, a worm, a priming wire and brush, a bayonet fitted to his gun, a scabbard and belt thereof, a cutting sword or tomahawk or hatchet, a . . .cartridge box holding fifteen rounds . . . at least, a hundred buckshot, six flints, one pound of powder, forty leaden balls fitted to the gun, a knapsack and blanket, [and] a canteen or wooden bottle to hold one quart [of water]." On October 24, 1774, the Town of Newburyport resolved “to protect and preserve the rights and privileges granted and guaranteed by the charter of the Province . . . Voted that all the Inhabitants of this Town be desired to furnish themselves with arms and ammunition according to Law, and that they have, also, Bayonets fixed to their Guns as soon as may be.” Finally, on November 21, 1774, the Town of Danvers resolved its minute companies would be equipped with “an effective fire-arm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls.”

Recent research has revealed the popular assumption that militia and minutemen of Massachusetts carried their ammunition and gear in various, individualistic ways to be incorrect. Instead, it appears most 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.” Finally, 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.

When war seemed inevitable with England, Massachusetts militia and minutemen companies scrambled to adopt bayonets. On October 25, 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ordered 5,000 bayonets produced. Methuen resolved to provide bayonets “which should be brought to Capt. John Davis and after the service was over said Davis is to return said bayonets unto the Selectmen of said town.” Andover rushed to gather as many bayonets as quickly as possible. “Voted, that the enlisted soldiers be furnished with bayonets at the expense of the town. Voted, that a committee be chosen to collect the bayonets now in the hands of individuals in this Town and provide such a number of new ones as will be sufficient to supply the minute men. Voted, that the Committee chosen at the last meeting to procure bayonets collect as many as they can of those belonging to the Province by next Wednesday, two o'clock, P. M., that they procure one hundred more to be made as soon as possible and supply those firelocks that are effective which belong to the minute men with good bayonets as soon as may be.” In Lexington, the residents placed a heavy emphasis on obtaining bayonets. “Upon request of a number of the Inhabitants to see if the Town will call for those bayonets that were providede for part of the training soldiers at the Province cost, and that the remaindere of the soldiers may be providede with bayonets at the expense of the Towne, to be returnable when called for. And that those persons that have purchased bayonets at their own cost may be paid for them, by the Towne, at the price the others cost the Towne.”

The lack of bayonets continued to plague New England forces through the early years of the American Revolution. An April 1775 return to the Provincial Congress indicated that only 10,108 bayonets existed for 21,549 muskets. The following year, an inspection of a Bristol County militia regiment suggests that there were only 175 bayonets available for 446 muskets. As late as 1777, a Boston Gazette advertisement encouraged militiamen to acquire “a powder horn, a bullet pouch to contain 40 leaden balls, a knapsack, a canteen, a firearm of good worth, a haversack, a belt, [and] a good pair of overalls,” but failed to endorse bayonets.

As with cartridge boxes, some towns paid their residents to make bayonets and modify fowling pieces to accept socket bayonets. Often this involved modifications cutting down the stock of flintlocks so a bayonet could be accepted onto the barrel of the gun. Late in 1775, three Bradford men were reimbursed for fitting bayonets to guns and making cartridge boxes, scabbards, and belting for the town’s minute company. “Voted, To Phineas Carlton, for 22 Bayonets fitted with Scabbards and Belts, 8l. 5s. 0d. Voted, To Phineas Carlton, for Scowering the old Bayonets, and fitting with Belts, 4l. 4s. 0d. For 2 Scabbards and Belts, 0l. 3s. 0d. Wm. Greenough, for fitting one Bayonet and one belt, 0l. 2s. 8d . . . To Phineas Cole for Leathering 50 Cartridge boxes, 6l. 13s. 4d.” Jonas Varnum was compensated sixteen shillings for providing bayonets to Dracut’s minute company. Jonas Parker was hired to cut back the stocks of Lexington fowlers so bayonets could be fixed onto the guns.

Thus, when Massachusetts militia and minute companies took to the field on April 19, 1775, they were fully armed and equipped for war. An official report from a British officer present at the Battle of Lexington notes Captain Parker’s Company fielded with “arms and accoutrement, and, as appeared after, loaded.” In 1847, a mass grave containing several Massachusetts militiamen killed in Menotomy was opened. An eyewitness noted the men “were all buried … with their Clothes, Knapsacks, &c. on.”

Saturday, December 11, 2021

"And Followed in the Retreat to Cambridge" - What Happened to Captain John Parker's Company After the Regulars Withdrew from the Town?

A common question the Nerds are often asked is what happened to the Lexington Training Band after the events of Parker’s Revenge on April 19, 1775?

After ambushing the retreating British column, Captain John Parker and his men quickly retired up a nearby access path to the top of a hill and then moved down the east side. Once at the bottom, the company moved to a new position down the road to attack the column again.  According to Lexington militiaman Nathan Munroe “We fired on them and continued to do so until they met their reinforcement in Lexington.”  

But what happened to Parker and his men after the retiring British column left Lexington? 

Don Troiani's "Lexington Common"

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the presumption has been that militiamen from Lexington pursued the retreating regulars into East Lexington but simply halted at the Menotomy line. This claim is supported by the fact that John Parker and his men did not submit a mileage claim to the Massachusetts government following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. By comparison, most other towns that mobilized that day, including Andover, Newbury, Framingham, and Acton submitted claims seeking compensation for the travel expenses incurred by their militia and minute companies as they pursued the British back to Boston. 

It has been theorized by many historians, including the Nerds, that as a result of the destruction and death the regulars had left behind in Lexington, Captain Parker’s men ceased pursuing the British column at the Lexington-Menotomy line. Once His Majesty’s forces disappeared from view, the embattled Lexington men returned home so as to address the immediate needs of their community.

However, the Nerds have stumbled across a pair of early 19th-century pension claims that challenge the presumption that Captain John Parker’s Company stopped pursuing the British column at the Lexington-Menotomy Line. Instead, Lexington veterans John Hosmer and Jonathan Loring specifically assert that Parker’s men continued to pursue the column as far as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and remained outside of Boston for between two and eight days.

Veteran John Hosmer submitted his pension application in April of 1832. In support of his request for financial support, Hosmer  asserted “While residing at Lexington, Massachusetts, on the morning of April 19, 1775, he was one of the Lexington Company of Militia, drawn up on the common, when the British advanced and fired on them … and followed in the retreat to Cambridge, and served at this time, eight days.”

Pension Application of Lexington Veteran John Hosmer

Similarly, Lexington militiaman Jonathan Loring also stated that he served in the Battle of Lexington. According to his pension claim of 1832, Loring “was at Lexington on the morning of the 19th of April, A.D. 1775, embodied with his company and received the fire of the British near the meeting house and continued during that day in [illegible] pursuing the Enemy when they returned from Concord … he continued in the field three days in Cambridge.”

Primary sources from April 19th have consistently suggested that the militia and minute companies of April 19th operated under the direction of their company officers and NCOs and did not break down into an unorganized mob of individuals who acted without direction. Thus, the statements of Loring and Hosmer do create a fair and powerful inference that Captain Parker’s Company continued to pursue the British column as it crossed into Menotomy. 

So why didn’t Lexington submit a mileage claim in the aftermath of April 19th? The most plausible explanation is a combination of the town still reeling from the devastating effects of April 19th, as well as Parker’s failing health. 

It wouldn't be the only occasion where Lexington did not stay on top of submitting claims to Massachusetts officials. Two months later, as the Battle of Bunker Hill raged, American commander General Artimus Ward called for reinforcements in the event the British army punched through the American siege lines. In response, Captain Parker’s Company mobilized the afternoon of June 17th and marched directly to Cambridge. They remained outside of Boston for two days. Unfortunately, only after some delay, did Parker complete but not submit a mileage compensation claim for the men who mobilized in response to Bunker Hill. In fact, the request was never submitted to Massachusetts officials until mid-1776, months after Parker had died of tuberculosis. 

The Nerds will continue our research into this new development and will keep you posted as to what we find!!

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.