So today the Nerds want to talk about blankets.
Maybe it’s because we watched too many “Charlie Brown" specials growing up and secretly wished we could be as cool as Linus. Or perhaps we’ve developed a secret love of blankets because we typically hide under a pile of them every time the Bride puts on a Hallmark movie. But we digress…
Recently, there has been a discussion amongst a few research circles as to what extent blankets were part of a militiaman's equipment between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Some historians have correctly pointed out that blankets were not listed in Massachusetts militia laws or most of the 1774 and 1775 town resolutions outlining the requisite arms and equipment of minute and militia men should carry when alarmed.
A few haves highlight the limited accounts and claims for compensation for blankets lost at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
However, there is other ample evidence that Massachusetts forces carried blankets into the field.
So, were blankets carried by Massachusetts forces in the Spring and early Summer of 1775? Before we take a deep dive into the question, let’s take a brief look at how blankets were utilized during the French Wars of the 1740s and 1750s.
Prior to the American Revolution, blankets rarely appeared in militia laws or similar regulations outlining the arms and equipment of Massachusetts provincial troops. Instead, blankets were typically categorized under legislative recruitment bounties. Potential recruits who agreed to enlist for a term of service (typically a year or less), would receive pay, clothing, arms, equipment and ... blankets.
For example, in 1740, Massachusetts Bay Colony called for the raising of troops to assist in the invasion of Spanish West Indies. As part of its recruitment effort, the colony offered “Five pounds to be pd to each Able bodyed Effective Soldier that shall Enlist himself for that service on or before the first day of March next, and to each of them a good blanket.”
In October of that same year Massachusetts considered raising troops for a military strike against Canada. As part of its legislative resolution, the government declared “Voted' that there be granted as an Encouragement to a number of good and effective men not exceeding Three Thousand to enlist Voluntiers into His Majestys service in the said Expedition against Canada, as a Bounty, Thirty Pounds in Bills of Credit of the Old Tenour, and a Blanket;, for each man, and a bed for every two men, the money to be paid upon Enlistment and the Blankets & Beds delivered on embarkation.”
In 1745, Massachusetts set its sights on capturing Fortress Louisbourg in Canada. As part of a recruitment effort, the colonial government declared “That His Excellency the Captain General be desired to give forth his proclamation to encourage the Enlistment of Three thousand Voluntiers under such Officers as he shall appoint; that each person so enlisting be allowed Twenty five shillings per month, and that there be delivered to each man a blanket;, that one months pay be advanced, and that' be entitled to all the plunder.”
During the French and Indian War, blankets were again considered part of enlistment bounties. In 1754, Massachusetts was in the midst of preparing for the invasion of Nova Scotia. It recommended that “the Blankets, Knapsacks & Bandileers provided for the Use of the Soldiers in the said Expedition, are many of them almost worn out, by Reason of the Hardness of the Service, praying that those Things may not be charged to the Soldiers but given to them gratis.”
In a 1757 legislative resolution, Massachusetts men who enlisted into a provincial regiment were to receive “shall be intitled to Thirty shillings and upon his passing Muster shall receive a good Blanket; and Fifty shillings more for furnishing himself with Cloaths.” In 1759, Massachusetts provincial soldiers were authorized to receive recruitment pay plus a “Blanket, Knapsack, Canteen or Wood Bottle and other Articles in the like.”
As an aside, blankets for recruits were typically acquired on behalf of the colony through a military contractor who billed the colony for his services. In turn, any expenses incurred were typically reimbursed by His Majesty’s treasury.
Understandably, when Massachusetts was on the brink of war with England, the colonial government did not have the luxury of offering blanket bounties in exchange for service in minute and militia companies. Instead, the responsibility shifted to local towns and communities to provide blankets for their men.
There is evidence that Massachusetts towns were encouraging soldiers from their communities to provide their own blankets. For example, in Bridgwater, men were required to field 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]".
Many towns across the Colony, including Newburyport, Ipswich, Cambridge, Lexington, Haverhill, and Concord, also provided blankets to those poor militia men who could not afford their own.
The effort to supply Massachusetts men with blankets apparently was quite successful, and, as a result, caught the attention of General Thomas Gage. In a March 4, 1775 report to his superiors, the general noted that "each
man is supplied even to a knapsack, canteen and blanket and directed to
bring a week’s provisions with him when called to the field."
In the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord,the expectation that towns would provide blankets to the men of their community was further codified when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress called for the raising of additional troops in support of the Siege of Boston. According to the April 23, 1775 order, “RESOLVED, That the Selectmen of the several Towns and Districts within this Colony, be desired to furnish the Soldiers who shall inlist from their respective Towns and Districts with good and sufficient Blankets, and render their Accounts to the Committee of Supplies, who are hearby directed to draw on the Colony Treasurer for Payment of the same.”
With all that said, did the minute and militia men of 1775 carry blankets?
There is certainly ample evidence militiamen did field with blankets when they mobilized for war between April 19, 1775 and July 1, 1775 . For example, Springfield’s minute company mobilized in response to the Lexington Alarm, the town quickly collected and distributed several blankets to those militiamen too poor to acquire their own.
A British officer's description of Captain John Parker's Lexington Company included a reference to the company being fully "drawn up in military order, with arms and accoutrement." Some historians have argued this reference when paired with the Reverend Jonas Clarke's subsequent comment that Parker's Company was prepared for "whatever service providence might call us out to" is strong circumstantial evidence that Lexington was fully equipped for a military campaign and was likely carrying blankets at the Battle of Lexington.
There is also a description of a Chelmsford militia company fielding on the town common for inspection in the weeks after Lexington and Concord. All eighty-three men appeared for inspection carrying blankets.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that many minute and militia men fielded with blankets was the Battle of Bunker Hill. Many of the troops who fought that day had been outside of Boston since Lexington and Concord. Two such units were Frye’s and Prescott’s Battalions, both of who arrived to support the siege on April 20th. When American forces were dispatched to the battlefield, they were ordered to bring with them blankets.
As British forces stormed the American redoubt at the height of the bloody engagement,the rebel forces retreated. During the withdrawal, hundreds of blankets were abandoned. In the months after the battle, countless petitions were submitted by soldiers or their families seeking compensation for the lost blankets.
In fact, so many blankets were lost that Joesph Ward, General Artemas Ward’s secretary, would later bitterly complained to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, “in the late action, many of the soldiers lost their blankets … they are now in a very suffering condition.”
How bad was this shortage in the aftermath of the Battle of Bunker Hill? For the remainder of 1775 and into 1776, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was continuously begging towns to provide blankets for the troops surrounding Boston. Furthermore, in order to stem the shortage, the Massachusetts legislature revised its militia laws in 1776 to include blankets as a legally required item. By undertaking this action, individual militiamen and their home town now formally bore the responsibility of providing blankets