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Thursday, November 3, 2016

“To See That the Plans of the Provincial Congresses Are Faithfully Carriede into Executione”: A Review of the Arms and Equipment Carried by Captain John Parker’s Company

A common misconception about the Battle of Lexington is that the militia took the field with as little accouterments as possible. A review of 19th and early 20th Century artistic depictions of the engagement suggest Captain John Parker’s Company was sparsely armed and equipped. However, an analysis of period documentation, including primary accounts of the Battle of Lexington, town records and probate inventories all demonstrate that the Lexington Company actually assembled on the common fully equipped for a military campaign. In short, the militia fielded with packs, blankets, cartridge boxes, powder horns and edged weapons.

Early 20th Century Depiction of the Battle of Lexington

In September, 1774, a full month before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress first ordered the residents of the colony to reorganize its militia system and create minute companies, Lexington was already in full wartime preparation. According to the Reverend Clarke, the Lexington militia were “training” and “showing arms” as early as September 15, 1774. On September 26, 1774, Lexington voted to provide a pair of drums for the use of the military company in town.” Finally, on November 3, 1774, the town gathered to plan “military discipline and to put themselves in a position of defense against their Enemies.”

When the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued a resolution for regarding the arms and equipment to be carried by its minute and militia companies, Lexington quickly responded. On December 10, 1774, the Provincial Congress declared “The improvement of the militia in general in the art military has been therefore thought necessary, and strongly recommended by this Congress. We now think that particular care should be taken by the towns and districts in this colony, that each of the minute men, not already provided therewith, should be immediately equipped with an effective firearm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls . . . [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.” A circular letter of the resolution was created and delivered to every town in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Two days later, the Lexington selectmen ordered the militia to appear at the meeting house for an inspection. During the review, deficiencies in arms and equipment were apparently observed. As a result, the selectmen quickly scheduled a town meeting. On December 27, 1774, the residents reviewed their options and voted to form a committee that would oversee measures to ensure the militia was prepared for war. “Votede . . . That seven persons be appointed as a committee of inspections to see that the plans of the . . .Provincial Congresses are faithfully carriede into executione.”

One of the individuals assigned to the committee was Captain John Parker, commander of the Lexington militia. Over the next several months it appears that Lexington, under the leadership of Parker, took steps to ensure the company was properly armed and equipped. Jonathan Harrington Sr., father of company fifer Jonathan Harrington, was charged with making cartridge boxes and belting for the militia. Phillip Russell was also making cartridge boxes and bayonets. A review of Jonas Parker’s estate inventory following his death at the Battle of Lexington reveals that he was cutting back gunstocks so the weapons could accept socket bayonets. John Parker was making powder horns while Nathan Simonds was providing blankets. Joshua Reed and an “Ensign Harrington” traveled to neighboring towns and Boston to acquire gunpowder and ammunition. “Granted an ordere to pay Ensign Harrington £2.12.10 in full . . . for 104 lbs. of bullets & . . . for going to Walthame for powdere & to Bostone for leads . . . Grantede an ordere to pay Mr. Joshua Reed . . . in full for his bringing up leade from Boston and running the bullets.”

In February, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress notified all the towns in the colony that they were expected to be in full compliance with its December 10, 1774 order. Officers of militia and minute companies were instructed to conduct inspections and submit returns to the Provincial Congress as proof of compliance. “Whereas, it appears necessary for the defence of the lives, liberties, and properties of the inhabitants of this province, that this Congress, on the first day of their next session, should be made fully acquainted with the number and military equipments of the militia and minute men in this province, as also the town stock of ammunition in each town and district . . .And it is further Resolved, That it be recommended to the selectmen of each town and district in the province, that on the same day they make return in writing, of the state of the town and district stock of ammunition and warlike stores to this Congress.”

Unfortunately, an inspectional return from Lexington does not exist. However, a review of surviving artifacts, probate returns and period accounts does suggest that John Parker and his committee were successful in their mission. Specifically, the following items can be documented as being carried by the men of Captain Parker’s Company of the eve of April 19th: firelocks, bayonets, canteens, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, blankets, and powder horns. Lexington even acquired two iron field pieces (artillery) for their militia company.

That said, did the Lexington militia men actually equipped themselves with these accouterments when they assembled the morning of April 19th? A review of period documentation supports the assertion that Captain Parker’s Company fielded at the Battle of Lexington prepared for a military campaign.

First, in the aftermath of the Battle of Lexington, thirty three Lexington militiamen signed a deposition asserting they were “alarmed” and appeared at the company parade. “Alarmed” was a 17th and 18th century legal term describing a militia’s response to an emergency situation. Under Massachusetts militia laws between 1690 and 1773, when a company was alarmed, they were also required to rally armed and equipped for a military campaign. Massachusetts militia laws went into great detail what arms and equipment a militia man was required to carry during an alarm: a firelock, edged weapon, ammunition, powder horn, pack, blanket and canteen. Thus, when the Lexington men stated they had assembled on the Lexington common due to an alarm, they were asserting that they were lawfully responding to an emergency and carrying all lawfully required equipment.

The Reverend Clarke’s account of the Battle of Lexington also supports the assertion that the militia was fully equipped at the Battle of Lexington. As the British column advanced towards the town, Parker, Clarke and many other men discussed what to do. According to the Reverend Clarke, there was a debate over whether the company should dismiss and reform at another location. Clarke also discussed how Parker’s Company was prepared to respond to any military emergency, regardless of the location. “Upon this intelligence, as also upon information of the conduct of the officers as above-mentioned, the militia of ths town were alarmed, and ordered to meet on the usual place of parade; not with any design of commencing hostilities upon the king’s troops but to consult what might be done for our own and the people’s safety; And also to be ready for whatever service providence might call us out to, upon this alarming occasion in case overt acts of violence or open hostilities be committed by this mercenary hand of armed and blood thirsty oppressors.” Clarke’s statement “[and] also to be ready for whatever service providence might call us out to” meant Captain Parker’s Company was assembled on the common, fully equipped for a military campaign and prepared to march to any location to repel the enemy.

Finally, there is the official correspondence from Lt. Colonel Francis Smith. In his report to General Thomas Gage regarding the events of April 19th, Smith specifically states the Lexington militia was drawn up in military order, armed and equipped for a campaign. “In the obedience to your Excellency's commands, I marched on the evening of the 18th inst. with the corps of grenadiers and light infantry for Concord, to execute your Excellency's orders . . .I think it proper to observe, that when I had got some miles on the march from Boston, I detached six light infantry companies to march with all expedition to seize the two bridges on different roads beyond Concord. On these companies' arrival at Lexington, I understand, from the report of Major Pitcairn, who was with them, and from many officers, that they found on a green close to the road a body of the country people drawn up in military order, with arms and accoutrement, and, as appeared after, loaded.” According to 18th Century military treatises, the term “accouterment” included cartridge boxes, edged weapons, musket tools, belting, knapsacks, canteens and ammunition.


What the Captain Parker's Company Most Likely Looked Like - Recreation of Captain
David Brown's Company, Patriot's Day 2015, Minute Man National
Historic Park 

Assuming that the Lexington militia appeared on the Lexington common poorly equipped, would Captain Parker have faced any repercussions? On April 5, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted Rules and Regulations for the Massachusetts Army. These regulations addressed a variety of military matters, including conduct for officers, proper behavior for soldiers and punishment for neglect of duty. These regulations applied to John Parker his militia company. As the commanding officer, Parker was responsible for ensuring his officers and men were properly armed and equipped. If he had been negligent and permitted his men to field improperly prepared for a military campaign, he would have been charged with violating the Rules and Regulations for the Massachusetts Army and faced a court martial hearing. If convicted, he would have been cashiered and stripped of his rank.

Based upon the above evidence, it is clear that Captain Parker and the residents of Lexington undertook measures to properly arm and equip its militia company. Furthermore, based upon statements from participants of the Battle of Lexington, Captain Parker’s Company complied with traditional militia laws and were properly armed and equipped for a military campaign when it assembled on the Lexington Common the morning of April 19, 1775. Thus, a militia man at the Battle of Lexington carried a firelock, edged weapon, canteen, knapsack, blanket, cartridge box and powder horn.

Unfortunately, the continued representation by historians of a poor or under equipped militia company is nothing more than a distortion of historical fact.

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