Friday, January 27, 2017

"Best to the Reliefe of Our Friend[s] and Country" - Amesbury's War Effort on the Eve of Lexington and Concord

In 1774, many Massachusetts towns undertook sweeping measures to prepare for war with England. Surprisingly, Amesbury was not one of those towns. A review of original town records currently housed at the Amesbury City Hall reveal that the citizens of that town dragged their feet and waited until the last minute to form a minute company.

In 1774, while the neighboring towns were reorganizing its militia companies and forming an artillery unit, Amesbury merely elected to inspect its supply of gunpowder and ammunition. When officials opened the West Parish powder house (Amesbury had at least two powder houses in 1775), they were horrified to discover the entire supply missing. No immediate effort was made to replace or recover the lost ammunition.

In January and February, 1775, Samuel Johnson, the regimental commander of the 4th Essex Regiment, ordered towns under his command, including Amesbury, to form minute companies. Andover, Methuen, Bradford, Boxford, Haverhill and Salisbury quickly complied. For example, on February 22, 1775, Johnson visited Boxford. The colonel “addressed himself with great zeal to the two foot-companies of the Fourth Regiment, recommending to them the necessity of enlisting themselves into the service of the Province, and in a short space of time fifty-three able-bodied and effective men willingly offered themselves to serve their Province in defence of their liberties.”

Amesbury never acted upon Johnson's instructions and thus, failed to form a minute company in early 1775.

It would not be until the first week of March that Amesbury hosted a town meeting to address the question of whether a minute company should be raised. After some discussion, the town unexpectedly voted NOT to form a unit. Of course, in the tradition of New England town meetings when one does not like the outcome of a vote, you have another meeting and pack it with supporters. At a second meeting on March 20, 1775, the town finally “voted to raise fifty able bodyed men including officers for minnit men and to enlist them for one year.” By April 19th the town had raised two minute companies.

Why was Amesbury so reluctant to form a minute company?

It is possible the town felt it could not financially support such an endeavor. It's supply of ammunition and gunpowder was still depleted. Where other towns resolved to purchase and provide arms and equipment for their minute men, Amesbury voted "that said Minnit men shall upon their own cost be well equiped with arms and aminition according to law fit for a march.” Likewsie, most communities offered substantial compensation for minutemen who drilled and responded to emergencies. Amesbury offered much cheaper compensation rates. "Each man shall have one shilling for exercising four hours in an fortnight and that the commanding officer of said Minnit men shall exhibit an account of them that shall exercise to the Selectmen for to receive their pay for exercising . . .each minit man shall have two dollars bounty paid them at their first marching of provided they are called for by the Congress or a General officer they may appoint.”

Despite these financial and supply restrictions Amesbury's minute and militia companies did successfully mobilize for war on April 19, 1775. About mid morning, Amesbury's representative to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Isaac Merrill, received news of the Battle of Lexington. He immediately drafted correspondence to the captains of the Amesbury Minute Companies and ordered them to mobilize:

“Essex Co To John Currier Capt of a militerry foot Company in Amesbury this Day I have received intiligence that the ministeriel troops under the Command of General Gage did Last evening march out of Boston and marched to Lexington & there Killed a Number of our American Soldiers & thence proceed to Concord Killing and Destroying our men and interest: These are therefore to order you forthwith to Notify and muster as many of your under officers and Soldiers as you can possible to meet immediatly to Some Suitable place: and then to march of forthwith to Concord or Else where as in your Descretion you Shall think best to the reliefe of our Friend[s] and Country: and also to order those who are now absent & out of the way to Follow after and ioin you as Soon as they shall be apprized of the Alaram and when you have marched your men to Some part of our army you are to appoint some officer to head them in case you return home your Self: till Some Further order may be taken: in this Faile Not Given under my Hand and Seal at Amesbury this Ninteenth Day of April in the Fifteenth year of the Reign of George the third Anno Domini: 1775. Isaac Merrill.”

Although Amesbury's men did not catch the retreating regulars, they did actively participate in the Siege of Boston as part of Colonel Frye's Regiment. Period accounts suggest that the men participated in the Battle of Chelsea Creek and fought inside the redoubt at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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