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.