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.”