Love brought Dr. Samuel Prescott, a practicing physician, to the town of Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775. The young doctor was courting Ms. Lydia Mulliken, when the alarm of the British soldiers marching from Boston went out to the local militia. Lydia’s brother was one of those called to gather.
Love. That emotion also drew Dr. Prescott back toward his hometown of Concord—this time to alert friends, neighbors, and family members of the urgent news of the evening. En route, Dr. Prescott along with Paul Revere and William Dawes, alerted the countryside of the moving British troops. After being vetted and vouchsafed as a true friend of liberty, Dr. Prescott rode posthaste to his hometown, where his word carried greater weight.
“the Country was an amazing strong one; full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls, & c., which the Rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with People who kept an incessant fire upon us…”
From the diary of Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie who was part of the 23rd Regiment–the Royal Welch Fusiliers that survived the ordeal of April 19, 1775. He would keep a diary until the early 1790’s and chronicled his experiences in the American Revolutionary War. His account on April 19, of the retreat from Concord is most descriptive. The British did not just take the brunt of the firing as the marched hurriedly back toward Boston and safety, but;
“as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, as they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them: in this way we marched between 9 and 10 miles, their numbers increasing from all parts…”
The column was led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and had been tasked by General Thomas Gage, British military leader in North America, to root out the military supplies being stored in Concord by the colonials. The mission, albeit supposedly secretive, did not remain so for long, and the colonials got word out to the countryside. After initial firing at Lexington Green and then at the North Bridge in Concord, the British had to march back through the countryside, facing arriving militia and minute men.
“while ours was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it is impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likewise near expended.”
Luckily, for Mackenzie and the other struggling British officers and rank-and-file, on a rise in the ground, outside the town of Menotomy, was a relief column, ready to provide a few moments’ respite.
“Minutemen” on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord have always been grouped together in history and textbooks. But, is that completely historically accurate? Well, no. There is a common misperception that most of the Americans that went to arms on the morning of April 19, 1775 were “Minutemen.” This view has become part of American mythology and popular memory, referenced in most histories dealing with this April day. Despite all of this, the fact remains that many of the men who answered the call that day were not “Minutemen” at all.
The British colonies in North America had a long standing tradition of locally based military units. Most men between the ages of sixteen and thirty five were required to be part of the local militia and these units would meet periodically throughout the year for basic training. Many of these occasions became festive events for the local community. The colonial militia was called out often by the colonial governor to defend against Native American attacks or foreign invasions. Frequently, the militia would supplement a professional force for short campaigns. This was especially common in the French and Indian War, fought between 1756 and 1763.
But the militia was far from a professional and well trained force. Colonies, such as Massachusetts, began to create select companies of men chosen from the local militia regiment. These companies would train more often and be better equipped. They were to be the “elite” force of the militia. Also, these men would be required to respond to an emergency at a short notice. The rise of the “Minuteman” concept can be found as early as 1645. In response to an Indian tribe disturbance, the Massachusetts Council of War created a new regulation. This regulation ordered militia companies to “appoint out and to make choice of thirty soldiers of their companies in ye hundred, who shall be ready at a half an hour’s warning.” The need for a quick response force was already recognized by colonial leaders.
Though the idea of the “Minuteman” can be found in 1645 Massachusetts, the more popular idea of the “Minuteman” came from Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1774 the town was in the forefront of opposing Governor (and General) Thomas Gage’s efforts to enforce Royal authority. The Worcester County Convention passed new militia regulations that highlighted/reinforced how the populace was getting closer and closer to open confrontation with the British Crown. In these new regulations, the Worcester Convention called for “officers in each town of the county, to enlist one third of the men of their respective towns, between sixteen and sixty years of age, to be ready to act at a minute’s warning…” Thus the “Minuteman” was born.
As events in Massachusetts spiraled into open confrontation between the Whigs (Patriots) and the Crown, every town in Massachusetts ramped up their military training of their militia and created “Minuteman” companies. These units became a source of local pride. Along with the militia forces, towns and counties created a complex network of communication via riders that could notify hundreds if not thousands of militia units of possible threats. As Gage began to use his growing military force in Boston to search for colonial military stores, these riders and “Minutemen” showed their effectiveness.
On the morning of April 19, 1775 riders rode out to a very well prepared countryside west of Boston. Paul Revere, William Dawes and many others connected each town with the news that the British regulars were marching on Concord to capture provincial military stores (and possibly capture colonial leaders). Militia and “Minutemen” by the hundreds began to arrive along the road from Cambridge to Concord.
The first Americans the British confronted on the road to Concord were members of Captain Parker’s Lexington Militia. These men, gathered the night before at Buckman’s Tavern in Lexington after an early warning, were still in the area in the early morning of April 19th as the vanguard of the British column neared Lexington. As they formed up in two lines on the Lexington Green, the British quickly came onto the Green to confront the armed colonials. What happened next set off a shockwave not just through Massachusetts, but the entire British colonies in North America. These first shots were fired by militia, not the famed “Minutemen.”
It is here in Lexington that the confusion and myth of the “Minutemen” was born. Several of the monuments around the Lexington Green are dedicated to the “Lexington Minutemen.” But the men on the green were typical militia; they ranged in age and skill levels. They were not highly trained like a “Minutemen” company.
As the British made their way to Concord, Militia and “Minuteman” companies began to answer the well-traveled call that the British were marching on to Concord. After the skirmish at the North Bridge in Concord, more and more colonials answered the call and began to confront the British column as it made its way back to Charlestown. Thousands of militia and “Minutemen” made their way to the towns of Lexington, Menotomy, and Cambridge to confront the British. Because of the great response of these men, there was no turning back after April 19th.
The importance of the “Minutemen” cannot be exaggerated but neither can the importance of the militia. They were two distinct colonial military forces, both created with their own specific uses. In modern times, most wanted to attach their local story to that of the famed “Minutemen.” Though it is most likely that more militia turned out on April 19th than “Minutemen.”
Many monuments in Lexington, Concord and along Battle Road mention the “Minutemen” of 1775. Also, many of the sites associated with the events of April 19th are preserved by Minute Man National Park. I guess “Militia National Park” didn’t have as good of a ring to it.
The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution by John Galvin