A wood carving commemorating colonial American ‘minutemen’

Ever since the formation of the colonies in America, just about every town, village or community maintained a citizen’s militia of some form. These militias were informally organised groups of farmers or residents who would, at a moment’s notice, rally to the defence of their community. The most common source of colonial paranoia was attack by native ‘Indians’, however there was also some concern about assaults by French, Spanish, roving bandits or brigands from other colonies. The militias were a safeguard against these threats, even though their members weren’t well trained or particularly well governed (militia leaders were usually chosen by popular vote rather than on the basis of ability or military experience). Naturally the events in Boston in 1774 stirred the various Massachusetts militias into a high state of readiness. In the middle of that year they began stockpiling weapons, munitions and gunpowder so that they would be readily available if fighting broke out. This mobilisation did not escape the wary gaze of General Thomas Gage, newly appointed military governor of Massachusetts, and he quickly decided to do something about it.

In September 1774, Gage ordered detachments of British regular troops into rural Massachusetts with specific orders to confiscate supplies of gunpowder or large arms. A group of 260 soldiers travelled up the Mystic River and emptied the powder store at Somerville, at the time one of the largest stores in the colony, before returning to Boston. This movement of soldiers sparked what became known as the ‘Powder Alarms’: militia men heard false rumours that fighting had broken out, thousands marching on Boston to do battle, only to return home after learning that no conflict existed. The Alarms show just how precious gunpowder was to the American militias: since most supplies were imported from the British, its seizure would hamper the capacity of the colony to defend itself. Although the Powder Alarms resulted in no fighting they certainly escalated the recruitment and organisation of ‘minute companies’, who were specially chosen for their ability to gather and fight at a moment’s notice.

“The self-armed minute-men and volunteer militia are considered by many to be a unique early American creation. That frontier conditions necessitated a colonial militia is true, but that it was a unique New World invention is not true. The farmers who took up their muskets were simply the revival of the medieval Assize of Arms (1181) their mother country of England had built up hundreds of years before. Professional armies had made the English militia more or less a joke, but for four hundred years every able-bodied English freeman, self-armed and trained under local officers, stood ready on a minute’s notice to guard England against all enemies. Little did the founders of the system dream how effectively it would be used against the English themselves.”
George W. Givens, historian

Most minutemen were in their mid-20s or younger, the majority being unmarried. Other than a little gunpowder, when available, minutemen were given no supplies or weapons by the colony. Almost all provided their own gun and they wore civilian clothes, so they were not distinguishable by uniforms. As in the militias, minutemen companies selected their officers by election and it was not uncommon for units to also vote on important tactical decisions (this democratic spirit caused problems for Washington when he took charge of the Continental Army in 1775). The minutemen had several advantages over the British regular soldier: he possessed strong local knowledge and could rely on his family or community to give him supplies or shelter; many minutemen also owned hunting rifles with a longer range than English muskets, while unlike British soldiers they could act more as a ‘free agent’ on the field of battle. As a result, minutemen and militia companies – less disciplined but with greater knowledge of local terrain and conditions – were less competent in pitched European-style battles, preferring instead to engage in skirmishes, surprise attacks or small-scale battles in wooded areas. For all its historical flaws, the movie The Patriot gives a fair representation of tactics employed by a brigade of colonial militia.

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