Happy Patriots Day: The Minutemen of Lexington and Concord
Some 246 years ago today, a handful of independent Colonial militia stood on the field against British regulars and the resulting "shot heard round the world" would lead to the birth of America.
With that, we take a look at some background on that day.
Who was the militia?
The early gun regulations of the Colonial era aren't what we think of today as gun control. Rather, they specified the types of weapons men needed to bring to frequent town musters – for example, muskets for soldiers, horsemen's pistols for mounted units, swords for officers. Such hardware was subject to inspection and, as noted by Saul Cornell for the American Bar Association, "failure to maintain one's weapon or report to muster resulted in fines."
As gunpowder was often expensive and hard to obtain, towns would maintain a central powder house to store local quantities for such common use. Men between the ages of 16 and 50 were part of the militia, while men as old as 70 were on the "alarm list" to be called in an emergency.
According to histories compiled by the National Guard, colonial militia laws, first established in 1664 – a century before Lexington and Concord – provided that:
"Every citizen shall, after notice of his enrollment, be constantly provided with a good musket or firelock of a bore sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound*, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot pouch and powder horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear, so armed, accoutered, and provided when called out to exercise or into service, except that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. Each commissioned officer shall be armed with a sword or hanger and spontoon."
*This weight is 385 grains, typically what is seen in about a .50 caliber muzzleloader bullet today, but this is misleading. For instance, circa 1775 balls recovered at the Parker’s Revenge site in Minute Man National Historical Park, the British Army's spherical .69-caliber balls ranged in weight from 364.2 to 483 grains. The typical powder charge of the time was about 110 grains, although it should be said that the powder of the day is much inferior to modern FFF or Pyrodex. Modern tests on French and British military muskets of the Revolutionary War period show that the .76- and .69-caliber spherical lead balls of the day could penetrate a superb 32 inches of modern ballistics gel at close range (25 yards) but would rapidly slope and, at ranges of anything over 150 yards, hit the ground.
For an exhibition on how flintlock muskets were used in 1775 and the resulting Revolutionary War, check out this presentation from the Minute Man National Historical Park.
The British are coming ... for your guns
David B. Kopel, an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, argued in his paper in the Charleston Law Review, that British gun control efforts sparked the American Revolution. This included a 1774 import ban for firearms and gunpowder from outside the Colonies and the so-called Powder Alarm of the same year after British troops seized hundreds of barrels of powder from the Charlestown, Massachusetts, powder house. Fake news of the day had it that the British subsequently fired on a crowd, which triggered a mobilization of Colonial militia that only dissolved at the last minute.
That move set the fuse, which was lit by the British at Lexington, says Kopel.
"The militia message, though, was unmistakable: if the British used violence to seize arms or powder, the Americans would treat that seizure as an act of war, and the militia would fight. And that is exactly what happened several months later, on April 19, 1775," he wrote.
While traditional Colonial militia would only gather to drill a few days a year, going as far back as 1644 the Massachusetts colony established a force of "training bands" who met eight or more times per year to perfect their martial drill. Such units were later urged to be “in readiness at a minute’s warning." In 1774, as a direct result of the Powder Alarm and other British actions, the Provincial Congress directed that at least a quarter of the local militia should "equip and hold themselves in readiness to march at the shortest notice," which led to the formation of so-called Minute Man units.
The NPS on the Minute Men:
The volunteer citizen-soldiers of Lexington faced off against the British regulars, who were skilled light infantry. After the smoke cleared, the consensus among the survivors on the American side was, as stated by Capt. John Parker, that the British “fired upon and killed eight of our party, without receiving any Provocation therefor from us."
The first shot may have been from the redcoats, but eight years later the war would leave the 13 assorted colonies free from the King's control forever. "A republic, if you can keep it."