In 1774 the bricklayer William Bell (1731-1804) was elected captain of Boston’s Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. That group wasn’t an official company of the Massachusetts militia, but rather a private organization that functioned as a sort of militia officers’ training school.
Like the town’s official companies, the Ancient and Honorables usually drilled on Boston Common. But in the fall of 1774, there were British army tents on much of that land. So Bell led his comrades to the biggest stretch of open space in the North End, on Copp’s Hill.
Merchant John Andrews had a fun time describing what happened in a 4 Oct 1774 letter to a relative in Philadelphia:
Yesterday afternoon our honorable and ancient Artillery company turn’d out, and for want of a better place they march’d down to Cop’s hill, where they went through their several manoeuvres to the satisfaction of every one, and really made a much more respectable appearance than they formerly us’d to.Andrews’s letter is the main evidence of this event; the organization’s contemporaneous records don’t mention it. His sardonic tone seems to reflect a conviction that the British authorities weren’t up for a real military confrontation, and would back down before things got that bad.
Their fifes and drums, when near the hill, alarm’d the [warship] Lively, which lays near the ferry [to Charlestown]; and when they had got upon the hill, in sight of the Ship, the Boatswain’s whistle call’d all hands upon deck, the marines with their firelocks were fix’d upon the quarter, the ports open’d with a spring upon their cables, the round tops man’d, and a boat man’d and sent out upon each side to reconnoitre.
Such was the terror they were in, from the appearance of about fifty pompions [i.e., pumpkins, and metaphorical ones at that] in arms. At about five o’clock they remarched into King street, where they perform’d their evolutions with the greatest propriety and exactness; much more so, in my opinion, than any performances of the [regular] troops since they’ve been here.
The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company met next, according to its records, on 3 Apr 1775, planning for their big annual parade and election of new officers in May. But then the war started, and the organization basically went dormant until 1782.