J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Boston Regiment in late 1774

After last week's posting about war games on Boston Common, Alfred F. Young wrote to ask, “Do you have any idea of how many militia companies there were in Boston?” So I looked it up in Mills and Hicks’s British and American Register for the Year 1775.

These were the officers of the “BOSTON REGIMENT” when that little reference book was printed in late 1774:

Col. John Erving (shown here in a postcard from Smith College)
Lt. Col. John Leverett
Maj. Thomas Dawes
Richard Boynton (with the rank of major)
Jeremiah Stimpson
Josiah Waters
Martin Gay
Samuel Ridgway
Samuel Barrett
John Haskins
Ephraim May
David Spear
Andrew Symmes
Edward Procter
Job Wheelwright
Adjutant William Dawes, Jr. (with the rank of lieutenant)
There were twelve captains in all, one for each company. After each captain’s name the Register listed his lieutenant and ensign (the equivalent of a second lieutenant).

There’s a similar rundown of the Boston regiment’s officers as of 1 Apr 1772 in young printer John Boyle’s “Journal of Occurrences in Boston,” printed in volumes 84 and 85 of the New England Historical & Genealogical Register. A close look shows why Boyle was so pleased to record this information: he'd just been commissioned as an ensign in one company. (By late 1774, he was a lieutenant.)

Comparing the two lists show that the captains and all superior officers remained the same, but three lieutenants had been succeeded by men who had been ensigns and one by an entirely new name. Of the twelve ensigns in 1774, only five had held that rank in 1772.

Boston also had some specialized militia units, which Mills & Hicks listed in this order:
  • The grenadier company, founded in 1772. Maj. Dawes of the main regiment was also captain of this company (which might have been why blacksmith Capt. Boynton got the brevet rank of major).
  • The train, or artillery company, under Maj. Adino Paddock. According to an inside source, however, this company had basically dissolved in Sept 1774 when its cannons disappeared.
  • The South Battery company, under Maj. Jeremiah Green, which staffed the fort overlooking the southern end of the wharfs; by late 1774, British army units were using that battery.
  • The North Battery company, under Maj. Nathaniel Barber, still overseeing the smaller battery in the North End.
In addition, Boston was home to the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, then functioning as a private training organization for militia officers; the governor’s troop of horse-guards, fourteen strong and probably no more than ceremonial; and the Independent Company of Cadets, in flux after most members had resigned when Gen. Thomas Gage dismissed John Hancock from his role as company captain.

All told, that’s seventeen functioning companies, though the two battery companies might have needed fewer men than the rest. The 1765 census found 2,941 white men over the age of sixteen in Boston. The law exempted some of those men (sexagenarians, clergymen, etc.) from militia service, but the mystery for me is what informal customs militia officers followed in running the regiment.

Did Samuel Adams, whose hands shook with palsy, carry a musket alongside his neighbors? (Would you want to drill in front of him?) We know African-American men served in militia units outside of Boston. Did they also drill in the big town’s musters? How easy was it to skip militia training by paying a small fine or simply not showing up? How did the system deal with illnesses or absences for, say, going out on a fishing boat? In sum, the law said nearly every white male inhabitant between sixteen and sixty was supposed to turn out for militia training, but how many actually did?

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