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 23, 2006

War Games on Boston Common

Militia training days were big events in eighteenth-century New England towns, and since Boston was the biggest town in the region, training day there was even bigger. The law required nearly all males between sixteen and sixty to drill with their town militia units in case they were needed to defend the province (or attack other territories). Drilling meant practicing how to march in formation, and to load and fire a musket. So a training day in Boston meant hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men marching and shooting on the Common. Naturally, it was quite a spectacle for the rest of the population.

The Boston News-Letter of 17 September 1772 described the training on the preceding Monday. First Col. John Erving led the entire regiment through the manual exercise, company by company. The latest addition to the provincial forces was the Boston grenadier company, which had bookseller Henry Knox among its young junior officers. Militiamen "performed as many Evolutions and Platoon Firings as the Time would allow, to great Acceptation." But then came the big show.

Boston, unique among Massachusetts towns at that time, had a company of field artillery in its militia. Most men in the unit were mechanics, often in the luxury crafts: carriage-maker, decorative painter, upholsterer. Many had ambitions to rise into the ranks of genteel society, and serving well as a militia officer could help. The artillery company, also called the "train," had four small brass cannon on maneuverable carriages and a few other artillery pieces, and on this September day they showed off their skills with a war game. The mock enemy was, of course, the French:

The Company of Artillery under Major [Adino] Paddock, having first been exercised as usual, performed another Mock Battle, as follows, A Detachment of the Company under Capt. [Jabez] Hatch and Lieut. [George] Trott drew off with two Cannon and a Mortar, and marched to Fox-Hill, so called, the Bottom of the Common, and encamp’d with French Colours flying: Upon which Major Paddock, with Lieutenants [Thomas] Crafts and [Edward] Tuckerman, and the Remainder of the Company march’d and took Post on a Hill opposite; from thence began to cannonade and bombard with artificial Bombs, which was answered from those in the Encampment: At this Station it was supposed no advantage could be had, the Major therefore marched off by the Right between the Powder-House and a Ridge of Hills, and form’d on the Right of the Ridge, which brought him on the Left of Fox-Hill, where he again began the Engagement, after firing a few Shot, he ordered Lt. Craft with one Cannon and a Party with Firelocks to pass a Defile in Front, at the same Time Capt. Hatch sent Lt. Trott to a Redoubt below his Post to oppose him, which Lt. Craft forced and obliged Lt. Trott to give way and run up to the Encampment. As soon as the Assailants mounted the Breastwork, a Parley was beat by Capt. Hatch and a Flag sent out offering to surrender on Conditions of being allowed all the Honors of War, which being refused, a brisk Firing began again from the Encampment. Whereupon the Remainder of the Company were ordered to join Lt. Craft who ascended the Hill briskly and forced the Encampment with charged Bayonets, flaming Hand-Grenades flying all the Time amidst the contending Parties: On which Capt. Hatch with his Party retired precipitantly down the opposite side of the Hill, the French Colours were struck and the Encampment represented to be set on Fire. Both Parties joined and marched with their Cannon in regular Order to their Parade, and after going through several Firings, retired.

The whole was executed in a Manner that did Honour to the Officers and Privates.

His Excellency the Governor [Thomas Hutchinson], was on the Common to see the Performance of the Regiment and Artillery Company; as were also a great Number of Gentlemen and Ladies, and People of all Ranks, who were highly pleased with the present Spirit for Military Art.
Lieutenants Trott and Crafts were both members of the Loyall Nine, the small group that had organized Boston's early Stamp Act protests in 1765. In contrast, their regimental commander, Major (later Colonel) Paddock, was a Loyalist. They would end up on opposite sides of the real war.

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