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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Monday, July 09, 2007

Paul Revere and the 181st Infantry Regiment

In reporting on the deployment of C Company, First Battalion of the 181st Infantry Regiment to Iraq this month, the Boston Globe stated:

The historic unit, which Paul Revere led against British forces on Lexington Green and in Concord in 1775,...
Similar remarks were aired by WBZ on TV and WBUR on radio.

But Paul Revere (shown here around 1800) didn’t lead any troops on Lexington Green. He was busy moving a trunk of papers that John Hancock had left behind. Revere never reached Concord at all that night. And he held no military rank or command in April 1775.

Furthermore, Revere’s military experience came in the artillery, not the (light) infantry. First he was a lieutenant under Col. Richard Gridley in 1756, not seeing much action. In 1779 he became commander of the Massachusetts militia artillery regiment (succeeding Col. Thomas Crafts), and led that force during a calamitous attempt to take the British-held fort on the Penobscot River.

Revere’s role in the Battle of Lexington and Concord should be extremely easy to check. It’s not one of the forgotten details of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the misinformation about Revere seems to have come from the Massachusetts National Guard itself. A December 2006 press release downloadable here stated:
The 181st Infantry (Light) is one of the five oldest units in the U.S. military, tracing its lineage back to 1632. It was formed in 1636 as part of the Massachusetts Militia. The unit fought during the King Phillips War, repulsing various raids by Native Americans. In 1775, Paul Revere led the regiment against British forces on Lexington Green and in Concord.
We can see a public-relations stretch for historical significance in how this paragraph contradicts itself. If the 181st Infantry (Light)’s first predecessor “was formed in 1636,” then it could not go “back to 1632.” Or, if we decide that a 1632 precursor to the legislated Massachusetts militia counts, then why not trace the lineage back even earlier to England? The answer is, of course, that the “lineage” of military units is a bureaucratic fiction that selects historical facts to construct an inspiring heritage. An extra four years is a little more inspiring, but roots in another country are not. The name of Paul Revere resonates more now than that of the actual commander at Lexington, Capt. John Parker.

There’s no practical harm in such historical inaccuracy, of course. But when soldiers and other people are being put in danger, the government and the news media should get the facts right.


Robert S. Paul said...

It doesn't even make sense that the 181st would be one of the oldest. Wouldn't it then be numbered lower?

Since you mentioned Parker, I thought I'd share a tidbit of my recent vacation to Massachusetts that I think you'd like.

Rather than waste an entire day of vacation camping out on the Esplanade, my wife and I went to Lexington for their celebration. They didn't have fireworks - they read the Declaration of Independence (in its entirety), gave us ice cream, and then we watched Johnny Tremain.

At one point in the film, they show a field with a text overlay that reads "Lexington Green". Everyone in the Depot applauded.

GreenmanTim said...

This is really outrageous, worthy of the Carnvial of Bad History if you've a mind to submit it. The lineage of the Minuteman Regiment is a bit more obscure. This Pentagon site



"A large portion of this regiment is recruited from areas which sent men to the Minute Man organizations in the war of the Revolution." That is a very broad claim and could take in much of the State.

I can trace the 181st back to 1855 when a militia unit called the 8th Massachusetts was formed. It was this regiment of three month volunteers - "The Minutemen" - that camped in the Rotunda of the US Captitol at the outset of the war. I am willing to accept the Massachusetts National Guard's claim that the predecessor's of the 8th were militia with their origins in the train bands of Puritan times, but I'd like to see better documentation that avoids misrepresentations like "Commander Revere".

J. L. Bell said...

I wouldn't dare claim that military lineages are logical, Robert. Or at least they're so complex that I wouldn't dare try to find the logic in them.

Glad you enjoyed the Lexington Independence Day. Though I've enjoyed Boston's concert and fireworks a few times, I've had more fun at smaller celebrations around the U.S. of A.

As for Johnny Tremain, I recall that the Disney version of the fight on Lexington Green differs in a major way from Esther Forbes's book. Just so you're not surprised if you end up reading that.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the Pentagon heraldry office link, Tim. That webpage's explanation of the tenuous link between today's 181st to Massachusetts's Revolutionary militia seems unimpeachable, though far less stirring than the image of Paul Revere on horseback leading troops.

Yes, this military lineage seems to derive from men in the mid-1800s claiming their forefathers' Revolutionary legacy through the "Minuteman" nickname, rather like how Lexington High School or the University of Massachusetts have done more recently. Or, for that matter, the New England Patriots.

I suspect there are times when such a historic lineage seems very important, and other times when reorganizing the military so it works better seems more important than preserving clear lines of succession.

Any American military lineage traced back to colonial times has to do some tap-dancing around the break with Britain. Both American and Canadian military units claim to be the heirs of Rogers's Rangers, for instance. That unit of British-Americans was formed for the French & Indian War; Rogers then fought for the Crown in the Revolution while some junior officers fought for the U.S. of A. Which was the legitimate line of descent? Well, in part that's what all the fighting was about.

The 181st Regiment's powderhorn insignia dates from 1923, so it's Colonial Revival all the way. Historians now seem to think that most militiamen used cartridges rather than powderhorns.

Marc with a C said...

Doesn't really surprise me. Odds are that the Boston Globe didn't get it wrong, but rather that they got their info direct from the unit. All sorts of proud military traditions end up getting started that have little to no basis in fact and result in a highly embellished- if fictionalized- version of regimental history.

An example of this is the 13th Regiment of Foot/ Somerset Light Infantry. Part of their regimental tradition is that their sergeant sashes are worn on the opposite side, to commemorate the battle of Culloden where all their officers were supposedly killed or wounded and the NCOs took over.

In fact, the 13th didn't take any casualties at Culloden (one of the few regiments to do so) and seeing how it was on the extreme right of the British line, probably never even fired. Ah well, what can you say?


J. L. Bell said...

It's a teensy bit reassuring that the Pentagon's heraldry office—the people officially charged with depicting U.S. military units' histories and traditions—have accurate info about the 181st.

In this case, the local P.R. office seems to have misread older descriptions of militiamen responding to Paul Revere's warnings and massaged that into Revere actually leading them into battle.

And as part of a sentimental, teeth-gritting, let's-not-talk-about-the-war send-off for a company of the 181st headed to Iraq, the local reporters adopted the P.R. language without bothering to think about it.

Miriam said...

And now the regiment is back, and the same Pentagon PR language is resurfacing, in the "Lexington Minuteman".

J. L. Bell said...

Well, at least they’re back. That’s the most important thing.

Anonymous said...

i found this very intresting it good to se someone is intrested in him and writes about him.

Ive done a loty of reading on him when i was younger and could have used this.

I will tell the rest of my family about this page we seem to get stuck writing on him when we are in school.

I guess thats what comes with being related to paul revere

Anonymous said...

It's quite possible 8t MVM companies were largely from some earlier town militias. As far as Revere, well it isn't too surprising given many articles in mewspapers I've seen. Accuracy often seems far from an important point in news stories.

"It doesn't even make sense that the 181st would be one of the oldest. Wouldn't it then be numbered lower?"

Not necessarilly, our Army renumbers or renames units, or completely alters a units military type (infantry to artillery for instance)
Also it is most likely because of feferalizing state militias, creating our NG.

Charles said...

The lineage of the 181st Infantry was only thought to go back to 1840. However, in 1986, Captain Hedge discovered the only known extant copy of the Massachusetts Militia Law of 1840 at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. This was the document which established the link between the current regiment and it's earlier incarnations. The regiment was then the 5th Mass. Volunteer Militia I believe. By 1860 it had become the 6th MVM, which traditional designation it holds today. Unfortunately I do not currently have access to my copy of the pertinent section of that law. However, I am fairly confident that my information is essentially correct.