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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Saturday, April 16, 2022

Frank W. Coburn’s Twenty-three Towns—and Four Extra?

About a century ago, Frank Warren Coburn of Lexington set out to document the names of the militiamen who fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Not just the men who marched, but those in companies that exchanged fire with the British troops.

Coburn scoured the available sources to determine which towns’ companies probably saw fighting. Then he went through the Massachusetts state archives, looking for payrolls submitted from those towns. He also sought lists of militiamen from other sources, such as town histories and manuscripts.

Coburn printed all the names he found in an appendix to his 1912 history (full title: The Battle of April 19, 1775, in Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville and Charlestown, Massachusetts). His list of towns was:
  • Lexington, of course
  • Concord, Acton, Bedford, Lincoln, Billerica, Chelmsford, Framingham, Reading, Sudbury, Woburn; all “entered the contest at Concord,” which could mean either at the North Bridge or later as the regulars withdrew from the town
  • Cambridge, which “entered the contest at Lincoln”
  • Newton, which “entered the contest at Lexington”
  • Brookline, Watertown, Medford, Malden, Roxbury, Dedham, Needham, Lynn, Beverly, and Danvers, which all “entered the contest at Arlington”
Twenty-three towns—but Coburn’s appendix also included four more places.

He listed Arlington separately from Cambridge even though in 1775 Arlington was a precinct of Cambridge called Menotomy. Coburn didn’t find a militia muster roll for Capt. Benjamin Locke’s company from that area. Instead, he relied on town histories by Lucius R. Paige and Samuel A. Smith.

It’s worth noting that Coburn didn’t treat Burlington and Winchester the same way. Those towns calved off of Woburn in the 1799 and 1850, respectively, and militiamen from those areas were part of the Woburn companies. But Burlington and Winchester didn’t get their own entries as Arlington did. Likewise, Carlisle was treated as part of Concord, Wayland as part of Sudbury, and so on. 

Coburn also began his appendix with a statement setting off three more towns:
These Companies were all participants, with the exception of those of Dracut, Stow, and Westford. I have given them, as they came so nearly into the contest.
That implies Coburn decided to give the men from those towns an honorable mention for trying extra hard.

That certainly seems to be the case for Dracut, located up at the New Hampshire border. That town’s company made much better time than their neighbors. Coburn wrote, “The men of Dracut did not reach the scene of actual conflict but tried to, and came so near the British rear guard as to deserve a place in this record.” Good effort, Dracut! Way to hustle!

In similar fashion, Coburn wrote, “The men from Westford did not reach Concord in time to enter the engagement, but pursued the British so closely as to deserve especial mention.” And the same sentence about Stow.

As I noted yesterday, Stow actually suffered a casualty in the battle: Daniel Conant, wounded. However, he lived in the part of the Stow that became Maynard in 1871. The Stow Independent reported in 2014:
Conant wasn’t on the [William] Whitcomb company’s list, where he should have been. The theory is he lived closer to North Maynard—and, hence, Concord—at the time, so he marched ahead on his own…
In that case, Conant’s position within shooting range wouldn’t say anything about how close the Stow companies got.

At another point in his book, Coburn wrote that one Stow company “did not reach North Bridge until about noon, too late to be in the action there, but in ample time to be active in the pursuit.” And the three companies from Westford also “reached the North Bridge too late, but were active afterwards.”

What did Coburn mean by “active” or “active in the pursuit”? Especially when he concluded that those same companies were not “participants” but “came…nearly into the contest”? Did they come in sight of the redcoat column, but not within firing range? If so, did they conceivably affect the British soldiers’ behavior? And what about the Salem regiment, which also reportedly came close enough to see the redcoats?

TOMORROW: Another analysis, skirmish by skirmish.

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