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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Friday, April 15, 2022

What Towns Fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord?

Twice in the past few weeks I’ve found myself discussing the question of which towns’ militia companies were actually in the fighting on 19 Apr 1775.

That’s not the same question as which towns saw fighting. There were fatal exchanges of fire in (west to east) Concord, Lincoln, Lexington, Cambridge, and Charlestown.

Later the west Cambridge village of Menotomy became the town of Arlington, and the west Charlestown area formed Somerville, so those modern municipalities are also on the Battle Road, but they didn’t exist as legal entities in 1775.

Scores of other towns mobilized their militia companies that day. Indeed, the “Lexington Alarm” continued to spread, so even more towns got the word the day after, and the day after that. Within a week there were men from western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut on the siege lines around Boston.

But because of geography, timing, and the way Lt. Col. Francis Smith and Col. Percy directed the British army column as it withdrew to the east, only some militia companies came close enough to exchange fire with the redcoats.

All the militia companies that turned out in April 1775 could apply to the Massachusetts government for pay for the days they were active. The surviving pay records, now in the state archives, offer data on the companies, commanders, and men. They’re often reprinted in local histories. But those documents don’t differentiate between the units that saw combat and those that were ready to but didn’t.

To identify the towns that did exchange fire, therefore, we have to turn to news accounts (especially casualties), memoirs, anecdotes, and lore. Frank Warren Coburn set out to do this in The Battle of April 19, 1775 (1912), particularly the special edition with a long appendix of muster rolls, digitized here. Derek W. Beck retraced that research in Igniting the American Revolution, 1773-1775 (2015), appendix 14.

The towns with men killed or wounded were, in alphabetical order: Acton, Bedford, Beverly, Billerica, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Charlestown, Chelmsford, Danvers, Dedham, Framingham, Lexington, Lincoln, Lynn, Medford, Needham, Newton, Roxbury, Salem, Sudbury, Stow, Watertown, and Woburn.

However, the man from Salem who died, Benjamin Peirce, appears not to have marched with the Salem companies. The commander of that regiment, Col. Timothy Pickering, was bitterly criticized for not moving fast enough to engage the British. Peirce died in the fighting at Menotomy along with several men from Danvers and Lynn, so he had probably mustered in the company of a neighboring town.

Likewise, although two people from Charlestown were shot and killed—septuagenarian James Miller and teenager Edward Barber—that town’s militia company may never have officially mustered and entered the fight. According to Jacob Rogers:
In the afternoon Mr. James Russell [a town official and appointee to the mandamus Council] received a letter from General [Thomas] Gage, importing that he was informed the people of Charlestown had gone out armed to oppose his majesty’s troops, and that if one single man more went out armed, we might expect the most disagreeable consequences.
Since the most populated part of Charlestown was well within range of British army and naval artillery, town leaders had good reason to keep the militia company out of action. Miller and a friend were apparently shooting at the redcoats on their own in west Charlestown. Barber was a non-combatant looking out a window of his family home.

Thus, while the list of towns that suffered casualties is a good guide to which towns’ companies were in combat, it’s not the same.

TOMORROW: Coburn and his honorable mentions.

1 comment:

ZombyDawg said...

This seems to confirm my research on my 4th great-grandfather Caleb Haskell who marched out of Newburyport as fifer with Captain Moses Nowell's militia company on the 19th. I have found no accounts of them encountering the British on that day and it seems they may have left too late in the day are were stuck with or on the road behind Pickering. There is a record of pay for four days marching, however. Seems they made it to Cambridge before they were recalled when Benjamin Greenleaf of the local Committee of Safety wrote to General Ward asking for their return because of a panic over a possible British landing around the mouth of the Merrimack. Nowell was promoted to Colonel and put in command of a garrison on Plum Island and Caleb joined an newly-formed company under Captain Ezra Lunt at the beginning of May that marched back to Cambridge to join a regiment commanded by Colonel Moses Little. In September he went on detached duty in Captain Samuel Ward's company of Lt. Col. Christopher Greene's battalion with Arnold's Quebec Expedition. On a side note, Caleb's son, also named Caleb, married Fanny Matilda Betts, daughter of Loyalist Dr. Azor Betts, in Canada in March 1815. They moved back to Newburyport some time later.