Modern history

THE MUSTER

image The Rising of the Militia

It seemed as if men came down from the clouds.

—A letter from Boston,
April 19, 1775

I MMEDIATELY after the alarm was received, the men of Massachusetts began to assemble in their towns. Lexington’s Congregational minister Jonas Clarke remembered that within moments of Paul Revere’s arrival “the militia of this town were alarmed, and ordered to meet on the usual place of parade,” Everyone knew what to do. Literally within minutes, men throughout the town were dressing hastily and reaching for their muskets, while wives packed a few provisions in their shoulder bags, and small children sat up in their trundle beds and rubbed the sleep from their eyes. 1

The commander of Lexington’s militia, Captain John Parker, lived two miles from the Common in the southwest corner of the town. He had been elected by his fellow townsmen, and they had chosen well. John Parker was the sort of leader other men willingly follow in the face of danger. His grandson, the future minister Theodore Parker, remembered him as “a great tall man, with a large head and a high, wide brow.” He was forty-six years old, and not in good health. Members of his family remembered that he had gone to bed ill the night before, and had slept only a few hours. Like many others in New England, John Parker suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. Its ravages were far advanced in his lungs, and would have left their telltale signs in the burning intensity of his sunken eyes and the gauntness of his hollow cheeks. Even so, he felt fit enough for military service, and his neighbors could think of no better man to lead them.

By occupation, John Parker was a Yankee farmer and mechanic. By long experience he was also an old soldier who had survived many a hard colonial campaign. He had been present at the siege of Louisbourg and the conquest of Quebec, and probably had done a tour of duty with Robert Rogers’s American Rangers. Captain Parker had seen more of war than most of the British Regulars who were marching into his town. In the early hours of April 19, he gathered up his battered equipment that had seen many years of service, and set off to meet his company. 2

The time was between 1 and 2 o’clock when Captain Parker’s Lexington militia began to muster on the Common. Men drifted in for many hours. A fitful wind was blowing that April night, and played strange tricks with sound. Some householders at a far distance were awakened immediately by the alarm. Others close to the Common slept soundly in the arms of their wives until morning. 3

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The home of Caption John Parker was a typical Lexington farmsted—a simple wooden saltbox house which had been in the family since 1712. Parker’s son and grandson Theodore Parker (1810–60) were born and raised in it.

As the Lexington militia gathered on the Common, Captain Parker exchanged a few words with each individual. He did so less as their commander than as their neighbor, kinsman, and friend. These sturdy yeomen did not expect to be told what to do by anyone. They were accustomed to judge for themselves. Many were hardworking dairy farmers in a community that was already known as a “milk town” for the Boston market. Their ages ranged from sixteen to sixty-six, but most were mature men in their thirties and forties. They were men of property and independence who served on juries, voted in town meetings, ran the Congregational church, managed their own affairs, and felt beholden to none but the Almighty.

The men of Lexington did not assemble to receive orders from Captain Parker, much as they respected him. They expected to participate in any major decisions that would be taken. Their minister wrote that the purpose of the muster was first and foremost to“consult what might be done.” 4 They gathered round Captain Parker on the Common, and held an impromptu town meeting in the open air. The town minister Jonas Clarke was there, with John Hancock and Sam Adams. Possibly Paul Revere and William Dawes also attended briefly, before they left for Concord. 5

The muster of the Lexington militia was the product of a long historical process in New England—a process that has been much misunderstood in popular histories of the event. The same legends that celebrate the myth of the solitary midnight rider tell us that the Middlesex farmers rose spontaneously in response to the alarm. This idea is very much mistaken. The muster of the minute-men in 1775 was product of many years of institutional development. Like the alarm itself, it was also the result of careful planning and collective effort.

For six generations since the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, every town had maintained its “training band,” All able-bodied males of military age were required to serve except conscientious objectors, clergymen, college students, professors, and the mentally incompetent. The training bands were a response to hard necessity. Many times since its founding, Massachusetts had found itself at war. From 1689 to 1763, four major conflicts had broken out between the great European powers. All of them spread to New England.

The military institutions of Massachusetts became very active in time of danger. After every peace they lapsed into a state of suspended animation, until awakened by the next crisis. This rhythm repeated itself in the Fall of 1774, when the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts created a Committee of Safety, collected stocks of arms, and revived the old New England training bands in a new form. All men between the ages of sixteen and fifty were asked to “enlist” themselves in the militia. Older men from fifty to seventy were organized into another group called the alarm list, and ordered to be ready for service in dire emergency. 6

The Provincial Congress recommended that one quarter of the militia should be organized in “minute companies,” ready to march “at the shortest notice.” Special groups of that sort had existed in New England since the mid 17th-century. In 1645, militia commanders throughout Massachusetts were ordered “to make choice of thirty soldiers of their companies in ye hundred, who shall be ready at half an hour’s warning.” On the eve of King Philip’s War in 1675, the Suffolk and Middlesex regiments were required to “be ready to march on a moment’s warning, to prevent such danger as may seem to threaten us,” When the French wars began after 1689, and New England settlements were attacked by winter raiding parties, the Massachusetts legislature created special units of “snowshoe men,” each to “provide himself with a good pair of snowshoes, one pair of moggisons and one hatchet,” and to “hold themselves ready to march on the shortest warning.” These were roving patrols of frontier guards. To support them other militia units were ordered in 1711 and 1743 to be “in readiness at a minute’s warning,” During the French and Indian War, militia companies that mustered for the Crown Point campaign of 1756, called themselves “minutemen.” When the Provincial Congress advised the founding of minute companies, it was building on a long tradition. 7

Late in 1774, the towns began to act, each in its own way. One of the first was Roxbury, which on December 26, 1774, created a company of “militia minutemen, so called,” who were ordered to “hold themselves in readiness at a minute’s warning, compleat in arms and ammunition; that is to say a good and sufficient firelock, bayonet, thirty rounds of powder and ball, pouch and knapsack,” Roxbury’s “militia minutemen” were required to exercise twice a week. They were paid one shilling “lawful money” for every day of service, and could also be fined a shilling for not appearing “at time and place as prefixt by the commanding officer.” 8

The arrangements varied from town to town, which responded to the Provincial Congress more as sovereign bodies than subordinate agencies. Some were very slow, but most moved quickly, with astonishing clarity of purpose. A case in point was the town of Lexington. In November 1774 the selectmen issued special warrants for a town meeting, “to see what method the Town will take to encourage Military Discipline, and to put themselves in a position of defence against their enemies.” The town voted to tax itself forty pounds (no small sum for these poor farmers in 1775), “for the purpose of mounting the cannon, ammunition, for a pair of drums for the use of the Training Band in the town, and for carriage and harness for burying the dead.” As early as November 1774 the people of Lexington knew what lay ahead for them. Withastonishing prescience they prepared for the worst, even for burying the dead. 9

Lexington’s town meeting did not follow one suggestion of the Congress. It never raised a company of minutemen. It preferred to keep all of its militia in one exceptionally large company, which it continued to call by the 17th-century Puritan name of “the training band.” Strictly speaking, there were no Lexington minutemen in 1775. It is inaccurate to call them so. The force that gathered on the Green was a traditional New England “training band.” 10

Other Massachusetts towns acted in the same spirit, building carefully on the folkways of their region. New companies of minutemen began by drawing up an old-fashioned “covenant” among themselves, in the same manner as a 17th century Puritan church or town. In the town of Methuen, for example, a muster roll in 1775 began with a formal “covenant,” written in an uncertainhand, but with a firm grasp of regional traditions. “Whare Milartary Exercise hath ben much Nelciked,” it stated, “We the Subscribers being the first Comptney in Methuen Do Covenant andEngage to form our Sevels into a Bodey in order to larn th manualExercise to be suegat to such officers as Comptney shall Chuse byVoat in all Constutenel manner accorden to our Chattaers.” 11

These militia covenants differed in detail, but most were similar in fundamentals. All were voluntary associations, explicitly founded to defend a way of life. Most agreed to elect their own officers by majority vote, and to be bound by “equal laws” of their own making. In Dunstable, on March 1, 1775, twenty-eight men solemnly promised that they “do hereby voluntarily engage with each other in defence of our country, Priveledges and Libertys for the space of six months from this date; that we will submit ourselves to the Laws equally.” 12 These rules were carefully observed. A Boston newspaper described a militia meeting in Roxbury, in which the “Reverend Mr. Adams opened the meeting with prayer, after which he was chosen moderator.” Thereafter, the militia of Roxbury elected their captain, lieutenants, ensigns and sergeants. 13

Many New England towns maintained a special “training field” where the militia assembled four times a year for military exercises. This also was an ancient custom. The author’s town of Wayland (formerly East Sudbury) still has a “Training Field Road,” which has existed since the mid 17th century. Professional soldiers smiled indulgently at the sight of the New England militia on its training days. They laughed contemptuously at the awkward drill, hooted at the clumsy marching, and howled with laughter at the bizarre Yankee custom of saluting an officer by discharging a blank-loaded musket at his feet. One British observer wrote, “It is a curious masquerade scene to see grave sober citizens, barbers and tailors who never looked fierce before, strutting about in their Sunday wigs with muskets on their shoulders … if ever you saw a goose assume an air of consequence, you may catch some faint idea,” Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines bragged, “If I draw my sword but half out of my scabbard, the whole banditti of Massachusetts will run away.”

But the Massachusetts training bands were far from being the military Yahoos they appeared to be. The citizen-soldiers of New England dressed in the country clothing of artisans and farmers, but they kept their weapons clean and knew how to use them. They neglected the manual of arms, but took pains to perfect their marksmanship and improve their rate of fire. They looked ridiculous in close-order drill, but Robert Rogers had taught them his methods of open-order skirmishing and trained them to use cover and to take advantage of the ground. The New England militia made a miserable appearance on parade, but they practiced mobilization with astonishing results. For all their ragtag appearance, many officers and sergeants were combat veterans who had seen hard service in the French and Indian War.

To European officers who had served with them in the last war, the behavior of the New England militia in combat had seemed erratic at best. Sometimes these citizen soldiers fought poorly; sometimes well. As a rule, they performed badly on foreign soil, and worse when under Regular officers who tried to bully them. They tended to be at their best when they fought on their own ground, under their own elected officers, in defense of their homes and their way of life.

The Regulars of the British army and the citizen soldiers of Massachusetts looked upon military affairs in very different ways. New England farmers did not think of war as a game, or a feudal ritual, or an instrument of state power, or a bloodsport for bored country gentlemen. They did not regard the pursuit of arms as a noble profession. In 1775, many men of Massachusetts had been to war. They knew its horrors from personal experience. With a few exceptions, they thought of fighting as a dirty business that had to be done from time to time if good men were to survive in a world of evil. The New England colonies were among the first states in the world to recognize the right of conscientous objection to military service, and among the few to respect that right even in moments of mortal peril. But most New Englanders were not pacifists themselves. Once committed to what they regarded as a just and necessary war, these sons of Puritans hardened their hearts and became the most implacable of foes. Their many enemies who lived by a warrior-ethic always underestimated them, as a long parade of Indian braves, French aristocrats, British Regulars, Southern planters, German fascists, Japanese militarists, Marxist ideologues, and Arab adventurers have invariably discovered to their heavy cost.

Before the citizen-soldiers of New England marched to war, they reflected at length on what they had to do, and how they meant to do it. When they believed that their homes and their way of life were at stake, they fought with courage and resolve—not for the sake of fighting, but for the sake of winning.

All of these things happened in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775. In the months before, the people of New England had come sadly to the conclusion that war was inevitable, and they had prepared for it with high seriousness. The town of Sudbury alone organized five militia companies, and required them to meet every week to practice mobilization and marksmanship. Others in the town busily collected supplies, and loaded them in wagons to follow the militia when they marched. When the alarm came to Sudbury, the town was ready to muster virtually all its men of military age, and to support them in the field.

Similar scenes were repeated throughout the towns of Middlesex County, with the same typically American combination of public organization and private effort. Acton’s Captain Isaac Davis, a farmer and a gunsmith, built a firing range behind his house and shop. His company of minutemen practiced there twice a week from November to April, perfecting their marksmanship by shooting at targets. Captain Davis was a man of energy. He managed to make bayonets and cartridge boxes for his entire company—one of the few to be fully equipped. 14

When the alarm came, the militia in these towns were ready to move quickly. In Concord, after the bell was rung and the alarm guns began to be fired, the town’s soldiers mustered with astonishing speed. Private Thaddeus Blood remembered that he was called out of bed at two o’clock in the morning by his sergeant, within minutes of Dr. Prescott’s arrival in the town. Blood joined his company, and went with them to the courthouse to draw ammunition. Amos Barrett, a private soldier in a Concord minute company remembered that “the bell rung at 3 o’clock for alarum as I was then a minute man I was soon in town.”

Every town and household had its own story to tell. Some of these tales brought a laugh to later generations, and to the participants themselves in later years. In Lexington, sixteen-year-old Jonathan Harrington was a fifer in the town’s militia company. Soon after Paul Revere reached town, he was awakened by his mother, who said to her teen-aged son, “Jonathan, get up! The Regulars are coming, and something must be done!” 15

No two town stories were quite the same, but common threads appeared. It was common for New England towns to identify a common meeting place for their militia, and to mark it with something called an “alarm post.” This was often a stout wooden pillar, with various public notices tacked to its sides. As the British troops marched through the Massachusetts countryside, one of them later wrote, “We vex the Americans very much, by cutting down their liberty poles and alarm posts.” 16

Sometimes the alarm post was a natural landmark. In Chelmsford, George Spaulding recalled that “we rallied at the alarm post, a boulder agreed upon by previous arrangement.” 17 In other towns, the militia mustered at the meetinghouse. That was what happened in Andover, where one soldier recalled, “About seven o’clock we had alarum that the Reegelers was gon to Conkord we gathered at the meting hous & then started for Concord.” 18

Many towns tried to muster their full strength, and send its men together. Billerica’s men arrived en masse, with those in neighboring hamlets, three or four hundred men together. Other towns sent their companies separately. In the sprawling town of Dedham, four companies “marched to the action by a different route.” 19 A few towns never held a general muster; the men went running off in small groups, or even as individuals. This happened in Lynn, where many men “immediately set out, without waiting to be organized,” much to their cost later in the day. In Chelmsford, one man remembered that “there was but little military order observed by us. We went off in squads as soon as convenient.” 20

Some towns mustered more quickly than others. A regimental commander had ordered the companies from Hollis and Prescott to assemble at Groton. Their historian writes, “So well prepared were they for such an emergency and so expeditious their rally, that they arrived at the Groton rendezvous, five miles distant, before the companies there were ready to march.” Many did not follow the roads. The Brookline militia “marched towards Lexington across the fields, as a crow flies.” 21

The towns further west did not hear the alarm until after sunrise. In Pepperell, Abel Parker was plowing his fields three miles from Pepperell center. “He left the plow in the furrow, and without stopping to unyoke his oxen, ran to the house, and seizing his coat in one hand and his gun in the other, started on a run and did not stop until he overtook his comrades near the ‘Ridges,’ three miles below Groton.” This was the ploughing season in Massachusetts. The folk image of the minuteman leaving his plough was literally the case in many towns that first heard the alarm after the sun was up. 22

Wherever the alarm arrived after daybreak, the men were already hard at work. In Medfield, they mustered directly from their fields and shops. Captain Ephraim Cheney of that town was ploughing his field. He “unhitched his ox from the plough, left it where it was in the furrow, and started for the scene of the action at once,” Silas Mason did the same. Hatter James Tisdale was “finishing a hat when the news reached him. He dropped the hat and brush, made himself ready, and started.” 23

When officers sometimes moved more slowly than their men, the major decisions were taken out of their hands. This happened in Salem, which did not get the word until eight or nine o’clock in the morning. One of its senior militia officers, Timothy Pickering, was very slow that day, perhaps because he was a conservative Whig and hoped to avoid hostilities. Pickering protested to his men that there was not time enough to march, that the Regulars would be back in Boston before his unit could reach the scene. His men forced him to mobilize and march. Still he delayed on the road, until a private soldier who happened to be one of Salem’s richest merchants told him in no uncertain terms to get moving. The men of Salem imposed their own judgment on their commander.24

Congregational ministers actively involved themselves in the muster, helping to awaken the men, leading the consultations, sometimes shouldering a weapon and joining the march themselves. Many companies gathered at their meetinghouses, and did not march until they had united in prayer. The militia from Dedham center heard a prayer from their clergyman as they stood in front of the meetinghouse. Then they all marched off together. 25 In Chelmsford, George Spaulding recalled, “Parson Bridge … wanted us to go into the meetinghouse and have prayers before we left town. Sergeant Ford replied to the good parson, that he had more urgent business on hand.” But some sort of prayer was a common part of mobilization in New England. 26

If the meetinghouses were part of the muster, so also were the families of New England. Some of the small towns in Middlesex County were 145 years old in 1775. For as many as six generations their families had interbred until they were extended cousinages, closely tied by blood and marriage. In Bedford’s company, for example, it was said that “all 77 men with few exceptions were related.” In Captain John Parker’s Lexington’s militia company, “over a quarter of those responding were his blood relatives or inlaws.”27

Older men joined their sons and grandsons as volunteers. In Lexington, Moses Harrington was sixty-five years old. Robert Munroe was sixty-three. Sudbury’s Deacon Josiah Haynes was eighty years old, but turned out with the militia and set a rapid pace on the road that left the young minutemen panting behind him. The militia were joined by large numbers of these “un-enlisted volunteers” as they were called in Littleton. In Dedham, after the militia marched, “The gray-haired veterans of the French wars, whose blood was stirred anew by the sights and sound of war, resolved to follow their sons into battle.” Many of these older men had much military experience. They would be among the most dangerous adversaries on the field that day. 28

In many communities virtually the entire male population marched off to war. Dedham’s minister remembered that the village was “almost literally without a male inhabitant below the age of seventy, and above that of sixteen.” 29 Woburn’s Major Loammi Baldwin wrote in his diary, “We mustered as fast as possible. The town turned out extraordinary, and proceeded toward Lexington.” 30

They dressed in ordinary working clothes. The men were clean-shaven, with long hair worn straight or pulled back in a queue, beneath large weatherbeaten hats with low round crowns and broad floppy brims. Among the younger men, earlocks were much in fashion, fastened with elegant pins on the side of the head. One eyewitness observed that “to a man they wore smallclothes, coming down and fastening just below the knee, and long stockings with cowhide shoes ornamented by large buckles.” 31 Their shirts were linen and their stockings were heavy gray homespun. As the night air was chill, many were wearing both coats and vests. An observer remarked that their “coats and waistcoats were loose and of huge dimensions, with colors as various as the barks of oak, sumac and other trees of our hills and swamps could make them.” These were old New England’s traditional “sadd colors.” 32

A few gentlemen of rank turned out in gaudy costumes. Brookline’s Doctor William Aspinwall arrived at his town muster wearing an elegant and fashionable broadcloth coat of brilliant scarlet. His neighbors tactfully suggested that a coat of another color might be more suitable for the occasion. Dr Aspinwall hurried home and changed into an outfit that would not be mistaken for British regimentals. 33

The firearms of these men were as various as their dress. The towns for many years had been required to keep their own supply of munitions. Some had maintained magazines in the Congregational meetinghouses. At Lexington barrels of gunpowder were stored as a “common stock” below the pulpit—a symbolic place in the minds of many Loyalists who had long complained against the explosive theology of the “black regiment” of the Congregational clergy. Littleton’s company of 46 men marched off with 24 pounds of powder, and 38 pounds of bullets drawn from the “common stock.” 34

Most towns expected individual militiamen to supply their own weapons, and acted only to arm those who were unable to arm themselves. Newton’s town meeting made special provision to arm its paupers at public expense: “Voted, that the Selectmen use their best discretion in providing fire-arms for the poor of the Town, who are unable to provide for themselves.” Not many societies in the 18th century would have dared to distribute weapons to their proletariat. At the same time, the rich applied the New England habit of philanthropy to an unaccustomed cause. The town meeting in Newton also noted that “John Pigeon presented to the town two field pieces, which were accepted, and the thanks of the town given him.” 35

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New England Fowler, Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington John Parker’s Musket, Massachusetts State House British Musket, Museum of Our National Heritage British Officer’s Fusil, Concord Museum

These were the most common types of firearms at Lexington and Concord. The long-barreled export fowler (top) was a hunting gun, carried on April 19 by Ezekiel Rice (1742-1835) of East Sudbury (now Wayland). It is owned by Peter A. Albee and exhibited at the Museum of Our National Heritage. The New England musket (2d from top) was carried by Captain John Parker on Lexington Green. It has no maker’s marks, but appears to be of British or French manufacture with American replacement parts, and bears signs of heavy use, including extensive burnback from the pan. It is kept today in the Massachusetts Senate Chamber. The British Brown Bess was a long land pattern musket carried by many British units in Concord. This one is in the Museum of Our National Heritage. The short-barreled British Fusil was used by officers and sergeants in Grenadier companies. This example bears the markings of the 5th Foot and might have been carried by Lt. Thomas Baker, Sgt. George Kirk, or Sgt. Thomas Allen of the 5th Grenadiers, all of whom were wounded in the battle. Captured by an American militiaman, it is in the Concord Museum.

Town stocks of munitions had been been growing in the winter and spring of 1775, despite the British embargo. But many militia and minute companies were still short of gunpowder and weapons on April 18. A few were not armed at all. Lincoln’s Colonel Abijah Pierce carried nothing but a cane. His town had voted to furnish supplies a month earlier, but it was reported that only a “few were as yet well equipped.” 36

Many men armed themselves with weapons not designed for war. One man from Lynn carried a “long fowling piece, without a bayonet, a horn of powder, and a seal-skin pouch, filled with bullets and buckshot. 37 Some carried arms of great antiquity, whose origins told the history of the province. A witness wrote, “Here an old soldier carried a heavy Queen’s arm with which he had done service at the conquest of Canada twenty years previous, while by his side walked a stripling boy with a Spanish fusee not half its weight or calibre, which his grandfather may have taken at the Havana, while not a few had old French pieces, that dated back to the reduction of Louisburg.” None of these Massachusetts militia are known to have carried long rifles such as were becoming popular in Pennsylvania and the southern backcountry. Despite the urgings of the Congress, few had cartridge boxes or bayonets. Their few precious lead bullets were carefully wrapped in handkerchiefs and carried in pockets or under their hats. Gunpowder was carried in horns that had been passed down from father to son for many generations. Inscriptions carved onto these powder horns told their history. Lexington’s historical society cherishes a powder horn that descended from generation to generation in the Harrington family of that town. One of its owners carved his name into its side: “Jonathan Harrington His Horne, May the 4 AD 1747.” It was later owned by the boy fifer Jonathan Harrington, the youngest soldier who mustered on Lexington Green on April 18, 1775. New England powder horns were elaborately decorated by professional carvers, in a manner much like scrimshaw. One ambivalent horn by Jacob Gay displayed the Royal arms of Britain on one side, and Paul Revere’s print of the Boston Massacre on the other. Another made in Roxbury depicted “Tom Gage” as a diabolical figure, with a forked tail, sharp horns, and a serpent in his hand. Some showed idyllic scenes of town commons, and New England churches. Many were adorned with folk motifs, patriotic slogans, personal inscriptions, and snatches of homespun poetry that expressed the values of this culture. It is interesting to compare these objects with the artifacts of other American wars. The inspiring scenes and slogans carved into the powder horns of the American Revolution were profoundly different from the sentiments of alienation, anomie, self-pity, and profound despair inscribed on helmet covers and field equipment in Vietnam. In 1775, even young militia privates who were still in their teens, clearly understood what they were doing, and deeply believed in the cause that they were asked to defend. 38

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Among the variety of edged weapons carried by militia, one type often appeared in New England. It was a short rapier with a flattened diamond blade that had been made in Europe during the 17th century. At a later date, a New England blacksmith gave it a simple American grip. Many of these austere but efficient weapons have been found in Middlesex and Essex counties, where they had been in use since the mid-17th century—another material indicator of continuity in New England’s culture. (Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington)

Officers and some private soldiers carried swords that were also material expressions of New England’s culture and history. Their edged weapons were as various as firearms, but one distinctive type often appeared in eastern Massachusetts. It was short rapier with an antique steel blade that had been imported from continental Europe, and reset with a plain but functional grip by a Yankee blacksmith. This weapon was austere and very old-fashioned in its appearance, much like the short swords of Cromwell’s New Model Army. In America the Middlesex sword was another cultural artifact, like the powder horns and firelocks and dress, that revealed the origins of the New England way, and the continuity that extended from the founding of the Puritan Colonies to the revolutionary movement of 1775. 39

Some units carried flags of great antiquity, which had been passed down from the Puritan founders of New England. One of them survives today in the town of Bedford, Massachusetts. It was made in England sometime in the 17th century, and used as early as 1659 in Massachusetts. Against a crimson background, it shows the arm of God reaching down from the clouds, with a short sword in a mailed fist. A Latin motto reads, “Vince aut Morire” (Conquer or Die). According to the traditions of the town, this flag was carried on the morning of April 19, 1775, by Cornet Nathaniel Page of the Bedford militia. 40

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The Bedford Flag is thought to be the oldest surviving banner in English-speaking America. (Bedford Public Library)

Like their Puritan ancestors whose banner they carried, these citizen-soldiers of Massachusetts were very clear about their purposes. They called to mind Oliver Cromwell’s plain russet-coated captain, who knew what he fought for, and loved what he knew.

Many years later Captain Levi Preston of Danvers was asked why he went to war that day. At the age of ninety-one, his memory of the Lexington alarm was crystal clear, and his understanding was very different from academic interpretations of this event. An historian asked him, “Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord Fight?”

“What did I go for?” the old man replied, subtly rephrasing the historian’s question to drain away its determinism.

The interviewer tried again. “… Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?” he asked.

“I never saw any stamps,” Preston answered, “and I always understood that none were ever sold.”

“Well, what about the tea tax?”

“Tea tax, I never drank a drop of the stuff, the boys threw it all overboard.”

“But I suppose you have been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”

“I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ psalms and hymns and the almanacs.”

“Well, then, what was the matter?”

“Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” 41

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