The Modern Lincoln Minute Men

The Town of Lincoln re-established its company of Minute Men in 1966, and charged them with the duty of keeping alive the history and the principles of the original Minute Men of 1775. The modern Lincoln Minute Men welcome all members, regardless of age, gender, or town of residence.

Modern-day Minute Men often poke fun at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” filled as it is with historical errors. (“Listen my children and you shall hear, that he never reached Concord, that Paul Revere.) Yet there is something very appealing about Longfellow’s heroic image of the Minute Men, of citizen soldiers, aroused from their every-day lives by a sense of righteous justice, organized at the last moment — and triumphant against British Redcoats by virtue of keen marksmanship and cagey tactics learned from settling the frontier.

The image is only part fact and much myth, however. The militia system, of which the Minute Men were part, was actually long-standing institution in Massachusetts, dating back to the 1640’s. By colonial law, all males over the age of sixteen were required to be a member of the militia and to own a musket. But prior to the Revolution, the last occasion when the militias had been mustered for battle had been in the French and Indian Wars (1754-60). So these were peacetime soldiers. Although veterans of the French and Indian Wars were often elected as officers of the militia companies in the months leading up to April 1775, the Minute Men themselves — who were supposed to be the “rapid reaction” troops of the militia — were mostly hearty and younger men, probably under the age of thirty, and thus too young to have had any personal experience of war.

And they were a ragged bunch, these Minute Men – no uniforms, scarce provisions and supplies, very little discipline or tactical experience. Monthly drills were required by British law during the years of peace since the French and Indian Wars, but drills had largely deteriorated into social events and excuses for getting drunk.

And these Minute Men surely were not keen marksmen with a musket. Big game had long since vanished from eastern Massachusetts, so few men got much hunting practice, and gunpowder for musket drill was scarce. In any case, a musket is not a very accurate gun. Although the militiamen struck real terror in the Redcoats on April 19th, it is worth remembering that roughly 4,500 Minute Men blazed away at the British column for six hours as the Redcoats made their twenty-mile retreat from Concord back to Boston. Each Minute Man carried perhaps 20-24 cartridges. Yet only 275 musket balls from all these Minute Men hit British soldiers.

The main strength of Minute Man companies was their sheer numbers and their startling ability to assemble forces on short notice. To put this in perspective, the total British forces in Boston in 1775 numbered 3,000 men, and the entire British army in North America, from Quebec to the Florida border totaled only 8,000 soldiers. When Massachusetts rose up in anger on April 19th, the total militia forces in the colony numbered some 14,000 men. In just the towns immediately surrounding Lexington and Concord, the militias contained 6,000 members.

And Longfellow’s poem may encourage the view that the Revolution pivoted on one man carrying the alarm “to every Middlesex village and farm,” but the militias could in fact assemble rapidly because the system of alarm riders also had been developed decades earlier. Paul Revere was captured by the British in Lincoln on April 19th, not long after he began his famous ride. But the alarm system carried on without him, and by the end of the day, the call to action had spread to Minute Man companies as far away as the Berkshires.

Modern-day Minute Men might prefer some of the heroic myths to the facts. Yet perhaps knowing the historical truth actually draws contemporary Minute companies closer in kinship to those of Paul Revere’s time. Musket drill is once again a rare activity, and rare as well is the Minute Man who has actually fired a musket ball. There are veterans in the modern ranks — of Desert Storm, Vietnam, or even Korea — but most are like the original Minute Men, innocent of the terrors of battle. So when today’s Minute Men gather on village greens and fumble about while maneuvering with their muskets, drawing giggles from children and groans from their officers, they invoke a grand tradition.

The celebrations in Lincoln around Patriots Day will give everyone plenty of opportunity to giggle and groan. Every April, the Lincoln Minute Men re-enact the alarm and muster of 1775. Captain William Smith arrives by horse at the White Church, and the church bell rouses the Minute Men from nearby houses, to muster in Lincoln Center. The following Monday morning, the Minute Men muster by the Stone Church, and after a salute to the Patriots buried next to Bemis Hall, they march to Concord along Sandy Pond Road. And on a Sunday in late April, the Lincoln Minute Men assemble at Pierce House, along with a contingent of British Redcoats, and march to the Lexington Road cemetery for a ceremony honoring the Lincoln patriots and British soldiers buried there. This event is followed by refreshments at Pierce House, courtesy of the Lincoln Historical Society. The Lincoln Minute Men invite and welcome the public to all of these events.

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