American Militia in the Revolution: Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill

Monday, November 19, AD 2012

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Part three of a series on militia in the American Revolution. Go here and here to read the previous posts in the series. On the eve of the Revolution the 13 colonies had no Army but they were not defenseless. Their militias constituted a military force of uncertain power but they had a history as old as their colonies and they allowed the colonists to assume that as a last resort they would not be helpless against the British Army. General Thomas Gage, the commander of the British garrison in Boston and the military governor of Massachusetts, viewed the militia as a constant threat to his forces, and it was his sending of a detachment of 700 troops to seize the militia arsenal at Concord that precipitated the American Revolution.

The battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 demonstrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of the American militia system. The initial clash at Lexington involved a standard militia unit of 77 men, not a picked minute man company. The militia was under the command of Captain John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Parker was in ill-health, suffering from tuberculosis, and some accounts indicate he was difficult to hear. 77 men of course stood no chance against 700 British regulars, and Parker seemed to regard his militia as making a political statement rather than actually attempting to stop the British. Shots were exchange, who fired first is unknown. The British swiftly brushed aside the fleeing militia and continued their march on Concord. So far, so ineffective, as far as the American militia was concerned.

But the British did not simply have to deal with one company of militia at Lexington. The entire country around Boston was up in arms, the word of the British foray spread by Paul Revere, William Dawes and other messengers, and the militia companies were assembling and marching to fight, convinced after the news of Lexington filtered out that the long-expected war had begun.

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4 Responses to American Militia in the Revolution: Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill

  • Good article. My wife is a direct descendant of Major Andrew McClary (relation?) , the highest ranking officer killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. We visited the Epsom area of New Hampshire last summer with our children and off the main road the area is still quite rural. It is a disgrace that our school children do not learn more about this period of history and the role of the citizen/soldier and the role they played not only in the Revolution but also in the previous periods (eg. French and Indian War). The United States was created from the bottom up and not the top down. Democracy was practiced in these small New England towns long before there was a thought of a central government. The current political situation is ironic to say the least.

  • Fascinating Patrick. According to family tradition Major Andrew McClary is an ancestor, the “e” in my name being a variant spelling that the family picked up in the nineteenth century. My wife has always remarked how much I look like old Andrew as he is depicted in the famous Trumbull painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill. I use the image as a screen saver on one of my computers. I love reading about him. As he was leading his men to Breed’s Hill and encountered Massachusetts men blocking the road, milling about, he yelled out that New Hampshire wanted to borrow the road if Massachusetts wasn’t going to use it! From what I have read of him during the battle he was telling jokes to his men while roaring out commands, interspersed with profanity, the type of combat leader men will follow to Hell if necessary. It was a tragedy that he was killed by a cannon ball while he was looking to see if any of his men had gotten left behind in the retreat. Men like Major Andrew give us a debt we can never repay.

    “The United States was created from the bottom up and not the top down. Democracy was practiced in these small New England towns long before there was a thought of a central government. The current political situation is ironic to say the least.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • What do these victories mean now that out nation has been taken over by the enemy I spent a career defending America against? Have all their lost lives and efforts been in vain as well?.

  • “Have all their lost lives and efforts been in vain as well?.”

    Way, way too pessimistic and overdrawn Robert. We have had scoundrels and fools win elections before in this country and we will see them win again in the future. The opponents of the current clique at the head of affairs in Washington control 30 statehouses and a majority of the state legislatures. The House can effectively kill any legislation that Obama seeks to implement. Let us all recall this poem during the next four years:

    SAY not the struggle naught availeth,
    The labour and the wounds are vain,
    The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
    And as things have been they remain.

    If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
    It may be, in yon smoke conceal’d,
    Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
    And, but for you, possess the field.

    For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
    Seem here no painful inch to gain,
    Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
    Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

    And not by eastern windows only,
    When daylight comes, comes in the light;
    In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
    But westward, look, the land is bright!

    Arthur Hugh Clough