When war with England appeared inevitable, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress looked to the colony’s militia to serve as its military arm. The origins of the Massachusetts militia can be traced back to the reign of Edward I, when Parliament enacted legislation decreeing that every freeman between the age of fifteen and sixty was to be available to preserve the peace within his own county or shire. In the towns where the freemen were located, they were organized into military units known, by the virtue of their periodic training, as “trained bands”. However, when Parliament, under the rule of Charles II, revised membership requirements, established payment protocols and appointed officers, trained bands became known as militias. By the 17th century, militias had become one of the cornerstones of English society. Thus, when Plimouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were founded, the establishment of the militia followed naturally. In both colonies, every man over sixteen automatically became a member. Musters were frequent and mandatory, and punishments were doled out for being absent or not properly equipped. The governor maintained the sole authority to activate the militia in the time of crisis. Each time a new town sprung up, a militia company was formed. As the town expanded, additional companies often were created. When counties were formed, the various town militias within the borders of each county were organized into regiments. The governor held the sole authority to activate the militia in the time of crisis. However, with the elimination of the French threat as a result of the French and Indian War, the need for a militia decreased significantly. After 1763, companies and regiments of Massachusetts militia rarely assembled to drill and as a result, were of little military value. By the eve of the Boston Tea Party, a militia muster was not viewed as a military gathering, but rather as a sort of town holiday offering an opportunity for families and friends to get together.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress recognized it had to “consider what is necessary to be done for the defence and safety of the province.” Quickly, it resolved to wrest control of the militia away from the group of loyalist officers who commanded it. To achieve this, the Provincial Congress first ordered the militias to “meet forthwith and elect officers to command their respective companies; and that the officers so chosen assemble as soon as may be . . . and proceed to elect field officers.” Congress also recognized the need to revitalize and further strengthen the colony’s militia system as quickly as possible. On October 26, 1774, the delegates set into motion the formation of minute companies within Massachusetts. As part of its resolution, it declared "[The] field officers, so elected, forthwith [shall] endeavor to enlist one quarter, at the least, of the number of the respective companies, and form them into companies of fifty privates . . . who shall equip and hold themselves in readiness, on the shortest notice from the said Committee of Safety, to march to the place of rendezvous . . . said companies into battalions, to consist of nine companies each."
Emphasis on proper military skill and supply was strongly encouraged by the delegates. On the same day as the creation of minute companies, the Provincial Congress resolved "That, as the security of the lives, liberties and properties of the inhabitants of this province, depends under Providence, on their knowledge and skill in the art of military, and in their being properly and effectually armed and equipped, it is therefore recommended, that they immediately provide themselves therewith; that they use their utmost diligence to perfect themselves in military skill; and that, if any of the inhabitants are not provided with arms and ammunition according to law, and that if any town or district within the province is not provided with the full town stock of arms and ammunition . . . that the selectmen of such town or district take effectual care, without delay, to provide the same."
Methuen and Haverhill appear to be the first two towns in Northern Essex County to take steps towards preparation for war. Approximately twenty days before the resolutions of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a Methuen Company of Militia declared "Whareas milartrary Exercise hath been much nelicked we the Subcrbers being the first comptrey in methuen Do Covenant and Engage To from our Bevels in to a Bodey in order to Lam the manual Exercise. To be Subegat To Such officers as the Comptrey shall chuse by Voat in all constutenel marsher according to our Chattaers . . .[list of sixty eight men] . . . the ferst Compyney in Methuen meat att Mr. Eben Carlton's in order To Chuse officers, and thay chose Lieut. Benj'm Hall Moder ator, they Chose Mr. James Jones for thar Capt. Mr. Ichobied Perkins furst Leut. Mr. James Wilson Sonent Leut. Mr. Sam Messer Ens. Mr. Nath Messer Jr. Clark for said Compyney."
In Haverhill, the town took the extraordinary step of establishing an artillery company:
Haverhill Sept, 5th. 1774. We the Subscribers, sensible of the importance of a well regulated Military Discipline, do hereby covenant and engage, to form ourselves into an Artillery Company at Haverhill according to the following Articles, — First, That there shall be four officers (viz) a Capt, Lieut, Ensign and Sergeant, who is to act as Clerk, To be chosen by a majority of the Company when met together, 2d. That we will meet together (on the first and third Mondays of September, October and November following, and on the first and third Mondays of the six Summer months annually till the Company shall agree - to dissolve the same) for the exercise of Arms and Evolutions, And that the role shall be called two hours before Sunset, and the Company shall be dismissed at Sunset N. B. If it be fowl weather the Day appointed, the Company shall meet the next fair Day — 3dly. Any one neglecting Due attendance shall be subject to a fine of eight pence, for the use of the Company; unless on a reasonable Pica; excused by the Company, 4thly. That no new member be admitted without the vote of the Company, That each member shall be Equiped with Arms, Accoutriments and Dress, according to Vote of Company, 6thily. That each member shall be supply'd with one Pound of Powder and Twenty Balls ; to be reviewed twice a year ; upon the Days of a chusing Officers, to commence the first Monday in October, from that time, the first Monday in May and August annually.
However, the first Massachusetts independent organization to prepare for war with England may have been Newburyport’s Marine Society. Independent organizations in 18th Century New England were private social or charitable organizations that were often composed of males from the upper echelon of a community. The Newburyport Marine Society was founded on November 5, 1772 by ship captains and merchants.
In September, 1774, the members formed their own military unit known as the “Independent Marines”. As with the Haverhill artillery company and the Methuen militia, it appears the Independent Marines were drilling well over a month before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued its orders.
According to the September 21, 1774 edition of Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet, “Wednesday last the independent military society in this town met at the town-house compleat in arms and ammunition: After having been reviewed by their officers chosen by the society, they performed the manual exercise and filings, after which they marched to the Mason's arms tavern, and there performed the evolutions; and from thence marched to Mr. William Tell's (a gentleman that has always not only talked, but acted upon the genuine principles of patriotism), who had prepared an elegant entertainment for the society; after spending a few very agreeable hours with a number of gentlemen (whom Mr. 'Feel had invited) in conversation, repast, and drinking a number of loyal and patriotic toasts, the society again rally, march to the town-house, and after firing three vollies lodged their arms. All was conducted with the greatest order and good humour.”
What is also interesting about this particular account is it describes the Independent Marines as being properly armed and equipped. The term “compleat in arms and ammunition” suggests the Independent Marines attended the September drill with muskets, cartridge boxes, packs and edged weapons (either bayonets or swords). In otherwords, the Independent Marines were fully equipped for war.
This is highly unusual. In September, 1774, most Massachusetts towns and independent military companies had not yet adopted measures to properly supply or equip its minute and militia companies. Newburyport did not address the matter until October 21, 1774 when it resolved to put itself on a wartime footing. “Voted that all the Inhabitants of this Town be desired to furnish themselves with arms and ammunition according to Law, and that they have, also, Bayonets fixed to their Guns as soon as may be.” It would be months later that its military companies actually received bayonets and cartridge boxes.
We at Untapped History are unaware of any other Massachusetts independent organization drilling or mobilizing for war this early in 1774. Obviously more research needs to be conducted. We are curious the Independent Marines adopt a uniform. We would also like to narrow down how often the unit drilled in 1774 and 1775. Finally, did they actually march in response to the Lexington Alarm?
We will keep you posted as to what we find!