“…any dependence on Militia is assuredly resting on a broken staff”
Ask most Americans what comes to mind when the word, “minuteman” is mentioned. They will no doubt answer something to the affect that they were eighteenth century citizen patriot militias who, within a minute’s notice, grabbed their muskets and fought for the cause of liberty. They will also tell you that these men were crack shots who could pick off a redcoat at two hundred yards distance. Asked if they played a decisive role in the Revolutionary War that led to American victory and you will most likely be answered in a resounding “yes!” The fact is that the minutemen played a very minor role in the war, were for the most part horrid shots, were poor soldiers with little or no discipline, never took part in a major battle besides the opening clash of colonial militias and British regulars at Cambridge and Lexington, and not one patriot played the role of minuteman for more than six months, some retaining the title for only three days. There is a distinction between minuteman and militia. The minuteman was part of a smaller group within the militia, young healthy men who trained more often than the rest of the militia.
Besides not having a sense of military discipline and unifying leadership, the Minutemen of Massachusetts could rarely land a shot where they intended. The provincials were not the marksmen that history has painted them to be. There were no rifles among the farmers and laymen who made up ranks of the the militia; no frontiersmen toting groove-bored Kentucky rifles who could shoot a squirrel at two hundred yards. Only muskets were carried by these New England farmers, whose accuracy was poor at best. The flintlock, or smoothbore, had no rear sight and was handled like a shotgun, sighting along the upper line of the barrel and judging the distance by experience and elevation through practiced intuition. New England Yankees did not have the experience nor instinct. By 1775 most of the land around eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut had been cleared and farmed for decades. There was little, if no, opportunity to hunt game as there was in western Massachusetts were there was still dense woodland. Also, there was little or no opportunity to practice for lack of adequate supplies of gun powder and shot.
British casualties at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where the Minutemen played a major and singular role in the war, amounted to 73 killed and 174 injured. An additional 26 men were listed missing in action. It is believed that 3,763 Americans eventually joined in the battle. If we are to estimate that each man started out with 36 cartridges, or the equivalent in powder or bullets, and each American fired only 18 shots that eventful day of April 19, 1775, then nearly 75,000 bullets were fired. That adds up to one lead ball for every 300 fired that found its mark. Though weapons were fired at extremely close range, only one in fifteen patriots even nicked the shoulder of a redcoat.
It can be argued that the minuteman played a vital role, in that they were the seed of armed resistance to British authority. However, it was the militias across the colonies from which the Continental troops were drawn and in relationship to their numbers, the minutemen who ultimately joined the American army as regular troops was miniscule.
If the minuteman was such a lousy soldier whose role in the conflict dissolved after the opening shots of the war, how did he gain such importance in history and become so romanticized in our nation’s psyche? Perhaps for the same reason that Nathan Hale, American spy hanged by the British, became a nation’s idol after having remained in obscurity for decades. Writers, poets, and artists consistently sought out subjects upon which to advance their art. What better way to sell your product than to romanticize a person or organization that lays dear in the heart of your intended target. Patriot effigies magnified the actions of American citizens into exemplary performances that laid the groundwork for myths of national origin.
The genre of the ‘chanson de mort’, or death song, captured the American public’s imagination prior to and lasted long after the Revolutionary war was over. According to Julie K. Ellison, the genre offered a familiar blend of pathos and stoicism. What could stir nationalist emotions more than the image of Lexington farmers and laymen organized into patriotic minutemen who stood boldly and defied a lethal British force by facing death and shunning its horrors for the sake of liberty, and Nathan Hale’s courageous stand before the gallows, whose last words epitomized the ultimate sacrifice for his country, citing a line from Cato before the noose was tightened around his neck.
The status of patriot martyrs grew in proportion with the passing of time. The minutemen and Nathan Hale’s legacies grew in drama and unexamined facts with each passing decade. The mystique surrounding individual and group actions and their heroic deeds were magnified tenfold in the hands of a skilled writer or artist. Masses picked up on these images that became implanted in the country’s blossoming bellicism and burgeoning propaganda. They continued to survive and flourish among the shifting tides of national identity.
Perhaps, like many other myths that Americans cherish, the minuteman’s importance and aura grew not because they were true, but because they make one feel good to be an American. In the end, feeling good about oneself, not the truth, appears to be most important to the majority of Americans. The cult of self-esteem is not a recent invention. The American National Rifle Association will forever ignore the facts, cherishing and accepting the stoic stance of the minuteman as their emblem and prime example of armed Americanism, ready and willing to use ultimate violence to their own means when believed threatened.
“He arises, leaves his fireside… he will terrify, with his vengeance, any people who may be tempted to trouble his repose…he will carry flame and fire to the enemy… he will perish, in the end, if necessary; but he will obtain satisfaction, he will avenge himself, he will assure himself, by the magnificence of this vengeance, of his future tranquility.”
General Jacques Hippolyte Comte de Guibert (French military theorist – 1743-1790)
Simeon Howare (footnote 1733-1804) wrote in 1773 that a militia was “the power of defense in the body of the people… this is placing the sword in hands that will not be likely to betray their trust, and who will have the strongest motives to act their part well, in defense of their country.” He wrote this at a time when the rhetoric and fear of a strong central government was most strongly felt, particularly in the American colonies.
The citizen soldier is a concept as old as, and most likely predating, recorded history. So too the mistrust of government or organized leaders to enforce the law of the land. This apprehension of turning power over to a collective authority has been an underlining passion throughout history, as it is to this day – evidenced in the American conservative stance against ‘big government,’ justifying the reason for their right to bear arms. However, over time, particularly in the Americas, the main emphasis of an armed population has turned from coming to the aid of the state, but to being leery of its motives. The common citizen must be on the lookout and constantly vigilant in preparing himself to defend his family against individuals and if necessary, the state itself, taking whatever means necessary to do so.
Examining Plato’s thought, we find that the first city of the Republic was occupied before the emergence of the warrior class. A warrior class had developed from among the citizenry to dominate and control the second of Plato’s three hypothetical cities. He wrote that good government was impossible as long as the warriors ruled.
In medieval law, there was a threefold obligation shared by all freemen. They must repair and maintain public roads, serve as a police force, and be prepared to bear arms in defense of the state as a militia. Each man was required to keep in his home the arms of his socio-economic class and have these ready to use in case of emergency. Regular practice with one’s arms was a general requirement. There were three levels of military obligation accepted in medieval states. The standing army was populated with trained, professional soldiers; some of the citizenry was trained to a minimal degree and comprised a select militia [similar to the role the minuteman played in his colonial militia]; the untrained masses of able-bodied freemen comprised a general militia.
This was true in Scandinavian countries and Saxon England where, for example, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Housecarls, retainers of independent rulers or lords within a kingdom, were called forth by kings in time of emergency. They in turn gathered the lord’s subjects and rushed to the king’s summons. So too did farmers lay down their hoe and picked up the long bow when Henry the V called for his ‘band of brothers’ to invade France.
Since Plato’s time, many political theorists have concluded that the best way to insure that there will be open and honest government is to guarantee the right of the people to keep and bear arms as an unorganized militia. The idea that the people be armed weighed heavily in the minds of the English Puritans and radical Whigs who were writing substantial political philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They returned to the premise of antiquity: that only freemen may be armed and that the mark of a freeman was his right to keep and bear arms.
Trained Bands, the name given over the centuries to militias, may be found in England as early as the reign of Alfred the Great (849-899). The minutemen became what could be called an ‘elite’ force of the militia or levees en masse. Over the decades, these forces commonly had no uniforms or military discipline. Training was minimal; a few times a year. They fought only in their home areas along ill-defined battle lines. They were usually called forth by a general call to resist the enemy, rather than a muster call. In some cases the levees en masse was issued forth spontaneously. Weapons were whatever were available from among the people. This levees en masse was quickly adopted by colonial America.
Ironically it was Niccolo Machiavelli, who in the early sixteenth century, argued that freedom was incompatible with standing armies. He wrote that the standing armies represented a great threat to the people and the state. Trained bands of citizenry, as the popular militias were then called, sought autonomy and identified their independence with freedom for the people. In the British colonies in North America, the provincials demanded complete control of their own military affairs. The English militia, to eighteenth century colonialists, became associated with the transition from divine right kingship to liberal democracy.
Militias & Minutemen in America
Militias formed during the earliest settlements in the new world. In Massachusetts Bay, a British colony, all able bodied men, aged between 16 and 60 years had to serve in the local militia. In May of 1643, a federation of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymouth established an alliance titled the New England Confederation, the first significant inter-colonial alliance for mutual benefit. Two delegates from each colony were chosen to meet annually or more often if necessary to discuss colonial affairs which included solutions of trade, boundaries, and religious disputes. The principal concern was to set up a defense against attacks by the French, Dutch, and Native Americans. Arms were purchased and militias were better organized and more frequently drilled. The men would not only be prepared to defend their own town and farms, but anywhere within the four colonies. On September 7th, towns were authorized, through their generals, to call up the militia whenever necessary. On August 12th, 1645, men were selected from the militia ranks (as much as 30%) to be dressed with matchlocks (pre-flintlock muskets) and or pikes within a half hours’ notice. These early minutemen had to be less than 30 years of age and were selected for their strength, enthusiasm, and dedication.
In 1689 another type of Minuteman company came into existence. Called Snowshoemen, each was to “provide himself with a good pair of snowshoes, one pair of moccasins, and one hatchet” and to be ready to march on a moment’s warning.
Another important factor played into the emergence of strong militias throughout the American colonies. By the turn of the seventeenth century, England governed all the colonies along the eastern seaboard, having pushed aside the Swedes, Dutch, and French. A vast new land needed to be policed and protected against native inhabitants and European countries that continued to encroach on the British colonies. The funds to manage such a huge undertaking that involved garrisoning many troops over an ever expanding territory were not there. Parliament encouraged the local settlers in her colonies to form strong regional militias and the British government assisted in supplying the means to defend themselves; additional muskets, ammunition, and in many cases, cannon. It could be suggested that England planted the seeds and encouraged armed masses that lead to her own demise in the Revolutionary War.
This early form of Minuteman also played a role in the French and Indian War in the 1750’s. A journal entry from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts militia officer, states, “…but when our men were gone, they sent eleven more at one minute’s warning, with three days provision…”
As the land became more settled and generations of families established their own systems of local laws and governance, the population began to seek their own identity within the British government. The militia system acted as an arm of this self-identity. By serving in the militia, a citizen said he was prepared to stand up for his rights, even at the cost of his life. Militia service brought together people from disparate social backgrounds and reminded them of their shared citizenship.
On October 14, 1774, the Continental Congress took a bold forward step by adopting a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. This held that self-government was an inherent right of each British colony and was an open invitation to armed reprisal. When closely scrutinizing their current militias, Massachusetts leaders recognized their situation to be particularly precarious. About half of the colony’s thirty companies of militia were under the command of staunch loyalists. The military organization would have to be changed before the patriots or Wiggs would have any chance of success if they came to blows with England. First through the Worcester Convention, and then in other regional conclaves, patriots succeeded in bringing pressure on tory colonels. Once resignations of many such officers were secured, the militias were reorganized under new officers with the express provision that one-third of the men in each company were to be ready to act at a minute’s notice.
In February of 1775, Concord, Massachusetts was among the first towns to comply with the order to create Minutemen companies out of the militia. Of approximately 400 militia from Concord’s muster rolls, one hundred would also serve as Minutemen. If a battle were to take place, Minutemen companies from several towns would combine their units. At the first substantial clash of arms between British light infantry and militia at the North Bridge in Concord, Minutemen from Concord, Acton, Littleton, and other towns combined forces. After each side fired a few volleys, the British light infantry retreated back to the Concord Common area. Lacking central command, with each company of Minutemen loyal to their own town, they did not pursue the redcoats in any sense of military tactics. In the running battle that ensued fifteen miles back to Boston the Massachusetts, militia would see their last action as Minutemen in history. It was the disadvantage of no central leadership that led to the minutemen’s dissolution. The militia would go on to form an army, surrounding Boston and inflicting heavy casualties on the British army at Breed’s Hill during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Virginia, too, was supposed to have its minuteman heroes. But the minute service in Virginia failed miserably and was quickly forgotten. Poor recruiting for the minutemen were paralleled throughout the colony, and the minute service never came close to attracting a full complement of men. Consequently, it entirely failed in providing for the colony’s defense, pushing the gentry into relying wholehearted on the kind of paid, professional regular army vilified by revolutionary rhetoric. According to Michael McDonnell, lecturer in American history at the University of Wales, the minute service was not simply the victim of an early death in Virginia of the continental “rage militaire” that gripped the rest of the colonies at the opening of the war, but the service was responsible for the demise of popular enthusiasm for the cause in Virginia. Before the minutemen were established, “Volunteers presented themselves from every direction” and “Every rank and demonization of people were full of marshal notions.” After the minuteman plan was introduced in 1775, it was reported that “Virginia is in the greatest confusion,” and that the “Continental Spirit” had been “retarded by internal Divisions” caused by the new military establishment. The failure of the minute service, then, played a key role in Virginia’s wartime mobilization and its revolutionary movement.
The militia continued on in what became the standing army of American, the Continental Army. Some 100,000 men served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Probably twice that number soldiered as militiamen, for the most part defending the home front, functioning as a police force, and occasionally engaging in enemy surveillance. If a militia company was summoned to active duty and sent to the front lines to augment the Continentals, it usually remained mobilized for no more than 90 days.
The success of minutemen at Lexington and Concord is offset by the long history of failures of the colonial militia. After the battle Samuel Adams is quoted, “Would any man in his sense, who wishes war may be carried on with vigor, prefer the temporary and expensive drafts of militia and minutemen to a permanent and well-appointed army?” American General Charles Lee complained, “As to the minutemen, no account ought to be made of them.” Washington’s letters are fraught with the scathing shortcomings of militia forces. After being driven from New York, he complained that militiamen had failed to exhibit “a brave & manly opposition” in the battles of 1776 on Long Island and in Manhattan.
As the colonists discovered how difficult and dangerous military service could be, enthusiasm waned. Many men preferred to remain home, in the safety of what Washington described as their “Chimney Corner.” Early in the war, Washington wrote that he despaired of “completing the army by Voluntary Enlistment’s.” Mindful that volunteers had rushed to enlist when hostilities began, Washington predicted that “after the first emotions are over,” those who were willing to serve from a belief in the “goodness of the cause” would amount to little more than “a drop in the Ocean.” Battle after battle, the militia companies that supported the regular troops were seen running from the field before British steel. The Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780 was the most striking example of the failure of militias to stand before the enemy. Their panic stricken retreat after having stood one volley from the approaching British before throwing aside their weapons and running for their lives, lead to the disastrous outcome and total rout of American forces. However, American generals learned to use the militia’s weakness to their advantage. At the Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781, American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan used the militia’s natural tendency to run before the enemy to draw in Banastre Tarleton’s British forces and completely annihilate them by well positioned Continental forces. Nathanael Greene used the same technique at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, inflicting devastating casualties on the attacking British troops.
Not all encounters with the enemy resulted in militia failures. Nearly 40 percent of the soldiers serving under Washington in his crucial Christmas morning victory at Trenton in 1776 were militiamen. In New York State, half the American force in the Saratoga campaign of 1777, which captured British General Burgoyne’s army, consisted of militiamen. They also contributed substantially to American victories at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in 1780. In 1781, while leading British forces in the south against American General Greene, British General Cornwallis wrote from morbid respect for the militia: “I will not say much in praise of the militia, but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them…proves but too fatally…”
After the Revolution, past military officers who served at least three years organized themselves into an esteemed heretical club entitled the Society of Cincinnati. This sentimental role of the citizen-soldier is found in the parallel to the Roman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who left his plough in the field to answer his country’s call. Cincinnatus was given emergency dictatorial control of Rome to beat back invading forces. When the battles were won, he turned power over to the Senate and went back to plowing his fields. The Society’s motto reflects a citizen’s unselfish service to one’s government, Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam, “He relinquished everything to save the Republic.”
The Framers of America’s Constitution had an almost hysterical fear of standing armies, and of governments backed by them. A standing army of professionals, they were sure, would eventually do one of two things: agitate for foreign military adventures to keep itself employed, or turn against its civilian masters to create a military dictatorship. To these two political threats they added a third, moral danger: that citizens used to relying on professionals for the defense of their liberties would come to take their freedom lightly. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Our War of the Revolution was, in good measure, fought as a protest against standing armies… [Fears of despotism] were uppermost in the minds of the Founding Fathers when they drafted the Constitution. Distrust of a standing army was expressed by many. Recognition of the danger from Indians and foreign nations caused them to authorize a national armed force begrudgingly.”
The Founding Fathers’ solution was the militia, an armed body that included all citizens qualified to vote. The Militia Act of May 8, 1792 was put into law. The statute books continue to reflect this distinction in vestigial form: Title 10, Section 311 of the U.S. Code declares that all military-age males, and some females, are members of “the unorganized militia of the United States.”
Common thought among western democracies, outside a substantial population of the United States, have not heeded Machiavelli’s recommendation that their government is a threat to their wellbeing, therefore demanding that their citizenry be armed. Presently, most democracies have accepted the perspective of those who believe that mature nations have advanced beyond the “Wild West” mentality. That its citizens do not have to fear its government therefore committed to militias that are needed to thwart a standing army and strong arm of their government. Anti-firearms rhetoric has created a climate of opinion that accepts conclusions such as that firearms breed violence and that civilized nations are disarmed nations. These nations turn to statistics that overwhelmingly affirm that the main threat from armed violence has it domestic roots and the population is far safer and with less violence committed when the population is not armed. They recognize a military armed with advanced weapons systems that are electronic, computerized, specialized, and complex. This practice of technical logic combined with common sense proves that the foot soldier with small arms training rushing from their home to defend their nation is obsolete. Without any need for a militia of citizen foot soldier, there is no need for small arms and marksmanship training. In turn, the Second Amendment that clearly protects the right of its citizenry to keep and bear arms in connection with organized state militias is outdated and made moot by the fact that state militias are antiquated and obsolete. Though there have been cases before the Supreme Court to press that the Second Amendment goes beyond its wording in association to state militias in support of individual rights to bear arms, the court has yet to make a firm stand on the issue. Therefore much of the United States citizenry remains an armed nation in support of antiquated fears of ‘big government’ and its use of standing armies.
Adams, Hannah. An Abridgment of the History of New England, for the Use of Young Persons. 1807: Etherridge & Bliss, Boston, Mass.
Bellesiles, Michael A. “Exploring America’s Gun Culture.” The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 241-268.
Braybrooks, Ann. Poems and Songs Celebrating America. 2014: Courier Corporation, Dover Press, North Chelmsford, Mass.
Fitzpatrick, John C. The Writings of George Washington, Volume 6, Sept. 1776 – Jan. 1777. 1932: United States Printing Office, Washington D. C.
Ferling, John. Smithsonian Web site. Jan. 2010: http://www.si.edu/
French, Alan. The Day of Concord and Lexington. 1925: Little, Brown & Company, New York.
Galvin, John R. The Minute Men: the first fight : myths & realities of the American Revolution. 1967: Hawthorn Books, NY, NY.
Langman, Larry. Destination Hollywood: The Influence of Europeans on American Filmmaking. 2000: McFarland Publisher, Jefferson, North Carolina.
McDonnell, Michael A. “Popular Mobilization and Political Culture in Revolutionary Virginia: The Failure of the Minutemen and the Revolution from Below.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Dec., 1998), pp. 946-981.
Myth of the American Minuteman. 2005: http://snarkypenguin.blogspot.com/2005/07/myth-of-american-minuteman.html
Phelps, William. Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy. 2015: ForeEdge, University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH.
Reynolds, Glenn Harlan. It Takes a Militia. Web site: http://freedomkeys.com/militia.htm
Shaffer, Jason. NY.Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theater Early American Studies. 2007: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Penn.
Storer, W. Jr. American Historical Magazine, Volume 1, Issues 1-6. 1836.
Whisker, James B. The Militia. 1992: The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY.
 Washington wrote this in a letter to John Hancock, president of Congress, at the Morris Mansion on Harlem Heights during the early morning hours of September 25th, 1776. (He dates the letter Sept. 24) This is in response to Congress’ disappointment with the army’s lack of discipline and all things military. Washington goes into great detail on the problems facing him and several paragraphs on the ills of depending on militia. “To place any dependence on Militia, is, assuredly resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic life; unaccustomed to the din of Arms; totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which being followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to Troops regularly train’d, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in Arms, makes them timid, and ready to fly from their own shadows… Men accustomed to unbounded freedom, and no control, cannot brook [brake] the restraint which is indispensable necessary to the good order and government of an army; without which, licentiousness, and every kind of disorder triumphantly reign…” Fitzpatrick, Vol. 6 pg. 110 – 112.
 Some may argue that the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on the American side by minutemen. By April, 1775, the Provincial Congress scrapped the minutemen organization in favor of a standing army of 13,000 men. The men who fought at Bunker Hill were enlistees in organized regiments. Some were former minutemen, however most joined the ranks having not been part of a band of minutemen.
 French, pg. 258.
 Garrison, pg. 44.
 Captain Nathan Hale of Knowlton’s Rangers was an amateur spy, chosen in a desperate move to seek out any information that would indicate when and where the British would invade Manhattan Island. His capture and subsequent hanging was an embarrassment to the army and quickly buried in military reports leaving only his family to mourn and regret his loss. Hale was revived to national prominence by Hanna Adams’ (footnote her personal info) 1801 text “History of New England” in which chapter eighteen mentions Hale as “a martyr in the Cause of Liberty.” The legend was advanced by sculptor William Partridge’ poem and writer Stephen Hempstead’s published letter of 1827 in the Long Island Star. Hollywood joined in producing the 1916 movie entitled “The Heart of a Hero,” depicting Hale and his last moments in detail.
 Shaffer, pg.. 177.
 Ibid, pg. 171.
 Phelps, pg. 233.
 Badtux blog, Sunday, July 31, 2005.
 Whiskers, pg. 1.
 Ibid, pg. 2.
 Whigs: Originally a member of the British reforming and constitutional party that sought the supremacy of Parliament and was eventually succeeded in the 19th century by the Liberal Party. In American, eighteenth century colonialists whose opinions and beliefs sided with those who disagreed with the English government’s methods of governing the American colonies. They called themselves patriots. The British labeled them rebels after open hostilities.
 Whiskers, pg. 2.
 Niccolò di Bernardo de Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June 21 1527) A Florentine historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer during the Renaissance. An official in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. Founder of modern political science, and more specifically political ethics. His text The Prince described the methods and actions a prince must take to maintain a firm hand over his state. The text promoted the use of brute force including treachery and executions as “the ends justify the means” approach to government. It is from The Prince that the term “Machiavellian” is associated with deceit, deviousness, ambition, and brutality.
 Whiskers, pg. 4.
 Garrison, pg. 33.
 McDonnell, pg. 947.
 Fithian, Philip Vickers Journal, 1775-1776. Entry: Nov. 19-20, 1776, pp. 133-134. 1934: ed: Robert Albion and Leonidas Dodson, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ.
 Ferling, Minutemen article on the Smithsonian web site.
 Interestingly, General Israel Putnam is romantically depicted as having left his plow in the field when he answered the call to defend his country. After the war, he returned to farming.
 Whiskers, pg. 9.
 Ibid, pg. 5.