Individually and collectively, the minute men of Massachusetts played important roles in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The life stories of these people help explain how they came to oppose their government and propose violent struggle.
Ready on Short Notice
The American militias established in the colony of Massachusetts were based on an English militia model. Every man over age sixteen was required to join and bring his own weapon to the mandatory musters (training meetings). The governor had authority over the groups. As European settlers spread into Native American territories, conflicts increased. To increase the colonial fighting units' flexibility, power was decentralized. In 1645, company commanders were ordered "to appoint out and to make choice of thirty soldiers of their companies in ye hundred, who shall be ready at half an hour's warning upon any service they shall be put upon by their chief military officers." By 1756, the designation "minute men" appears on a payroll document, but it was not until 1774 and the establishment of the Provincial Congress that the minute men, as we remember them today, were formed.
Loyalty to the Colony
Many of the militia men were veterans of wars against the French and Indians. In those earlier battles, they had fought in the name of the English crown, but their true loyalty may have been toward their own colony. Minute men like Lexington's Ebenezer Locke were third- or fourth-generation Americans, and therefore somewhat removed from their British roots.
Seventy-seven members of the Lexington Training Band stood together on April 19, 1775. Most were over thirty years of age, and twenty were veterans of the French and Indian wars, where they learned the guerrilla tactics that would come into play defending their town. Their captain, John Parker, was one of those veterans, a forty-five-year-old farmer and father of seven. Although others were more experienced in military combat and had held higher ranks in earlier wars, Parker was democratically chosen to lead the company, perhaps for his calm demeanor and sound judgment. Theirs was not a strict military unit. Instead, the Training Band was more of a democratic assembly in which the captain freely asked the advice of older veterans, and everyone stood by the captain's decisions once they were made.
Skilled but Unorthodox
Though not strict, the Lexington minute men were a well-trained group. Observing them at Concord's North Bridge on April 19, 1775, British Lieutenant William Sutherland remarked that the minute men marched "in a very military manner." But the minute men fought without regard to the era's rules of military engagement. Historians have not been able to determine that they had a premeditated plan to counter the regular tactics of the British. More likely, the events resulted from a breakdown in command. The British, following standard late 18th-century military procedure, formed orderly rows, setting up walls of men who fired their muskets, then dropped back to reload as other soldiers took their places. At the Bridge, this tight formation limited the number of men who could fire without harming their comrades -- and simultaneously created a mass of enemies that the minute men could fire into, spilling the first British blood of the Revolution. On their return march to Boston, encountering the irregular tactics of the minute men, the British kept to the road. It was the fastest way to get out of the danger zone.
Fighting for their homes, the minute men were ruthless and improvisational. They hid behind stone walls and buildings to fire at the British. At one point in the British flight, Noah Eaton of Framingham found a Redcoat in his sights. "Surrender or die," he commanded, pointing his gun for emphasis. The regular, in the middle of reloading his musket, handed it over and was taken prisoner. Eaton did not mention that his gun, too, was empty.
Rejecting British Authority
The minute men were, quite simply, Americans, born in New England. Vast distances of time and space made British authority more of an abstraction than a reality to them. Aside from trade regulation, probably the most important government service they required was defense against the Native Americans (whose land they were taking). Once even that function was self-regulated, through the creation of local militias, British taxes were perceived as more and more burdensome -- without any clear benefits. By April 1775, the minute men were spoiling for a fight.