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Massachusetts Militia, The Haverhill Company - Unit Background
posted Mon Jan 27 2003
When one thinks of the Militia and it beginnings, we picture those brave men from Concord and Lexington. But prior to the Revolutionary War the militia was the primary source of defense for each of the original colonies.

The militia and its structure actually date back to the founding of each colony. In the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this was March 4th, 1628/9(see note 1) when it received its charter. Each colonies governing body had total control over all internal military and political organizations. The colonies militia was the backbone of its military infrastructure. This infrastructure actually consisted of two separate Armies, with very different purposes. The Militia Army and a Provincial Army.

The Webster’s Dictionary defines militia as a group of citizens who are not regular soldiers, but who get some military training for service in an emergency. The New Century Dictionary defines “militia” as being a body of citizen soldiers; esp., a body of men enrolled for military service, called out periodically for drill and exercise but for actual service only in emergencies. Most militia laws call for all males between 16 and 60 to serve in the militia. There were only a few that were exempted.

In Fred Anderson’s book, “A People’s Army” (pages 26& 27) we see that battalions of volunteers being raised for specific campaigns are referred to as Provincial Armies. In another book by Anderson, “Crucible of War” (page 88) we find Provincials defined as troops paid for (see note 2) by their own colonies. They were enlisted for specific campaigns and terms of service not to exceed one year.

The use of any specific group of the Militia for a campaign would leave a part of the colony vulnerable for an attack. This made the use of a Provincial Battalion very important for the security of the colonies. The volunteers for these Provincial Battalions would be recruited from the individual militia companies.

The militia was a multi purpose military organization. The militia structure was maintained by the militia laws or acts that the General Court would establish. These laws were being set for well over a hundred years before the militia would be made famous with the outbreak of the American Revolution. Many of these laws would remain unchanged throughout that war.

The most famous of these laws gives the militia its basic structure and defines who is part of the militia, It states that every able-bodied man between 16 to 60 years of age were part of the Militia. Originally all minorities were excluded, which included Scotsmen, Slaves and Indians. In May 1652 the General Court ruled that all were now allowed to join. But in 1656 Negroes and Indians were again excluded. Ministers, Civil Magistrates, Harvard students and their Faculty were also exempt. However, throughout Massachusetts history, names of slaves and Indians can be found on many of the Militia Rosters. Another concern was the enlistment of Indentured Apprentices and servants.

The structure of the Militia consisted of Regiments and Companies. Each County was to furnish a Regiment, originally. However this changed as the population changed. Essex County for example, grew from one Regiment in 1643 to three Regiments in 1687. Another example was Norfolk County which was exempt for nearly three decades from establishing a Regiment. Each Regiment was to be commanded by a Colonel. The Regiments were also to assemble annually for training.

Each Town was to furnish a Company of militia to form a Regiment. They were to consist of at least 64 men. If this was impossible several small towns would be combined to form one company. If there were more than 200 hundred men, two or more companies would be formed. An example of this was the town of Ipswich, which formed 3 separate companies of militia in 1680. The ideal company size was 100 men.

The Leadership of each company included a Captain, a Lieutenant and an ensign. These men were elected by the company as a whole. The NCOs were then appointed by the Officers of each company. Each Company would also have their own Colors (1635/6 Captain Wright) as well as musicians. The fines collected from the men would go towards purchasing Flags, Banners, Drums and Bugles.

The Training days or Musters were conducted by Company, usually on the village green. These were originally held weekly in 1631. The following year they were reduced to monthly. Soon they were reduced to 8 times (except July and August) a year, then to 6 and then were finally reduced to 4 times a year. But emergencies would lead to changes in this. During King Philips War they were held every Sunday. In 1744 the Massachusetts General Court increased the training days to provide more security for the colony.

On Training days, time might be spent repairing or building Fortifications. The firing of firearms was strictly forbidden unless they were attending Marksmanship practice. In 1645, the General Court actually ruled that with parent’s permission, boys from ages 10 to 16 could receive basic training from an officer or veteran soldier on training days. This was also the time that equipment would be cleaned and repaired. Sometimes the local blacksmith would be kept very busy fixing muskets or making tools for the militias use. The fact was that the General Court passed a law that ordered that smiths were to lay aside their other work to repair arms

Chaplains played a very important role in the militia and their musters. A Chaplain would open and close each day with a prayer. They would also take the time to enforce morality, preaching brief sermons to ensure that drinking and prostitution did not occur. Records from the time actually prove that drunkenness and Prostitution were basically non-existent in the Massachusetts Militia camps. One Correspondent during the French and Indian War recorded the following: “They have five Chaplains and maintain the best order in camp. Public Prayers, Psalm singing and martial exercises engrossed their whole time.”

Musters became quite a social event. Whole families would attend. The women would prepare large community meals that they would all partake in. The children would play in large groups, something that they would not normally have any other opportunity to do. This was a chance for everyone to socialize. Many young men would meet their future wives at these outings. Sometimes, work on a Church or other public building might be accomplished instead of training.

During time of war, musters became a place for recruitment of volunteers. Provincial Colonels would “Beat their Drums” at the Musters in the various Towns throughout Massachusetts. They were seeking recruits for the Years upcoming campaigns. Local Militia commanders were not to give any obstructions or molestations to the Colonels. Infact, they encouraged and assisted in raising troops. Sometimes special Musters might be called just for this purpose. An example of this is found in Fred Andersons book, A People’s Army (page 44) concerning a David Perry. In 1758 the 16 year old shoemakers apprentice was attending the Muster of the Dighton militia. Perry records that there were visiting officers on the parade grounds. They were there to enlist men for the year’s campaigns. He enlisted as a private in Colonel Preble’s Regiment.

British Officers didn’t think very highly of the militia. They felt that their Musters were nothing more than shams. In 1759 General Jeffery Amherst had actually ordered the militia to be trained in Humphrey Blands Treatise of Military Discipline. He also gave orders that Marksmanship training and as well as instruction in the manual of arms be given high priority. He wanted uniformity amongst all militia companies and regiments. It appears that there wasn’t any particular standard drill.

The British would gladly use the militia or even the Provincials when emergencies would arise. But mainly they looked upon them as laborers. The militia was used to build things, such as roads, bridges, boats, forts and fortifications. If they could, they would even use them to dig latrines. They also used them for driving wagons, guiding pack horses and cutting firewood. For the Invasion of Fortress Louisbourg, a company of carpenters was included in the invasion force. These men were militia men from Massachusetts. Again in 1759, 300 Massachusetts Militia men were sent on the Quebec expedition to serve as pioneers.

Despite the opinions of the British Officers the militia did provide a very important role, especially during the French and Indian War. As earlier mentioned the militia was a multi purpose organization. They were a Home Guard, an emergency reserve, a recruiting (as already mention) pool and a Draft Board.

The term “Minute Men” dates back to August 12, 1645. The first Minute man law was established. This helped provide the support for the “Home Guard”. Every Company Commander was required to have 30% of his company ready with full packs, ammunition and capable of turning out for active duty on a half hours notice. During the French and Indian War the militia was kept very busy chasing French led war parties back to Canada. They were relentless in their pursuit.

Another major purpose of the militia was to be capable of providing troops quickly in an emergency. The Militia regiments were able to march from their appropriate geographical areas to provide the much needed relief. In 1757, after the surrender of Fort William Henry, General Webb sent out an urgent plea to the various Colonies for help. Governor Pownall quickly responded and shortly 7000 Massachusetts Militiamen left their homes, bound for Fort Edward. He was also able to raise a train of Massachusetts artillery.

The last major purpose of the militia was to provide a source of men to draft from. In the beginning of each year the Governors of each Colony would inform the British army on how many men it could or would supply as a Provincial Army for the upcoming campaigns. If they were unable to obtain the needed volunteers while “Beating the Drum”, they would provide them by impressments. In 1754, the General Courts passed a new law,” An Act for Levying Soldiers”. A Governor could use this act to issue a general impressment order. When each Colonel received such an order, he would muster his Regiment. He would then ask for volunteers. If he was still unable to achieve the needed numbers, he was now forced to draft them from his regiment. In 1758 Massachusetts was prepared to draft 2000 of its militia to fill its quota for the upcoming campaigns. In 1758 A Captain Jeremiah Belknap Sr., who commanded the Farmingham Militia, impressed both his son and son-in-law in response to his Colonel’s call.

There were still several other key and vital roles that the militia played. These occurred in both times of peace as well as war. One of these tasks was serving as Massachusetts Slave Patrols. Three Justices of the Peace would form a local Slave Committee. This committee would enlist Militiamen to serve as a “Posse Comitatis”. Their job was to pursue, arrest and punish runaway slaves.

Another important Task was protecting the town, stopping crimes in progress and preventing violence, all during the night. This was accomplished by forming militiamen into “Watch Units”. The Watch began half an hour after sunset and continued until dawn. The men that comprised the watch were to carry firearms or pikes. If the “Watch” were to come upon any Raiders or Criminals, they were to capture them and if necessary, they were to kill them. If the watch was outnumbered, they were to fire a warning shot and the citizens of the community were suppose to come to their aid.

Other duties that the militia would be asked to do varied, but all were for the service of the Town first then the County. On the frontier, the communities there would employ their militiamen to patrol the surrounding area and especially the wooded areas. They would also employ some to act as Rangers, keeping up distant patrols along the borders of the frontier. Others would act as scouts, always keeping an eye on the frontier. Some militiamen were sent to man the small forts, especially in time of conflict, which had been erected throughout the area. These men were frequently rotated. Other militiamen often supplemented civil authorities such as Sheriffs and the local police.

The Militia was centered on the community, but as earlier mentioned was governed by the Colonies General Court. They enacted several laws that aided and guided the Militia to accomplish their many tasks. In 1733 the General Court passed laws that directed them on the equipment they were to use:

“Every enlisted soldier and other householder (except troopers) shall be always provided with a well-fixed flintlock musket, of musket or bastard musket bore, the barrel not less than three foot and a half length or good firearm to the satisfaction of the Commanding officers of the company; a knapsack, cartouche box, one pound of gunpowder, 20 bullets fit for his gun, and 12 flints, a good sword or cutlass, a worm and a priming wire fit for a gun………………” (Boston Newsletter, February 7, 1733)

In 1754 the General Court created two new Laws (Acts and resolves, Public and Private, of the province of Massachusetts) dealing with the colonies Military. These laws were to be administered by Court Martial. The first of these was “The Press Act”, which dealt with pilferage of arms, supplies and equipment. The other was “The Mutiny Act’, which dealt with those refusing to do their duty or leaving their duty without permission.

Laws were established to set boundaries for the Militiamen to stay within, so there were also laws that established how those that violated these boundaries were to be punished. One of the most common types of punishments was flogging or the lash. However the British Army would give up to a thousand lashes to its men. The General Court, after researching the Holy Bible, decided that 39 lashes was punishment enough. Other punishments included “Riding the Horse”, “Running the Gauntlet”. Being “Drummed out of Camp”, placed in stocks, Branding, “The Gallows” and “The Firing Squad”. Some punishments were symbolic, for instance some occasions a noose was placed around a mans neck and he was then drummed out of camp. The signal that was being sent was that the man could have been executed. The court even looked at Morality and Religious violations as other areas that punishments should be rendered. For Blasphemy, a hole was pierced through the violators tongue.

The Haverhill (hav-reel) Company was just one of many Massachusetts Companies, but is the one that we have chosen to concentrate on.. The town of Haverhill is located in Northeastern Masschusetts in Essex County, about 32 miles north of Boston. The Merrimack River flows through the middle of the community. The town was founded in 1640, but was called Pentucket. In 1642 the name was changed to Haverhill, after the town Haverhill in England. Haverhill was originally known for farming. In the early to mid 1700’s many industries began. These industries were fishing, shipbuilding, tanneries, saw mills and grist mills.

The militiamen of Haverhill were officially formed into a company of militia in 1645. The company was originally part of the Norfolk Regiment, being part of that county until February 4th, 1679/80. . It then became part of Essex County and was assigned to the 2d Essex Regiment. In 1689 Essex County was reorganized into three regiments. Haverhill became part of the 3rd Essex Regiment, along with the companies of Newbury, Salisbury, Andover, Amesbury and Bradford.

Note 1. The dates that show two years, as in this example are reflective of the different calendars, the Julian calendar (old style) and the Gregorian calendar (new style) which came into being September 2, 1752.
Note 2. The Militia was also paid for by the Colonies
Note 3. The colony of Massachusetts also raised troops of Horse and Artillery Companies as part of their militia structure.

Written by
Brian Wilson

- A People’s Army by Fred Anderson
- Campaigns in North America Vol. I & II by Captain Knox
- Crucible of War by Fred Anderson
- Massachusetts Militia Roots: A Bibliographic Study by Captain Robert K. Wright
- Quebec 1759 by Rene Chartrand
- The Colonial Wars 1689-1762 by Howard Peckham
- The City of Haverhill website

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