The Minute Men or Minutemen were American Patriots who prepared for war as the British government denied more and more rights and liberties in the early 1770s. Based on local militias, they were elite, well-trained units prepared to assemble at a minute's notice.
Up and down the colonies companies were readied. In Virginia for example a Patriot state convention ordered all the counties activate and train their militia . Some six thousand minute men were to assemble frequently, drill intensively, and hold themselves in readiness to move at a moment's notice. Arms and ammunition were to be bought whereever they could be found. A gunpowder mill was set up and lead was mined and smelted. Every white man who had a rifle, gunpowder, or gun was asked to sell or loan the same to the colony.
General Thomas Gage, the commander of the British army in North America, correctly reported to London in 1775 that men throughout New England were "exercising in Arms … and getting magazines of Arms and Ammunition … and such Artillery, as they can procure."
Battle of Lexington and Concord, 1775
The planning worked well, for when on the night of April 18-19, 1775, General Gage in Boston sent out an elite regiment of 800 men to capture Patriot leaders and supplies at Concord, the Minute Men were ready.
Gunsmith Isaac Davis (1745-75) became one of the first casualties of the American Revolution when he was shot to death at in Lexington at the Concord Bridge in April 1775 as he led 70 local minutemen facing the British regulars.
Alerted by Paul Revere, William Dawes and other riders, 4,000 Minute Men assembled in the night at pre-assigned places along the 20 mile route. They attacked the British column as it retreated back to Boston. Gaining the better of the fight, they nearly destroyed the British until rescuers arrived. The British suffered 273 dead, wounded and missing; there were 93 American casualties. News of the Battle of Lexington and Concord immediately raced through the 13 colonies, as dozens of volunteer militia units marched to help Boston. The British were trapped and finally left in March 1776, setting the stage for the Declaration of Independence.
Captain Abijah Moore's company of minutemen marched from Putney, Vermont (then part of Cumberland County, New York), to Cambridge, Massachusetts, 23 April 1775. They were the only troops from the province of New York to respond. They also made up the first military unit from what became the state of Vermont to take part in the Revolution.
Minutemen service was more regularized and formal than service in the volunteer companies. But the new rules, strict hierarchies, class-based officer appointments, and ranked-based pay scales of the Virginia minutemen did not attract small farmers who had become accustomed to relaxed discipline and the popular election of officers. By the fall of 1775 the minutemen service's unpopularity was widespread and well known, revealing a division in Virginia society between 'those dictating the terms upon which the colony would fight and those expected to bear the brunt of those terms.' Because of the failure of the minutemen, Virginia was forced to abandon the concept of the citizen-soldier and to depend on traditional paid full-time soldiers.
Image and memory
The Minute Men became iconic heroes of patriotism and civic duty in terms of American Republicanism. In 1860-61 Minutemen companies organized hurriedly in many states as the Civil War loomed.
Early accounts celebrated American heroism against British barbarism and saw the dawning of democracy in the egalitarian army of minutemen commoners.
"Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was memorized by generations of school children:
- Listen my children and you shall hear.
- Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere...
Longfellow's poem correctly caught the exciting decisive events, but included only Revere's story and not the others.
During World War I, the Four Minute Men was a speakers program that helped mobilize public opinion.
- Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride (1994), outstanding history online edition
- Gross, Robert A. The Minutemen and their World (1976), mostly about the social history of the town of Concord
- The Lexington militia called themselves "a trained band"--an ancient English term--rather than Minutemen.
- Michael A. McDonnell, "Popular Mobilization and Political Culture in Revolutionary Virginia: The Failure of the Minutemen and the Revolution from Below" Journal of American History 1998 85(3): 946-981 in JSTOR
- John McWilliams, "Lexington, Concord, and the 'Hinge Of The Future'" American Literary History 1993 5(1): 1-29 online
- See text at online