Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Meeting Notes: March 19, 2014

"Embattled Farmers: The Lincoln Militia at Lexington, Concord, and Beyond," Rick Wiggin

“Ordinary men who left us an extraordinary legacy”.

That is how historian and author Richard C. Wiggin summarized the 252 men from Lincoln, Massachusetts who fought in support of the American Revolution, beginning with their April 19, 1775 battle at Concord’s North Bridge and proceeding throughout the war in military campaigns as far away as the Carolinas.

Wiggin is the author of Embattled Farmers: Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783. On March 19 he spoke to the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond about Lincoln’s soldiers and the New England soldier in general.

Why was New England so important to the outcome of the American Revolution? Wiggin cited two major reasons. The first was simply the fact that many battles were fought in New England, especially during the crucial early months of the war. Secondly, two New England states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, ranked #1 and #3 respectively in furnishing the most continental and militia troops throughout the war. Virginia was #2.

Wiggin said New England soldiers were somewhat different from other American soldiers as a result of their Puritan heritage and the common belief of individual responsibility to the community. Town meetings were very popular throughout most of New England, and part of this community-based democracy included citizen participation in town militias to protect the community.

“This was Norman Rockwell democracy at the grassroots level,” said Wiggin. “This culture is essential to understanding the Massachusetts militia and the community response to the American Revolution.”

In addition to its culture of community service, New England was also somewhat unique in the way it intimidated loyalist-leaning citizens, especially loyalist-leaning militia officers. When the British army evacuated the Boston area, many New England loyalists rightfully feared for their safety and moved with the British army to Halifax, Nova Scotia or to more loyalist-friendly American cities such as New York.

“No myth is more widespread than the one about one-third of Americans supporting the American Revolution, one-third of them remaining loyal to the British Crown and one-third of people staying neutral,” said Wiggin.

In Lincoln 75-80% of all men age 16 and older served as soldiers in support of the Revolution. Only four Lincoln men remained loyal to the British Crown, and none of them returned to Lincoln after the war.

Massachusetts militia units were organized by county. The only campaigns where the Massachusetts militia fought as intact entities were Lexington/Concord and the Siege of Boston. Otherwise the state’s militia served as a feeder system, furnishing companies to serve in an amalgamated militia unit on a specific assignment, or providing soldiers who served long-term enlistments in the Continental Army.

The composition of Massachusetts militia units was actually far different from the stereotype frequently painted in history books of “poor farmers with poor education”. In reality Massachusetts soldiers came from all segments of society, ranging from slaves and poor free-people to wealthy businessmen who were highly educated. Artisans, shopkeepers and yeoman farmers were also common participants in militias.

Wiggin concluded his program by briefly describing several Lincoln men who had somewhat unique experiences during the American Revolution---men whom he called, “both rogues and heroes who were living, breathing human beings.”

At the age of 53 David Meade received a draft notice in late 1776 and decided not to report for service. In January 1777 he was fined 12 pounds “for not Marching when ordered according to an Act of the Court.” After Mead obtained a substitute to serve in his place the town refunded the 12-pound fine that he had paid.

John Wheat experienced the heartaches of a divided family. Although he and most of his family supported the American Revolution, two of his daughters and their husbands were staunch loyalists. After the British army evacuated Boston the two daughters and their husbands also left Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Shortly thereafter Wheat updated his will, and all but excluded his two loyalist daughters for supporting the British Crown. The family never reconciled after the war.

John Whitehead, a veteran of the Boston Tea Party and Concord’s North Bridge, fought an even tougher battle---with his wife. In 1777 while serving as a Continental Army lieutenant, Whitehead arranged for his 17 and 12-year-old sons to join him in the service. Shortly thereafter he also placed a legal notice in a Boston newspaper, telling the public not to trust his wife and disavowing any debts accumulated by her. Sadly, both of his sons died later that year while in the service with him.

Aaron and Joseph Parker were the nephews of Captain John Parker of the Lexington militia. In 1781 they wanted to join the army but both were below the official minimum age of 16, so they lied about their ages. Aaron was 15 years old while Joseph was only 13 and a height of 4’10”. They both “passed” for age 16.

Benjamin Cleaveland enjoyed enlisting in the army. In fact he enjoyed it so much that he enlisted twice within eight days, once in Lincoln and also in another town, and collected two enlistment bounties. Around this time Cleaveland also had a problem with fathering a child out of wedlock, however he continued to serve in the army until the end of the war. The mother of his child, who later became his wife, received a military widow’s pension after his death in 1803.

“What is fascinating is getting the human qualities that bring these stories to life,” said Wiggin. “The army of the American Revolution was one of the most unusual ever to win a war.”

Wiggin is a former captain of the Lincoln Minute Men, a re-enactment group that participated in the inaugural parades for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. As a volunteer at Minute Man National Historical Park, Wiggin has written seven audio tours for different segments of the park and for Boston’s Freedom Trail. He has also written historical articles for the Boston Globe and various magazines. Wiggin and his wife Agnes are residents of Lincoln.   

--Bill Seward    

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