Monday, December 13, 2010

I Ruin Your Nice American History Again

The Minutemen hold a revered place in American history. The modern-day groups patrolling the borders calling themselves Minutemen notwithstanding, in the American Revolution, a 'minuteman' was a locally-bred soldier that was supposed to be ready to go on one minute's notice, hence the name. History's flagbearer for the group is almost certainly Paul Revere, who if you're up on your Longfellow poems, you'll recall as getting the locals alerted that they needed to get to Lexington and Concord.

Here's the thing, though.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sucked as a historian.

First off, there was a second rider, William Dawes. And the task of Revere and Dawes was merely (look at me use the word 'merely') to warn John Hancock and John Adams that they were in danger of arrest by the British. They both made it that far, but proceeded to Concord in case the British were going to be there instead. Before that, they picked up a third runner, Samuel Prescott. Revere was stopped on that second run; Dawes and Prescott got through. They were far from the only ones to do any riding that night, but Longfellow chose to focus his poem entirely on Revere.

As for the Minutemen themselves... they got lucky at Lexington and Concord. The Minutemen were a surprise thing. The British on that day were not really out specifically for a fight. Their task that night was to seize a weapons cache, and to arrest Hancock and Adams. For them to suddenly be up against a big mass of soldiers they didn't expect to be fighting that day, that was a big disadvantage. And these were not very large numbers of men as a result; some hesitate to call Lexington and Concord 'battles', preferring to use the word 'skirmish' instead. According to David Hackett Fischer's book Paul Revere's Ride, for a lot of the British troops, that was their first actual battle.

After that, the Minutemen's effectiveness went downhill in a hurry. After the Shot Heard Round The World, go back and look at the major achievements of the Americans in that war. There's nary a Minuteman in sight; it's the Continental Army doing virtually all the heavy lifting. Why? Because the Minutemen sucked.
This is a long-standing mental mistake people make: on one hand, you have a group of soldiers that have undergone rigorous formal training and supplied by an entity who's about as deep-pocketed as you'll find on the planet. On the other, you have a bunch of local guys who get together a couple times a week, train themselves, and think they can take on the world.

Who's usually going to win that exchange? I mean, honestly. Samuel Adams sure didn't; he was at Lexington that day and came away saying "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 were to a permanent and well-appointed army?"

The Minutemen were that guy who's had one karate lesson. He walks in, gets one hour of the most basic stuff in the arsenal and walks out thinking he's Bruce Lee. After Lexington and Concord, the Minutemen did guerrilla warfare while the Continental Army took on the British head-on. The Minutemen did do some head-on fighting as well, but when they did, they regretted it. The gap in skill between them and everyone else on the field was obvious. They served to add numbers and not much else. They couldn't shoot straight and they were not careful with their ammunition. As Martin L. Brown wrote in Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology, 1492-1792:

"Instead of being the best marksmen in the world and picking off every Regular that was to be seen...the continual firing which they kept up by the week and the month has had no other effect than to waste their ammunition and convince the King's troops that they are really not really so formidable."

So unformidable that, frequently, the minutemen wound up being the ones who ran away. Like the man who has one karate lesson and thinks he's Bruce Lee, were he to actually be placed up against Bruce Lee, his nerve vanishes quickly.

And the hell of it is, the minutemen were supposed to be the elite members of the various local militias. They were split off from the normal militias for that purpose: the militias were basically useless and totally unreliable. Within a year, the minutemen faded back into the militias. By the end, the minutemen were little more than a farm system for the Continental Army, relegated to tasks like preventing slave uprisings, guarding prisoners, or herding cattle.

As a supplemental body, the minutemen were okay. They pulled weight when playing hit-and-run. But that's all they could do. Surprise and the addition of bodies to the ends of a line of Continental Army soldiers was all they had going for them.

It's fairly fitting to close on the quote, seemingly isolated by history into a stand-alone one-liner via A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government by Garry Wills, by General Charles Lee, who had started out wanting to lead militia forces into battle:

"As to the minutemen, no account ought to be made of them."

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