Battles are fought all the time, on every continent, between all kinds of opponents. While it is true that the victors write the history, sometimes, the victors shoot themselves in the foot.

Today, things are no different.

On April 19, 1775, a battle was fought outside the city of Boston. In the aftermath of that battle, a heroic - even Homeric in scale - myth was created, a kind of 'American Iliad', which sought to define a nation and how it fought wars.

The effects of this myth have killed innumerable American soldiers since it took hold, and has caused a potentially fatal misunderstanding of military force within the United States, a misunderstanding that drives everything from firearms design to national military fiscal policy, and calls into question the very idea of taxation itself. It is a myth that needs to to be staked to the ground, and its head struck off.

The myth goes something like this:

The arrogant, degenerate, authoritarian British foolishly tried to clamp a tax on their American Colonies without giving them a say in the matter. When the Americans protested, the British tried to throw their weight around -- at which point, the rugged, sturdy American farmers "grabbed thar shootin' ayhrons", and rose in righteous fury to destroy the vaunted professional army of the British Empire in detail...

...Which would, actually, really make for a great story.

The only problem is that it is almost entirely bogus.

The taxation issue aside - and the British, to be honest, weren't being unreasonable in any way about it - here is what actually happened.

On the British side, as tensions rose in Boston, the Crown began to send in more troops. These troops had the cache of "the Regulars" behind their name...the problem being, the vast majority of them were raw, in the extreme. Most had never heard a shot fired in anger, and most had been on quiet garrison duty for decades.

In contrast, as much as 40% of the Colonial militia in the region around Boston were not simply veterans, but combat veterans, of the French and Indian War (the Seven Years' War, for our European readers). As well, most of the senior militia officers, while not having served as long as their British counterparts, had served all of their time during "active combat operations", as we would say now.

When it became clear, in 1774, that military action was likely, the Patriot hard core staged a takeover of the Massachusetts Militia structure, which was largely a joke by this point, began training in earnest and assembling supplies -- while lots of historians like to discuss the activities of the Committees of Correspondence, or the Committees of Public Safety, not many tend to delve too deeply into the actions of the Committees of Supply..."logistics" are boring drudgery after all.

Right?

General Thomas Gage - a very sharp (by the standards of the time) and well respected leader by all sides - tried to carry out his government's orders, and 1774 became a kind of 'spy war', as British and Colonial intelligence teams sparred. (The Founding Father's were hell on wheels when it came to intelligence operations, but that's another article, entirely.) There were several armed  confrontations prior to the battle, and every one of them revolved around weapons and/or ammunition stockpiled by the Committees of Supply.

These raids, in fact, convinced the Massachusetts Patriot leadership to concentrate a large portion of their supplies at Concord - over 20 miles from Boston - to (hopefully) place them beyond the easy reach of the British garrison. Very quickly, however, Gage's intelligence located the cache. Gage - who, knowing America and Americans very well, having both an American wife and nearly 20 years of service in America - had tried to take a diplomatic track to defuse the crisis. As a result, he had learned that he was about to be replaced ("aided and advised" was the term used) by three senior generals, he decided to launch a swift raid to try and polish his image, before he had to testify before Parliament.

Gage selected for the raid the British Army's equivalent to "special operations forces" - his garrison's grenadiers and light infantry companies; as an afterthought, he detailed his Third Brigade of 'regular' troops to act as a reserve force.

By the standards of the time, Gage's plan - while simple - was difficult but it should have worked with little trouble. As it happened, Colonial intelligence was on the ball, found out about the details of the raid, and got the alarm out when the raid force began moving to their boats.

By the time the raid force marched into Lexington, the town militia had assembled, then partially dispersed home to wait. The details of Lexington are very well known: a tired, wet, jumpy British force; a confused command structure; and a random shot at the wrong moment, all combined into "the Shot Heard Round the World"...

...Meanwhile, the Colonials had not been idle.

After their political coup to gain control over the militia, the Colonials - in addition to assembling a large amount of supplies - had been training relentlessly, while their senior leadership sorted themselves into a command structure with a speed only seen with veteran officers who have no time for posturing.

The numbers (Galvin) are staggering -- nearly twenty-two thousand militiamen were available for combat on April 18th. Perhaps 40% of these troops could be termed "Minute Men", available to respond to an alarm "at a minute's notice", at least in theory. In practice, the Minutemen were usually in the forefront of Colonial action.

As the well-behaved British troops' destruction of what supplies they could find spurred the militia units assembled on Punkatasset Hill to march into history at the North Bridge, other regiments - summoned by the alarm riders Dawes, Prescott and Revere - were marching down the twisting road network towards the Boston Road. Because of the poor nature of the roads, the Militia units to the northeast of the fighting actually had further to travel than other units to the west, near Worchester.

The seven hundred or so British troops were swiftly outnumbered by the always-massing militia forces, as they tried to make an orderly retreat down the tiny, twisting, sunken road between the two villages. By the time the task force reached Lexington, they were effectively finished as a fighting force; had Hugh, Lord Percy's 3rd Brigade (summoned by LtCol Smith, the raid force commander, earlier in the morning) not been anchored on Lexington Green, awaiting the raid force, they would have been destroyed in detail.

As a result, after the British column rested and reorganized momentarily in Lexington under the artillery of the 3rd Brigade, they set out for Boston. Along the way, the leading elements of multiple Militia regiments struck the British column with as much force as they could; Percy wisely kept his column moving as quickly as he was able. As the Militia companies fired on the British, and the column continued its retreat, the remainder of the arriving regiments piled into the pursuing Militia column that snaked back along Battle Road.

In the end, of course, the battered, exhausted British column successfully retreated into Boston, while the pursuing Militia regiments fed in around the city to establish their siege lines...


...Which brings us to -- "What's the point of this article?"

The foregoing should demonstrate the obvious: that the Colonial Militia could never have fought the battle it did on the 19th of April without spending significant time training relentlessly and assembling a real supply base well beforehand, a supply base, incidentally, that shaped the entire course of the battle.

This leads us to several lessons about the "spontaneous uprising of disgruntled farmers" (it's not like they had YouTube in the 1700's...or, was Benghazi too long ago?):

* Training works. Disorganized rabble goes to war in droves - and dies in droves.

* Supplies are vital. Without them, the enemy likely won't go after you immediately...of course, you can't go after them, either. For the modern "Patriot" militia in the US, this means that you need to stop being selfish and greedy, and start buying supplies for a unit, with the full knowledge that you are going to give all of that stuff away early, on.

* Have a plan. Even if it's a bad plan, that's better than no plan at all. Thomas Gage made the only plan he realistically could. The Colonials, for all their training, had no real plan for what to do if shooting actually started.

* Learn about "things military". The myth of the "Armed, Righteous Farmer" (or "Worker", for that matter) translates both to people feeling that they do not need to know much about "military stuff", but also that it can't be overly complicated. This, in turn, usually prevents people from asking things like, "Why are we spending US$148million for an airplane that doesn't have an engine?"

* Don't believe your own press. Ever.

 

Nearly a hundred Americans died on this date, some two hundred and forty-odd years ago, killed by the forces of a government many of them had once fought to defend. Those who bore arms that day were no 'rabble'; nor were they 'rednecks' or 'country bumpkins' -- they had trained hard, for over a year. They were soldiers. It is a grave injustice to their memory, to continue perpetuating the myth that they were some group of rude, barely civilized simpletons.

Likewise, perpetuating that myth - the myth that "righteous anger" will win out over training, and planning - needs to stop...unless you enjoy seeing your "friends and neighbors" - or your children - continue to come home in boxes.

 




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