History of the Watertown Militia
Leonid E. Kondratiuk
The Adjutant General's Office
The history of the Massachusetts Militia/National Guard dates back to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628. As each town was settled one of the first orders of business was to organize a night watch composed of armed men to protect the colonists from Indian attack. According to Watertown's Military History, the founders of Watertown also built a palisades to protect the village when the settlement was established in 1630 (Isaac B. Patten, 1907). The militia most likely consisted of a platoon of at least two dozen men. On 22 March 1631, the General Court all adult males to possess arms and to be prepared for military service. Three weeks later, on 12 April, the General Court ordered the organization of a militia company in each town.
The General Court adopted the English militia system in which many of the men in the colony had served prior to emigrating to the New World. Men, between the ages of 16 to 60, were required to serve in the local militia unit, to furnish their own weapons such as a pike or musket, a sword, shot, powder and other military accouterments. The General Court ordered the militia to muster every Saturday for training. Later the training requirement was lowered to one day a month.
The official date of the Watertown trainband, as the militia company was known, is 12 April 1631. Capt. Daniel Patrick was the first commander. He was a professional soldier brought over to train the militia and may not have lived in Watertown. Capt. William Jennison was the first Watertown resident to command the Watertown Company of Foot on his appointment on 3 September 1635.
The company consisted of three officers: captain, lieutenant and ensign who carried the company color and 60 enlisted men. The officers were required to be freemen and were selected by the General Court to ensure they were good Puritans and loyal subjects. Noncommissioned officers, sergeants and corporals, as well as the company clerk were appointed by the captain. Later the officers and NCOs were elected by the enlisted men. The company mustered on the town green as this area was designated as the militia parade ground. The training day began and ended with the militia sermon conducted by the minister. Training consisted of highly-orchestrated drills designed for European warfare. Training was fairly serious as the colony saw itself threatened by surrounding Indian tribes.
Capt. Jennison commanded an expedition to punish Indians living on Block Island in 1636. He was no doubt accompanied by several of his men. Thomas Cakebread, an early Watertown resident, was one of the first members of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in Boston. Unlike the enrolled militia, the company was a volunteer militia unit that trained more often, studied military arts and science, and served as an early officer candidate school. Capt. Cakebread later served as commander of the Dedham trainband.
On 13 December 1636, the General Court ordered the organization of the North, South and East Regiments. The Watertown company was assigned to the North Regiment. These three regiments, now designated as the 181st and 182d Infantry Regiments, the 101st Field Artillery Regiment and the 101st Engineer Battalion, still exist in the modern Massachusetts Army National Guard.
As the Massachusetts Bay Colony expanded, other militia units were organized as towns were settled and established. From 1640 to 1674, additional militia laws were passed to strengthen the militia. The militia was required to muster and drill eight times a year. Training became routine as there was little or no threat either by Europeans or Indians. That all changed in 1675.
King Philip’s War was the largest war, in terms of scale and death, ever fought by whites and Indians in North America. It included the militia of Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Plymouth and the New England Indian tribes. The war was brutal and without quarter by either side. Indians realized that their way of life was threatened by encroaching English settlers.
The war began in Swansea, Plymouth Colony, on 30 June 1675 when a band of Wampanoags burned and looted the village. King Philip, the tribal chief, realized that this act had precipitated a war that neither side was prepared to fight.
Militia companies had trained to fight European-style with 20 foot pikes designed to knock armored cavalrymen off horses and musketeers standing in close ranks. Pikes were quickly discarded and all militiamen were armed with muskets. The militia was not prepared to fight Indians in thick forests. The militia ponderously marched single file through the woods without any reconnaissance or scouts familiar with the area. Too often militia units were ambushed and incurred heavy casualties.
Colonial military leaders realized that provisional active duty units had to be organized to fight the Indians. An entire town’s trainband was seldom called out as this would leave the town defenseless. Trainbands functioned as manpower and training units. Expeditions were composed of men from the militia companies of the colony. Volunteers for active duty were called on to serve and if not enough men stepped forward, the captain drafted individuals to meet the town quota. The drafting of militiamen became a standard way of raising troops in both the colonial era and during the Revolutionary War.
The Watertown militia played a major role in King Philip’s War. Capt. David Henekman commanded an active duty foot company that marched to reinforce the Plymouth Militia in June 1675. A number of Watertown militiamen accompanied him.
Capt. Richard Beers, a prominent Watertown citizen and officer, commanded a troop of horse that engaged Indians on 25 August 1675 in the northwest corner of the colony, now present-day Whately. The skirmish was inconclusive. However, on 4 September, near present-day Northfield, his troop was ambushed resulting in 20 dead including Capt. Beers. On 21 September, a sizeable force of Watertown militiamen attempted to relieve the Sudbury militia which was under attack. The Watertown detachment was forced to fall back after incurring a number of casualties.
The colonists launched a major offensive against the Narragansetts in Rhode Island. On 19 December, a joint colonial task force attacked the Indians who were defending a fort in present-day West Kingston. A number of Watertown men were present. The militia force attacked the Indians who suffered a costly defeat in what was later called the Great Swamp Fight. Hundreds of Indians were killed. PVT John Shorman of Watertown was wounded in action.
The major fighting ended in the summer of 1676 with the death of King Philip. Watertown provided dozens of soldiers who saw action in this difficult war.
One of the results of the war was the reorganization of the militia. The Middlesex Regiment was reorganized in 1680 to consist of the 1st and 2d Middlesex Regiments with the Watertown Company assigned to the 1st. Watertown contributed troopers to the 1st Middlesex Troop of Horse also organized in 1680. In a 1690 report sent to King William on the status of militia in Massachusetts Bay, Capt. John Shorman, the former private wounded in 1675, commanded the Watertown Company of Foot composed of 151 musketeers. The report to the king was part of the preparations for war against the French in Canada.
The Watertown Militia was tasked to produce several dozen men for the expedition to capture Quebec in the fall of 1690 during King William’s War. The Massachusetts expedition failed to capture Quebec at great financial cost to the colony.
During Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), Watertown militiamen were ordered to serve in expeditions against the French in Canada and against their Indian allies in Massachusetts and Maine. They took part in King George’s War (1744-1748) and participated in the expedition that captured the French fortress of Louisbourg in 1745. Watertown men served in the provincial regiments stationed in New York during the French and Indian War (1755-1763).
After the wars with France and no threat to Massachusetts Bay for the first time, militia training and readiness diminished. There was little incentive to train the militia. However, things radically changed in 1774. With the Intolerable Acts and rising tensions with British military and colonial authorities, the Provincial Congress ordered the militia to elect new officers, to rearm and to start serious training for possible action against British regulars.
Capt. Jonathan Brown commanded one of the now two companies in Watertown. He asked the selectmen to pay for gun powder and ball ammunition which they did for both companies. The selectmen also paid for the construction of gun carriages to two cannon. At the town meeting held in the fall of 1774, it was voted to order ¼ of the militiamen to serve in the new minute company.
The Watertown minute company was organized on 2 January 1775 under the command of Capt. Samuel Barnard. Also appointed were 1st Lt. John Stratten, 2d Lt. Phineas Stearns and Ensign Edward Harrington. Training was conducted once a week and sometime more often. Minutemen were generally men in their 20s who had the time and interest to better their military skills if hostilities were to break out. Generally, the officers and sergeants were long-time militiamen some had served on active duty in one of the Massachusetts provincial regiments which served on the New York frontier. Capt. Barnard had served on active duty as a private for two years.
The minutemen honed their marksmanship skills so well that they were better marksmen then British regulars. The three Watertown companies were fairly well-equipped and the two enrolled companies were somewhat trained and prepared to take the field. The minute company was ready.
On the night of 18-19 April 1775, an alarm rider bypassed Watertown. The three militia captains did not receive the word to turn out their companies and march toward Concord. History states that the Newton company, marching through Watertown, alerted Capt. Barnard who immediately mobilized his minutemen. Somewhere along the route of march, Brig. Gen. William Heath ordered Capt. Barnard to block the bridge at Cambridge.
The payroll for 19 April states that the Watertown minutemen engaged the retreating British column in Arlington; the largest and bloodiest battle of the day. Their casualties are not recorded. Capt. Barnard mustered 126 men that day. The company served on active duty for six days. The Bemis brothers, David and Nathaniel, trailed the Watertown minutemen and picked up a British officer’s fusil and sword now in the Concord Museum.
Later that month, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ordered the creation of the Massachusetts Army. Col. Thomas Gardner, commander of the 1st Middlesex Militia Regiment, took command of the newly organized active duty regiment made up largely of Middlesex minutemen. He was assisted by Lt. Col. William Bond of Watertown who served as the second in command. Capt. Abner Craft, also of Watertown, took command of the Watertown company composed of 39 Watertown minutemen who enlisted for six months.
Col. Gardner’s Regiment, stationed in Cambridge, was organized with ten companies with a total of 425 men. On 14 June, the Massachusetts Army was inducted into the Continental Army by act of the Continental Congress. Three days later on 17 June, Gardner’s Regiment took part in the fighting at Bunker Hill. The regiment continued in service during the siege of Boston. Gardner’s Regiment was later redesignated as the 25th Continental Regiment and went on to serve in campaigns in Canada, New York and New Jersey.
The Continental Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. George Washington, conducted the siege from June 1775 to March 1776, and were reinforced by militia regiments. Capt. Phineas Stearns, former lieutenant of minutemen, commanded the Watertown company called up for five days service in March 1776. The battalion commander was Maj. Samuel Barnard the former minute company commander.
During the Revolutionary War, the Watertown militia was tasked to provide men for the Continental Army and for provisional active duty militia regiments. Militiamen enlisted in the Continental Army for varying lengths of time while militiamen were called up for several days or several months of active duty. Watertown's Military History states that 138 Watertown men served on active duty during the war (Isaac B. Patten, 1907).
Watertown militiamen served in campaigns in New York in 1776 and 1777, in Rhode Island in 1777 and again in New York in 1778. In 1777 nine Watertown militiamen guarded British POWs, who had surrendered at Saratoga, in Somerville. Sgt. Nathaniel Bemis and other Watertown men served on active duty in Capt. John Walton’s Company, Col. Brook’s regiment of guards from 2 February to 3 April 1778.
The Massachusetts Militia was reorganized under the Federal Militia Act of 1792 and the state militia act of 1793. All men between the ages of 18 to 45 were required to enroll in and serve in the local town company. Militia units mustered three to four times a year for training. Watertown’s two companies were designated initially as the 1st and 2d Companies, 1st Regiment, 1st Brigade, 3d Division. The 1st Regiment was commanded by Col. Amos Bond of Watertown. Company-grade officers and NCOs were elected by the enlisted men as vacancies occurred. Capt. Moses Coolidge was elected as a company commander and commissioned on 7 May 1787.
Lt. Col. Commandant William Bond commanded the 1st Regiment from 1804 to 1808 and on his staff were other Watertown officers.
In March of 1806, Capt. Joseph Peirce of Watertown was commissioned and appointed commanding officer of the 1st Middlesex Troop of Horse composed of troopers from Cambridge and Watertown. In 1810 he was promoted to major as the squadron commander.
In 1806 another militia unit was organized in Watertown. Capt. Daniel Bond organized the Watertown Artillery Company. This company was a volunteer militia unit composed of men who elected to purchase uniforms and drill several times a month. The company was issued two artillery pieces. Capt. Joseph Bird commanded the company from 1812 to 1815.
Watertown’s four militia companies were not mobilized during the War of 1812. With the war over in 1814, mandatory service in the militia was no longer enforced. Drill attendance became an issue. Col. Samuel Lawrence, who commanded the 1st Regiment from 1825 to 1832 and his second in command Lt. Col. Elisha Stratten led the Watertown and other companies as best as they could. Col. Stratten took command of the 1st Regiment in 1836 as its last commanding officer. The last company commanders were Captains Jonas Kendall, Jr. and Ebenezer Proctor.
In 1840, the legislature disbanded the enrolled militia. The two Watertown companies, with lineage to the platoon organized in 1630, were officially disbanded as well. The Watertown Artillery moved to Waltham in 1845. For the first time in its history, Watertown no longer had a militia unit.
With the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, new volunteer units were organized. On 15 April 1861, the War Dept. called on Gov. John Andrew to mobilize three militia regiments, soon increased to five, to travel to Washington, DC to guard the capital. On 23 April, the town meeting voted to authorize the recruitment of a volunteer company for active duty. It also authorized a $30 bounty and the purchase of uniforms at town expense. Capt. Henry C. Lindley began organizing the Watertown Volunteers on 5 May. He was assisted by 1st Lt. Stephen Meserve and 2d Lieutenants James E. Sharp and Frank W. Hilton.
While the company was organizing, recruits began training in late May and in June. The town also paid the recruits before the unit was officially part of the US Army. On 29 June, the Watertown Volunteers took a short train ride to Cambridge where they occupied tents at Camp Cameron. On 2 July, the unit was officially mustered into Federal service as Company K, 16th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 90-man unit consisted of 50 Watertown men and 40 Waltham men.
Company K was partially trained and fully equipped when on 17 August it accompanied the 16th to Fort Monroe, Virginia. The 16th continued to train and was part of the fort’s garrison until 8 May 1862 when it was transferred to the Army of the Potomac. The 16th participated in the Peninsular Campaign near Richmond until August. The regiment later participated in the Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor battles and briefly served in the siege of Petersburg. The 16th was mustered out of Federal service on 27 July 1864. Many of the Watertown soldiers died or were discharged for disability.
In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the states to provide 300,000 militiamen for nine months of active service. The Massachusetts Volunteer Militia provided a number of nine-month regiments which were used to reinforce the Union Army and to reinforce the Union enclave in North Carolina. Watertown men served in six of these volunteer militia regiments: the 42d, 43d, 44th, 47th, 50th and 53d.
Watertown was not allotted a volunteer militia company after the Civil War. Watertown men who wanted to serve in the MVM joined Companies C and D, 5th Infantry Regiment in Newton. Five Watertown MVM soldiers served on active duty during the Spanish American War.
With the declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917, a number of Watertown men were already serving in various units of the Massachusetts National Guard. A total of 64 Watertown men had enlisted in the Guard by 25 July when the Guard was ordered into active federal service. The Massachusetts National Guard provided the largest number of troops for the 26th “Yankee” Division organized in August. About 50 Watertown soldiers served in the 26th.
To replace the National Guard while it was serving in France, the Adjutant General organized the Massachusetts State Guard as the home guard. Capt. William H. White of Watertown, a 26-year veteran of the MVM, organized Watertown’s first militia unit since 1861. On 14 June 1917, Company C, 11th Infantry Regiment was organized in Watertown. State Guardsmen were issued obsolete Model 1873 rifles and olive drab Army uniforms with state buttons. The company drilled once a week and was partially trained when the war ended in November 1918. Company C was disbanded in June 1919. With this action, the 289-year history of the Watertown Militia ended.
A committee representing the Sons of the American Revolution and Isaac B. Patten (1907). Watertown's Military History. Boston: David Clapp & Son, Printers.