The Rev. Samuel West was worried, and rightly so. Needham’s militia was a band of poorly-trained farmers. How could they hope to succeed against the largest and most powerful army in the world?
We all learn about the Battles of Lexington and Concord when we are in school, and the alarm sent by Paul Revere, and of course Longfellow’s stirring poem. Seeing the two lanterns, Revere was there on the opposite shore,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm / Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.
The country folk – that was us. And although Longfellow gives Paul Revere all the credit, there was in fact a network of riders who went out that night, to the villages and farms in Middlesex, but also to the villages and farms in Suffolk (as we then were) and others.
This wasn’t Paul’s first ride. As early as 1774, he worked for the Boston Committee of Correspondence as an express rider to carry messages and documents, occasionally as far as New York or Philadelphia. “Committee of Correspondence” sounds like the people who take minutes at municipal meetings or send thank you notes on behalf of a nonprofit organization. But behind that boring name was in fact active and dangerous activity. The Committees worked with the Sons of Liberty and coordinated the colonists’ response to Britain’s increasingly frequent Intolerable Acts – the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, the Quartering Act, and so forth.
When things started to really heat up in 1772, Boston reorganized its Committee, and actively recruited the towns in MA to form Committees of their own to facilitate patriot communication throughout the Commonwealth. Nearly all of the towns responded favorably to Boston’s appeal. Needham was not one of them.
Needham was well aware of what was going on in Boston and the towns around it – patriot firebrand Eleazer Kingsbury made sure of that. The town people were conservative, and the minister who led them, the Rev. Samuel West, was a Tory at heart. So on December 4, 1773 (two weeks before the Boston Tea Party), Needham Town Meeting took up the question of electing its own Committee of Correspondence to “join with the Committee of Correspondence of the Town of Boston relating to the importation of Tea.” The question “past in the Negative” – that is, it was voted down. With the exception of partisans like Eleazer Kingsbury, Needham wanted no part in the doings of their troublesome Boston neighbors.
By mid-1774, however, this attitude had begun to change. As the Intolerable Acts became more restrictive, Needhamites became increasingly restive. As Rev. West noted, “Nothing but ye most impolitic conduct in Britain could have produced that reverse in ye general spirit which now discovered itself… Every week and almost every day produced something new either to manifest or increase ye irritation of ye people… ” By 1775, Needham was all-in – Town Meeting had voted to not only create a Committee of Correspondence, but it had also elected Eleazer Kingsbury as its representative to the new Provincial Congress.
As revolutionary fervor grew, Rev. West grew worried. He was right to be worried. Every Massachusetts town had militia companies for defense, and they were required to train weekly to be in readiness. But in reality, their training was haphazard, and drew on whatever practical knowledge was remembered by men who had served in the French and Indian War about 20 years before. Their weapons were miscellaneous, and because of the cost and scarcity of powder, they did not often get to practice the necessary skills of loading and shooting their temperamental muskets. West knew that they were not ready to fight the British, the strongest and best-trained army in the world.
Nevertheless, when the alarm came to Needham on April 19th, 185 Needham men, every able-bodied male over the age of 16, assembled to march. Rev. West recorded that day: “The news reached us about nine o’clock AM… and by ten O’clock all marched for the place of action with as much spirit and resolution as the most zealous friends of the cause could have wished for. We could easily trace the march of troops from the smoke that rose over them, and could hear from my house the report of the cannon and the Platoons fired by the British.”
The men marched down Central Avenue, to Hunnewell Street, to Lower Falls on what is now Washington Street. Their route took them along Route 16 across Newton to Watertown Square. There they received instructions to divert to Menotomy – Arlington – marching down Common Street to Pleasant Street – to harass the British retreat along the Menotomy Road – now Mass Ave through Arlington Center. More from good old Longfellow –
You know the rest. In the books you have read / How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball / From behind each fence and farmyard-wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane, / Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road, / And only pausing to fire and load.
If only it were that simple. Rev. West again: “The Needham company was soon on the ground, but unhappily being ignorant of what are called flank-guards they inserted themselves between them and the main body of the British troops. In consequence of which they suffered more severely than their Neighbors who kept to a greater distance.”
The Needham men met the British at Jason Russell’s farm on the Menotomy Road, around 4:30 in the afternoon. With the British approaching, there was not much time for them to prepare defensive positions, so they broke into smaller groups and shot from behind whatever structures they could.
It is probably fair to say that the British companies, under fledgling commander Lord Percy and Col. Smith, were tired and angry. They had been on the march since early morning, with little success to show for their efforts and losses. Their officers had assumed that a show of force would scare off the badly-armed farmers and put an end to their rebellious ways. But the minor skirmish that they expected had turned into serious battles, leaving them in retreat.
Near Russell’s Farm, Lord Percy diverted some of his men from the main road to go around behind the buildings and outflank the colonists who were shooting from behind the walls and barns. Trapped between the troops on the road and the soldiers who had maneuvered behind them, the militias took heavy casualties. Menotomy was the harshest and bloodiest battle of the day. Many tried to shelter in Russell’s farmhouse. Jason Russell himself was killed on his own doorstep. Overall twelve patriots and two British soldiers died, and many more were wounded.
Back in Needham, all the Rev. West and the men’s families could do was wait and hope for news. They feared for their sons and husbands, but also for the grim consequences of taking up arms against the King’s army: “Never did I know a more anxious day than this… I considered it no more than the beginning of sorrows and a prelude to infinitely more distressing scenes which we expected would follow.”
By nightfall, a few men started to straggle in from the battle road, back to their homes. Needham’s men did not return home that night, but bedded down where they could in friendly farms along the way, finally returning the next day.
Rev. West: “In the evening we had intelligence that several of the Needham inhabitants were among the slain, and in the morning it was confirmed that five had fallen in the action and several others had been wounded. … I visited these families immediately, and with a sympathetic sense of their affliction I gave to some the first intelligence they had of the dreadful event, the death of a Husband and a Parent.”
There is a common grave in the old Arlington Cemetery for the men who were killed at Russell’s Farm that day. Five of them were from Needham, one of the heaviest tolls from the towns who sent men:
- John Bacon, Minuteman, was 54 years old. He was married and had 11 surviving children. Three of his sons also fought at Arlington.
- Private Amos Mills, Minuteman, was 43. He was married and had six children.
- Private Nathaniel Chamberlain, Minuteman, was the oldest, at 57. He left a wife and three children.
- Elisha Mills, East Needham Company, was 40. He was a farmer and a blacksmith, and cousin of Amos Mills. He was married, with six children.
- Private Jonathan Parker, East Needham Company, died on his 28th birthday. He was the youngest of the five. He was married with three children. Supposedly, he was plowing when he heard the Call to Arms and abandoned his plow in the field.
Two others, John Tolman of the East Company and Eleazer Kingsbury, a Minuteman, were wounded but survived.
Even after April 19th, there was optimism that the war would not continue. The colonists thought that the British had seen the error of their ways – seen that it would not be so easy to send the colonists back to their farms. “It was a happy circumstance”, Rev. West observed, “that ye people in general & even our principal leaders … flattered themselves that the contest would soon be over, that if we could but dispose of the British force already here, that government would never think of pursuing the affair any further, but come to some compromise with the Colonies to mutual advantage.”
We of course know how the long story ended. Neither side backed off. Bunker Hill was almost exactly two months after Lexington, and the war was on. Needham was there as the war progressed, and was there until the end. As it was from the very beginning.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum