My two 4 x great grandfathers from Plympton, Massachusetts were members of Theophilus Cotton’s Minute Regiment. Freeman Ellis and Isaac Fuller “marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775 to [drum roll please] Marshfield; service 12 days…”
They didn’t march toward Lexington or Concord, or to Boston, but to Marshfield, a distance of 14 miles from Plympton (according to Google Maps). The history books have told us that all the action was in Boston, where the British regulars had returned after their disastrous visit to Lexington and Concord. An army of several thousand British troops were occupying the city.
Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book Bunker Hill, reports that following the alarm, streams of militia units, with several thousand soldiers, headed toward Boston from Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine.1 Cambridge and Roxbury became centers of military assembly. At these two points the Boston peninsula was sealed off so the British could not again march inland.
So why did the Plympton militia units and those of other southeastern Massachusetts towns march to Marshfield? This question perplexed me for many years. Not until I read Bunker Hill did I find the answer.
Philbrick explains that Marshfield was a town populated primarily by British loyalists. A wealthy merchant, Nathaniel Ray Thomas, had a large estate there. The residents of Marshfield, surrounded by Patriots in the nearby towns, requested protection from General Gage in Boston. In January 1775, Gage sent a battalion of Redcoats to defend them—one hundred soldiers under the command of Captain Balfour were quartered at the Thomas estate. They brought with them two artillery pieces and 300 muskets to be used for the defense of the town.
However, Marshfield remained a quiet place: Over the winter the soldiers constructed an elaborate wine cabinet in the cellar of Thomas’s house. But on April 19, Marshfield was recognized as a Redcoat outpost, and more than a thousand South Shore militiamen descended on this loyalist stronghold.2
The militia units took up a position about a mile from the British garrison, and waited. Their leader, Colonel Cotton, was reluctant to start a fight at Marshfield without instructions from General Joseph Thomas, who was at Roxbury. A message was sent to him.
Meanwhile, the British, outnumbered by the Patriots, had sent a message also—a message to General Gage to send ships to rescue them. Two British ships arrived off the shore of Marshfield, and all the British troops and about a hundred of the the citizen loyalists escaped the town without any interference from the Patriots.3
Captain Balfour later said that if he had been attacked, he would have surrendered without firing a shot.4
Cotton’s Minute Regiment returned home after 12 days of service. But Freeman Ellis and Isaac Fuller enlisted in the Army on May 2 and May 3, respectively, to return to the fight. They would march again to Roxbury, where they were engaged in a very important part of the siege of Boston.
1Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Seige, A Revolution (New York, The Penguin Group, 2013) p. 85
2Philbrick, p. 166-167
3Philbrick, p. 167
4Patrick Brown, Historical Digression, blog post January 10, 2011