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Fight for freedom, local roots; Sutton militia key to Colonial victory.

Byline: Donna Boynton

SUTTON - Looking out the front window of Keith A. Downer's Boston Road home, you can almost see ghosts of history - men conducting military drills across the street, the echo of musket fire and a whiff of spilled ale. That is the same scene Minutemen and militia men may have seen from that same window, when it was a tavern in the 1770s.

The Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, marked the beginning of American Revolution, and it was along Boston Road, in a field that exists today, that Sutton Minutemen organized and marched from as they headed toward the battleground. They did not arrive for the battle that started the war, but the Sutton Minutemen made it to Camp Roxbury with several thousand other militia. They were the right flank at the Battle of Breed's Hill, and at the Battle of White Plains in Saratoga, N.Y., they were the largest contingent of militia, with nearly 600 members, said Mr. Downer, a re-enactor and historian.

Things could have been different, however. The British army's first choice of attack was Worcester, not Lexington and Concord, Mr. Downer said. The reason? Worcester had a large store of weapons.

Two English spies were dispatched from Boston to Worcester, Mr. Downer said, a green hardcover history book, its pages dog-eared and marked with yellow Post-it notes for quick consultation.

"They were ordered to take the high road, which is now Route 20, through Weston, Wayland, Framingham, Shrewsbury and Worcester. They arrived at the top of a hill, where they had a clear view of the old courthouse. And aiming up at them were cannons, and a throng of Colonials saying. `Come and get it,'" Mr. Downer said, adding that the two spies were heckled along their return to Boston.

When they arrived in Boston, they reported to British Gen. Thomas Gage that the terrain and the anti-English sentiment was not in their favor, so the general then set his sights on Lexington and Concord, which were much closer.

Meanwhile, in the Blackstone Valley, members of a militia and Minutemen were being organized for the war that Colonists knew was on the horizon, Mr. Downer said.

"The minute companies and the militia were different," he said. "The Minutemen (were) ready to respond in a minute's notice. At any time; at any hour. They carried their equipment wherever they went. If they went to the Sabbath, their gun went with them; if they were on the farm, their equipment was there, too. They were always prepared and were part of the militia."

When the Sutton Minutemen answered the call to battle in April 1775, it was delivered in code, in a wave of church bells and musket fire that was passed from town to town, touched off by Paul Revere's famous ride.

"The exact numbers are difficult to come by," Mr. Downer said. "There is a record of well over 95 Minutemen on that date, but well over 100 marched that night to engage against what was revered as the most disciplined army on earth - the British."

Among those marching to the battle were brothers Asa and Andrus Waters, flintlock musket makers, and Nathaniel Whitmore, who owned the first trip-hammer (used in blacksmithing and iron working).

"When Gen. Washington sees the muskets these three guys are making are comparable to the English, they are relieved of their duties and sent back to Sutton to make muskets to supply the troops," said Mr. Downer. "The Continental Congress later passed a resolve to fund the first provincial gun powder manufacturing mill (the Continental Powder Mill and Armory in 1776) in Sutton, near where Royal Pizza is today."

The remaining militia stayed on for the battle of Breed's Hill; Sutton Minutemen protected the right flank on Dorchester Heights, preventing the English from breaking through, said Mr. Downer.

The Massachusetts 5th Worcester was the largest company to serve under Gen. George Washington in White Plains, and in honor of the town that most of them came from, he renamed the company the Sutton Militia.

Mr. Downer reached behind a high-back bench and removed a musket. He laid the musket across a plank table and turned it to show "NW 1774" carved into the wood - scratches on the lockplate hiding the engraved name of Nathaniel Whitmore.

"Making arms against the king was treason," Mr. Downer said.

"This was the same musket that marched off from here on April 19, 1775.

"To think of the sacrifices everybody made," Mr. Downer said, "the bravery

they must have displayed in order for us to sit here today in a house that was here then, and to hold a musket that was there that day."

Contact Donna Boynton by e-mail at dboynton@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Revolutionary War historian and re-enactor Keith A. Downer of Sutton shows the original musket and powder horn used by munitions maker Nathaniel Whitmore during the Sutton Minutemen's march.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/STEVE LANAVA
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 20, 2009
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