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The National Guard ‘minuteman’ is based on a real person and he was a badass

"There can never be but one man who headed the first column of attack on the King’s troops in the Revolutionary War."
David Roza Avatar
national guard logo
(Task & Purpose photo illustration)

Many service members know the National Guard logo depicting a minuteman from the Revolutionary War days. But not as many people know Capt. Isaac Davis, the Massachusetts gunsmith and militia officer who the logo is based on. That’s a pity, because despite his brief time in the nation’s service, Davis set an example of bravery that made him worthy of the image created in his likeness.

“To march within range of the enemy’s guns and let them take the first shot requires enormous courage,” wrote the National Park Service in an article about Davis. That was precisely the situation the 30-year-old Davis found himself in on April 19, 1775, the first day of the American Revolutionary War. It was likely the most momentous day in his life or that of any of the Massachusetts farmers around him. 

Born on February 23, 1745, Davis lived in Acton, a small town which to this day has only about 24,000 residents, so presumably it was even smaller in Davis’ time. The Massachusetts man became a gunsmith and had four children with his wife, Hannah Brown. By the early 1770s, Davis seems to have been a well-respected member of the community, and was described by people who knew him as a “thoughtful, sedate, serious man, a genuine Puritan like Samuel Adams,” according to HistoryNet.

Like Samuel Adams, Davis was a true believer in the revolution. The gunsmith was “so moved by a Sunday sermon on the state of the colonies that he applauded at its conclusion and asked the minister to repeat it,” according to HistoryNet.

A few months before the fight on April 19, with talk of war in the air, Davis was elected captain of Acton’s minuteman company. One of his soldiers, Thomas Thorpe, said later that the captain was “esteemed, a man of courage and prudence and had the love and veneration of all his company,” according to HistoryNet.

minutemen reenactors
Reenactors dressed as colonial militia march as they would have in the colonial era at Minute Man National Historic Park, Mass. (National Park Service photo)

Though the National Guard evokes the minuteman militia on its seal, the two fighting groups were very different organizations. American militias in Massachusetts developed first as a way to fight Native Americans, and those militias were highly decentralized so that individual groups of armed men could act quickly, according to PBS. Unlike the organized bureaucracy of the modern-day American military and its National Guard, the militias were grassroots by nature, with captains like Davis being elected by the men they commanded.

For example, the Lexington Training Band, “was not a strict military unit,” PBS wrote. “Instead, the Training Band was more of a democratic assembly in which the captain freely asked the advice of older veterans, and everyone stood by the captain’s decisions once they were made.”

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Also unlike the National Guard today, members of the Massachusetts militia were expected to bring their own weapons. Luckily for the men of Acton, their new captain was a bit of a gun nut, and he made sure his troops were well-equipped with bayonets, guns, and cartridge boxes, according to HistoryNet.

But besides having good weapons, it was important to Davis that his men knew how to use them. Like in other minuteman companies, the captain had his men train twice weekly, including marksmanship at a firing range behind his house, according to Concord Magazine. All of this meant that on the night of April 16, when Paul Revere rode through the countryside, warning his fellow colonists that British troops were on the march, and word eventually spread to Davis, the captain knew his men were well-prepared.

Reenactors dressed as colonial militia march to battle as they would have in the Revolutionary War at Minute Man National Historic Park, Mass. (National Park Service photo)

Despite his preparations, Davis himself was grim about his chances of surviving. A few days earlier, he and Hannah came home to find a large owl, a symbol of death, had flown into their house and perched on Davis’ favorite gun hanging over the mantel, according to HistoryNet.

“No one was allowed to disturb the brooding presence, which stayed for days and was interpreted by the captain as an omen that, if the struggle became a full-pitched battle, he would not survive,” HistoryNet wrote.

Now it seemed that day of reckoning had come. Davis gathered about 30 men in his yard, some of whom had floured their hair “so that they might meet the king’s troops as gentlemen,” according to HistoryNet. Some joked amongst themselves, boasting that they would finally get ‘a hit at old [General Thomas] Gage,’ the British officer who led a military government in Massachusetts backed by about 4,000 British troops intending to crack down on the rebels gathering momentum in the colony. Davis disapproved of his men’s joking.

“Blood would be spilt, that was certain,” he told his men, according to HistoryNet. “The crimson fountain would be opened; none could tell when it would close, nor with whose blood it would overflow. Let every man gird himself for battle and be not afraid, for God is on our side.”

When it was finally time to go, Davis turned to Hannah, telling her to ‘take good care of the children.’ They were the last words he said to her. Then he and his militia marched off to Concord. It may have been a solemn moment, for the men knew that they would be deemed traitors if they failed. Davis was unbothered.

“I have a right to go to Concord on the king’s highway,” he allegedly said. “And I will go to Concord.”

The Battle of Lexington, painting from 1910 by William Barnes Wollen depicting the battle that took place in 1775. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though this would be the first fight for Davis’ troops, it was not the first fight of the revolution. Ever since 1774, Gage had been trying to stop New Englanders preparing for war by seizing stores of their weapons and gunpowder, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The colonists responded by storing their powder in secret caches and stealing some from the British. On April 14, 1775, Gage received orders from William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth and the secretary of state for the colonies, that it was time to “arrest and imprison the principal Actors and Abettors” in rebellious Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Gage, the rebels got the drop on him.

Starting on April 16, Revere rode through Massachusetts, warning colonists to secure their powder and guns before the British arrived. The element of surprise slipped further out of Gage’s hands when 700 of his troops spent the evening of April 18 forming up in public view on Boston Common. The troops crossed the Charles River and marched to Lexington, hoping to find rebel leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams on their way to capture military supplies in Concord. They marched all night through the deep, brackish waters of a swamp before arriving soaked and tired at about 5:00 a.m. to meet 77 minutemen waiting for them at the village green. After a tense standoff, the two sides opened fire on each other, sending off “the shot heard ‘round the world” and leaving eight Americans dead.

The rebel forces fled, and the British troops marched on to Concord, intending to seize the guns and powder stored there. Several hundred colonists were gathering on a ridge overlooking the town, but in the meantime British troops began finding and destroying weapons in the town. A fire broke out, and British troops joined in the bucket brigade to put it out. However, the colonial troops on the ridge assumed their enemies were going to raze Concord, according to HistoryNet, so they marched down to meet them, with Davis leading the way.

When asked if he was afraid to lead the advance, Davis is believed to have said, “No I am not, and I haven’t a man that is.”

Reenactors dressed as British light infantry respond as if under fire on the Battle Road at Minute Man National Historic Park, Mass. (National Park Service photo)

Before they could take Concord, the minutemen would first have to take the North Bridge, which was held by British troops. Davis led the way towards them, but was ordered not to fire unless fired upon. The British struck first, and one of their volleys shot Davis through the chest, killing him instantly.

Though Davis and two of his men lost their lives that day, their fellow colonists went on to push the British troops back into Boston. The “esteemed man of courage and prudence” from Acton had set off a chain of events that helped create a new country. Davis’ body was carried back to Acton over a road that was no longer the king’s, local reverend James Trask Woodbury pointed out nearly a century later. His wife Hannah went on to marry twice more, but both husbands died and by 1818 the 71-year old was impoverished, according to HistoryNet. It would take another 20 years for her to finally receive a pension, but that was not the end of the Davis story.

About 76 years later, in 1851, Reverend Woodbury successfully petitioned the Massachusetts government for money to build a monument to Davis, which took the form of a 75-foot stone obelisk completed that year. 24 years later, in 1875, sculptor Daniel Chester French, who would later sculpt the image of Abraham Lincoln seated in the Lincoln Memorial, was commissioned to sculpt a generic minuteman. French was so inspired by Davis’ story that he modeled his statue off of photographs of the minuteman’s descendants, and he modeled the plow in the statue off of Davis’ plow on display at the Acton town hall.

Massachusetts National Guard Junior Enlisted Symposium attendees tour Lexington-Concord, Mass., March 13, 2019 (Dave Wilkinson / Massachusetts National Guard)

Considering his values of training and preparedness, it makes sense that the National Guard and Air National Guard would use Davis’ likeness on their logo. In fact, the image is so popular that in 2019 the National Guard caused a stir when it unveiled a new logo that did not include the long-haired militia man. The new logo was never meant to replace the minute man, a spokesman explained at the time.

Though thousands of men and women have died in service to America since Davis, he will always be among the first.

“There can never be but one man who headed the first column of attack on the King’s troops in the Revolutionary War,” said Reverend Woodbury in 1851, according to HistoryNet. “And Isaac Davis was that man.”

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