Background of the American Revolution
Following turmoil over several unpopular revenue acts, the British establish a strong military presence in Boston.
I have been in constant panic, since I heard of troops assembling in Boston, lest the madness of mobs, or the interference of soldiers, or both, when too near each other, might occasion some mischief difficult to be prevented or repaired, and which might spread far and wide—Benjamin Franklin.
The Night of March 5, 1770—Boston.
A summary of facts with a reconciliaton of discordant statements developed in the evidence detailed during the course of the trial of the soldiers charged with the events of the Boston Massacre. As reported by Richard Frothingham in the Life and Times of Joseph Warren:
Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770.
THERE was a layer of ice on the ground, a slight fall of snow during the day, and a young moon in the evening. At an early hour, as though something uncommon was expected, parties of boys, apprentices, and soldiers, strolled through the streets; and neither side was sparing of insult. Ten or twelve soldiers went from the main guard in King Street, across this street to Murray’s Barracks in Brattle Street, about three hundred yards from King Street; and another party came out of these barracks, armed with clubs and cutlasses bent on a stroll. A little after eight o’clock quite a crowd collected near Brattle Street Church, many of whom had canes and sticks. After wretched abuse was bantered on both sides, things grew into a fight. As it became more and more threatening, a few Northenders ran to the Old Brick Meeting House, on what is now Washington Street at the head of King Street, and lifted a boy into a window, who rung the bell. About the same time, Captain Goldfinch of the army, who was on his way to Murray’s Barracks, crossed King Street near the Custom House, at the corner of Exchange Lane (now Exchange Street), where a sentinel had long been stationed. The captain as he was passing was taunted by a barber’s apprentice, as a mean fellow, for not paying for dressing his hair; when the sentinel ran after the boy, and gave him a severe blow with his musket. The boy went away crying, and told several persons of the assault; while the captain went towards Murray’s Barracks, but found the passage into the yard obstructed by the affray going on there, the crowd pelting the soldiers with snowballs, and the latter defending themselves. Being the senior officer, he ordered the men into the barracks; the gate of the yard was then shut, and the promise made that no more men should be let out that evening. In that way the affray here was effectually stopped.
For a little time, perhaps twenty minutes, there was nothing to attract to a centre the people who were drawn by the alarm bell out of their homes on this frosty moonlit memorable evening; and in various places people were asking where the fire was. King Street—then as now, the commercial centre of Boston—was quiet. A group was standing before the main guard with fire bags and buckets in their hands, a few persons were moving along in other parts of the street, while the sentinel at the Custom House, with his fire lock on his shoulder, was pacing his beat quite unmolested. In Dock Square, a small gathering, mostly participants in the affray just over, were harangued by a tall large man, who wore a red cloak and a white wig; and, as he closed there was a hurrah, and the cry, ‘To the main guard!—That is the nest!’ But no assault was made on the guard. The word went round that there was no fire, ‘only a rumpus with the soldiers,’ who had been driven to their quarters, and well disposed citizens as they withdrew were saying, ‘Every man to his home!’
But at about fifteen minutes past nine an excited party passed up Royal Exchange Lane, leading into King street; and as they came near the Custom House, on the corner, one of the number who knew of the assault on the apprentice boy said, ‘Here is the soldier who did it!’ when they gathered round the sentinel. The barber now came up and said: ‘This is the soldier who knocked me down with the butt end of his musket.’ Some now said: ‘Kill him! knock him down!’ The sentinel moved back up the steps of the Custom House, and loaded his gun.
Missiles were thrown at him, when he presented his musket, warned the party to keep off, and called for help. Some one ran to Captain Preston, the officer of the day, and informed him that the people were about to assault the sentinel, when he hastened to the main guard, on the opposite side of the street, about forty rods from the Custom House, and sent a sergeant, a very young officer, with a file of seven men to protect the sentinel. They went over on a kind of trot, using rough words and actions towards those who went with them, and coming near the party round the sentinel, rudely pushed them aside, pricking some with their bayonets, and formed in a hay circle near the sentry box. The sentry now came down the steps and fell in with the file, when they were ordered to prime and load. Captain Preston almost immediately joined his men; the file now numbered nine.
The number of people at this time is variously stated from thirty to a hundred ‘between fifty and sixty’ being the most common enumeration. Some of them were fresh from the affray at the barracks, and some of the soldiers had been in the affray at the ropewalk. There was aggravation on both sides. The crowd was unarmed or had but sticks, which they struck defiantly against each other; having no definite object, and doing no greater mischief than in retaliation of uncalled for military roughness, to throw snowballs, hurrah, whistle through their fingers, use oaths and foul language, call the soldiery names, hustle them, and dare them to fire. One of the file was struck with a stick. There were good men trying to prevent a riot, and some assured the soldiers that they would not be hurt. Among others, Henry Knox, subsequently the general, was present, who saw nothing to justify the use of firearms, and with others remonstrated against the use of them; but Captain Preston, as he was talking with Knox, saw his men pressing the people with their bayonets, when in great agitation he rushed in among them.
Then with or without orders, but certainly without any legal form or warning, seven of the file, one after another, discharged their muskets upon the citizens, and the result indicates the malignity and precision of their aim. Crispus Attucks, an intrepid mulatto, who was a leader in the affray at Murray’s Barracks, was killed as he stood leaning with his breast resting on a stout cordwood stick; Samuel Gray, one of the rope makers, was shot as he stood with his hands in his bosom, and just as he had said, ‘My lads they will not fire;’ Patrick Carr left his house on hearing the alarm bell, and was mortally wounded as he was crossing the street; James Caldwell, in like manner, summoned from his home, was killed as he was standing in the middle of the street; Samuel Maverick, a lad of seventeen, ran out of the house at the alarm of fire, and was shot as he was crossing the street; six others were wounded. But fifteen minutes had elapsed from the time the sergeant went from the main guard to the time of firing. The people on the report of the guns fell back, but immediately returned for the killed and wounded, when the infuriated soldiers prepared to fire again; but checked by Captain Preston were withdrawn across the street to the main guard. The drums beat; several companies of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment, under Colonel Carr, promptly appeared, and were formed in three divisions before the main guard; the front division near the north-east corner of the Town House in the kneeling position for street firing. The Fourteenth regiment were ordered under arms, but remained at their barracks.
The report now spread that ‘the troops had risen on the people,’ and the beat of drums, the church bell, and the cry of fire, summoned from their homes the inhabitants, who hastened to the place of alarm. In a few moments thousands collected, and the cry was ‘To arms, to arms!’ The whole town was in confusion; while in King Street, there was now what the patriots had so long predicted, dreaded and endeavored to avert—an indignant population and an exasperated soldiery face to face. The excitement was terrible. The care of the popular leaders for their cause, since the mob days of the Stamp Act, had been like the care of their personal honor; it drew them forth as the prompt and brave controlling power in every crisis, and they were among the concourse on this ‘night of consternation.’ Warren, early on the ground to act the good physician, as well as the fearless patriot, gives the impression produced on himself and his colaborers as they saw the first blood flowing that was shed for ‘ American liberty.’ ‘The horrors,’ he says, ‘of that dreadful night are but too deeply impressed on our hearts. Language is too feeble to paint the emotions of our souls, when our streets were stained with the blood of our brethren, when our ears were wounded by the groans of the dying, and our eyes were tormented by the sight of the mangled bodies of the dead. . . . Our hearts beat to arms. We snatched our weapons, almost resolved by one decisive stroke, to avenge the death of our slaughtered brethren and to secure from future danger all that we hold dear.’
Meantime, the lieutenant-governor at his residence in North Square, heard the sound of the church bell near by, and supposed it was an alarm of fire. But soon at nearly ten o’clock a number of the inhabitants came running into his house, entreating him to go to King Street immediately; ‘otherwise,’ they said, ‘the town would be all in blood.’ He immediately started for the scene of danger. On his way in the Market Place (Dock Square) he found himself amidst a great body of people, some armed with clubs, others with cutlasses, and all calling for firearms.
He made himself known to them, but pleaded in vain for a hearing, and to insure his safety he retreated into a dwelling house, and then went by a private way into King Street, where he found an excited multitude anxiously awaiting his arrival. He first called for Captain Preston, and a natural indignation at a high handed act is expressed in the stern and searching questions which the civilian put to the soldier bearing on the vital point of the subordination of the military to the civil power.
‘Are you the commanding officer?’ — ‘Yes sir.’ — ‘Do you know, sir, you have no power to fire on any body of the people collected together, except you have a civil magistrate with you to give orders?’ Captain Preston replied, ‘I was obliged to, to save the sentry.’ So great was the confusion that Preston’s reply was heard but by a few. The cry was raised ‘To the Town House, to the Town House!’ when Hutchinson, by the irresistible force of the crowd, was forced into the building and up to the council chamber, and in a few minutes he appeared on the balcony. Near him were prominent citizens, both Tories and Whigs; below him on the one side were his indignant townsmen, who had conferred on him every honor in their power, and on the other side the soldiers in defiant attitude. He could speak with eloquence and power; throughout this trying scene he bore himself with dignity and self-possession, and as in the stillness of night he expressed great concern at the unhappy event, and made solemn pledges to the people. His tone must have been uncommonly earnest. ‘The law,’ he averred, ‘should have its course; he would live and die by the law.’
He promised to order an inquiry in the morning, and requested all to retire to their homes. But words were now not satisfactory to the people, and those near him urged, that the course of justice had always been evaded or obstructed in favor of the soldiery, and that the people were determined not to disperse until Captain Preson was arrested. In consequence, Hutchinson immediately ordered a court of inquiry. The patriots also entreated the lieutenant governor to order the troops to the barracks. He replied it was not in his power to give such an order; but he would consult the officers.
They now came upon the balcony,—Dalrymple of the Fourteenth Regiment being present; and after an interview with Hutchinson he returned to the troops. The men now rose from their kneeling posture; the order to ‘Shoulder arms!’ was heard, and the people were greatly relieved by seeing the troops move towards their barracks.
The people now began slowly and sullenly to disperse. Meanwhile the court of inquiry on Captain Preston was in session, and after an examination which lasted three hours, he was bound over for trial. Later the soldiers were also arrested.
It was three o’clock in the morning before the lieutenant governor left the scene of the massacre. And now all excepting about a hundred of the people, who had formed themselves into watch, left the streets. Thus, wise action by the crown officials, the activity of the popular leaders, and the habitual respect for law in the people proved successful in preventing further carnage.
- ☞ A Narrative of the Late Massacre
- ☞ John Adams: Defense of the British Soldiers—I
- ☞ John Adams: Defense of the British Soldiers—II