The Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770, when a squad of British soldiers came to the aid of a lone sentry who was being heckled and pelted with snowballs from an unruly mob. The British soldiers fired a volley of shots into the crowd of colonists, killing five, three immediately died on the scene and the other two died later of their wounds.

One of the dead was a free man of African-American heritage, Crispus Attucks. Eight British soldiers were arrested along with the officer in charge, Captain Thomas Preston as well as four civilians and charged with manslaughter. Six of the soldiers including Preston were acquitted, two were found guilty but had their sentences reduced to the branding of their thumbs with an “M” for manslaughter.

One interesting footnote for the trial was the fact that the British soldiers were defended by one of the most staunch Patriots (as they were called as opposed to Loyalists) against the British but he insisted that the soldiers receive a fair trial to show impartiality. And therefore no further retaliatory moves by the British against the Patriot cause.

However, colonists were further moved to action by this event which was illustrated by Paul Revere, but was inflammatory and not quite true. In his illustration, Revere showed the British troops on-line and firing under the command of their officer (Preston). When in fact the soldiers fired in absence of orders and haphazardly, not in unison.  

Boston Becomes a Hot-Spot: Rising tensions in the British colony of Massachusetts had been building since 1768. Boston was one of the main shipping ports for the British into the American colonies and because of that, was the hub of resistance against unfair British taxation on the colonists by Parliament in the 1760s.

In 1768, the Townshend Acts, which, after the “Stamp Act”, began the era of “Taxation Without Representation” was placed upon the colonists, where a variety of common items that were manufactured in Britain and exported to the colonies were subjected to import tariffs. Colonists objected that the Townshend Acts were a violation of the natural, charter, and constitutional rights of British subjects in the colonies. And that was just the beginning.

The colonists called for action and the Massachusetts House of Representatives drafted a document called the “Massachusetts Circular Letter” where they demanded that Parliament rescind the Townshend Acts by sending a letter directly to King George. The letter was sent to the other colonial assemblies asking them to join in boycotting any British merchants who imported these goods.

Back in London, Lord Hillsborough, the new Colonial Secretary directed all colonial governors to order all colonial assemblies to dissolve if they answered the Massachusetts Circular Letter and ordered the Mass. House to rescind the letter thru the Governor Francis Bernard. The Mass. House refused.

The British then sent the HMS Romney, a fifty-gun warship into Boston Harbor as a show of force. Tensions increased when the sailors began impressing colonist sailors into Navy service and then seized the merchant ship “Liberty” a sloop belonging to John Hancock which was accused of smuggling.

Bostonians, angered to the point of rioting, scared the British officials to the extent that they retreated to Castle William and called for the army. General Gage was dispatched to send “such Force as You shall think necessary to Boston” to quell the rioting. He sent four regiments of infantry there. Two were later withdrawn but two, the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot stayed and were quartered in the town.

The fact that the British soldiers had been billeted in Boston was a further thorn for the colonists. Tension continued to simmer under the surface until the cold March night of March 5, 1770, when an innocuous interaction began a deadly series of events.

The old state house in Boston, the round disk in the sidewalk is the spot where the British shot the colonists during the Boston Massacre.

As was customary a British soldier stood on guard duty outside the Custom-house on King Street, which today is known as State Street. The private Hugh White was alone. Then a young wigmaker’s apprentice named Edward Garrick recognized a British officer and yelled to him in the street that the officer hadn’t paid his bill to Garrick’s boss. Which was incorrect, the Captain in question had paid it. But that began a snowball effect.

White yelled at Garrick that he should show more respect to an officer of the Crown. The two men began hurling insults at one another. Garrick began to poke White in the chest with his finger while continuing to insult the soldier. White then struck Garrick on the side of his head with a musket, what today is commonly referred to as a “Butt stroke.”

This attracted a larger crowd including a 19-year old bookseller named Henry Knox who would later become a General in the army with General George Washington. The crowd was becoming more boisterous and when church bells rang, usually signaling a fire, the crowd swelled to fifty.

The crowd was led by Crispus Attucks and they pelted White with snowballs and insults and he retreated to a somewhat safer but still exposed position on the steps of the Custom House. Sensing imminent danger, White called for assistance. Captain Thomas Preston, commander of the guard watch sent a non-commissioned officer and six enlisted men, Corporal William Wemms, Hugh Montgomery, John Carroll, William McCauley, William Warren, and Matthew Kilroy to assist and if need be protect Private White and the Custom House.

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The crowd, by now swelled to 300-400 townspeople grew more threatening. The soldiers formed a semi-circle around the steps of the Custom House and loaded their weapons. Knox, by now seeing what was transpiring, begged Preston to diffuse the situation. Preston said he was aware of it and ordered the crowd to disperse.

But the mob of colonists, their boldness fueled by their numbers refused to heed the warnings. Now there were no longer just snowballs being thrown as other objects began to pelt the British soldiers. One object knocked  Private Hugh Montgomery, down and causing him to drop his musket. He recovered his weapon, and upon standing, panicked and despite no order given to fire, discharged his weapon into the crowd. A colonist swung a cudgel at Montgomery hitting him on his arm and swung wildly at Preston, narrowly missing the Captain’s head and striking he too on the arm.

The rest of the British troops outnumbered 50-1 panicked as well. Seconds later, a series of shots, not a volley rang thru the streets of Boston. Preston never gave the order to fire. In the volley of fire at close range, three colonists died instantly. Ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks went down in the street. In the back of the mob, an unlucky 17-year old apprentice ivory turner named Samuel Maverick was struck by a ricocheting musket ball and died a few hours later. Another wounded man, Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant lingered for two weeks before succumbing to his injuries. 

Captain Preston immediately called out for reinforcements and the majority of the 29th Regiment of Foot was called out to surround the Custom House and restore order. The mob had swelled further but had retreated a block or two from the Custom House. Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson spoke from the balcony and restored order to a small degree but assured colonists that there would be an inquiry into the events.

In the aftermath of the violence, both sides produced propaganda pieces that greatly aided their side of the events. And it only further inflamed passions on both sides. The soldiers and Preston were arrested and were to be charged

In an effort to demonstrate the impartiality of colonial courts, and not to lose moderate support for the cause, two Patriot leaders, John Adams and Josiah Quincy, volunteered to defend Captain Preston and his men. Preston had himself requested that Adams defend the British soldiers. Adams wrote about the trial later and gave his thoughts:

The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.

Adams presented a compelling case that the mob, not the British soldiers incited the violence, calling them a “motley rabble” and that the soldiers rightly feared for their lives. The jury agreed and found six innocent, two were convicted of manslaughter because there was testimony that they had fired directly into the crowd. The punishment was reduced to branding their thumbs in open court.

Preston was tried separately and acquitted as there was clear evidence that he never gave the order to open fire on the colonists. The four civilians were also tried separately, later in December of 1770 and also acquitted. But by then, public interest had waned and no one wanted to continue the trial any further.

The Boston Massacre was one of the most important events that led to the American Revolution against the British. Both John and Samuel Adams wrote that the events of March 5, 1770, coupled with the Boston Tea Party, would vault America into a state of Revolution against the British. It would be five years later in April 1775, just outside of Boston in the two tiny villages of Lexington and Concord, where the colonists would be drawn into open warfare against the British.

Coincidentally, six years to the day of the Boston Massacre, the British would have to evacuate Boston after George Washington made a brilliant maneuver and moved artillery into the town at Dorchester Heights, threatening the British position. Boston was spared without a shot being fired.

Photo/Illustration: Wikipedia