It is one of those historic places in America where a momentous event took place, and its precise spot is marked in front of the Old State House in Boston. Tensions had been escalating since October of 1768 when British soldiers were first dispatched to the city to ensure that the Townshend Acts of 1767 were enforced.
Those acts placed an onerous burden on colonists by taxing the importation of vital products like glass, lead, paints, paper and tea. The soldiers dispatched to Boston were placed there to keep order, but to the colonists they were more like oppressors, impediments to their personal freedom.
Those tasked with collecting those taxes, the Commissioners of Customs, were intimidated enough by angry colonists to request protection. General Thomas Gage agreed and requested troops which came to be numbered around seven hundred. Paul Revere, later known for his famous midnight ride, was already in the thick of the growing resistance movement.
In response to the arrival of British troops in 1768, he made an elaborate engraving with a description of troops who “formed and marched with insolent parade, drums beating, fifes playing, and colours flying, up King Street.” Some of the troops were unable to secure lodging and pitched their tents on the common, which in turn created a stench from camp latrines throughout the city.
Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple wanted his men to be dispatched to live in the homes of local citizens, something that the council in Boston found objectionable. Governor Barnard had devised a plan to punish those who opposed his policies by forcing them to open their homes to soldiers. Instead, troops were housed in empty buildings and factories throughout the city. While not housed in homes of the citizenry, their presence was still cause for unrest and resentment throughout the city.
Troops were placed in front of public buildings and their contemptuous treatment of ordinary citizens was building toward a confrontation sooner or later. By 1770 the simmering pot was about to boil over. On the evening of March 5, a young man named Edward Garrick, shouted an insult at soldier Hugh White who was posted in front of the Customs House.
For his mockery, Garrick was knocked in the head with the butt of White’s rifle. Garrick yelled for help and soon returned with an unruly bunch of like-minded youth. Someone rang the bell of a nearby church and shortly more citizens arrived until a crowd of about four hundred has assembled to defend Garrick. White, meanwhile, was calling for reinforcements but they were still outnumbered by the angry mob.
The mob began throwing snowballs, chunks of ice and other objects, and led by Crispus Attucks, a mulatto, they drew closer to the soldiers. The mob taunted and cursed the soldiers, daring them to fire upon the crowd. Suddenly the soldiers opened fire and immediately killed three men and wounded eight more – two of the wounded would later die. The incident was memorialized by Paul Revere, although not necessarily a true rendition of actual events.
The dispatching officer, Captain Preston, the soldiers he sent and four men inside the Customs House were arrested, indicted for murder and held for trial. Interestingly, one of the well-known patriots of the time, John Adams, offered to defend the soldiers. He must have been a great attorney because Preston and four of his men were found not guilty. Two soldiers found guilty of manslaughter received only a branding on their hands and released.
Looking back at the incident, which was later referred to as the “Boston Massacre”, has caused many to proclaim that a snowball fight ignited the spark which led to the Revolutionary War. It did compel the British to remove troops from Boston. However, the incident paled in comparison to the Battle of Bunker Hill which occurred five years later. But, it did give patriots like Paul Revere and Samuel Adams a reason to keep the citizenry stirred up.
There is a Boston Massacre Historical Society web site which tells the story of the incident, including a detailed description, an alternative view and the British view. The society admits that the incident certainly increased hatred for the British, but they believe that Revere and Adams were glad that a few colonists lost their lives – it would be a useful propaganda tool – or as they note: “whenever the word propaganda is used it means the truth is stretched.”
Do you think the Boston Massacre Historical Society’s views are correct? If Revere and Adams and others like them hadn’t kept the citizenry stirred up, what would have happened? Would they (or should they) somehow have eventually acquiesced and submitted to British tyranny? Something to think about, eh?
An interesting footnote to this incident. A nineteenth century lithograph (pictured above), a variation of Revere’s engraving and produced just before the Civil War, became a rallying cry for abolitionists. In that piece, mulatto Crispus Atticus is featured prominently.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.