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The 240th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre

We all know the basic facts about the Boston Massacre.  On March 5, 1770, a small contingent of British troops fired on an antagonistic crowd, killing five and wounding an additional six.  Blood darkened the snow on King Street and permanently stained the memories of Boston citizens.  The story didn’t end there, of course.  The massacre was an outrage that galvanized support for rebellion and then for revolution.  But nor did it start there.

Two years earlier a distant British ministry—prompted by a panicky Massachusetts governor and customs officials—decided to send four regiments to Boston, roughly 2,000 men.  The force was overwhelming; during the occupation, one third of adult males in Boston were British soldiers.  Their ostensible purpose was to enforce the law.  Their larger goal was to put Boston in its place and through shock and awe to convince the citizenry that they were indeed subordinate.  The ministry gave little attention to local conditions and possible consequences.

The troops landed in Boston on October 1, 1768, and conflict was almost immediate.  To secure British buildings (including barracks, officer quarters, and the Custom House) and to prevent deserters from leaving the area, the military created guard posts throughout the town.  The residents were unprepared for the imposition of strangers who slowed their progress and inspected their goods.  Resentment built, tempers flared, and Bostonians—even those loyal to the Crown—came to realize that they were being treated not as fellow citizens but as enemies of the Empire.

The soldiers were no more happy living in this unwelcoming place.  Poorly paid, often lonely, many of them sought solace in drink and paid companionship.  Drunkenness occasionally led to assaults on townspeople and lewd remarks.  A few soldiers engaged in robberies and burglaries, and many competed with townspeople for part-time work.

Most Bostonians sought to portray themselves as a peaceful people who had been misrepresented by the governor and other Crown officials.  But they could not contain all the resentment. Young men were in the forefront of provocateurs.  Typically they limited themselves to insulting sentries (“Bloody backed Scoundrel!”) but sometimes snowballs and brickbats accompanied their words.

After seventeen months of occupation, a tragic conflict was not inevitable, but it was increasingly likely.  On Friday afternoon, March 2, a scuffle broke out between some rope workers and several soldiers from the 29th Regiment.  Usually such an altercation ended when the antagonists separated, but this time pent-up tensions sizzled through the weekend.  By Monday, March 5, widespread rumors predicted a fight that evening.

In 1770 Boston had no streetlights, but it was a clear night and the moon off the foot-deep snow even produced shadows.  Small groups of soldiers and townspeople scurried from place to place.  Still, it was a fairly placid evening until some young apprentices began an argument with the sentry posted outside the Custom House.  A few blocks away another confrontation commenced outside the barracks near Dock Square.  Shortly after nine o’clock, a crowd of thirty people formed on King Street near the sentry.  Fearing for the sentry’s safety, the main guard dispatched a contingent of seven grenadiers under the command of Captain Thomas Preston.  The crowd grew to approximately 125 people.  The soldiers loaded their muskets, taunts and snowballs filled the air, and Private Hugh Montgomery accidentally discharged his weapon.  The other soldiers, a few quite likely with specific targets, then fired theirs.  Amid the dead, dying, and wounded, Preston eventually halted the soldiers’ riot and led them away before there was retaliation.

Within a day the acting governor of Massachusetts, town authorities, and the commanding officer of the regiments negotiated an agreement that would remove the troops from Boston.  Within a month the occupation was over.  Its effects—particularly the radicalization of the population—were more profound than the other act of rebellion to which Boston has attached its name, the Tea Party, which by comparison was exactly that.