What was the Boston Massacre?

This event was a forerunner of a more serious one a few days afterward. John Gray had an extensive rope-walk in Boston, where a number of patriotic men were employed. They often bandied coarse taunts with the soldiers as they passed by. On Friday, the 2nd of March (1770), a soldier who applied for work at the rope-walk was rudely ordered away. He challenged the men to a boxing-match, when he was severely beaten. Full of wrath he hastened to the barracks, and soon returned with several companions, when they beat the rope-makers and chased them through the streets. The citizens naturally espoused the cause of the rope-makers, and many of them assembled in the afternoon with a determination to avenge the wrongs of the workmen. Mr. Gray and the military authorities interfered, and prevented any further disturbance then. But vengeance only slumbered. It was resolved, by some of the more excitable of the inhabitants, to renew the contest; and at the barracks the soldiers inflamed each other's passions, and prepared bludgeons. They warned their particular friends in the city not to be abroad on Monday night, for there would be serious trouble.

Fresh wet snow had fallen, and on Monday evening, the 5th of March, frost had covered the streets of Boston with a coat of ice. The moon was in its first quarter and shed a pale light over the town, when, at twilight, both citizens and soldiers began to assemble in the streets. By seven o'clock full seven hundred persons, armed with clubs and other weapons, were on King (now State) street, and, provoked by the insolence and brutality of the lawless soldiery, shouted: "Let us drive out these rascals! They have no business here--drive them out!" At the same time parties of soldiers (whom Dalrymple had doubtless released from the barracks for the purpose of provoking the people to commit some act of violence, and so give an excuse for letting loose the dogs of war) were going about the streets boasting of their valor, insulting citizens with coarse words, and striking many of them with sticks and sheathed swords. Meanwhile the populace in the street were increasing in numbers every moment, and at about nine o'clock in the evening, they attacked some soldiers in Dock Square, and shouted: "Town-born, turn out! Down with the bloody-backs!" They tore up the stalls of a market, and used the timber for bludgeons. The soldiers scattered and ran about the streets, knocking people down and raising the fearful cry of Fire! At the barracks on Brattle street, a subaltern at the gate cried out, as the populace gathered there, "Turn out! I will stand by you; knock them down? kill them! run your bayonets through them!" The soldiers rushed out, and, leveling their muskets, threatened to make a lane paved with dead men through the crowd. Just then an officer was crossing the street, when a barber's boy cried out: "There goes a mean fellow, who will not pay my master for shaving him." A sentinel standing near the corner of the Custom-house ran out and knocked the boy down with his musket.

The cry of fire and the riotous behavior of the soldiers caused an alarm-bell to be rung. The whole city was aroused. Many men came out with canes and clubs for self-defence, to learn the occasion of the uproar. Many of the more excitable citizens formed a mob. Some of the leading citizens present tried to persuade them to disperse, and had in a degree gained their respectful attention, when a tall man, covered with a long scarlet cloak and wearing a white wig, suddenly appeared among them, and began a violent harangue against the government officers and the troops. He concluded his inflammatory speech by boldly shouting: "To the main-guard! to the mainguard! There is the nest!" It is believed that the orator in the scarlet cloak was Samuel Adams.

The populace immediately echoed the shout--"To the main-guard!" with fearful vehemence, and separating into three ranks, took different routes toward the quarters of the main-guard. While one division was passing the Custom-house, the barber's boy cried out: "There's the scoundrel who knocked me down!" A score of voices shouted, "Let us knock him down! Down with the bloody-backs! Kill him! kill him!" The crowd instantly began pelting him with snow-balls and bits of ice, and pressed toward him. He raised his musket and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for him it missed fire, when the crowd tried to seize him. He ran up the Custom-house steps, but, unable to enter the building, he called to the main-guard for help. Captain Preston, the officer of the day, sent eight men, with unloaded muskets but with ball-cartridges in their cartouch boxes, to help their beleaguered comrade. At that moment the stout Boston bookseller, Henry Knox (who married the daughter of General Gage's secretary and was a major-general of artillery in the army of the Revolution), holding Preston by the coat, begged him to call the soldiers back. "If they fire," said Knox, "your life must answer for the consequences." Preston nervously answered: "I know what I am about," and followed his men.

When this detachment approached, they, too, were pelted with snow-balls and ice; and Crispus Attucks, a brawny Indian from Nantucket, at the head of some sailors, like himself (who had led the mob in the attack on the soldiers in Dock Square), gave a loud war-whoop and shouted: "Let us fall upon the nest! the main-guard! the main-guard!" The soldiers instantly loaded their guns. Then some of the multitude pressed on them with clubs, struck their muskets and cried out, "You are cowardly rascals for bringing arms against naked men." Attuck shouted: "You dare not fire!" and called upon the mob behind him: "Come on! don't be afraid! They daren't fire! Knock them down! Kill 'em!" Captain Preston came up at that moment and tried to appease the multitude. Attucks aimed a blow at his head with a club, which Preston parried with his arm. It fell upon the musket of one of the soldiers and knocked it to the ground. Attucks seized the bayonet, and a struggle between the Indian and the soldier for the possession of the gun ensued. Voices behind Preston cried out, "Why don't you fire! why don't you fire?" The struggling soldier hearing the word fire, just as he gained possession of his musket, drew up his piece and shot Attucks dead. Five other soldiers fired at short intervals, without being restrained by Preston. Three of the populace were killed, five were severely wounded (two of them mortally), and three were slightly hurt. Of the eleven, only one (Attucks) had actually taken part in the disturbance. The crowd dispersed; and when citizens came to pick up the dead, the infuriated soldiers would have shot them, if the captain had not restrained them.

News of the tragedy spread over the town in a few minutes. It was now near midnight. There was a light in every house, for few besides children had retired on that fearful night in Boston. The alarm-bells were rung. Drums beat to arms. A cry went through the streets--"The soldiers are murdering the people! To arms! to arms! Turn out with your guns!" Preston also ordered his drums to beat to arms. Colonel Dalrymple, with the lieutenant-governor, were soon on the spot and promised the orderly citizens, who had taken the place of the dispersed mob, that justice should be vindicated in the morning. Order was restored, and before the dawn the streets of Boston were quiet. Meanwhile Preston had been arrested and put into prison; and the next morning the eight soldiers were committed--all charged with the crime of murder.

Such is the sad story of the famous "Boston Massacre," gleaned from the conflicting evidence of witnesses at the trial of Preston and his men, and of contemporary writers. The 5th of March was celebrated as a solemn anniversary in the history of the colonies, until after the Declaration of Independence became a national holiday. The killing of citizens was undoubtedly a massacre, for the outrageous conduct of the soldiers created the mob. Their offensive acts on that night were undoubtedly approved by Dalrymple, their commander. It was his duty to keep them in the barracks at a time of popular excitement only, not an insurrection. He must have foreseen the result of their doings, and hoped for an excuse to "begin work in Boston," as he had said before. Such is the verdict of history after a lapse of more than a century.

The event produced a profound impression everywhere. The cause of Boston became the cause of the continent. The story, embellished in its course from lip to lip, became a tale of horrors that stirred the blood of patriots everywhere. It was a crisis in the history of the colonies. Some were disposed to consider the events on that night as forming the principal cause of the Revolution which soon afterward broke out. John Adams said long years afterward: "On that night the foundation of American independence was laid;" and Daniel Webster, when speaking of the event, said: "From that moment we may date the severance of the British empire." The "foundation for the independence of America" was laid long before, when the early colonists began to yearn for the privileges of local self-government; and the "severance of the British empire" was decreed when Andros was driven from New England.

On the morning after the massacre, the Sons of Liberty gathered in great numbers in Faneuil Hall. The lieutenant-governor convened his council, and that afternoon a town-meeting was held in the South Meeting-house (yet standing), then the largest building in the city. The people there resolved "that nothing could be expected to restore peace and prevent carnage, but an immediate removal of the troops." A committee of fifteen, with Samuel Adams as their chairman, were sent the next morning, with that resolution, to Hutchinson and Dalrymple. "The people," said Royal Tyler, one of the committee, "are determined to remove the troops out of the town by force, if they will not go voluntarily. They are not such people as formerly pulled down your house, that conduct these measures, but men of estates--men of religion. The people will come in to us from all the neighboring towns; we shall have ten thousand men at our backs, and your troops will probably be destroyed by the people, be it called rebellion or what it may." Hutchinson replied: "An attack on the king's troops would be high-treason, and every man concerned in it would forfeit his life and estate." The committee renewed the demand for the removal of the troops. The officials would only promise to send one regiment away. This unsatisfactory answer the committee reported to an adjourned town-meeting that afternoon, when it was immediately resolved that it was "the unanimous opinion of the meeting, that the reply made to the vote of the inhabitants, presented to his honor this morning, is by no means satisfactory, and that nothing else will satisfy them but a total and immediate removal of all the troops." Samuel Adams, John Hancock, William Molineux, William Phillips, Joseph Warren, Joshua Henshaw and Samuel Pemberton were appointed to carry this resolution to the civil and military authorities. Adams presented the resolutions. Again the lieutenant-governor and the colonel temporized. Hutchinson said he had no power to remove the troops. Adams proved that he had, by the provisions of the charter. Still the crown-officers hesitated. Adams resolved that there should be no more trifling with the will of the people. Stretching forth his hand toward Hutchinson, and in a voice not loud but clear, he said: "If you have power to remove one regiment, you have power to remove both. It is at your peril if you do not. The meeting is composed of three thousand people. They are become very impatient. A thousand men are already arrived from the neighborhood, and the country is in general motion. Night is approaching; an immediate answer is expected."

This was the voice of the province--of the continent--and the crown-officers knew it. Fear of the angry people and dread of the frowns of the ministry agitated them with conflicting emotions. Hutchinson grew pale; his knees trembled, and Adams afterward said, "I enjoyed the sight." The lieutenant-governor's council had unanimously recommended the removal of the troops; the people demanded it, and after conferring together in a whisper, Hutchinson and Dalrymple agreed to send the troops to Castle William. The committee returned to the meeting with the good news, and the Old South Meeting-house rang with acclamations of joy. The humbled troops were speedily sent out of the town. It was a signal triumph for the people; and the rights of man. These troops had been sent to overawe the people; the people had overawed the troops. The inhabitants kept a strict guard over the prisoners and a vigilant oversight of the troops while they remained, "many of the most respectable citizens appearing as common soldiers" in this duty.

The funeral of the victims of the massacre occurred on the 8th of March. It was made an occasion of a great popular demonstration. Four hearses that bore the bodies of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Maverick, Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, who were murdered on the 5th, met at the spot, in King street, where the tragedy was enacted. Thence they moved to the Middle Burial-ground, followed by an immense concourse of people of all classes and conditions, on foot; and then by a long line of carriage "of the gentry of the town," who occupied them. The bodies were placed in one vault. The newspapers of the country were shrouded in broad black lines. The Boston Gazette, printed on Monday, the 12th of March, was heavily striped with black lines, and contained pictures of four coffins, bearing the initials of the slain and the skull and cross-bones. Long afterward John Adams wrote: "Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis, were more important events in American history than the battle of King street, on the 5th of March, 1770. The death of four or five persons, the most obscure and inconsiderable that could have been found upon the continent, has never yet been forgiven in any part of America."

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