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Boston Massacre Trials: 1770 - Snowballs, Then Musket Balls Fly

crowd soldiers preston white

The series of events that led to the confrontation on March 5, 1770, apparently began with a nasty exchange between Private Patrick Walker of the 29th Regiment and William Green, a local rope-maker.

Soldiers of low rank routinely augmented their meager salaries with odd jobs. As Walker passed Green on March 2, the rope-maker asked the soldier if he wanted work. When Walker said yes, Green replied, "Well, then go and clean my shithouse." Insulted, Walker swore revenge. He walked away and, in'a few minutes, returned with several other soldiers.

A fight ensued between the soldiers and the rope-makers, who had rallied around Green. Clubs and sticks were used, as well as fists. The rope-makers routed the soldiers.

But the lull in the fighting was brief. Skirmishes popped up over the next two days. Rumors flew and tensions mounted. The commander of the 29th Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Carr, wrote to Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson to complain of the abuse his men were forced to endure from the citizens of Boston. On March 5, Hutchinson put the letter before the Governor's Council. The unanimous reply was that the people of the town would not be satisfied until the troops were removed.

The evening of the fifth was cold, and a foot of snow lay on the ground. When a wig-maker's apprentice named Edward Garrick insulted Private Hugh White, who was stationed at a sentry box near the Main Guard, the army's headquarters, White struck Garrick on the head with a musket. Nevertheless, other apprentices continued to bait White and throw snowballs at him.

Periodically, cries of "fire" could be heard in the streets, although no buildings were burning that night. Soldiers passed up and down Brattle Street carrying clubs, bayonets, and other weapons. In Boylston's Alley, a battle of snowballs and insults was quelled by a passing officer, who led the troops to nearby Murray's barracks and told their junior officers to confine them. Outside the barracks, a few more words were exchanged before Richard Palmes, a Boston merchant, persuaded many members of the crowd to go home. But some of the crowd shouted that they should go "away to the Main Guard."

At about the same time, some 200 people gathered in an area called Dock Square. More people joined them as groups flowed in from Boston's North End. Some came carrying cudgels. Others picked up whatever weapons they could find in the square. The crowd eventually gathered around a tall man whose words evidently sent the crowd to the Main Guard.

Meanwhile, Private Hugh White retreated from his sentry box near the Main Guard to the steps of the Custom House. From there, he threatened to fire on the approaching crowd and called for the assistance of other soldiers.

When word of the sentry's predicament reached Captain Thomas Preston, he led a small contingent from the 29th Regiment to White's rescue. With bayonets affixed, two columns of men managed to reach the beleaguered Private White. When the soldiers prepared to retrace their route, the prospect of retreating through the menacing crowd appeared more daunting. The soldiers positioned themselves in a rough semicircle, facing the crowd with their captain just in front of them. Their muskets were loaded. Some in the crowd flung angry words and taunts to fire. Finally, someone hurled a club, knocking down soldier Hugh Montgomery. He got to his feet, and a cry was heard to fire. Montgomery fired one shot. No one seemed to be hit and the crowd pulled away a little from the troops. There was a pause during which Captain Preston might have given an order to cease firing. The pause between the first and the subsequent shots could have been as little as six seconds or as much as two minutes, according to witnesses' accounts.

However long the pause, the troops commenced firing. Confusion ensued. Most people in the crowd believed the soldiers were firing only powder, not bullets. But two men were hit almost immediately. Samuel Gray fell with a hole in his head. A tall, burly sailor known as Michael Johnson (true name Crispus Attucks), variously described as black, mulatto, or Indian, took two bullets in the chest. As some members of the crowd surged forward to prevent further firing, another sailor, James Caldwell, was hit.

A ricocheting bullet struck 17-year-old Samuel Maverick as he ran toward the Town House. He died several hours later at his mother's boarding house. The fifth fatality was Patrick Carr. Struck in the hip by a bullet that "tore away part of the backbone," he lingered until the 14th of March. Carr's dying testimony later helped bolster the defense attorneys' claim that the soldiers fired in self-defense.

Captain Preston yelled at his men, demanding to know why they had fired. The reply was they thought he ordered them to shoot when they had heard the word "fire." As the crowd, which had fallen back, began to help those who had fallen, the troops again raised their muskets. Preston commanded them to cease fire and went down the line pushing up their musket barrels. The crowd dispersed, carrying the wounded, the dying, and the dead. Captain Preston and his men marched back to the Main Guard. The Boston Massacre was over. Although the city did not quiet, there were no more deadly altercations.

Following a brusque interview with Captain Preston, Royal Governor Hutchinson made his way to the council room of the town hall. Addressing the crowd from a balcony, Hutchinson promised a full inquiry and asked the townspeople to go home. He said, "The law shall have its course; I will live and die by the law." Thus, the Crown undertook an investigation into the Boston Massacre.

Boston Massacre Trials: 1770 - The Redcoats Are Indicted [next]

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