In the Spring of 1770, the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment was sent to Boston, to reinforce the Garrison. Although America was still then a British colony, over the last few years the City had been a hot-bed of anti-British and anti-Government feelings, and in early March, disorder increased, with assaults upon soldiers becoming frequent.
On the 5th of March, severe disturbances broke out in the town, with attacks on merchants and barracks throughout the City. Between 7 and 8 p.m. in the evening, large mobs descended on the Custom House, a symbol of unpopular British taxes.
The Custom House, on King Street, was guarded by the 29th, although only one sentry, Private Hugh White, was on duty outside. The mob closed in, pelting the sentry with snowballs, rocks and pieces of wood. The guard commander, Captain Thomas Preston, saw the attack and called out the rest of the guard comprising – Lieutenant Bassett, a corporal and six men. They lined up to protect both the sentry and the Custom House, which contained a considerable sum of Government revenue.
The mob kept closing in, though, now numbering over a hundred persons. In another attempt to scare the crowd into leaving, Preston ordered his men to load their muskets and fix their bayonets. Still the mob closed in, shouting insults and threats and hurling missiles at the soldiers. A huge mulatto (mixed race) man called Crispin Attucks lunged at Captain Preston, glancing off him to hit Private Montgomery, knocking his musket from his hands. Montgomery grabbed it back, but as Attucks got up, he grasped the other end and tried to pull it from his reach. Montgomery, acting through self-defence and confusion (he was dazed, and possibly mistook taunts of “Why don’t you fire?” from the crowd as an order from an officer) pulled his trigger, killing Attucks. The rest of the of the guard then fired too, killing two more people and wounding five, ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, died instantly. Samuel Maverick, an apprentice ivory turner, died a few hours later and Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, died two weeks later. The shots temporarily dispersed the crowd.
They soon came back to gather up the killed and wounded, and only Preston’s quick thinking stopped his men, fearing another assault, from firing again. After the incident, dubbed the ‘Boston Massacre’ by anti-British propaganda, the 29th were forced to leave Boston, to prevent revenge attacks, although Captain Preston and his eight men (but not Lieutenant Bassett) were kept behind and arrested on charges of murder.
The trial of Preston and his men was embroiled in politics. The obvious solution, acquittal on the grounds that they had fired in self-defence after great provocation, would outrage the people of Boston, but on the other hand, how could the British Government hang its own men for upholding the law by firing on a riotous and traitorous mob?
The solution came in the form of a lawyer called John Adams. A Bostonian, and an anti-British one at that, Adams was persuaded to put aside his own views and defend Preston, who was acquitted, and then his men. In their defence Adams argued eloquently and intelligently, cutting through the emotions and politics surrounding the trail, that they had acted justifiably in self-defence. Despite his own anti-British feelings, he argued that what the soldiers had done was right and within the law, and even natural in such circumstances. The jury acquitted all but Montgomery and Kilroy, who were found guilty of manslaughter, and branded on the thumb.
As they left, even the branded soldiers thanked Adams for his efforts in saving their lives and seeing justice done. One even voiced concern for Adam’s safety after such a pro-British act in such a hostile City, but Adams replied that he would be safe.
He was right. Only a few years later, John Adams would sign the Declaration of Independence, and eventually be 2nd President of the United States of America.
The guard picket:
Captain Thomas Preston, Lieutenant Bassett
John Carrol Matthew Kilroy Hugh Montgomery William Wenns
James Hartigan William McCauley William Warren Hugh White