The Massacre That Wasn’t

The most common perceptions are that on March 5th, 1770, the British soldiers fired into a crowd of Bostonians without provocation. Ultimately, 11 people were wounded, and five died, but a massacre it wasn’t.

So what happened? In 1770 Boston, the atmosphere was tense. British rule was becoming more and more unpopular every day. If it wasn’t taxes, it was the efforts by Lord Hillsborough to have all the colonial assemblies dissolved. With each act of Parliament, the list got longer.

The afternoon of March 5th, 1770, started with a mob of 30 – 40 Bostonians were harassing Private Hugh White who was a sentry outside the Boston Customs House. Wigmaker Apprentice Edward Garrick got into a shouting match with White’s superior officer, Captain John Goldfinch. Others bellowed insults at White.

The rocks and insults continued, and White retreated to the top step of the Customs House. Alerted that the mob was threatening one of his soldiers, Captain Thomas Preston, a corporal, and five other soldiers pushed through the crowd to reinforce White.

Along the way, an 18-year-old bookseller named Henry Knox (later a Revolutionary War general) told Preston, “If his soldiers fire, you must die.” Preston responded by saying he was aware of the tense situation.

While his men loaded their muskets and fixed their bayonets, Preston yelled at the crowd to disperse. His shouts were met with more insults, stones, and snowballs.

Many in the crowd were daring the British soldiers to fire. Some even yelled the word “Fire.” Private Hugh Montgomery was knocked down rock thrown by someone in the mob. When Montgomery stood back up, he fired into the crowd. Within a minute or so, the other soldiers and Loyalists inside the Customs House fired a ragged volley hitting eleven Bostonians.

Sensing a riot, Preston called out the rest of the 29th Regiment of Foot to restore order. The crowd backed away and Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson managed to get the mob to disperse after promising a thorough investigation. Ultimately, five Bostonians died.

The next day, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams began calling the incident a massacre. A media battle ensued; Loyalists defended the British Army’s actions. Patriots called it a massacre and wanted the British soldiers and those who fired from the customs house tried for murder.

Hutchinson was true to his word. When the trial of the eight soldiers began on November 27th, 1770, they were defended by John Adams, the future second President of the United States. In addition to the soldiers, the trial of four members of the mob began in December 1770.

All but two of the British soldiers were acquitted as were the civilians. The two soldiers who were convicted were given a sentence in which their thumbs had to be branded.

Nonetheless, the incident was a clear indication that rebellion was in the air and the British were dealing with a powder keg. On April 19th, 1775, Five years and a month later, the British Army marched out of Boston to seize weapons and ammunition. The rest, as they say, is history.

Image is Henry Pelham’s engraving of the Boston Massacre that was copied by Paul Revere.


  1. Phillip on March 18, 2023 at 8:44 am

    According to this account, there were nine British soldiers on the scene when the shootings took place (Hugh White + his superior officer, Capt. Preston + corporal + 5 other soldiers). To kill five and wound eleven colonists means the soldiers had to reload their guns at least once, maybe more. You would think the colonists would have cleared out after the first round of shots (volley?) but they apparently stood their ground. The soldiers retreated into the building but kept firing. Nine soldiers with guns, behind shelter versus 30 people throwing rocks? Yeah, it was a massacre.

    • Marc Liebman on March 19, 2023 at 3:45 pm

      Actually, when you read all the stuff about the incident, Loyalists in the Customs House fired a bunch of shots. How many depends on what account you read. As far as the number killed, to me, five isn’t enough. How many, good question. To me a massacre is when someone comes into a room or building and opens fire for little or no apparent reason and kills a bunch of people.

      The real issue here is that the British soldiers were threatened, harassed, insulted, you name it to goad them into shooting. And finally, they did. To me, this is like playing with a open pot of gasoline with a lit match. While I do not absolve the British soldiers of any fault, a jury of their peers did.

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