The Boston Massacre
S OLDIERS who would be mean enough to bother little boys as these soldiers had done, would be pretty sure to get into trouble with the citizens by their mean acts.
They had entered the town, one quiet Sabbath morning, but instead of coming in quietly and doing whatever was necessary to do in a quiet way, they came in with colors flying, and drums beating, as if, for all the world, they had conquered the city. Then, as if this were not insult enough, they took possession of the State House, and then marched to the Common, where they set up their tents, planted their cannon, and indicated to the enraged citizens, in every way, that they were going to stay.
Frequent quarrels took place between these soldiers and the people. One day they fell into an "out-and-out" fight.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, an author who has written such beautiful stories for you children,—The Snow Image; A Wonder Book; Grandfather's Chair, etc.,—gives the following account of the Boston Massacre:
It was now the 3d of March, 1770. The sunset music of the British regiments was heard as usual throughout the town. The shrill fife and rattling drum awoke the echoes in King street, while the last ray of sunshine was lingering on the cupola of the town-house. And now all the sentinels were posted. One of them marched up and down before the custom-house, treading a short path through the snow, and longing for the time when he would be dismissed to the warm fireside of the guard-room.
In the course of the evening there were two or three slight commotions, which seemed to indicate that trouble was at hand. Small parties of young men stood at the corners of the street, or walked along the narrow pavements. Squads of soldiers, who were dismissed from duty, passed by them, shoulder to shoulder, with the regular step which they had learned at the drill. Whenever these encounters took place, it appeared to be the object of the young men to treat the soldiers with as much incivility as possible.
"Turn out, you lobster-back!" one would say. "Crowd them off the side-walks!" another would cry. "A redcoat has no right in Boston streets." "Oh, you rebel rascals!" perhaps the soldiers would reply, glaring fiercely at the young men. "Some day or other we'll make our way through Boston streets at the point of the bayonet!"
Once or twice such disputes as these brought on a scuffle; which passed off, however, without attracting much notice. About eight o'clock, for some unknown cause, an alarm-bell rang loudly and hurriedly. At the sound many people ran out of their houses, supposing it to be an alarm of fire. But there were no flames to be seen, nor was there any smell of smoke in the clear, frosty air; so that most of the townsmen went back to their own firesides. Others, who were younger and less prudent, remained in the streets.
Later in the evening, not far from nine o'clock, several young men passed down King street, toward the custom-house. When they drew near the sentinel, he halted on his post, and took his musket from his shoulder, ready to present the bayonet at their breasts. "Who goes there?" he cried in the gruff tone of a soldier's challenge. The young men, being Boston boys, felt as they had a right to walk in their own streets without being accountable to a British red-coat. They made some rude answer to the sentinel. There was a dispute, or perhaps a scuffle. Other soldiers heard the noise, and ran hastily from the barracks to assist their comrade.
At the same time many of the townspeople rushed into King street by various avenues, and gathered in a crowd about the custom-house. It seemed wonderful how such a multitude had started up all of a sudden. The wrongs and insults which the people had been suffering for many months now kindled them into a rage. They threw snowballs and lumps of ice at the soldiers. As the tumult grew louder, it reached the ears of Captain Preston, the officer of the day. He immediately ordered eight soldiers of the main guard to take their muskets and follow him. They marched across the street, forcing their way roughly through the crowd, and pricking the townspeople with their bayonets.
A gentleman (it was Henry Knox, afterwards general of the American Artillery) caught Captain Preston's arm. "For heaven's sake, sir," exclaimed he, "take heed what you do, or there will be bloodshed!" "Stand aside!" answered Captain Preston, haughtily; "do not interfere, sir. Leave me to manage the affair." Arriving at the sentinel's post, Captain Preston drew up his men in a semicircle, with their faces to the crowd. When the people saw the officer, and beheld the threatening attitude with which the soldiers fronted them, their rage became almost uncontrollable.
"Fire, you lobster-backs!" bellowed some. "You dare not fire, you cowardly red-coats," cried others. "Rush upon them," shouted many voices. "Drive the rascals to their barracks! Down with them! Down with them!"
"Let them fire if they dare!" Amid the uproar, the soldiers stood glaring at the people with the fierceness of men whose trade was to shed blood.
Oh, what a crisis had now arrived! Up to this very moment the angry feelings between England and America might have been pacified. England had but to stretch out the hand of reconciliation, and acknowledge that she had hitherto mistaken her rights, but would do so no more. Then the ancient bonds of brotherhood would again have been knit together as firmly as in old times. But, should the king's soldiers shed one drop of American blood, then it was a quarrel to the death. Never, never would America rest satisfied, until she had torn down royal authority, and trampled it in the dust.
"Fire, if you dare, villains!" hoarsely shouted the people, while the muzzles of the muskets were turned upon them: "you dare not fire!" They appeared ready to rush upon the levelled bayonets. Captain Preston waved his sword, and uttered a command which could not be distinctly heard amid the uproar of shouts that issued from a hundred throats. But his soldiers deemed that he had spoken the fatal mandate, "Fire!" The flash of their muskets lighted up the street, and the report rang loudly between the edifices.
A gush of smoke overspread the scene. It rose heavily, as if it were loath to reveal the dreadful spectacle beneath it. Eleven of the sons of New England lay stretched upon the street. Some, sorely wounded, were struggling to rise again. Others stirred not, nor groaned, for they were past all pain. Blood was streaming upon the snow; and that purple stain, in the midst of King Street, though it melted away in the next day's sun, was never forgotten nor forgiven by the people.
At once the bells were rung, and the citizens, rushing out to learn the cause, hastened to the fight. The people in the country around, hearing the bells, hurried in with their muskets to help the town. At last the soldiers, seeing that the whole country around was aroused and rushing to the rescue, took to flight.