Questions Left by The Boston Massacre

Engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere
Engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere.

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770, and is considered one of the main events leading to the American Revolution. Historic records of the skirmish include well-documented records of events and often conflicting testimony of supposed eyewitnesses.

As a British sentry was being heckled by an angry and growing crowd of colonists, a nearby squad of British soldiers fired a volley of musket shots killing three colonists immediately and mortally wounding two others. Among the victims was Crispus Attucks, a 47-year old man of mixed African and Indigenous descent, and now widely regarded as the first American killed in the American Revolution. The British officer in charge, Captain Thomas Preston, along with eight of his men, were arrested and made to stand trial for manslaughter. While they were all acquitted, their actions in the Boston Massacre is regarded today as one of most significant acts of British abuse that rallied colonial Americans to the Patriot cause.

Boston in 1770

Throughout the 1760s, Boston had been a very uneasy place. Colonists had increasingly been harassing British customs officials who were attempting to enforce the so-called Intolerable Acts. In October 1768, Britain began housing troops in Boston to protect the customs officials. Angry but largely non-violent clashes between the soldiers and the colonists had become commonplace. On March 5, 1770, however, the clashes became deadly. Promptly deemed a “massacre” by Patriot leaders, word of the day’s events quickly spread throughout the 13 colonies in a famous engraving by Paul Revere. 

The Events of the Boston Massacre

On the morning of March 5, 1770, a small group of colonists was up to their usual sport of tormenting British soldiers. By many accounts, there was a great deal of taunting that eventually lead to an escalation of hostilities. The sentry in front of the Custom House eventually lashed out at the colonists which brought more colonists to the scene. In fact, someone began ringing the church bells which usually signified a fire. The sentry called for help, setting up the clash which we now call the Boston Massacre.

A group of soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston came to the rescue of the lone sentry. Captain Preston and his detachment of seven or eight men were quickly surrounded. All attempts to calm the crowd proved useless. At this point, the accounts of the event vary drastically. Apparently, a soldier fired a musket into the crowd, immediately followed by more shots. This action left several wounded and five dead including an African-American named Crispus Attucks. The crowd quickly dispersed, and the soldiers went back to their barracks. These are the facts we do know. However, many uncertainties surround this important historical event:

  • Did the soldiers fire with provocation?
  • Did they fire on their own?
  • Was Captain Preston guilty of ordering his men to fire into a crowd of civilians?
  • Was he innocent and being used by men like Samuel Adams to confirm the oft-claimed tyranny of England?

The only evidence historians have to try and determine Captain Preston's guilt or innocence is the testimony of the eyewitnesses. Unfortunately, many of the statements conflict with each other and with Captain Preston's own account. We must try to piece together a hypothesis from these conflicting sources.

Captain Preston's Account

  • Captain Preston claimed he ordered his men to load their weapons.
  • Captain Preston claimed he heard the crowd yelling fire.
  • Captain Preston claimed they were attacked by heavy clubs and snowballs.
  • Captain Preston claimed a soldier was hit by a stick and then fired.
  • Captain Preston claimed the other soldiers fired in response to the colonist attack.
  • Captain Preston claimed he reprimanded his men for firing into the crowd without orders.

Eyewitness Statements in Support of Captain Preston's Statement

  • Witnesses including Peter Cunningham claimed they heard Captain Preston order his men to load their weapons.
  • Witnesses including Richard Palmes claimed they asked Captain Preston if he intended to fire and he said no.
  • Witnesses including William Wyatt claimed the crowd was calling for the soldiers to fire.
  • Witnesses including James Woodall claimed they saw a stick thrown and hit a soldier, which prompted him to fire, quickly followed by several other soldiers.
  • Witnesses including Peter Cunningham claimed an officer other than Preston was behind the men and that he ordered the soldiers to fire.
  • Witnesses including William Sawyer claimed the crowd threw snowballs at the soldiers.
  • Witnesses including Matthew Murray claimed they did not hear Captain Preston order his men to fire.
  • William Wyatt claimed that Captain Preston reprimanded his men for firing into the crowd.
  • Edward Hill claimed that Captain Preston made a soldier put away his weapon instead of allowing him to continue to shoot.

Eyewitness Statements Opposed to Captain Preston's Statement

  • Witnesses including Daniel Calef claimed that Captain Preston ordered his men to fire.
  • Henry Knox claimed the soldiers were hitting and pushing with their muskets.
  • Joseph Petty claimed he did not see any sticks thrown at the soldiers until after the firing.
  • Robert Goddard claimed he heard Captain Preston curse his men for not firing when ordered.
  • Several soldiers including Hugh White claimed they heard the order to fire and believed they were obeying his commands.

The facts are unclear. There is some evidence that seems to point to Captain Preston's innocence. Many people close to him did not hear him give the order to fire despite his order to load the muskets. In the confusion of a crowd throwing snowballs, sticks, and insults at the soldiers, it would be easy for them to think they received an order to fire. In fact, as noted in the testimony, many in the crowd were calling them to fire. 

The Trial and Acquittal of Captain Preston

Hoping to show Britain the impartiality of colonial courts, patriot leaders John Adams and Josiah Quincy volunteered to defend Captain Preston and his soldiers. Based on a lack of substantiated evidence, Preston and six of his men were acquitted. Two others were found guilty of manslaughter and were released after being branded on the hand.

Because of the lack of evidence, it is not hard to see why the jury found Captain Preston innocent. The effect of this verdict was much greater than the Crown could ever have guessed. The leaders of the rebellion were able to use it as proof of Britain's tyranny. While it was not the only instance of unrest and violence before the revolution, the Boston Massacre is often pointed to as the event that presaged the Revolutionary War.

Like the Maine, Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, and September 11, 2001, Terror Attacks, the Boston Massacre became the rallying cry for the Patriots.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Questions Left by The Boston Massacre." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Questions Left by The Boston Massacre. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Questions Left by The Boston Massacre." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).