The night was chilly, snow laid on the streets and walks of Boston, and the cold air kept people bundled up around the port town of Massachusetts colony.
Yet, the cold air could not dampen was the seething resentment a growing number of Bostonians were feeling toward the occupying British military. Minor brawls and exchanges had taken place in the various taverns and around the bustling harbor; common places where alcohol and/or hard work created short tempers.
However, on this night, March 5, 1770, outside the Custom House on King Street a British redcoat infantrymen, the sentry, kept his post. Private Hugh White, whose shift it was to stand guard, would have noticed the approach of Edward Garrick, who had come calling for a British officer who owed Garrick’s boss money for his wig services. Unbeknownst to Garrick, the apprentice, the debt had been paid, so no response from the field officer was forthcoming.
A response from White was forthcoming, who admonished the young man to have a more respectful tone when speaking to an officer in His Majesty, the King’s service. Garrick did not take too kindly to this tone and responded with an insult of his own toward White.
This prompted White to leave his post and literally knock some sense into Garrick by way of a musket strike to the side of the head. Garrick yelped in agony and a companion took up the verbal barrage toward the British soldier.
The cacophony created by the yelling of insults and as the colonial version of a game of telephone spread the message about what was transpiring at the Customs House. Church bells were rung, a telltale sign that something was afoot, led to the crowd surging past 50 in number by the evening.
White, prudently, had left his post and retreated up onto the steps of the Customs House summoned a runner (messenger) to race to the local barracks for extra manpower.As was custom, there was an officer of the watch, in this case, Captain Thomas Preston and seven soldiers responded.
En route, Henry Know, destined to become chief of artillery for the Continental Army in the American Revolution urged Preston, “For God’s sake, take care of your men, if they fire, you must die.”
Against this sage advice, shouts of “Fire” were emanating from the crowd, which had also resorted to throwing snowballs and spitting in the direction of the red-coated soldiers. Other derogatory names for British soldiers, like “lobsterbacks” which took into account the red uniforms adorned by the British infantry were also heard being shouted.
The British soldiers, with loaded muskets, and Captain Preston reached White’s station, the British officer ordered the large crowd to disperse. Preston had taken a position in front of his soldiers and had told a member of the crowd that his soldiers would not fire unless ordered.
No order was ever given.
Shortly after Preston spoke those words to a Bostonian, a foreign object hurtled toward Private Hugh Montgomery and knocked the infantryman off his feet. His musket clattered onto the steps. Standing up, Montgomery reportedly yelled “Damn you, fire!” and pulled the trigger of his musket. The accompanying “bang” reverberated in the square.
And then there was a pause of an uncertain length.
This silence was broken by the staccato of other muskets being fired. A few rounds belched forth from the British soldiers. Screams and shouts along with deafening echo of the discharge of black-powder muskets in an enclosed city square mixed with the sickening thud of lead impacting bone and body.
All told, eleven colonists were hit from the volley fire. Three were killed outright; Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks. One more, Samuel Maverick, who was struck by a ricocheting round would die later that same evening. One more, a recent immigrant from Ireland, Patrick Carr, would succumb to his wounds a fortnight later.
In the immediate aftermath, Preston would call the majority of his unit, the 29th Regiment of Foot to the scene. With the mob spilling out of the Customs House Square, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, the acting governor, was able to temporarily restore a semblance of tranquility with the promise that a fair trial of what transpired that March 5th evening would happen.
The trial would be a major event for the city of Boston, but, that was in the near future. With the shots fired and the citizens struck, the burgeoning independence movement had a rallying point. Lives were lost that night, but, the events that followed would, to the proponents of American independence, make them martyrs for the cause.