Every American school child knows about the Boston Massacre. Many know about Crispus Attucks, the runaway slave who died that day. But few, if any, know about Christopher Seider, the 11 year old boy whose death is considered the first of the Revolutionary War, or the truth behind the Incident on King Street, as the British called it.
It's always been about taxes in America. There are a lot of secondary reasons for the Revolutionary War, but the main reason that the rebellion happened is because the Colonists were right pissed off about taxation. The argument between the Crown and the Colony about taxes had been long and ugly before the war began, but in 1768 it reached the boiling point. The Townshend Act is what sent everybody over the edge, the latest in a series of taxes on the Colonies that were attempting to succeed where the Stamp Act had failed. The Townshend Act was also partially about punishing the Colonies for their rebellion against the Quartering Act*.
The idea was that while the Stamp Act was a direct tax on goods, the Townshend Act would be more invisible as a general tax on imported goods. The colonists were infuriated, and unrest began. The unrest took the form of hectoring mobs, and the local government in Boston was essentially on the side of the mobs. The British customs officer asked for help from the military, and in 1768 the HMS Romney, a fifty gun warship, showed up in Boston Harbor. One of the first things it did was seize John Hancock's boat Liberty, which was a smuggling ship that had locked up a customs official onboard rather than pay taxes on the goods it was surreptitiously importing**.
The Romney also began impressing the locals. I don't mean that it showed off for them, I mean it started shanghaiing Bostonians to serve on board. This was a deeply unpopular practice.
For two years tensions rose in Boston. Two regiments of red coats were stationed in the city. Small skirmishes broke out constantly. But the shit didn't really hit the fan until 1770.
On February 22nd a group of boys started an angry mob outside the home of a British customs agent, as boys will do. Adults started to join the group, and they took up the good natured Boston tradition of throwing rocks through the windows of the house. One of the rocks hit the customs agent's wife, and seeking to disperse the mob, he fired his gun into its general direction, looking to scare them off.
Unfortunately he shot 11 year old Christopher Seider, son of German immigrants. The boy lingered for a few hours and died that evening. Samuel Adams, chief propagandist of the rebels, staged the biggest funeral Boston had ever seen. The boy's death became a rallying point for the colonists who were getting angrier and angrier with the Crown.
The Boston Massacre happened just a few short weeks later. Boston was still agitated about the Townshend Act and about the regiments stationed in the city and about the death of Seider. The Massacre began about as stupidly as any street brawl does. Private Hugh White was stationed on King Street (now State Street) when he saw Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, shout at a British officer, claiming the officer had not paid his wig debt. The officer, having actually paid his wig debt, ignored the provocation, but White didn't. He told Garrick, who was just a boy, to be respectful. Garrick cursed him out. White hit Garrick in the side of his head with his musket.
Boston's blood began to boil. A crowd gathered around White. The church bells began ringing an alert, which brought out more people. They were angry. The crowd got bigger, and began turning into a mob. They hurled snowballs and rocks at White, who retreated to the steps of the customs house. When reinforcements arrived - six more soldiers and a non-commissioned officer - the mob was at about four or five hundred angry Bostonians (and probably drunk, too, if I know my Bostonians). It was eight redcoats against a few hundred furious colonists.
The soldiers were arrayed in a semi circle facing out, muskets loaded. The crowd kept throwing snowballs and rocks, and they taunted the soldiers by shouting "Fire!" A local innkeeper, who liked to carry a club, came menacingly up to the soldiers.
And then someone threw an object - popularly said to be a snowball but probably actually a chunk of ice - that knocked one of the soldiers down and made him drop his gun. Terrified and furious, he raised his gun and shouted "Damn you, fire!" and shot.
The innkeeper hit the soldier on the arm with his club, and then nailed another soldier on the head. The officer never gave an order to fire, but the rest of the men did just that. A volley of shots rang out and three of the crowd were killed instantly. Two others were so wounded that they died later. Six others were injured.
Calm was restored that night, and the 'Quiet Period' began in Boston - it would be three more years until the Boston Tea Party and five more until the Shot Heard Round the World was fired in the Battle of Lexington and Concord - but the Revolution began during those two weeks in the winter of 1770. The days following the shooting were a battle of propaganda, one handily won by the burgeoning revolutionaries. The Boston Gazette painted the incident as the latest in a long series of British attempts to kill liberty, and it portrayed the mob as a group of peace-loving innocents. It also published the infamous engraving of Henry Pelham***, which showed the British officer ordering his men to fire. There's even an extra musket shown firing out of the customs house, renamed The Butcher's Hall, as if to say that the redcoats had planned the whole thing.
That engraving became the focal point for subsequent propaganda in the colonies, and prints of it were de rigeur in the homes of Patriots. The true version of events didn't matter, what mattered was how it felt. At least that was the case for most Patriots; John Adams, cousin of Sam and future president, actually defended the redcoats in court. And he got six of them off. His argument was that the soldiers were confronted by "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs [i.e. sailors]" and thus were in their rights to defend themselves. Two were convicted of manslaughter and were marked with a brand on their thumbs.
The most important witness in the trial may have been one of the five men killed in the Massacre. Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, took two weeks to die, and in that time he told his doctor that he felt the soldiers were well within their rights to fire upon the crowd. His doctor testified:
Q: Were you Patrick Carr's surgeon?
Samuel Hemmingway: I was...
Q: Was he [Carr] apprehensive of his danger?
SH: He told me… he was a native of Ireland, that he had frequently seen mobs, and soldiers called upon to quell them… he had seen soldiers often fire on the people in Ireland, but had never seen them bear half so much before they fired in his life...
Q: When had you the last conversation with him?
SH: About four o'clock in the afternoon, preceding the night on which he died, and he then particularly said, he forgave the man whoever he was that shot him, he was satisfied he had no malice, but fired to defend himself.
The first casualty in any war is a human being, but the second is always the truth. It is rare that real life conflicts are cut and dried, and the War of Independence certainly wasn't as black and white as we were taught in school. The propaganda that comes out of any incident can be as important as the incident itself****. It isn't about how people die in war, it's about how we're told how they died in war.
It's also interesting to revisit the Boston Massacre in the light of the recent surge of protests in this country, as cop-injured Marine Scott Olsen has become something of a Crispus Attucks for the Occupy movement. When you see citizens taking to the streets to confront police, take time to consider whose propaganda you're listening to.
And as you're celebrating Memorial Day remember that it isn't only soldiers who die for our country.
* While taxation was a huge reason for the revolution, there were some less fiscal gripes. One of these was the Quartering Act, which forced the colonies to provide housing for British soldiers, often in the homes of private citizens. This was such a sore subject that any such quartering was strictly outlawed in the Bill of Rights.
** The Liberty was seized by the Brits and turned into a Royal Navy ship. The next year Rhode Islanders seized it and burned it.
*** Actually they printed Paul Rever's engraving. He had straight up copied Pelham's work.
**** The Boston Massacre was a propaganda event that kept on giving. The death of Crispus Attucks, runaway slave, was used as a symbol for the birth of a nation that would legally recognize his people as only 3/5 human. A hundred years later Attucks would be used again as a propaganda rallying point for the growing abolitionist movement.