On March 5, 1770, British troops fired into a crowd of Bostonians, killing three civilians immediately and injuring eight more. Two of the wounded died from their injuries soon thereafter. This event was quickly dubbed the Boston Massacre by Americans critiquing the British for imposing taxes and stationing troops in the colonies.
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Historians still have not decided whether this event was truly a massacre, which implies an attack on innocent, unarmed people, or the fatal conclusion to a riot initiated by colonists. Two important primary sources inform these historical debates. One, written by Captain Thomas Preston, offers the commanding British officer’s perspective on the events of that fateful night. A dramatically different perspective on this event is offered by an anonymous American partisan. While both accounts acknowledge the tragic conclusionfive deathsof the events of March 5th, they disagree strongly on the instigator of the violence.
Captain Thomas Preston was the officer in charge of the 29th Regiment on the night of March 5th. His deposition was obtained by the court systems in Boston about a week after the incidents that took place in King Street. Preston had been arrested for his involvement in the massacre, and he remained in jail until late October, 1770, when he was acquitted of all the charges against him (Linder). Therefore, Preston had a clear agenda in his account: establishing a persuasive case for the innocence of both himself and his troops. His deposition served as a legal document intended to support him as the defendant in a criminal trial. While he might have offered an honest account of the event, he definitely stood to gain from describing the events of March 5th as the unfortunate result of soldiers defending themselves from an unruly mob (Two Accounts, 119).
Preston began his account by explaining that the people of Boston were openly hostile to the presence of British troops and repeatedly endangered the safety of the soldiers. According to Preston, on the night of the 5th, about one hundred Bostonians gathered in King Street at the ringing of the fire bell. This crowd issued the most cruel and horrid threats, and particularly threatened the life of the sentry guarding the king’s money (Two Accounts, 119). As the rioters pressed in on the sentry, Preston and twelve of his troops surrounded him, to offer him protection. Preston claimed that he deliberately did not order his troops to load their weapons, and he stood between the crowds and the soldiers endeavouring all in my power to persuade them to retire peaceably, but to no purpose. At this point, Preston claims that the hostile crowd attacked the British troops with clubs and snowballs, saying all our lives were in imminent danger. Preston suggested that the word fire was shouted by deliberately provocative townspeople,
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