07/04/2012 10:13 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2012

Military Occupation In America: True Stories From The Boston Massacre

By now it's a familiar story: a distant government, operating with little understanding of local conditions and faulty intelligence, deploys military force to quell a restive population. In reaction the residents of the occupied territory are outraged, increasingly alienated, and--after a lethal confrontation between troops and citizens--primed for revolution.

The surprise here is that the occupation occurred in Boston during the 17 months from October 1768 to March 1770.

The British ministry, hearing pleas from officials in Boston and wanting to show colonial Americans who was in charge, sent an occupying force of 2,000 men and officers. That number sounds inconsequential, but to the city's population of fewer than 16,000 residents it seemed a massive show of power. One out of every three adult men wore a redcoat. Encounters between citizens and soldiers were unavoidable. A comparable military presence today would require 80,000 troops in Boston, or 450,000 in Kabul, or no less than 650,000 in Baghdad.

It was a situation made for conflict. Any departure from the familiar antagonized the citizens of Boston. Checkpoints throughout the city, particularly at the neck that separated the peninsula from the mainland, slowed pedestrian and horse drawn traffic, and bored soldiers reveled in their power to stop prominent residents. At one time, even the important merchant and member of the governor's council Harrison Gray was held for half an hour of questioning and frivolous delay. Lesser souls, of course, received no better treatment.

Normal military operations even proved disruptive. The pomp that accompanied the changing of the guard disturbed religious services, and troops drilling on the streets were a constant annoyance. John Adams, remembering the occupation in his Autobiography, complained of the daily commotion beneath his windows overlooking Brattle Square.

More serious was the competition for part-time work. The poorly paid soldiers moonlighted whenever possible, and their employment came at the expense of unemployed locals and sailors between voyages. The depressed economy compounded tensions. Altercations frequently broke out at workplaces, in taverns, and on the narrow and winding alleys throughout the town.

Far from home, unwelcome in Boston, and lonely, many of the soldiers and junior officers took solace in cheap rum and often failed to distinguish between whores and housewives. They made lewd comments to passing women, attempted to drag some into barracks, and occasionally struck at them with cutlasses, bayonets, and fists. Such behavior was not unknown to this port town, but townspeople feared the military was threatening their morals as well as their rights and privileges.

They also decried other kinds of crime, including ones against their property. Some of the troops engaged in robberies, burglaries, and theft. The streets were unsafe, and homes might be invaded. In midwinter 1769 newspapers warned residents not to buy wood from soldiers, because of the likelihood it had been stolen.

But by no means did British soldiers initiate all of the turmoil. Teenage boys and young men regularly provoked sentries posted before barracks and buildings throughout the town. Shouts of "Lobster," "Thieving Dog," and various other slurs often were accompanied by snowballs or brickbats. Nor were the streets safe for off-duty soldiers. Walking alone was foolhardy. Angry words, as well as outright assaults, could be expected. Even Boston Common in broad daylight provided no sanctuary. On the single day of May 29, 1769, townspeople drove from the grounds or beat at least six soldiers in three separate skirmishes.

By March 1770, Boston was a powder keg ready to explode. After a weekend of clashes between ropemakers and soldiers, seventeen months of tension and turmoil came to a bloody conclusion. In the dark of early evening on Monday, March 5, groups of soldiers and townspeople armed with swords and clubs scurried about, but somehow they avoided a violent confrontation. By 9:00 p.m. calm was seemingly returning.

But then a sentry and a wigmaker's apprentice began an argument in front of the customhouse. Other apprentices and hangers-on joined in. The sentry called for protection. Seven grenadiers led by Captain Thomas Preston marched into the fray. Quickly the crowd grew to around 125 people. Words, snowballs, and other projectiles were thrown, one hitting the muzzle of Private Hugh Montgomery's musket. He fell back, and upon regaining his balance, accidentally discharged the weapon. Other members of the guard, some with particular targets in mind, randomly fired on the crowd. Five people died; six others were wounded.

The Boston Massacre, as it was later called, brought an end to the occupation. The troops left, but alienation from British authority had taken root.

The placing of four regiments in Boston as a police force to support British officials rather than as an army to protect the population certified that the town was being occupied as a hostile country and that Bostonians were viewed as an enemy people. They had not invited the military; rather, it had been thrust at them, like a bayonet. In their minds, they had become not a subordinate but a separate people. As the contemporary Mercy Otis Warren wrote: the "American war may be dated from the hostile parade" of October 1, 1768, when the troops first landed.

That is the danger of military occupation. There are unintended consequences. People temporarily may welcome an outside, liberating force, as did the French in the Second World War, but they quickly resent an occupation. As we celebrate the birth of our nation, we should remember how disaffection brought about by military occupation contributed to the coming of our own revolution. We should not be surprised if other people behave similarly.

Richard Archer is the author of As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution [Oxford University Press, $24.95].