J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

“We poor men that is Obliged to Obay his command”

Pvt. Mathew Kilroy was one of the soldiers of His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot put on trial after the Boston Massacre of 5 Mar 1770. Finding sources that preserve the voices or stories of individual British enlisted men in this period is very hard—all the more reason to marvel at the work behind Don Hagist’s British Soldiers, American Revolution site.

In the case of Pvt. Kilroy, one legal document speaks for him—in a way. It’s a filing from the Massacre trial, on behalf of Kilroy and two fellow defendants:

To the Honourable Judges of the Superior Court,

My it please Yr. Honours we poor Distressed Prisoners Beg that ye Would be so good as to lett us have our Trial at the same time with our Captain for we did our Captains Orders & if we dont Obay is Commands should have been Confine’d & shott for not doing of it—

We Humbly pray Yr. Honours that your would take it into yr serious consideration & grant us that favour for we only desire to Open the truth before our Captains face for it is very hard he being a Gentleman should have more chance for to save his life then we poor men that is Obliged to Obay his command—

We hope that Yr. Honours will grant this our petition, & we shall all be in duty Bound over to pray for Your honours

Dated Boston Goal
October ye. 24th. 1770

Hugh White
James Hartegan
Mathew Killroy
+
his mark
Capt. Thomas Preston was due to be tried first. It appears that White, Hartegan, and Kilroy were concerned that he would throw the blame for the shootings on them. The judges didn’t grant their petition, Preston did indeed build his defense on never having ordered the soldiers to fire, and in fact the evidence still looks mighty favorable to him.

Two of Preston’s attorneys—John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr.—then defended the soldiers in their separate trial. These days, that would be a conflict of interest, but in 1770 there weren’t that many lawyers to go around.

That legal team argued mainly that the soldiers had fired in self-defense, and for the most part they were successful. The jury convicted only two of the eight men, and only of manslaughter. Those two were Pvt. Edward Montgomery, who privately admitted to having yelled “Fire!” to his comrades, and Kilroy. Probably the bayonet evidence sunk him.

It’s not clear why of the eight soldiers only Kilroy, White (the sentry), and Hartigan signed this petition. But that detail is a reminder that each “redcoat” was an individual, making his own decision for his own reasons, which in most cases never got written down.

TOMORROW: Mathew Kilroy’s voice at the trial?

1 comment:

Donald said...

Kilroy was there...