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, November 16, 2018

“The inhabitants of this town have been of late greatly insulted and abused”

By late October 1768, the army regiments in Boston had all moved into rented barracks. The town’s Whigs therefore could no longer complain about them occupying public buildings or trying to push poor people out of the Manufactory.

Those activists therefore focused on recording conflicts between soldiers and locals in the streets. Here’s a sample of their complaints from the “Journal of Occurrences.”

29 October:
The inhabitants of this town have been of late greatly insulted and abused by some of the officers and soldiers, several have been assaulted on frivolous pretences, and put under guard without any lawful warrant for so doing.

A physician of the town walking the streets the other evening, was jostled by an officer, when a scuffle ensued, he was afterwards met by the same officer in company with another, both as yet unknown, who repeated his blows, and as is supposed gave him a stroke with a pistol, which so wounded him as to endanger his life.

A tradesman of this town on going under the rails of the Common in his way home, had a thrust in the breast with a bayonet from a soldier; another person passing the street was struck with a musket, and the last evening a merchant of the town was struck down by an officer who went into the coffee-house, several gentlemen following him in, and expostulating with the officers, were treated in the most ungenteel manner…
Note how solid the class division of eighteenth-century British-American society was. The physician, merchant, and other “gentlemen” got into conflicts with officers who allegedly behaved “in the most ungenteel manner.” Meanwhile, the tradesman and “another person” were accosted by enlisted men.

1 November:
An householder at the west part of the town, hearing the cries of two women in the night, who were rudely treated by some soldiers, ventured to expostulate with them for this behaviour, for which boldness he was knocked down with a musket and much wounded, they went off undiscovered; another had a thrust with a bayonet near his eye, and a gentlemen of this town informs, that a day or two before the physician already mentioned met with his abuse, he overheard several officers discoursing, when one of them said, if he could meet that doctor he would do for him.
2 November:
Two men and a lad coming over the Neck into the town, were haled by one guard and passed them: soon after they were challenged by another, they replied they had just answered one, but they hoped they were all friends; upon which a soldier made a pass or two with his bayonet at one of them, who parried the bayonet at first, but was afterward badly cut on the head and grievously wounded in divers parts of his body.

One passing the south town watch was challenged but not stopped, he drew his sword and flourished it at the watch, using very insulting language; he was then discovered to be an officer a little disguised [i.e., drunk], another soon joined him, full as abusive, both declared that if they had been challenged in the street and no orders shewn, they would have deprived the watchman of his life.

A country man also coming into town, was thought to have approached nearer the guards than he should have done, for which offence he was knocked off his horse with a musket.
The conflict between the “south town watch” and the two officers was unusual in crossing class boundaries. The watchmen were working-class men, but they were employed and empowered by the town to keep the peace. The officers, in contrast, were gentlemen answering to the Crown government. Which group of men had authority to order the other around? That argument played out in the streets for months.

And then there was the exacerbation of the guardhouse on the Neck.

TOMORROW: Why did the British army need to guard the Boston Neck?

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