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 30, 2018

“Whether we are or are not a proper garrison town”

It’s time for another peek into the Boston Whigs’ complaints about soldiers being stationed in their town. Here’s the entry from their “Journal of Occurrences” dated 30 Nov 1768, or 250 years ago today.

An honourable gentleman of his Majesty’s Council, lately riding over Boston Neck in his coach, was stopped by some soldiers on guard, one of which had the assurance to open the door, and put in his head; upon being asked what had occasioned such freedom, he had the insolence to reply, that he was only examining whether any deserter was concealed there.
As I wrote earlier, the main reason for the checkpoints on Boston Neck at this point was to stop deserters. The army command did have reason to suspect that locals, even members of the Council, didn’t care as much about desertion as they did. Earlier in the week a jury had acquitted “A countryman named Geary” on the charge of enticing soldiers to desert. (This may have been the same man whom Capt. John Willson had confined at the Castle in October.)

But there were army guards posted elsewhere in town as well:
A number of gentlemen passing in the night by the Town-House, were hailed by the guards three [there?] several times, without answering; whereupon they were stopped and confined in the guard-house for a considerable time:

A young gentleman in another part of the town, having a lanthorn with him, was challenged by some soldiers, but not answering so readily as was expected, he was threatened with having his brains immediately blown out unless he stopped:

A merchant of the town passing the grand guard this night about ten o’clock, was several times challenged by the soldiers, and upon telling them, that as an inhabitant he was not obliged to answer, not had they any business with him; they replied that this was a garrison town, and accordingly they presented their bayonets to his breast, took and detained him a prisoner for above half an hour, when he was set free; having procured the names of those who had thus used him, he is prosecuting them for the same; and we may expect soon to have it determined, whether we are or are not a proper garrison town.

Perhaps by treating the most respectable of our inhabitants in this sort, it is intended to impress our minds with formidable ideas of a military government, that we may be induced the sooner to give up such trifling things as rights and privileges, in support of which we are now suffering such great insults and injuries.
A 1780 military dictionary defined a “Garrison Town” as “a strong place, in which troops are quartered, and do duty for the security of the town; keeping guards at each port, and a main guard in the market place.” That would mean taking control from the town watch and other civil authorities.

The “Journal of Occurrences” was sounding a classic British Whig political warning: if people don’t protest abridgments of their rights, even small ones, then gradually they’ll be reduced to vassalage and slavery.

Of course, the same Whigs had earlier approvingly reported that “orders have been given by the Selectmen to the town watch, to take up and secure all such Negro servants as shall be absent from their master’s houses, at an unseasonable time of night.” Slavery meant different things for different people.

The 30 November mention of the “young gentleman” out walking with a “lanthorn” is notable. Supposedly carrying a light signaled that one was out for an innocent purpose. By November 1769 the watchmen were specifically instructed that enslaved people of color out after 9:00 P.M. had to be “carrying Lanthorns with light Candles.”

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