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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Saturday, November 17, 2018

“The town was altogether under the government & controul of the military power”

One of the things that Bostonians found most irritating about the British army regiments who arrived in the fall of 1768 was how they posted armed guards around town.

There were sentries at the gate on the narrow Neck to the mainland. There were sentries in front of major government buildings like the Province House, where the royal governor lived, and at the houses that commanders rented for themselves. That meant armed soldiers were standing at some of the busiest corners of the town.

Yesterday I quoted the Whigs’ “Journal of Occurrences” huffing about rude and even violent guards on the Neck and elsewhere.

On 5 December Samuel Adams as “Vindex” complained in the Boston Gazette:
I Can very easily believe that the officers of the regiments posted in this town, have been inform’d by our good friends [i.e., royal officials] that the inhabitants are such a rude unpolish’d kind of folks, as that they are in danger, at least of being affronted during their residence here; and therefore their placing centinels at their respective dwellings seems to be a natural precaution, and under that apprehension may be a necessary step to guard their persons from injury.

Or if it be only a piece of respect or homage every where shown to the superior officers of the army, it is a matter which concerns no other persons that I know of, I am sure it is no concern of mine: In this view it is a military custom, in no way interfering with, obstructing or infringing the common rights of the community.

But when these gentlemens attendants take upon them to call upon every one, who passes by, to know Who comes there as the phrase is, I take it to be in the highest degree impertinent, unless they can shew a legal authority for so doing.

There is something in it, which looks as if the town was altogether under the government & controul of the military power: And as long as the inhabitants are fully perswaded that this is not the case at present, and moreover hope and believe that it never will, it has a natural tendency to irritate the minds of all who have a just sense of honor, and think they have the privilege of walking the streets without being controul’d.
When the regiments first arrived in Boston, the royal authorities had been worried about locals rising up and attacking those men. But there was no rebellion. Indeed, the Whigs themselves worked to channel public anger into political, not physical, resistance.

So why did the army command keep the sentries out stopping everyone coming into and leaving the town or passing major landmarks? Sure, that provided more protection, but it also exacerbated people’s anger, which could only lead to more trouble in the future.

Part of the answer is that setting up sentry posts is what armies did. It was how garrisons worked. It kept the men occupied, trained, and alert.

But another part of the answer is that the commanders weren’t really trying to stop civilians. They were trying to stop deserters from their regiments.

On 1 November the “Journal of Occurrences” reported:
The last night a soldier passed the guards, at the south part of the town, and was haled, but not answering, they followed and fired at him several times, and being impeded in running by the sea-weed on the beach, he was taken and brought back to the guards: This man was present at the execution [of Richard Eames] in the morning, but nothing is like to prevent desertion while the troops remain in this place.
The army was thus locked in a vicious cycle. The Crown had ordered those regiments to keep peace inside Boston, not out on Castle Island. But being stationed in a populous town made it easier for soldiers to escape. Which meant the army had to set up sentries, search parties, and firing squads to stop deserters. Which angered the civilian population and only made it harder to keep the peace in Boston.

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