Passion was the main stuff of journalism long before the Civil War, the birthplace of modern American journalism. The Press of the American Revolution during the War and before it, was borne of it. Newspapers then were not as we know them today. Weekly advertising mediums they were, but they were primarily opinion pieces designed to protect interests or to provoke the readership. They were propaganda organs in the truest sense. They were virtual flagpoles of ideology from which the editor could wave his political flag. As tools of political activism they often published articles of principles treating of various freedoms or governmental responsibilities, as the editors saw them to be, mostly by pseudonymous authors sometimes using names taken from the Greek or Roman classics like Cato or Ovid.
What news did exist was usually a local crime graphically treated, a poem perhaps, or a reference to a literary work or some happening from Europe that occurred months previously and brought to the editor's notice by people arriving in town. Newspapers shared news too, for as fever rose in the colonies and happenings became more frequent the need to know took place and the sharing of news from paper to paper became more commonplace.
But news gathering during the war coverage was not organized, newspapers relied almost wholly on the chance arrival of private letters and of official and semi-official documents. News sources were scarce, but opinion was abundant and it covered both sides. Tory and patriot presses would fire verbal broadsides at each other's interests and any newspaper hoping to maintain a dispassionate objectivity examining both sides of the issues, found themselves in a "no-man's land" and was considered "on the other side." Often the news was engineered, perhaps none so well as the 'reportage' of the Boston Massacre by the Boston Gazette.
What led up to the shootings, deemed a " Boston massacre", was the business of quartering British troops in the public houses and private homes of residents in America when barracks space was not available. The additional insult to the public was that the colonial legislative body was to provide financing.
This was going on for four years after the British Parliament enacted a piece of legislation called the Quartering Act in 1765 and expanded it in 1766, ostensibly to economize on troop expense. When the soldiers first appeared in Boston in 1766 resplendent in redcoats and brandishing gleaming muskets and bayonets, they were held in awe but when it was learned that they were ordered never to use force and that in order to fire a musket they would first have to seek an order from a magistrate, bellicose crowds of youth began to taunt them. A mutual dislike developed between soldier and citizen, taunts epithets and curses the main discourse. Tempers began to flare as Boston tolerance dipped to increasingly low levels. One citizen's distaste for things British turned extreme resulting in the shooting of his neighbor's son, Christopher Seider, an eleven year old Boston youngster
Tension between soldier and citizen was stretched thin and snapped on March 2 after rumors were circulated through Boston that the soldiers were planning a massacre of Boston citizens following an incident in which one soldier with a broadsword, slightly injured one young man, who with three companions wished to pass in an alleyway.
Later a brawl between some troops and some rope makers erupted, the latter besting the former leaving emotions in a tattered state, then on March 5th, a group of youths taunted a British sentry who took exception by beating one of them with his musket. Fire alarms sounded bringing a crowd of about four hundred to the scene, surrounding the sentry and throwing snowballs, ice and sticks at him. Seven soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston came to the sentry's support but suffered the crowd's taunts and physical assault with clubs. Daring the soldiers to fire on them, one soldier did after being hit with a club and the others followed suit. Three citizens died on the spot, another the next day and another one a few days later, five were dangerously wounded and a few slightly.
One can imagine the reaction of the citizens in the tavern as they heard, through sips of ale , the report in the Boston Gazette informing its readers that the man with a broadsword,who was described as having grown "to uncommon size" and who was now accompanied by " a person of a mean countenance armed with a large cudgel," attacked two of the youths wounding them with sword punctures then reenforced by two more soldiers armed with tongs and shovel, they continued beating the boys who valiantly defended themselves.
"The noise bro't people together, and John Hicks, a young lad, coming up, knock'd the soldier down, but let him get up again; and more lads gathering drove them back to the barrack, where the boys stood some time as it were to keep them in. In less than a minute 10 or 12 of them came out with drawn cutlasses, clubs and bayonets, and set upon the unarmed boys and young folks, who stood them a little while, but finding the inequality of their equipment dispersed,- In hearing the noise, one Samuel Atwood, came up to see what was the matter, and entering the alley from Dock-square, heard the latter part of the combat, and when the boys had dispersed he met the 10 or 12 soldiers aforesaid rushing down the alley towards the square, and asked them if they intended to murder people? They answered 'Yes by G-d, root and branch! With that one of them struck Mr, Atwood with a club, which was repeated by another, and being unarmed he turned to go off, and received a wound on the left shoulder which reached the bone and gave him much pain.
Retreating a few steps, Mr. Atwood met two officers and said, 'Gentlemen, what is the matter?' They answered, 'you'll see by and by.' Immediately after those heroes appeared in the square, asking 'where were the boogers? Where the cowards?'...Thirty or forty persons, mostly lads...gathered in Kingstreet, Capt. Preston, with a party of men with charged bayonets, came from the main guard to the Commissioners house, the soldiers pushing their bayonets, crying, 'Make way!' They took place by the custom-house, and continuing to push to drive the people off, pricked some in several places; on which they were clamorous, and ,it is said, threw snow-balls. On this, the Captain commanded them to fire, and more snowballs coming, he again said, 'Damn you, Fire, be the consequence what it will.! One soldier then fired, and a townsman with a cudgel struck him over the hands with such force that he dropt his firelock; and rushing forward aimed a blow at the Captain's head, which graz'd his hat and fell pretty heavy upon his arm; however, the soldiers continued the fire, successively, til 7 or 8, or as some say 11 guns were discharged.
By this fatal maneuvre, three men were laid dead on the spot, and two more struggling for life; but what shewed a degree of cruelty unknown to British troops, at least since the house of Hanover has directed their operation, was an attempt to fire upon or push with bayonets the persons who undertook to remove the slain or wounded."
Following the imputation of unusual cruelty for this final bit of brutality the Gazette went on to describe the slain and to comment on the outrage felt by the Boston citizenry, the outrage, undoubtedly, now shared by the gentry in their drawing rooms and the lads in the taverns. The flames of passions that were kindled by the outrageous Stamp Act of 1765 and the infuriating Quartering Act of the same year, had been flickering but now found new fuel and burst into the blaze of revolution. A "massacre ' had now been committed. A "massacre!" Blood had been drawn.
The following week, the grand jury indicted the British soldiers for wilful murder but the court thought fit to hold trial when tempers had cooled in the following term. On October 24th, trial was held for Captain Preston and on November 12th, for the soldiers. John Adams, second U.S. President-to-be, was one of four defense lawyer for all. The captain was acquitted as were six of the eight soldiers. Two were found guilty not of murder but manslaughter. The jury was drawn from residents of towns surrounding Boston.
In the courtroom, reality replaced fiction, but the impression of a massacre had not been erased. The words of the Gazette in its best fictional form were truly the words of revolution.
John Adams in 1815, summarized: "What do we mean by Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington."
Journalism had moved the minds of the people.
Don Bracken is the author of 'Times of the Civil War', a study of the American Civil War and the coverage of it by the New York Times and the Charleston Mercury. He is Senior Editor of History Publishing Conmpany,LLC.