After 250 years and many previous treatments of the Boston Massacre, Zabin’s innovative study truly breaks new ground by supplying richness and depth to a dimension of this iconic event that had only been sketched earlier. Hiller B. Zobel’s The Boston Massacre (New York, 1970) was a thorough and influential analysis of the episode, shaped by British and loyalist sources, and Eric A. Hinderaker’s Boston Massacre (Cambridge, Mass., 2017) supplied a balanced account, distinguished especially by its assessment of the historical context and memory of the event. Zabin, however, focuses closely on the soldiers who occupied Boston in the months before the deadly conflict of March 5, 1770, thus bringing us closer to the interpersonal aspects of the “massacre” than ever before. She follows the British regiments from their stations in Ireland to Nova Scotia and Boston—a posting preferred over the West Indies or Canada. She explains that officers’ vigorous and successful efforts to bring their own and their soldiers’ wives and children with them was costly, but Britain’s military recognized that the presence of families enhanced troop order and morale.
This familial dimension of Boston’s occupation had wide-ranging implications. Zabin’s microscopic research into troops’ living arrangements—in barracks, vacant dwellings, and taverns, and with colonial families—enriches understanding of their impact on the Boston community. Generally, Zabin finds that Redcoats engaged local society according to their own social rank; officers socialized among the official and mercantile elite, whereas common soldiers developed relationships among the working classes. In a town that had not grown for a generation and where women outnumbered men, soldiers who came without wives often formed local liaisons. Children born to soldier families were baptized at Boston’s outpost of the Church of England, King’s Chapel. There Zabin found the records of godparents, which reveal the interwoven lives of some occupiers with some of the occupied.
In Zabin’s telling, this mingling of soldiers with colonists seems ordinary, even benign. But from the perspective of the settled Boston community of congregational dissenters, led by psalm-singing Whig leaders like Samuel Adams, it was outrageous to bring soldiers and their corrupt behavioral baggage into the town to enforce British law and order. As they understood it, such was the archetypal design for tyranny that had long been laid out in radical Whig ideology. But Zabin, who drew substantially from British military sources and the records of the Bostonians who most closely interacted with royal officials, pays scant attention to the town’s Whig and clerical leaders or their thoughts.
As Zabin explains, given the many conflicting eyewitness descriptions of the massacre, and of the separate trials of Sergeant Thomas Preston and his soldiers, in rival partisan publications, she, like Hinderaker, decided to avoid any attempt to provide a definitive account of that fatal night. Instead, she assesses the motives of prosecution and defense, crediting defense attorney John Adams with engineering a friendly jury and developing an argument that laid blame on “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and out landish jack tars,” not settled Bostonians (216). Though Whigs were glad to see the regiments gone, they refused to be labeled “mobbish,” as both Hinderaker and Zobel noted.
Zabin’s study is not multidisciplinary. She skillfully employs the techniques of microhistorical narrative, tracing individuals across time and space. Her thorough research links public records, private papers (both manuscript and printed), church records, and contemporary printed sources, as well as secondary scholarship. Her resulting story of this major episode in the independence movement bestows, for the first time, individual faces and aspirations on the Redcoats who occupied Boston from October 1768 through March 1770.