It's exhilarating to be part of the re-enactment of a milestone event in colonial America's march to independence, said Michael Monahan, who portrays a red-coated British officer.
And it's a worthwhile way to remind people about why the American Revolution was fought, said Harry Orcutt, who organizes the re-enactors who portray the angry mob of colonial Bostonians.
It was on a chilly night on March 5, 1770, that unruly Boston townsfolk clashed with eight British soldiers outside what is now the Old State House.
The soldiers, fearing for their lives, fired on the menacing crowd, mortally wounding five men in an event that revolutionary leaders such as Sam Adams quickly exploited as the "Boston Massacre."
Paul Revere, who was to gain fame five years later for his historic ride at the start of the American Revolution, immortalized the scene three weeks after the clash in his engraving, "The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street."
In brief, accounts say it was a moonlit night with almost a foot of icy snow on the ground when dozens of colonists taunted a British private in the sentry box in front of the Custom House, where the king's money was kept. Bad feelings had been simmering between the locals and the soldiers since the British troops arrived in Boston two years earlier to put down colonial unrest.
The sentry called for help from the main guard barracks a short distance away beside the Town House, now called the Old State House.
Hundreds of people, many carrying sticks, rocks and swords, had by then gathered in front of the Custom House on King Street, which has become State Street.
British Capt. Thomas Preston and six soldiers marched through the crowd to rescue the sentry, but found themselves surrounded. As the mob threw icy snowballs and sticks, the soldiers fixed bayonets, loaded their muskets, and formed a defensive semi-circle with their backs to the Custom House wall.
One private knocked down by a thrown club got up and fired his musket. Then several more shots were fired into the crowd, killing rope maker Samuel Gray, sailor James Caldwell, and runaway slave Crispus Attucks, the first African-American to die in the Revolutionary War. Two other men, Patrick Carr and Samuel Maverick, would die later of their wounds. Six others were wounded.
Preston and the soldiers were subsequently tried for murder, but only two of the soldiers were convicted of manslaughter.
It is with the events of that night in mind that members of area military re-enactor organizations -- the Massachusetts Council of Minutemen and Militia Inc. and His Majesty's 5th Regiment Afoot -- annually re-stage the confrontation.
Orcutt, as chairman of the council, assigns members of his group to portray American colonists and makes sure the re-enactment is as historically accurate as possible.
The 5th's Michael Monahan portrays Capt. Preston. He and seven other members of the regiment play the part of the British soldiers involved in the fight.
"This is a hobby," said Monahan, who has been involved in the re-enactments for six years. "We do this for fun, but we take it seriously. We don't run around repeating myths. We run around repeating facts, as well documented as we can present."
Being in the character of Capt. Preston and taking part in the re-enactment -- with colonial re-enactors dressed as the Boston townspeople and hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the recreation -- gives Monahan a sense of what it must have been like back in Boston in 1770.
"It's quite exhilarating to be standing there," Monahan said.
"You're surrounded on all sides with a brick wall behind you, and you're absolutely hemmed in, and there are hundreds of spectators, and then you have the colonials brandishing brickbats and what not, and there's just the eight of us standing there trapped," he said.
"You really get the feeling that you're there, and the crowd really gets into it. The civilians watching, the spectators, they're yelling and getting right into it, they're yelling at us, repeating the epithets that are being yelled by the townspeople," he said. "So it's pretty exciting."
Monahan said he thinks the spectators start out with the attitude that they're just going to watch, "but once the name-calling starts, and the yelling, and the crowd presses in on the soldiers, and they push the crowd back, it's almost like they're spectators at a football game cheering for the home team."
Orcutt, whose group has been involved with the Old State House Museum since 1964, agreed that the re-enactors and crowds get caught up in the excitement.
"We've been doing it for decades," Orcutt said, "and it gets better and better."
He said the re-enactment follows the evolving events of March 5, 1770, as closely as possible. He said citizen re-enactors accost a sentry, who calls out the guard, and Monahan, as Capt. Preston, responds with his soldiers.
"Then they push us back, we push them back, they push us back, we push them back, and then they push us back a third time," Orcutt said. "One of their members trips, basically, a musket goes off, and then there's a ragged volley of two or three shots from the eight in line so that it's pretty much the way it happened," Orcutt said.
"The crowd always loves seeing what actually happened." Orcutt said. "We think it's worthwhile because people then are reminded about what happened in Boston, what led to the American Revolution, and why the American Revolution was fought."
Orcutt agreed the re-enactors feel a real affinity for the historical figures they portray.
"Oh, absolutely," Orcutt said. "In fact many of the guys have developed personas and really get into it. Sometimes we have to constantly remind them before the event that it is an event, it is a portrayal, and not to go beyond what is safe."
There's also a lesson for modern Americans to learn about propaganda and tunnel vision that occurs at the time of an event, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Monahan said.
He noted, for example, the rowdy American colonists were terrorists in the eyes of the British.
"If you get people to look at their history, especially in light of 9/11, we need to look past the stereotypes of the bloody-back Brits," who were characterized as the "bad guys" by revolutionary leader Sam Adams and in Revere's famous engraving.
"By re-enacting history, and after the event you talk to people and explain what happened," Monahan said, "they get a better perspective and maybe they'll apply that to today and they won't hold those prejudices against the Arabs and Muslims or people who look different or speak different."
(For more information, do an Internet browser search for Boston Massacre, or see websites bostonmassacre.org, bostonhistory.org)
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