In 1774, the British Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party (of Dec 1773) by sending a large military force to occupy the town of Boston. By the end of 1774, all the troops earmarked for that New England town had arrived. Meanwhile, per the terms of one of the Coercive Acts, the Royal Navy blockaded the town and closed the port, putting many of the already disgruntled townsmen out of business, and wreaking havoc on the already depressed local economy. Mixing British soldiers with an out-of-work and angry citizenry was a recipe for disaster.
On this holiday season, let me share an anecdote of the British experience on Christmas Day, 1774. Here, an excerpt from my forthcoming book (chapter 3):
As tensions began to increase, the Americans became ever more brazen, regularly taunting the troops as they walked by, jeering at them with slurs such as “lobster backs” and “bloody backs”. Many of these quarrels might have been avoided had it not been for the dreaded rum, which the most radical of the Bostonians, hopeful of stirring up trouble, actively offered the soldiers as part of a concerted effort to break down discipline. As 1Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers explained in his diary, “The towns people encourage this excessive drinking, as when the Soldiers are in a State of intoxication they are frequently induced to desert.”
[British] Gen. Gage did his best to crackdown on drinking, and was moderately successful, but desertion continued to be a problem. In one instance at the end of 1774, a soldier from the 10th Regiment attempted to cross the frozen Charles River as his means of escape. However, the moonlight reflected off the snow and the other sentries saw his attempt and immediately slid down to the ice to pursue. Once they apprehended him, they threw him in jail, and on Christmas Eve, the soldier received his sentence. As Lt. John Barker put it simply, “A Soldier of the 10th shot for desertion; the only thing done in remembrance of Christ-Mass day.” Merry Christmas, indeed!
The British Army in Boston was generally not observant of religion, though individuals were free to attend church services on their off-duty. Evidently, Lt. Barker was one that would have liked some kind of Army recognition of that day. But a public execution on Christmas seems particularly insensitive, especially for a people that were generally Christian.
For those of you who celebrate Christmas, may yours be happy and merry! (And free of public executions!) For the rest of you, season’s greetings!