02 July 2008

Famous People: Captain Thomas Preston

Carol A. Spradling

Was Captain Thomas Preston guilty of murder or of defending his men?

On March 5, 1770, the civilian authority was tucked away for the night and unavailable to grant permission to enlist the troops, while lone sentry Private White faced a burgeoning mob of hostile Bostonians. The officer of the guard waited nervously for Captain Thomas Preston to give him his orders. Loyal to his men, and fearing for their safety, Captain Preston dispatched a half dozen men to assist the sentry.

The crowd grew bold and dangerous in front of the Customs House, taunting the soldiers and pelting them with rocks, sticks, and ice. Somewhere in the mayhem an order to fire was shouted, resulting in five dead Boston Colonists.

Although Captain Preston is a key figure in the March 5th incident, relatively little is known about him. Captain of the 29th British Regiment, his orders to his men led to the Colonial deaths and the subsequent arrests of himself and eight British soldiers. Knowing mob rule would demand a full investigation, Captain Preston surrendered himself to the local authorities within hours of the confrontation. As a gentleman, he was held prisoner away from his men and allotted clean clothes and grooming implements while awaiting trial.

The charge for the captain differed from that of his men. There was no evidence that the captain had fired any weapon on that night, while several of his men had. The captain's trial focused on what orders he had or hadn't issued. If the captain was exonerated, his men faced murder charges.

The captain remained adamant that he did not give the order to fire on that night, even though several citizens testified that he had. Patriot John Adams, highly ridiculed for accepting the case, proved the Loyalist captain innocent of the charge, and Captain Thomas Preston was honorably acquitted.

The captain is believed to have retired from the army and returned home following the trial. His parting words, referring to his acquittal, were addressed to General Gage: "I take the liberty of wishing you joy at the complete victory obtained over the knaves and foolish villains of Boston."

Well...at least he wasn't bitter.