The Vigilance Committee’s Attempt of Rescue












History 312: Civil War and Reconstruction Student Web Sites



The Vigilance Committee was formed in response to The Compromise of 1850, especially the Fugitive Slave Law, which provided legal assistance in capturing and returning escaped slaves or fugitives to their owners. Von Frank described the committee’s purpose as being "to protect the local black population from federally sponsored ‘kidnappers’ . . . (21). Stevens likewise states that "Its sole object was to defeat, in all cases, the execution of that hated statute." (29). The hated statute was, of course, referring to the Fugitive Slave Law. News of Burns’ arrest spread throughout Boston. When the news reached the committee, they held a meeting to discuss their options. All members agreed their main goal was to prevent Anthony Burns from being sent back to Virginia.

Although this was agreed upon, there were two different opinions as to how to go about doing this. One group believed the committee should attack the Court House and make a "forcible rescue of the prisoner." The majority, however, felt it would perhaps be better to await the Commissioner’s decision. If at that time, they found it necessary, they would crowd into the streets to form a "living barrier" and then in the chaos that would surly occur, they would assist Burns with an escape (Stevens 30). Since the majority supported the second decision, that is what the committee decided to do. While they waited, however, they did agree to hold a public meeting to decide if a crowd should assemble at the courthouse in the morning. They also decided it would be best to keep the courthouse under surveillance (von Frank 56).

The next evening, there was a public meeting held at Faneuil Hall, which was "filled to overflowing." Just as the meeting was about to end and the decision had been made to meet at the courthouse the following morning, someone entered and told the people a small group was at the Court House trying to rescue Burns (Stevens 33 & 41). Those at Faneuil Hall immediately left and began to assemble at the Court House. Meanwhile, the Marshall had appointed 50 men and stationed them at various places throughout the courthouse. As the group from Faneuil Hall arrived, the small group, already there, was attacking the courthouse. Those from Faneuil Hall stood passively by and watched. Dr. Bowditch, a witness to the scene, remarked, " ‘A large body was on the east side but the persons seemed collected without any purpose’ " (von Frank 69).

Those few with a purpose, however, were vigorously attacking the courthouse. Bricks were being thrown. Windows were being shattered. One group of men used a heavy beam for a battering ram and attempted to break down the front entrance. The police, although present, were very ineffective. They were only able to arrest one of the attackers at a time. They then had to escort that man to jail, which took at least 15 minutes for every trip (von Frank 66-67). During this massive chaos, one of the deputies, Batchelder, had been stabbed in the abdomen while trying to secure the entrance to the Court House. This wound severed an artery, which resulted in Batchelder bleeding to death (Stevens 43). The attack, which took a deadly turn for one, ended unsuccessful for the attackers—Anthony Burns was still a prisoner.


Writ of Personal Replevin

Purchasing Burns’ Freedom


This page was created by Karen Livingood

This page was last updated on 02/02/00