President Franklin Pierce was determined to turn over an escaped slave from Boston - a center of abolitionist activity - in order to show Southern politicians that Northern states would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, a key provision of the Compromise of 1850.
On the night of May 26 1854, a crowd of black and white Bostonians, planning to rescue Burns, tried to force the doors of the Court House with axes, and a long plank used as a battering ram. There was a confused struggle as the crowd was turned back by the guards at the Court House. Gunfire broke out between the guards and the crowd. James Batchelder was mortally wounded by a blade of some kind. Accounts vary as to whether he was stabbed more than once.
In one account, Batchelder was killed by a blunderbuss. The marshals physically blocked the crowd from forcing their way into the Court House, until Boston police and a military patrol arrived to disperse the crowd and make arrests. Burns was ultimately forced back into slavery in Virginia, with Pierce deploying federal artillery and United States Marines to ensure the enforcement of the law.
In his autobiography Cheerful Yesterdays, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the leaders of the rescue party commented "There had been other fugitive slave rescues in different parts of the country, but this was the first drop of blood actually shed. In all the long procession of events which led the nation through the Kansas struggle, past the John Brown foray and up to the Emancipation Proclamation, the killing of Batchelder was the first act of violence. It was like the firing on Fort Sumter, a proof that war had begun."