In our struggle for Independence, the British military received its first setback from the inhabitants of Salem in an episode that could not have been more ludicrous or entertaining if it had been written for Monty Python. A mural at the Salem Armory portrays Leslie’s Retreat.
In 1774 Col. David Mason of Salem purchased 19 French cannons and had Captain Robert Foster, a blacksmith, mount them to carriages. They were secreted about the premises of Captain Foster’s shop on the north side of the North River, and by February, 1775 were ready for use against the British in the much-anticipated war.
Military Governor Thomas Governor Gage in Boston was informed that the “Minutemen” in Salem had collected the cannons and were arming themselves against British troops. Gage was already distressed that Captain John Felt had taken charge of the Salem militia, and the town had hosted the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
The following story is based on the “Account of Leslie’s retreat at the North Bridge in Salem, on Sunday Feb’y 26, 1775” by Charles Moses Endicott ( 1793-1863):
Gage decided to take action, and on February 26 sent Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie with the 64th regiment by ship to Marblehead with instructions to march to Salem with 240 troops and seize the cannons and munitions of war. Col. Leslie was known by his fellow officers as “a genteel little man who lives well and drinks good claret.” He quietly landed with his troops at Homan’s Cove on Marblehead Neck during the hour of worship on Sunday morning expecting not to be discovered. As soon as the ships landed, however, a guard ran to the door of the church and beat upon his drum an alarm signal which had been previously agreed upon.
The troops marched off toward Salem along the Bay Road, their musicians mocking the Colonists by playing “Yankee Doodle.” As the vanguard approached the small bridge at the southern entrance of town they could hear church bells ringing wildly, and discovered that people had already pulled a few planks from the bridge. This was soon repaired, and they continued into the public square with fixed bayonets, loaded muskets, martial music and colors flying and drums beating, expecting to be a victorious army entering a conquered city.
Colonel Leslie soon learned from Tory sympathizers the location of the cannons and proceeded with his troops in the direction of the North Bridge. Colonel David Mason resided in a house near the North Bridge and ran to the North Church and cried out at the top of his voice, “The reg’lars are coming.”
The congregation immediately dispersed in a state of great excitement. Col. Mason mounted his horse and rode with great speed to the location of the cannon in order to secure them, after which he returned to the North Bridge and joined efforts already underway to impede the troops. Bonnie Hurd Smith notes that David Mason’s wife Hannah and their daughters were the ones who hid the weapons and ammunition
The Salem militia was under the command of Captain Timothy Pickering, whose manual, “An Easy Plan for a Militia” would later be used as the Continental Army drill book. Men from the south side of town rushed to the river and raised the drawbridge. Leslie demanded that the leaf should be immediately let down but the assembled multitude utterly disregarded him. In an effort to calm the situation the Rev. Mr. Thomas Barnard, who had only recently been a Tory, tried to persuade the people to let it down, but Captain Foster, the blacksmith scolded him, “We don’t know you in this business. When Felt orders it ’twill be time enough.“
After consulting with his officers, Leslie declared he would maintain his ground and go over the bridge before he returned. By this time the people on the north side of the bridge had climbed the chains to the top of the upraised leaf “like so many hens at roost.” The colonel’s indignation rose to a frenzied level. He stamped and swore and insisted that he had orders to cross it, and he would do so if it cost his life, and the lives of all his men.
For the entire day an individual named Symonds stood near the spot with a look of defiance on his face, his musket at his shoulder, and ready to take on the “Regulars” by himself to defend the town. The alarm soon reached surrounding towns where as many as 10,000 Minutemen prepared to join the fray. A company of cavalry mounted their horses in Danvers and rode with great speed until they reached the Salem distillery, where they decided to stop and protect its precious wares.
Captain Felt, with apparently no fear for his own life, was by this time standing next to Colonel Leslie and heard him give orders to his soldiers to fire on the people. Felt responded, “Fire? You had better be dead than fire! You have no right to fire without further orders. If you do fire, you will all be dead men!” The order was not repeated. Indeed, had the command to fire been enforced, the first bloody battle of the Revolution would have been fought at the North Bridge, on the 26th of February, instead of the 19th of April, at Lexington.
Col. Leslie, still unwilling to abandon the mission, announced to Captain Felt, “I am determined to pass over this bridge before I return to Boston, if I remain here until next autumn”
Capt. Felt answered, “Nobody would care for that.“
Leslie replied, “By God I will not be defeated.“
Felt coolly replied, “You must acknowledge that you have been already baffled.”
Colonel Leslie insisted: “It’s the King’s highway and I would not be prevented from passing freely over it.”
Old Mr. James Barr was standing close by and replied “‘Tis not the King’s highway– it is a road built by the owners of the lots on the other side, and no king, country or town has any control over it.“
The day was fast closing on this fruitless attempt to cross the bridge, the tide was now low, and three gondolas lay in the mud on the west side of the bridge. Worried that Leslie might appropriate them for his troops, the people of Salem commenced with axes and rocks to scuttle them.
A scuffle ensued between the British and Americans at this point, and brought about what may have been the first bloodshed in a war that was yet to begin. The account by Charles Moses Endicott written in 1856 mentions “One Joseph Whicher, the foreman in Col Sprague’s distillery, was at work scuttling the Colonel’s gondola and the soldiers ordered him to desist and threatened to stab him with their bayonets if he did not, whereupon he opened his breast and dared them to strike. They pricked his breast so as to draw blood. He was very proud of this wound and afterward in life was fond of exhibiting it.”
The besiegers and besieged converged for a discussion. Felt, Barnard and Mason negotiating with Col. Leslie, who was at length persuaded to offer a compromise, pledging his word and honor that if the inhabitants would allow him to cross, he and his troops would in a peaceable proceed no more than fifty rods beyond the bridge and then return without molesting any person or property. The discussion went something like this:
“So, you came all this way just to cross a bridge?”
“Well yes, and to get the guns.”
“We’ve hidden them where you can’t find them”
“Well how can I tell the Governor that I found no guns if he learns that I never even got across the bloody bridge?”
“You want to tell the Governor that you crossed the bridge but discovered no guns?”
“Considering the circumstances, methinks that will suffice.”
After conferring, the inhabitants could find no objection, so the drawbridge was lowered, and the troops quietly marched the stipulated distance, then turned about. At that moment a fiery thirty-year-old-nurse named Sarah Tarrant, unable to resist getting in the last word, leaned out the open window of her house and yelled, “Go home and tell your master he has sent you on a fool’s errand, and broken the peace of our Sabbath.” One of the soldiers pointed his musket as if to fire at her, to which she challenged him, “What? Do you think we were born in the woods to be frightened by owls? Fire if you have the courage, but I doubt it.” Not a shot was fired, and nurse Tarrant lived into her 80’s.
The Redcoats set out in haste for their return to Marblehead, their mission completely foiled. As they marched off, their band played “The World Turned Upside Down.” (When Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 the British band played it then as well). Meanwhile, nearly the entire male population of Marblehead had stationed themselves along the road and were prepared to attack the British on their return. Since no hostilities had occurred, they were ordered to allow the British detachment to return unmolested to their ships. The sole casualty of the day was Joe Whicher, who was nicked by the tip of a sword.
On April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 700 British soldiers 18 miles to Concord and ordered Lt. Colonel Smith to take control of the two bridges in that town, the South Bridge and the North Bridge. The rest is well-known history, but news of these events took time to cross the Atlantic. Just the day before, on April 17, The Gentleman’s Magazine of London published the following announcement: “By a ship just arrived at Bristol from America, it is reported that the Americans have hoisted their standard of liberty at Salem.”
- Streets of Salem
- Volume 1 Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony
- Volume 2 Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony
- Account of Leslie’s Retreat
- History of American Women
- The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, Massachusetts, By Ralph D. Paine
- The Life of Timothy Pickering
- Proceedings of the Essex Institute, Volume 1