The American Revolution did not, of course, begin with a single “shot heard round the world” but was rather the result of a simmering opposition developing in Massachusetts from at least 1770. A singular event in this intensifying insurgence occurred here in Salem on this day in 1775: while referred to alternatively by historians as the “Salem Alarm” or the “Salem Gunpowder Raid” (the subtitle of Peter Charles Hoffer’s recently-released book, Prelude to Revolution), its more popular designation is “Leslie’s Retreat”.
The reference is to the British Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Leslie, who was dispatched by General Thomas Gage–who had proclaimed Massachusetts in “open rebellion” just weeks earlier–to Salem in search of the cannons and powder he suspected was there. Indeed, there were 17 cannons in the shop of blacksmith Robert Foster, who had been commissioned by Colonel David Mason of the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety to affix them to carriages in preparation for the inevitable conflict. On a chilly Sunday, Leslie and his men (about 240 fusiliers from the 64th Regiment) disembarked from their ship in Marblehead and commenced the 5-mile march to Salem towards Foster’s foundry, located on the bank of the North River just across what was then a drawbridge. The alarm went out, and by the time they got to Salem Leslie and his men faced a large, angry, armed crowd and a raised drawbridge. A tense standoff of several hours ended with a compromise which was really both a defeat and a retreat for the British: the bridge was lowered, enabling Leslie to fulfill his orders and inspect the foundry, but he went no further–and the cannons were long gone. No blood was shed, with the exception of that of one Joseph Whicher, pricked by a British bayonet. There are many indications that this was considered a momentous moment–in its own time and after. A few months later–and across the water, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the Americans have hoisted their standard of liberty at Salem.
Lewis Jesse Bridgman, “The Repulse of Leslie at the North Bridge, Sunday, February 26, 1775″ and sketch of the scene, from Robert Rantoul, “The Affair at the North Bridge, Salem, February 26, 1775″, Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 38 (1902); Some of the major players: Colonel David Mason on right, a Gainsborough portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Leslie upper left, and the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, lower left, who by all accounts negotiated the retreat.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Leslie’s Retreat was a heralded historical event, marked by addresses, commemorations, and compilations of source materials that we draw from now, including Charles Moses Endicott’s Account of Leslie’s Retreat at the North Bridge on Sunday Feb’y 26, 1775 (1856) and Rantoul’s 1902 article, cited above. Such interesting characters (and large crowds) emerge from these accounts: Sarah Tarrant, a Salem woman who openly mocked the British troops, the equally rebellious militia captain John Felt, and the “Paul Revere” of the event, Major John Pedrick of Marblehead, whose role seems a bit mythological to say the least (see much more about this particular gentleman and his role here). Pedrick’s role in carrying the alarm to Salem was certainly romanticized by the Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost in his 1920s (?) painting, Major Pedrick. To the Town of Salem, to Give the Alarm, which went up for auction at Skinner a couple of years ago. I can’t resist adding a photograph from the collection of the New York Historical Society Museum & Library of the original enlarged painting in the hands of a gentleman identified as “Colonel Leslie” but whom I suspect is the artist.
At present, I do not think Leslie’s Retreat is either revered or even remembered: perhaps Professor Hoffer’s book will bring it back into our civic consciousness. Many of the streets in the vicinity of the standoff are named for its participants: Mason, Felt, Foster (no Tarrant), but the widening of North Street, the multiple replacements of the bridge, and the damming of the river have created a landscape that would be unrecognizable to any of these people–and not a particularly reverent one. What remains to remind us of Leslie’s Retreat? A weathered memorial, a dog park, and a restaurant.