Resistance and Retreat in Salem, 1775

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.

Leslies Retreat Repulse of Leslie feb 26 1775 Bridgman

Leslies Retreat map EIHC

PicMonkey Collage

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.

Frost Pedrick

Leslie and Frost Painting

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.

Leslies Retreat 004

Leslies Retreat 001

14 responses to “Resistance and Retreat in Salem, 1775

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    “The American Revolution did not, of course, begin with a single ‘shot heard round the world’ ” … What, are you asking me to reconsider my long-held, simplistic notions of US History?

    On a more serious note, it curious that this event was heralded into the 20th century, and then dropped off the radar. It’s unfortunate that Salem spends so much time playing up the “witch” aspect of its past, to the point that it’s nothing more than a kitschy marketing tool in many instances, while letting other genuinely interesting events such as the one you’ve highlighted here slip into obscurity.

    • daseger

      I guess there can only be one (collective) Lexington and Concord! I get tired of beating the witch drum, so thanks for doing it for me.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        Well, there’s nothing like boiling nearly 400 years of a town’s history into an episode that lasted a couple of years or so, right?

        I just finished a book on Roger Williams and had no idea of his ties to Salem. Now that’s something that’s interesting and worth highlighting: One of America’s great minds spent time in Salem at a pivotal point in his life and that of our nation. How many communities can make similar claims? Perhaps Williams’ role in Salem is noted in the community but I don’t know it because I’m 500 miles away. But this marketing to the lowest common denominator to bring in the largest amount of money, of which Salem is far from the only culprit, is tiresome and troubling.

  • markd60

    True what Cotton Ball says, this is much more interesting than the witch heritage of Salem.

  • daseger

    I assume you two would be supporters of the proposed “Salem Gunpowder Day” holiday:

  • Matt

    What is curious to me (and perhaps I need to read one of these books to understand it) is why the British would land in Marblehead and not Salem, which I assume had a bigger port. Adding nearly five miles to the march seems like both an unnecessary use of shoe leather and more time to “warn” the militia that trouble was coming. Was Leslie an reluctant participant in this investigation from the beginning (doing all he could not to find what he was sent to find), or was it something else?

    • daseger

      I think they were going for an element of surprise, Matt–sailing into Marblehead on a Sunday, when all the pious Salem people would supposedly by in church. But in retrospect it does not seem like a good idea!

  • deedeemallon

    what a great post! thanks! I’ve recently read and then re-read Hoffer’s book on the Stono Slave Rebellion (SC, 1739). After reading the book, I wondered why the events of that day weren’t more prominently taught in any history class I’d sat in… perhaps a little similar to how you feel about this event?

  • Committee of Correspondence

    Thank you for this splendid report. The research is good and the sharing of resources are perfect. This link will be given in the upcoming post of the Committee of Correspondence.
    Again thanks for providing your article to the public.

  • James Conway

    First off, great blog. Accidentally stumbled onto this looking for something else, and am happy to stay. My entire paternal family is from Salem going back four generations, some of them still live there, and my fiancee liked it a lot better than my hometown of Cambridge so it’ll probably be where I end up too. We are both history nerds as well, so this is a great site for a variety of reasons.

    Can’t agree more about the need to differentiate from the Witch City image and focus on the other fascinating stuff. Dad really brought it home for me when I was growing up how this was once a thriving center of commerce and culture, and one of the earliest cosmopolitan cities in the Republic with the China trade and all.

    Dad grew up in the 50s, and back then Leslie’s Retreat was something every 8th grader had to do a project on (at least at Immaculate Conception Elementary-now defunct), and he also had to do two more local history projects in his freshmen and sophomore years at Salem High. It is unfortunate this has fallen into disuse. I remember reading a great YA historical novel set in Revolutionary Salem as a middle schooler, can’t seem to find the title despite my best google searching.

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    […] map from the Exeter Institute via Donna Seger’s blog Streets of Salem, which has a great write-up on Leslie’s […]

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