A Tale of Two Salem Patriots

Timothy Pickering (1745-1829), who rose to serve successively as Colonel of the Essex County Militia to Washington’s Adjutant General, Quartermaster General, and Secretary of War and President Adams’ Secretary of State is probably Salem’s best-known “Patriot”, but during the Battles of Lexington and Concord (commemorated in Massachusetts and Maine as Patriots’ Day on the third Monday of April) he was, shall we say unengaged, while another Salem man died in the bloodiest skirmish of the day. This was Benjamin Peirce, a baker by profession, 37 years old, who fought alongside men from Danvers, Beverly, Lynn and several other communities in their effort to halt (or at least hinder) the British retreat back to Boston. As far as I can tell, he died in the violent “Battle of Menotomy”(Arlington) in and around the still bullet-riddled Jason Russell House with Pickering yet to arrive on the scene (having stopped at not one but two taverns for refreshments). And when the Colonel with his 300+ Essex County militiamen finally arrived in the area, another decision was made to disengage, enabling the British to reach Boston. I know Pickering’s actions (or lack thereof) on April 19, 1775 have been debated almost from that very date, but from a parochial perspective he clearly pales in comparison with Peirce, the only Salem militiaman to die on that fateful day. Peirce’s heroism was recognized at the time by the entrepreneurial Salem printer Ezekiel Russell, who published Bloody Butchery, by the British Troops; of the Runaway Fight of the Regulars just a few days later.

Bloody Butcheryp

Russell House Whitefield

BLOODY BUTCHERY, BY THE BRITISH TROOPS; OR THE RUNAWAY FIGHT OF THE REGULARS, with Peirce’s identified coffin in the second row, second from right, published in The Salem Gazette, from E. RUSSELL’S Salem Gazette, or Newbury and Marblehead Advertiser, Friday, April 21, 1775; the Russell House–where Peirce died–from Edwin Whitefields’s
Homes of our Forefathers (1879).

There was also an individual elegy for Peirce penned by Russell:  We sore regret poor Peirce’s death,  A stroke to Salem known, Where tears did flow from every brow, When the sad tidings come. There was, however, no coffin: Peirce was buried in a mass grave in Arlington along with some of his compatriots, excepting the Danvers martyrs who were returned to that town. No one from Salem came for Benjamin, so he is still there, in the Old Burying Ground behind the First Parish Unitarian Church on Massachusetts Avenue. I cannot find any reference (or sign) of a monument to this native son in Salem until the erection of a bicentennial plaque (under a liberty tree which appears to have not survived) by Historic Salem, Inc., in a rather odd spot–adjacent to a parking lot on Church Street.

Peirce 6

Peirce 2

Peirce 8

Peirce 10

Peirce 7

Three plaques for Peirce in Arlington–one in Salem, below,  adjacent to parking lot: while fictional Samantha gets an entire (very visible) square to herself!

Peirce 3

Peirce 5

13 responses to “A Tale of Two Salem Patriots

  • bonniehurdsmith

    I love that cemetery (and that church). Early Harvard presidents are there as well. Donna, FYI, each year at the annual First Muster event in April, the part of the day that takes place at Armory Park includes a reading, with solemn drum rolls, of the names of the men who died in the Rev. War — including Peirce.

    Given the fact that Stephen Abbot, the first CO of the Second Corps of Cadets is buried (somewhere) under St. Peter’s and there is a marker for him in that tiny remnant of a cemetery, and given the fact that John Glover was born on Church Street, I wonder if HSI was at one time contemplating an early military something in that area? Not a bad idea!

  • helenbreen01

    Hi Donna,

    Glad you are remembering the humble baker Benjamin Pierce of Salem who gave his life at Menotomy. I was not aware of Pickering’s part (or lack of) on that day.

    May I add the name of Daniel Townsend of Lynnfield and others from Essex County who did not return on April 19, 1775? Attaching a piece I just wrote in the same vein in the Lynnfield paper.


    You had great pics too…

  • Rick Ouellette

    Great post. I have been past that monument in the Arlington many times without realizing that connection. That plaque in Salem I would have to trip over to recognize, never noticed. Thanks for this great historic background.

    • daseger

      Thanks Rick. I think we need to know more–I’m going to get some of my Americanist colleagues to weigh in! In the meantime, YES, can’t we do better with that monument?

  • Jim Trumbull (@jctrumbull3)

    I thoroughly appreciate your passion for Salem and its history, share your concerns over ‘witch’ tourism, and look forward to receiving notice whenever you post something new. As a descendent of several of Salem’s old families-including the Pickerings, you’ve given me fresh, objective and well-researched, anecdotal information that has helped me to fill in blank spaces in my limited research, while bringing several family members to life with your fresh and honest perspective, and I thank you for that. As with many small towns, if families stay put long enough, sooner or later, much cross-pollination occurs. With the benefit of an old, fan-shaped family tree spread out before me, I know that Timothy Pickering’s sister, Lucia, is my great-grandmother. One generation later, her daughter, Catherine married John Stone, who’s great-grand father was Roger Conant. Catherine’s daughter, Lucia Pickering Stone married John Robinson. It’s a tight-knit little town from my position on the family tree, generations later.

    Regarding Timothy Pickering, my understanding is that his stubbornness (and arrogance, I presume) was his undoing throughout his life, and you elude to his being ‘unengaged’ for the battles of Lexington and Concord. Are you able to elaborate? It sounds as if there’s more behind the italics and the mention of the tavern stops than you’ve let on. Clearly Benjamin Pierce was patriot on that fateful day, and deserves to be honored and remembered.

    • daseger

      Hi Jim, I so appreciate your comments (and your heritage!) and don’t mean to diss your ancestor who obviously led a life of service but his actions that day are perplexing to me! I really hope one or several of the Revolution historians who I know check in from time to time will weigh in on this as the Revolution does not fall within my period or expertise. BUT I must support my comments, so I will do so–in part with more questions.
      1) when the alarm came, Pickering did not mobilize, but sent several companies ahead, including the Danvers one. I don’t know precisely which company Benjamin Peirce fell in with; I wish I did.
      2) Pickering’s unit stopped in several taverns!!!! I really don’t know anymore than that other than no one seems to dispute it.
      3) When he got to the vicinity of Winter Hill, he SAW the British troops but did not engage. Apparently he was ordered not to–or it seemed pointless at that point; again, I don’t know.
      Stay tuned–I’ll get some experts to weigh in.

  • Jim Trumbull (@jctrumbull3)

    Donna, truth trumps all, so please, feel free to ‘diss’ away in the name of historical accuracy. I simply appreciate the opportunity to learn more from dedicated historians like yourself, always. Your allusion to there being more to the story (and I blame auto spell check for ‘elude’ in my earlier correspondence, sorry) has me intrigued, and I’ll look forward to the possibility of more on the subject in future posts.

    Thank you!

  • Dane Morrison

    Nice essay, Donna. Provacative and insightful, as always.

    Pickering’s actions on April 19 have puzzled participants on that day and historians since. Many militia groups moved precipitously, and 3,000 Essex County men crossed fields and forests to reach the men of Lexington and Concord, abjuring the customary roads as too indirect. But, Pickering delayed, and historians share a consensus about the fact.

    What accounts for Pickering’s “dalliance”? Arthur Tourtellot, in Lexington and Concord (1959), styles him “the only militia officer who took an unexcited view of the day’s affairs” [201]. Tourtellot provides the Colonel some latitude, suggesting that he received the news at 8 or 9 am, assumed that the battles were over, and, especially, was “a conservative Whig” who wished to avoid bloodshed and leave open a door for reconciliation. Ronald Tagney’s The World Turned Upside Down (1989) also suggests faulty judgment, positing that assumed the battle was over by mid-morning. David Hackett Fischer, in Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), calls Pickering “very slow that day,” delaying until “a private soldier … told him in no uncertain terms to get moving” [157].

    Surprising still was Pickering’s actions at Winter Hill in Medford. Although Tagney asserts that Pickering spotted British troops at a distance, Fischer claims that the Colonel could have cut off Lord Percy’s retreat to Charlestown [Fischer, 160]. Tourtellot quotes none other than Washington, who suggested that the British force would have surrendered if Pickering’s militia had stood in their way [Tourtellot, 202].

    But, what does this tell us about Pickering’s patriotism? In reflecting on her current biography of Jefferson, Most Blessed of the Patriots (co-authored with Peter Onuf), Annette Gordon-Reed advises caution in passing judgment on historical figures, given how little we can ever really know about their “interior lives.” The same applies to the current debate over “’Hamilton’ and History.” Perhaps the last word should go to Pickering himself. Reflecting on the aftermath of Lexington and Concord and suggestions to form an American army:

    [T]he hostilities of the preceding day did not render a civil war
    inevitable: That a negotiation with Gen. Gage my probably affect a
    present compromise and therefore that the immediate formation of an
    army did not appear to me to be necessary.

    • daseger

      Thanks Dane! You have given substance to my rather cavalier characterization of Pickering. Here we have a real expert on the Revolution and its participants, dear readers. The contrast between Benjamin Peirce’s sacrifice and Pickering’s non-action was just too sharp for me!

  • bonniehurdsmith

    Sad to read this, but that’s the trouble with documentation.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: