Re-engaging with Leslie’s Retreat

Salem is gearing up for a multi-event, multi-venue commemoration of a key event in its history and American history: Leslie’s Retreat, whereby a crowd of civilians compelled the 250-strong 64th Regiment of the Foot under the command of Colonel Alexander Leslie to retreat to Boston on February 26, 1775. The Redcoats came in search of rumored cannon and military stores and left with nothing: a week later the Essex Gazette brazenly reported that twenty-seven pieces of cannon were removed out of this town [neighboring Danvers], to be out of the way of the robbers. No shots were fired and no one was (really) hurt, but a stand was taken that would lead to more standing, most dramatically at Lexington and Concord, several weeks later. The significance of this stand-off was recognized in both the colonial and British papers at the time, and for several months thereafter: passages from the London Public Advertiser (May 2, 1775) and the Gazette (March 7, 1775) are representative of the not-too divergent perspectives.

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The British view: REBELS enough to have eaten them up.      

And the American: not less than 12 or 15,000 men would have been assembled in this town within twenty-four hours after the alarm, had not the precipitate retreat of the troops from the Draw-Bridge prevented it.

Press accounts on both sides of the Atlantic generally portrayed the Salem event (along with the colonial capture of Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth Harbor in December 1774) as a prelude to the larger opening acts of the Revolution: Lexington and Concord. And that’s pretty much the standard view for the next 200+ years, with occasional moments (like this one!) in which the event’s significance is recognized for its own merits. I’ve written a more detailed post on the actual event before; now I’m more interested in the history of its commemoration, which was shaped by two key factors: its name and its anniversaries. Events generally become “historic” when they are named, and remembered in some form or fashion on anniversaries, and Leslie’s Retreat was no exception. The first reference that I can find to the name dates from 1840, but after the publication of Charles Moses Endicott’s Account of Leslie’s retreat at the North bridge in Salem in 1856 it really stuck, leading to a commemorative “oration”in 1862, a major Centennial commemoration in 1875, the dedication of a memorial stone in 1886, and anniversary services in 1896, 1902, 1925, and finally (long gap here), 1975. Leslie’s Retreat was also an “act” in the elaborate Salem Pageant of 1913, during which several scenarios of Salem history were reenacted by local notables to reinforce proper American values and benefit the House of the Seven Gables. The Centennial was marked with bell-ringing throughout the city at morning, noon and night, a 100-gun salute, flags unfurled everywhere, and a ceremony filled with addresses and hymns, while the Bicentennial featured a reenactment and a ball–just like this year–and inspired national headlines (The Shot Not Heard around the World).

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The 1875 Memorial Arch and Program; Colonial dress-up for act #4 of the Salem Pageant, 1913; 1975 reenactment.

I can’t find any big splashy commemorations between 1925 and 1975, with the exception of the Salem and Marblehead tercentenaries in 1926 and 1929, but that doesn’t mean Leslie’s Retreat was forgotten: it became part of the civic curriculum, so much so that I found repeated references in the local papers along the lines of the story of Leslie’s Retreat is too well-know to be recounted here. A commenter on my earlier post noted that in the 1950s “Leslie’s Retreat was something every 8th grader had to do a project on” in Salem. The event received national attention again in 1960-61, when an American Heritage article by Eric W. Barnes (All the King’s Horses…and All the King’s Men, with charming illustrations by Edward –see below ) was reprinted in all of the major dailies. Still, I can’t help but think that the rise of Witch City overwhelmed Salem’s revolutionary reputation.

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Edward Sorel’s illustrations for American Heritage, October 1960.

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(Re-) engaging with Leslie’s Retreat in 2017:  A community reenactment this coming Sunday, on its 242nd anniversary, at the First Church on Essex Street from 11:00 to 1:00; a talk by Dr. Peter Charles Hoffer, author of Prelude to Revolution. The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775 on March 26 at the Pickering House; a talk by J.L. Bell, author and super-blogger at Boston 1775 on “The Salem Connection” on April 7 at the Salem Athenaeum; a March to Revolution walking tour through Marblehead on April 8; and a “Salem Resistance Ball” at Hamilton Hall, also on April 8. 


4 responses to “Re-engaging with Leslie’s Retreat

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