Tag Archives: American Revolution

Leslie Retreats Again

The 242nd anniversary of Leslie’s Retreat was marked by a spirited reenactment in Salem yesterday, with the central “characters” reprising their roles earnestly and enthusiastically amidst an equally enthusiastic crowd. I stopped over at Hamilton Hall first, where I heard the British were gathering, and was not surprised to encounter Colonel Leslie himself there, with his adjutant and a few supporters in scarlet. I was surprised to run into Major Pedrick from Marblehead on my way out (well, I knew they knew each other…..), but he (in the form of my old friend David Williams, whom I understand is a Pedrick descendant) walked on ahead to the First Church to give the alarm. There we waited a while for events to unfold, but once they did some serious parleying ensued between Colonel Leslie, Colonels Pickering and Mason from the local militia, and the Reverend Thomas Barnard, who had burst out of his church and rallied his congregation to the bridge (or rather a convenient parking lot adjacent to the present-day overpass) so that he could mediate. The discussion was heated, but eventually Colonel Leslie was allowed to cross over the bridge/overpass– a much dicier endeavor in 2017 than 1775 owing to traffic. When no cannon was found on the other side, the ever-gracious Reverend Barnard invited the Colonel–and all of us– to retreat to the First Church parish hall for refreshments, which made for an appropriate end to an event of compromise and commemoration.

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Colonel Leslie (Charlie Newhall) and The Reverend Thomas Barnard (The Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell) face-off in 2017; a great day for community and picture-taking.


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. 


Salem in the 1770s

For this year’s July Fourth commemoration, I have gathered some Salem structures built in the 1770s so we can see some semblance of the city during that revolutionary decade. Salem has quite a few extant colonial structures, but not as many as you would imagine: it has long been a city, and also a relatively prosperous place, and economic development is a major impediment to historic preservation. I try to qualify every statement that I make about Salem’s history with the caveat I am not an American historian, but my constant consideration of the city’s built landscape has convinced me that the narrative that Salem entered a prolonged period of economic decline following the War of 1812 is mythology: many, many structures were built after 1820, after 1850, after 1870. Salem is more of a later nineteenth-century city than a Federal one, though its Federal architecture remains conspicuous. As for its colonial architecture, it seems to me that there are more structures from the mid-eighteenth century rather than the later part of the century, though there was definitely a mini-boom in the 1790s. Colonial houses are found on Salem’s side streets rather than its main thoroughfares, though Essex Street, Salem’s original “highway”, features several: it is definitely the most historically diverse street in the city. There are many colonial houses in the streets around Derby Street, a neighborhood that does not have the status or the protection of an historic district, consequently debacles like this can and will happen. I found quite a few houses from the decade of the 1770s thought nothing that was built in 1773 or 1778, and no structure survives from that very busy year of 1776 either, though there was definitely one big construction project that year: Fort Lee.

1770: Federal and Turner Streets.

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1771: Federal, Summer & Turner Streets.

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1772: Derby Street

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1774: Broad Street

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1775: Cambridge Street

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1776: Fort Lee on Salem Neck

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1777: Essex and River Streets

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1777 River

1779: Turner and Beckford Streets

1779 Turner Street

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By no means an exhaustive list!


A Soldier of the Massachusetts Line

I don’t think Revolutionary War soldiers get the attention they deserve in terms of commemoration–on Memorial Day and every day. There is insufficient or nonexistent appreciation of their suffering and their sacrifice, certainly here in Salem, where our most prominent statues pay tribute to a “planter”, a diplomat, a temperance leader, Hawthorne, and a fictional television witch. There are monuments to those who served in the Civil War and World War I and II, but I’ve always wondered why the Salem men who served in the Revolutionary War have received so little recognition–beyond their individual graves, most of which do not even reference their service. Maybe that’s why. These were men who served and then came back home with little fanfare and recognition: quiet, anonymous men for the most part, with the exception of the perplexing Timothy Pickering and dashing privateers like Jonathan Haraden. Both Pickering and Haraden are buried in the Broad Street Cemetery behind my house, and I walked over there very early this morning to look upon their graves, as well as those of their comrades. By all accounts, there are nine veterans of the Revolutionary War buried in the Broad Street Cemetery, but only Pickering’s and Haraden’s graves are marked with flags.

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Not far from the Pickering graves is a single dark stone marking the grave of Joshua Cross, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and his wife Lydia Derby Cross, both of whom died on May 24: he in 1829 and she in 1837. I have long appreciated this marker: it stands alone, in excellent condition, and it does refer to his service (but still no flag: I have planted one in past years and will this year too). According to his pension application, Cross served in the “Massachusetts Line” for only one year–from January 1776 until January 1777–and did not rise above the rank of Private, but the details of his service indicate that he might have seen some action! Here is his story, in his own words:

I, Joshua Cross of Salem in the County of Essex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts on solemn oath declare that I enlisted into the service of the late United Colonies, in the Revolutionary War, on the Continental establishment, in the month of January in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy six as a private soldier in the Company then under the command of Ensign Gould and called General Lee’s life guard, said company belonging to the____ Regiment of the Massachusetts line, under the command of Col. Little that I continued in the service of the said United Colonies until the month of January in the year seventeen hundred and seventy seven, when my term of service expired, and returned home–I have no recollection of having received my discharge in writing, and believe it was not usual at that time to give such discharges–and further declare aforesaid that from reduced circumstances I need the assistance of my country for support.

This statement gives us enough information to place Cross in Colonel Moses Little’s 12th Continental Regiment, which saw action in the Siege of Boston, on Long Island,  and at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton during his service. It’s a bit confusing, because I think our Joshua has been confused with a “Joseph Cross” in Volume 4 of Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. A Compilation from the Archives (1898), and I know that this particular “life guard” of  General [Charles] Lee under the command of Ensign [Benjamin] Gould made it to New York but I’m not quite sure about New Jersey. But it’s quite possible that our humble Salem housewright, with no flag by his grave, served at Trenton and Princeton alongside General Washington. But you think he would have mentioned that!

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Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, Memorial Day Weekend 2016


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.

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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.

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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!

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Salem Lots

Several years ago, Bonhams Auctions held an auction of items from the Caren Archive, the largest private collection of American documents from the colonial era to the present. It was an extremely profitable event for all concerned, and so now there is a second sale coming up, and this one features several notable Salem items. The April 11 “Treasures from the Caren Archives II: How History Unfolds” auction comprises a wide variety of paper lots, among them one of the earliest English reports on the Salem Witch Trials, a 1777 financial document in which the Widow Sarah Putnam agreed to finance the Salem privateer Pluto during the American Revolution,  the “preliminaries of peace” negotiations that brought the Revolution to a close as reported by the Salem Gazette, Andrew Jackson’s 1834 State of the Union address, also reported in the Gazette, and a list of the Salem donors who contributed to William Henry Harrison’s successful presidential campaign in 1840.There’s also a great mezzotint image of Major-General Israel “Old Put” Putnam made in 1775 by Salem printer Joseph Hiller, based on a painting by Benjamin Blyth–very similar to the portrait of John Hancock this very pair produced in that same year.

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Selling Salem Putnam 1795

Salem Gazette 1783 Preliminaries of Peace

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Selling Salem 1840

Salem Lots from the upcoming Bonhams Auction of items from the Caren Archive: Memoirs of the Present State of Europe, or the Monthly Account of Occurrences Ecclesiastical, Civil and Military. Vol II. No 1 [-12]. London: printed for Robert Clavel and Jonathan Robinson and Samuel Crouch, 1692-93;  BLYTH, BENJAMIN. 1746-1786. The Honble Israel Putnam Esqr. Major General of the United Forces of America. Salem, [MA]: printed by Joseph Hiller, [1775]; Salem Gazettes from 1783 and 1834; A handwritten list of 47 Whig subscribers offering to contribute funds to the campaign of William Henry Harrison, Salem, June 1840.

The two items that interest me the most are the 1693 London periodical and (oddly enough), the list of William Henry Harrison campaign donors. 1693 is very late in the history of the European Witch Hunt, and you would expect English reactions to the Salem trials to run along the lines of those backward, superstitious colonials, but this correspondent is not quite so condemnatory. He does however express the emerging enlightened mentality : In my opinion a Rational person, who is not Convinced of the Matter by his own Eyes, ought to suspend his judgment and to remain in a kind of Skepticism, until Experience shall receive farther illustrations from Experience. The Harrison document is interesting not because of the 47 names of Salem men listed (familiar prominent names) but because it sheds light on campaign finances in the mid-nineteenth century: the money went not to the production of hand-bills or newspaper advertising, but to defray the expenses of the Whig celebrations of the Fourth of July ensuing in addition to the cost of the collations…..” . Firecrackers and food (and drink), no doubt.


Three Hancocks

If I were to participate in the Outings public art project featured in my last post, the image that I would convey from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum to the streets of Salem would be a small mezzotint of John Hancock made by Salem engraver-silversmith Joseph Hiller after a John Singleton Copley painting from the early 1770s. There are actually two of these Hiller prints extant (at least), and I would love to see them side by side (I guess I can!). The Peabody Essex print is actually the second state: the Shepard Fairey-ish image in the collection of the National Museum of American History is an earlier impression. The Hiller prints were made about 1775, after Hancock has assumed the role of President of the Continental Congress, as is a third print after Copley rendered by the British engraver William Smith: the smuggler patriot was now famous on both sides of the Atlantic. I think there is an interesting comparison to be made here: the close-up, unframed impressions of the American Hiller are more intimate and immediate than Smith’s version, even though the latter’s techniques seem to have stood the test of time a bit better.

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Joseph Hiller (1746–1814) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775. Inscribed lower left border “Jos. Hiller fecit.” Mezzotint with watercolor, 9-7/8 x 7-7/8 inches. Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; and The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Museum of American History; William Smith (1750-1825?) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Portrait Gallery.

I think I’m drawn to these images because Hancock has always been one of my favorite founding fathers: certainly the one with whom I had the earliest and most immediate connection because of his still-standing wharf and warehouse in my hometown. Later on, when I moved to Massachusetts and became interested in preservation issues, the images and story of his martyred mansion became the cautionary tale. And I must admit that his portrayal by the British actor Rafe Spall was just about the only thing that kept me watching the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty miniseries a few months ago.

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Hancock broadside 1777

Two more Hancocks. The source: John Singleton Copley’s portrait, c. 1770-72, Massachusetts Historical Society; a Salem-printed broadside from the end of Hancock’s term as president of the Continental Congress and “the first year of American Independence”, National Portrait Gallery.


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