Tag Archives: Leslie’s Retreat

Reports of Leslie’s Retreat

This weekend brings the third annual commemorative reenactment of “Leslie’s Retreat” to Salem, an enthusiastic event that I think everyone enjoys because of its non-commercial, non-1692 focus: at least I do! The reenactment marks an event which might have sparked the American Revolution weeks before Lexington and Concord, if shots had been fired; it was nonetheless a notable occurrence of an armed (and potentially very dangerous) resistance. In late February of 1775 General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, got wind of a store of cannon in Salem and dispatched Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie and 240 soldiers of the 64th Regiment by ship from Boston to Marblehead on the 26th (a Sunday!), with instructions to march to Salem and seize them. There’s a lot of whispering and distrust in this story as the “Tory” and “Patriot” sides do not seem firm, but several Marblehead patriots rode ahead in Revere-like fashion and warned the people of Salem, and thus “the Sabbath was disturbed”. By the time the soldiers arrived in Salem a crowd had assembled in the vicinity of the (old) North Bridge, as across the North River was the blacksmith’s shop where the cannons were being affixed to field carriages. A prolonged standoff ensued with the drawbridge raised, during which the cannons were moved west, several ending up in Concord, I believe. The bridge was lowered so that Colonel Leslie could fulfill his orders, but it was too late, and so he and his troops turned around and marched back to Marblehead, their ship, and Boston. I’ve written about this event several times (here and here), there’s a nice narrative of events here, and the most insightful accounts are on J.L. Bell’s brilliant blog Boston 1775 (I especially like this post but check this one out too, and this one), so there is no need to go into any more detail, but there are three issues I’d like to raise, two “open” and one relatively new (I think, maybe not, not my period!), all from newspaper accounts written in the weeks after Colonel Leslie’s retreat from Salem.

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Leslies Retreat Newport Mercury

Leslies Retreat March 15 Masthead

There is some back-and-forth, especially in the first few weeks after the Retreat, but for the most part the papers are essentially publishing the standard story first published by the Essex Gazette. There are so many details to this story, however, that it’s notable what is put in and what is left out. So here are my “outstanding” issues, in the form of a question and two comments.

How many damn cannon(s) were there in Salem?  I can’t lock down the number (and I know “cannon” is plural but I think I have to use cannons here). Apparently General Gage had received reports that old ships’ cannons were being converted in Salem and eight additional cannons had been imported from abroad, while the Essex Register’s report on the Retreat included the assertion that twenty-seven pieces of cannon were removed out of this town, in order to be out of the way of the robbers. I’ve read (and quoted) seventeen cannons, nineteen cannons, and twenty cannons. I think we’ve go to go with the eyewitness account cited by J.L. Bell, in which Samuel Gray, who was nine years old at the time, went into the smithy on the day after and asked how many cannons had been there the day before and was told twelve; understood they were French pieces, and came from Nova Scotia after the late French war; were guns taken from the French; does not know to whom they belonged previous to being fitted up on this occasion. TWELVE. Gray’s remembrances were in response to interviews that Charles Moses Endicott conducted to produce his Leslie’s Retreat; or the Resistance to British Arms, at the North Bridge in Salem, on Sunday, the 26th of February of 1775, which was first published as a separate Proceeding of the Essex Institute in 1856.

 (The remembrance and reconstruction of what became known as “Leslie’s Retreat” enable us to see how Salem’s history was collected, preserved and interpreted by the Essex Institute, one of the founding institutions of today’s Peabody Essex Museum. Contrary to the claims of the PEM leadership: yes, the Essex Institute DID function as a historical society, and that’s why its historical collections, including its publications and historical manuscripts and texts assembled in the Phillips Library, constitute an important archive of Salem’s history, and no, no institution is fulfilling that role for Salem now, so the decisions to end the Institute’s interpretation and collection missions and remove its archival collections from Salem will have far-reaching consequences. These decisions were made by Mr. Dan Monroe, and since he has announced his retirement it is time to consider his legacy—and this is a truly momentous one.) Sorry–the spirit of RESISTANCE overwhelmed me!

Back to the question of the cannon(s): for some reason Endicott goes with 17 in his account, which has become classic, but he includes Gray’s number in his footnotes, clearly giving some credence to his claim. I don’t know why we can’t believe the boy: certainly his would have been a crystalline memory.

Major Pedrick was a Tory! None of the contemporary reports of the events of February 26, 1775 mention Major John Pedrick as the “alarming” figure who rode ahead of Leslie’s troops to warn the citizens of Salem of their imminent arrival, nor does Endicott. That’s because his role was made up after Endicott’s account. Pedrick was in fact a wealthy Tory who would not have been motivated to play such a conspicuous role at this time; he came around a bit later but anonymous Marbleheaders warned Salem on that Sabbath day. Again, I am relying on J.L. Bell’s succinct analysis of the “myth” of Major Pedrick, which has been perpetuated in the most recent scholarship as well as our reenactment. I was also inspired by Bell’s post to look around and see what else was made up about our event, particularly in the “creative” Marblehead accounts of the later nineteenth century. Samuel Roads Jr.’s History and Traditions of Marblehead (1880) turns Leslie’s Retreat into an all-Marblehead affair: Pedrick is prominent, of course, along with an entire Marblehead Regiment that came to Salem to take up with Leslie’s troops. Not a single Salem name is mentioned in Roads’ account, but we do hear of one Robert Wormsted, one of the young men from Marblehead,—who afterwards distinguished himself by his daring and bravery,—[and ] engaged in  an encounter with some of the soldiers. He was a skillful fencer, and, with his cane for a weapon, succeeded in disarming six of the regulars. Wow. No mention in Endicott of this cane-wielding Wormsted—or Pedrick—but Marblehead folk artist J.O.J Frost seems to have cemented the latter’s place in history in his early twentieth-century painting Major Pedrick. To the Town of Salem, to Give the Alarm.

Leslies Retreat Frost Courtesy Skinner Auctions; note the anachronistic photo inserted on the right.

“Anniversary History” was alive and well in 1775: Even in the standard reports of Leslie’s Retreat published in the week after, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of what had just happened in Salem and the imminent fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Side by side we can read of Leslie’s “ridiculous” expedition and “an Oration, in commemoration of the Massacre, perpetuated in King-Street, on the 5th of March, 1770, by Joseph Warren, Esq.” and several reports made the connection between the two, which occurred on successive sabbaths. Dr. Warren actually spoke on March 6, 1775, and I wish he had referenced Salem, but he did not. Nevertheless, you can really feel the drumbeat of rebellion when you read the New England papers published in March of 1775: there are lessons to be learned and anecdotes to be memorialized. The editors of the Newport Mercury were also thinking historically when they opined that as our brave ancestors used to carry their implements of war with them to their places of worship during the Indian wars, perhaps our brethren of the Massachusetts Bay have good reason to make use of the same precaution at this day. I also can’t resist adding another eyewitness testimony here, from a “True Son of Old Ireland” who was on the spot, as well as my very favorite photograph of the First Reenactment of Leslie’s Retreat, two years ago: these guys played their roles really well.

Leslies Retreat Lessons Learned Newport Mercury March 6

Essex Gazette March 7 1775 Leslies Retreat

Leslies Retreat best photoThe Newport Mercury of March 6, 1775 and the Essex Gazette of March 7, 1775; Lt. Colonel Leslie (Charlie Newhall!!!) exasperated and outflanked two years ago.

Commemorating Leslie’s Retreat on February 24:  Reenactment at 11:15-11:30 for Redcoats (meet at Hamilton Hall) and Patriots (meet at the First Church). Reception afterwards at First Church.

A Staged Reading of Endicott’s Leslie’s Retreat at the Pickering House by Keith Trickett, 3pm: https://pickeringhouse.org/events/special-leslies-retreat-performance/.

Toast the Retreat and Salem’s Resistance at O’Neill’s Pub on Washington Street from 4-7pm.

And coming in April: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall: https://www.hamiltonhall.org/full-event-calendar/2019/2/1/resistance-ball


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. 


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