While I usually make plans to be as far away from Salem as possible on Columbus/Indigenous Day weekend to avoid the crowds and traffic, we had obligations this year so I was stuck in town. I can hide in my house or run over to the Salem Woods to escape the tourists, but not my feelings of anxiety at this time of year. It’s really hard for me to embrace the party as I can’t forget it is based on collective and individual tragedy so I’m just kind of seething in Salem. I wish I could lighten up, but I can’t so the best thing to do is get out of town: if not for a weekend at least for a day, or even a few hours. So as soon as I heard the laughter outside of my house I ran outside, jumped in the car, and drove north. The Newburys (Newbury, Newburyport, West Newbury) always calm me down with their seemingly endless inventory of perfectly restored old houses and litterless streets. Plus, this weekend the “Battle for Newbury” was on at Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little House: certainly a Revolutionary-war reenactment would distract me. And it did.
Two preserved early Colonial houses in very different places: Salem’s Witch or Corwin House and Historic New England’s Dole-Little House in Newbury. Heading north on Route 1A you come to another HNE property, the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, scene of the annual “Battle for Newbury.” Abbreviated tours of the house, which is dated 1690 with many later additions, were offered so I popped in with a bunch of soldiers (dining-room mantle, Federal parlor and back staircase above) but it was such a beautiful day to be outside!
So of course the real battles for Newbury occcurred across the pond during the English Civil Wars but it’s always fun to be with people who crave history, even in an idealized sense. That is certainly not the environment in Salem. And it was peaceful in Newbury, even with the mid-afternoon skirmish: clearly the reenactors, both soldiers and civilians, like to spend time together indulging in camp life. There were colonials from Rhode Island and Acton and Marblehead, Massachusetts, and the redcoats in His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot are from Wrentham, I think (though they drill in Lexington). After a few hours at the Farm, I made a little tour of other seventeenth-century structures in Newbury and Newburyport and ended up at another Historic New England house, the CoffinHouse (1678), home to generations of the prolific Coffin family. I had a great tour and learned all about the evolution of the house, from its later seventeenth-century origins (oriented south), to its 1712 addition (what you see in “front” from Route 1A), and its 19th century division (so many interior windows!) and acquisition by Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in that fateful year of 1929. So much history, so much texture! So calm.
The Coffin House in Newbury: exterior and original (back) house and newer (1712) addition in front: main room, bedroom, buttery, Georgian kitchen and parlors.
There is filming or preparation for filming all around us this July: on Salem Common, in Forest River Park, in nearby Danvers and Marblehead. On Saturday I drove over to see Marblehead’s Old Town dressed as Salem during Halloween for a Netflix film starring Adam Sandler titled Hubie Halloween. I knew that the Revolutionary reenactment company Glover’sRegiment would also be camped out at Fort Sewall in Marblehead, and I thought the two “sets” might make for an interesting cultural clash. I was right: it was a theatrical afternoon. I have to admit to being a little annoyed that Salem could not play itself: we have to deal with the real Halloween but aren’t good enough to play the fake one? But watching the set designers put together their perfect Halloween town, it was obvious that they were going for a cute, hometown Halloween, not the darker version that has emerged in Witch City. At least Salem Common will see some action. The camp at Fort Sewall was well-established by the time I got there, with cream canvas tents all in a row, and visiting “French” and “British” soldiers—the latter were appropriately camped outside the fort’s walls! For an hour or so, it really did seem like I was wandering around some Hollywood backlot to go from Halloween in July to an eighteenth-century encampment.
I do not think that most professional historians care for reenactments of past events, primarily because of their belief that people in the present can never truly “reenact” the past and so any attempt to do so will lead inevitably to trivialization. There is also a general disdain for battle reenactments, which seem to dominate such endeavors. I share those views, but I also see a lot of positive aspects of communities coming together to explore various aspects of their past. I think activity is important, especially for the generation I’m teaching now, whose engagement in the past seems confined to video games. I was fortunate to grow up around reenactments of the more “festival” type, so I don’t associate period dress-up with formations necessarily, and here in Salem I’m an enthusiastic supporter of any attention to any event that does not revolve around profiteering from the tragic events of 1692. Looking at reenactment trends, it appears that we’re moving away from big battles and towards progressive social movements: suffragists, labor actions, protests. There are attempts to capture the spirit of the past in more engaging “pop-ups”, rather than by slavish devotion to every little stitch: just contrast this New York Times article about the diminished ranks at Gettysburg with this blog post on events celebrating Chicago’s more colorful past. Even though I am having real difficulties with the writing of PBS’s Victoria this year, I did like Lucy Worsley’s recreation and reenactment of Victoria and Albert’s 1840 wedding, which was all about the details: dress, venue, menu, CAKE. BUT Worsley was able to take all those details and weave them into something that had lasting significance: the reinvention of the British monarchy in the nineteenth century through big majestic events. Obviously we are still affected by royal weddings today.
Leslie’s Retreat (which happened on this date in 1775), is a perfect event for reenactment as it involves both a military maneuver and social protest against that maneuver, is a local event that can be tied into a much larger context, and must be played out with both words and actions. Despite the weather, the third annual enactment went off very well on Sunday: instead of taking it outside and down to the riverside, everything happened in the confines of the First Church. Even though his role is mythical, Major Pedrick warned the congregation of the imminent arrival of the British, they marched, the compromise was reached, and the reception began.
I am not showing you Major Pedrick because he should not have been there!
Reenactments can trap you in their details if you are not careful. Even though it was largely irrelevant to the day’s discourse, I became fixated on the logistics of the British soldiers’ landing and march. So off to Marblehead I went, to see the two referenced landing locations, very near to one another, and then their possible routes to Salem. There I also saw the Marblehead plaque marking the occasion, which (like the account of Samuel Roads in my last post) seemed to imply that the story was all about Marblehead! Well there you have it: there are at least two sides to every story, so you might has well just aim for the spirit of the occasion.
Thanks to Tom P. for leading me to what I think are Homan’s Cove and Lovis’s Cove, the landing places referenced in the sources. From there I presume that the British marched through the town of Marblehead (on what streets I do not know) and then to Salem along the above road on the 1776 Des Barres map (Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library).
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.
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 EssexRegister’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 andbravery,—[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.“
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.
The 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.