This weekend is the annual commemoration/celebration of Leslie’s Retreat, a pre-Revolutionary event which could have marked the beginning of the American Revolution, if not for the patience, restraint, and diplomacy of participants on both sides, and one man in particular. On February 26, 1775, British Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Leslie and 240 soldiers of the 64th Regiment, acting upon the orders of General Thomas Gage, landed in Marblehead and began marching to Salem in pursuit of a rumored store of cannon. This was a Sunday, and thus “the Sabbath was disturbed” in both Marblehead and Salem, as patriots from the former town rode ahead and warned residents of the latter. When the British arrived, a stand-off ensued between the assembled crowd and the soldiers, during which the drawbridge across the North River was raised, enabling the not-so-secret cannon on the other side to be carried on field carriages out of town. A frustrated Colonel Leslie was allowed to march his troops across the bridge after the cannon had left the scene, therefore fulfilling his orders from General Gage. Then he and his troops retreated back to Marblehead and their ship, and sailed back to Boston. Things were a little hotter than I am depicting in this brief summary, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, among them that of the Reverend Thomas Barnard Jr., the minister of Salem’s North Church, which was very much in the thick of things. I’m going to let Edwin Monroe Bacon, author of Historic Pilgrimages in New England (1898) set the scene.
A profile portrait of the Reverend Thomas Barnard Jr. (1748-1814) which looks quite similar to that of his father, the Reverend Thomas Barnard Sr. (1716-1776), above, Skinner Auctions.
I like this description because it conveys a sense of place. Just three years earlier, the North Church had separated from Salem’s First Church and constructed its first meeting house on the corner of Lynde and North Streets, not far from the river and the bridge (and the cannon). Reverend Barnard Jr., the peacemaker of “Leslie’s Retreat,” was actually the cause of the schism: his appointment following his father’s illness divided the congregation. As we can read above, the British soldiers marched past the “old First Church” in Town House Square towards the North Church, where a large crowd had assembled along with their young pastor, whose “counsel prevailed” that late afternoon. This North Church was ephemeral, only in service until 1835 when the congregation built a new and fashionable Gothic Revival meeting house on Essex Street, which became the present First Church after the schism was ended in 1923. The annual commemorations of Leslie’s Retreat take place in and around this church, with good reason, but I wish the old North Church was still standing: its clearly Colonial stature could lend some contemporary ambiance to the proceedings. But it is long gone, replaced first by a grand Victorian house, and then by the parking lot of the adjacent Methodist Church. But what happened to its clock?
“First Meeting House of North Church” by Thomas Davidson (not sure of source, likely the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, but I found it in the November 23, 1942 issue of Life Magazine); George Francis Dow, Old Wood Engravings, Views and Buildings of Essex County (1908): with caption: “The North Meeting House, Salem, Built in 1772 at what is now the Corner of North and Lynde Streets, Abandoned for Religious Purposes in 1835 and taken down about 1860. Engraved in 1873 after a Drawing made by Dr. George A. Perkins.” Frank Cousins photograph of Lynde and North Streets, 1890s, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.
BELOW: Before Salem became Witch-central, Leslie’s Retreat was THE big historic story, especially for children, so there’s several YA books which feature it. I was trying to get that sense of place, running-through-the-snow-on-a- cold-winter-afternoon-through-close-Colonial-streets perspective in this post, and these illustrations by Lynn Ward from Jean Fritz’s Early Thunder (1967) come close. My favorite contemporary account of Leslie’s Retreat is actually from a boy, Samuel Gray, which is recounted in this post from J.L. Bell’s wonderful blog, Boston 1775. While you’re there, you should read all of Bell’s posts on Leslie’s Retreat as he is the absolute authority (and he doesn’t quite trust all of Gray’s details).
Illustrations by Lynn Ward from Jean Fritz’s Early Thunder (1967), set in Salem in 1774-1775.