The Revolutionary War is one of the most important events in American history, as it led to the creation of the United States of America. The world would never be the same after those fateful events, and surely Salem would not be what it is today. But few people know just how important Salem could have been to the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It’s a tale known only as, “Leslie’s Retreat,” and maybe you’ve seen the plaque commemorating this important, yet hilarious event!
The Beginning of the End
By 1775, the revolution was well on its way. The Stamp Act was a decade old, the Boston Massacre was old news, and the Boston Tea Party was shrinking in the rearview. Things were right in the middle of heating up, and Paul Revere would make his fateful ride just a few months later in April.
Colonel David Mason of Salem initiated the purchase of 19 French cannons in 1774. He hired Robert Foster, a blacksmith, to convert the cannons and figure out how to mount them onto carriages. These prototypes took some time to make and weren’t ready for use until 1775. This was part of the colonial preparation for the clear and obvious possibility of a direct war with England.
Fears From the South
British Military Governor Thomas Gage heard about these patriots arming themselves to fight against the British up in Salem, and he was not happy. He was officially the military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, so Gage felt responsible for putting down any uprising at first sight. When Captain John Felt first took control of an official Salem militia, tensions rose to an all-time high.
Political tensions had been rising steadily for years, and Gage had been right in the middle of it. His ruling on placing a militia in Boston is what sparked the Boston Massacre. By early 1775, he pulled all of his troops up to Boston with a clear directive to rid the colonists of weapons to be used in a revolutionary manner.
The Powder Alarm
One of the most significant acts during this period is now known as the “Powder Alarm.” Gage had ordered a group of soldiers to overtake a gunpowder magazine in a nearby colonial settlement, and they managed to pull it off. But not without raising the alarm of thousands of minutemen who had been waiting for the right moment to mobilize.
This had a subduing effect on Gage’s efforts, but not enough. Soon Gage decided to take action again, and sent Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie up to Marblehead and told them to take over the new mobile cannonry by any means necessary.
The March From Marblehead
Leslie wasn’t known as a strong military commander. According to historicipswitch.com, he was known by his officers as, “a genteel little man who lives well and drinks good claret.” They tried to sneak into the harbor during a church service, but a guard raised the alarm as soon as the ships appeared.
The troops started marching along Bay road towards Salem. Along the way, they were faced with several issues. Resistance fighters had pulled the planks out of some bridges, making them difficult to pass. The troops managed to quickly repair the bridges and continued on with a confident bravado of a conquering army.
The Arrival into Salem
Leslie and his men finally arrived in Salem town square, where they came upon several Tory sympathizers. These colonials gave up the location of the cannons without a moment’s notice. David Mason, the man who constructed the cannons, was the one to run from his house to the North Church shouting about the incoming British soldiers.
Mason then rode home as quickly as he could to secure and hide the cannons. He ran back to the North Bridge to join the rest of the resistance fighters setting up to counter the British invasion. Captain Timothy Pickering commanded the militia, and ordered the men to raise the drawbridge to prevent the British from passing. When Leslie sent demands for the bridge to be put down, the Salem residents and the militia simply ignored him.
At this point, Col. Leslie was absolutely furious. He claimed that he had to follow his orders, yet it wasn’t possible with the bridge up. British soldiers were climbing up the drawbridge, but to no avail. Leslie decided to maintain his ground, all while freedom fighters were assembling to take him on by force.
The Salem militia spread the message to surrounding towns, and soon thousands of minutemen were ready to counter the British efforts. This included the Danvers cavalry, but they only made it as far as the Salem Distillery before settling down to “defend the wares” for the night.
Captain Felt made his appearance known at that point by standing right next to Captain Leslie. There was no fighting going on, but the two groups were at a standstill. Felt heard Leslie finally order his men to shoot those who stood defiantly before him. The passionate captain couldn’t stay silent any longer.
“Fire? You had better be dead than fire! You have no right to fire without further orders. If you do fire, you will all be dead men!” he responded strongly, and no shots were fired.
Leslie insisted that he had no plans on abandoning his mission saying, “I am determined to pass over this bridge before I return to Boston, if I remain here until next autumn.” He also insisted that the bridge was part of the “King’s Highway” and thus he should be allowed to cross.
A Resolution, Not A Revolution… Not Yet, At Least
The British and Americans did have a small fight over the few small boats that remained between the two shores. This is thought to have been the first bloodshed in this violent war. The leaders of the townspeople, including Felt and Mason, managed to convince Leslie to compromise with them. He promised that if they allowed him to cross and walk “fifty rods” beyond the bridge, they would go back to Boston and say they found no weapons. The colonials agreed, and the event became known as Leslie’s Retreat. The drawbridge was finally raised, allowing the British troops to cross the river. They turned around at the set distance, walked back over the bridge with haste, and made their way back to Marblehead with their tails between their legs.
Just a few months later, General Gage would send another 700 British soldiers to take control of two bridges in Concord. This event precipitated the massive conflict and fight for independence now known as the Revolutionary War. But it all could have started in Salem, if not for the compromise that these two groups made over the river that day.