How the Revolutionary War Almost Started in Salem MA

Leslie's Retreat and the Old North Bridge in Salem, MA

In 1774 Col. David Mason of Salem purchased 19 French cannons mounted to carriages. They were hidden at Captain Foster’s shop in North Salem.

Military Governor Thomas Gage in Boston heard rumors about the canons in Salem. Gage was already distressed that Captain John Felt had taken charge of the Salem militia, and the town had hosted the Massachusetts Provincial Congress led by John Hancock. They met in a building that once stood in front of the Daniel Lowe building on the corner of Washington and Essex Street.

The members of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council was elected by the king now and not a provincial assembly, so in response the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was erected. They would become the state’s official body outside of Boston. After leaving Salem they would set up in Concord.
On February 26 Gage sent Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie with the 64th regiment by ship to Marblehead with instructions to march to Salem with 240 troops and seize the cannons and munitions of war. Col. Leslie was known by his fellow officers as “a genteel little man who lives well and drinks good claret.”

He quietly landed with his troops at Homan’s Cove on Marblehead Neck while everyone was at mass. As soon as the ships landed a guard ran to the door of the church and sounded the alarm on his drum. They left Marblehead for Salem and encountered problems entering town when the southern bridge had boards pulled up. Upon fixing the bridge they entered the town square with bayonets fixed playing martial music.

Local Tories explained to the Colonel where to find the canons near the North Bridge. David Masons ran from his house on the east side of what is now the hill in Mack Park to the North Church yelling “the regulars are coming!”

The congregation left the church for the old North Bridge. Mason rode his horse to check on the canons and his wife and daughter went about hiding the arsenal. Captain Timothy Pickering led the Salem Militia to the bridge. Pickering, whose manual An Easy Plan for a Militia would later be used as the Continental Army drill book. Citizens from the south of town rushed the drawbridge and raised it.

Leslie ordered it to be dropped once more. In response he was barraged with insults. In an effort to calm the situation the Rev. Thomas Barnard, an x- Tory, tried to get them to let down the bridge, but Captain Foster, the blacksmith scolded him, “We don’t know you in this business. When Felt orders it’twill be time enough.”

Leslie was damned if he was not going to cross that bridge. On the other side several was on top of the upraised leaf “like so many hens at roost.” The Colonel stamped and swore and insisted that he had orders to cross it, and he would if it cost him his whole troop.

The alarm sounded and as many as 10,000 Minutemen came from surrounding towns. A cavalry rode in from Danvers, but they reached the Salem distillery and decided it needed protection. Much like at Lexington the battle started in front of the tavern.

Captain Felt was standing next to Colonel Leslie and heard him say to fire on the people. Felt responded, “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!” The order was not repeated and the war will have to wait two more months.

Col. Leslie told Felt “I am determined to pass over this bridge before I return to Boston, if I remain here until next Autumn.” Capt. Felt answered, “Nobody would care for that.” Leslie replied, “By God I will not be defeated.” Felt coolly replied, “You must acknowledge that you have been already baffled.”

There was gondolas on the west side of the bridge and the town inhabitants feared Leslie would use them so they set to them with axes as regulars tried to stop them.

Felt, Barnard and Mason negotiating with Col. Leslie, who was at length persuaded into a compromise instead of standing there for a few more hours. The conversation went:

“So, you came all this way just to cross a bridge?”
“Well yes, and to get the guns.”
“We’ve hidden them where you can’t find them”
“Well how can I tell the Governor that I found no guns if he learns that
I never even got across the bloody bridge?”
“You want to tell the Governor that you crossed the bridge but discovered no guns?”
“Considering the circumstances, me thinks that will suffice.”

So the bridge was lowered and they crossed for 50 yards, about faced, and marched back across. On the way by a young nurse yelled out a window, “Go home and tell your master he has sent you on a fool’s errand, and broken the peace of our Sabbath.” a soldier raised his musket at her and she continued, “What? Do you think we were born in the woods to be frightened by owls? Fire if you have the courage, but I doubt it.”

On their way back to Marblehead their band played The World Turned Upside Down the song heard years later when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The song that was played at the beginning of the struggle wold be the last they played.

On April 18th everyone will remember the Battle of the North Bridge, with the shot heard around the world, but Salem’s stand at the North Bridge is mostly forgotten. Timothy Pickering? He would become aide de camp for Washington, the Secretary of State for him and Adams, write the Alien & Sedition Acts, and spend the rest of his life trying to give New England back to the British…

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For more tales like this about how Salem MA has shaped American History read Sub Rosa by Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin available at Barnes & Nobel, Amazon.com, and your favorite local independent book seller.
Ask for it by name!

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