Prelude to Revolution – Leslie’s Retreat, Salem, 1775
By Helen Breen
On a chilly Sunday, February 26, 1775, a skirmish occurred in Salem, Mass., that may have led to the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Thankfully, calmer heads prevailed that day, both sides were able to “save face,” and the ultimate confrontation was delayed until April 19 in Concord and Lexington.
The following is a concise description of the event by Lynnfield summer resident Charles Haywood in his Yankee Dictionary published in 1963.
Leslie’s Retreat – An episode that nearly started the American Revolution.
In late February 1775 British General Gage sent Colonel Leslie and his 64th Regiment by ship to Marblehead with orders to land, march the five miles to Salem, and seize the guns and ammunition collected by American patriots. While the drums rolled to warn Marbleheaders, the Redcoats were coming ashore. Major Pedrick galloped to Salem to give the alarm. Colonel Pickering and his Minute Men managed to get all the cannon and gun powder casks across the North River. When the British regiment arrived, the draw bridge was up and a few Colonial troops were lined up on the far bank ready to fight.
The word was passed through the countryside. From the towns as far away as Haverhill, the Minute Men hurried for Salem with their muskets and powder horns. Colonel Leslie demanded that the draw bridge be lowered but Colonel Timothy Pickering, commanding the Americans, shouted back his defiance. To force a crossing meant a pitched battle, bloodshed, the beginning of war. This Leslie knew, and he also knew that he faced court martial unless he carried out his orders.
Salem men with axes were smashing up the boats with which he might cross and Leslie ordered his troops to bayonet them. Here Rev. Thomas Barnard, minister of Salem’s North Church, intervened. From Leslie he managed to obtain a promise that if the bridge were lowered, he would march his regiment no more than 30 rods* on the other side. From Pickering he got a promise to withdraw his constantly growing horde of Minute Men 30 rods.
So down came the bridge, the British marched the distance and then it was “about face” and back to their ship lying off Marblehead with drums thumping and the fifes playing “The World Turned Upside Down.” In Marblehead, Colonel Glover’s regiment stood silently in formation as the British passed, which doubtless convinced Leslie he had acted wisely.
*Rod Archaic. a unit of linear measure, 5.5 yards or 16.5 feet
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