All The King’s Horses… And All The King’s Men

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Among the first to leave the church was Benjamin Daland, Salem’s leading liveryman. He rushed for his stable and, saddling his fastest horse, headed for nearby Danvers to alert the militia there. While the alarm coursed through Salem and militia members scattered to their homes for equipment, Colonel Timothy Pickering, recently elected commander of the Essex County Militia Regiment, dispatched forty minutemcn to Captain Robert Foster’s forge, close by the North River Bridge. Here nineteen cannon were being fitted with carriages, and it was imperative to hide them before the British troops arrived.

At the time, the North River Bridge was approached by a causeway extending to the ship channel, where there was a draw that could be lifted to let vessels pass. The draw was operated from the north side, and when the leaf was up, access to the forge was cut off from the Salem side of the river, from which direction the British were approaching. As soon as the draw had been raised and secured, the minutemen began to haul the guns out of the forge. Some of them were buried under the thick bed of leaves in a nearby oak grove (there was no snow on the ground): others were carted ofl to a safer and more distant hiding plate at Orne’s Point.

The men worked furiously under the anxious eye of Captain David Mason, Engineer to the Committee of Public Safety. Mason, who had collected the cannon and was supervising their conversion for field use, was a man of varied talents. In regular life he was a carriage gilder and finisher—a japanner—and on occasion, a portrait painter. He was also highly regarded as a man of science and had made rather a good thing of his lectures on “the new electrical fire” (admission: one pistareen). Benjamin Franklin was an old acquaintance, and Mason’s experiments with electricity had been commended by the great man. Mason had also given time to the study of explosives. This knowledge, as well as his ingenuity in constructing all sorts of mechanical devices, had won him the appointment with the committee.

Present at the forge with Mason and its owner, Captain Foster, was another important Salemite, the Honorable Richard Derby. A member of the Provincial Congress, Derby was Salem's richest shipowner: in fact he had already laid the foundations of America’s first really great fortune. But it was not Derby's wealth alone that commanded general respect; he had a reputation for courage. During the Seven Years’ War, when French privateers began to harass American shipping, Derby had defiantly mounted cannon on all his vessels, even small schooners, and literally fought his way from market to market in the West Indies. Thus it seemed perfectly natural that he should command the defense of the forge—all the more so since eight of the nineteen cannon had been removed from his own ships and loaned to the Provincial Congress.

As the last gun was hauled to safely, word came that the British had arrived. There had been a short delay at the South Mills Bridge to replace a few planks that the patriots had torn up. A small detachment of troops had then marched off to the east, down Fish Street to the Long Wharf, presumably to create a diversion. But the main column headed straight for Town House Square, where it halted while someone went to find Mr. John Sargent half brother of Salem’s most eminent Tory, Colonel William Browne. Sargent appeared at once, having obviously expected the summons, and spoke a few words in Leslie’s ear. Then he took his place beside the redcoat commander, and the column started off in the direction of the North River Bridge.

As the troops were getting under way, a gentleman rushed up to Leslie to ask what the presence of soldiers on the Sabbath meant. Since Leslie was on the King’s business, he merely looked at the stranger with cold annoyance and told him to mind his own business. But the gentleman—another Salem shipowner, named Captain John Felt—was not to be put off; he foresaw trouble and wanted to prevent it. As the column moved up the street with the informer Sargent on one side of Colonel Leslie, Felt marched along on the other.

By now the churches were emptied and people were crowding along the way, edging up toward the North Bridge in the wake of the redcoats. Though few knew about the hidden cannon, no one doubted that something eventful was about to happen. There was a grim alertness as well as curiosity on the faces that followed the marching troops.

The troops headed straight out upon the causeway leading to the drawbridge; they had almost reached the open gap before Leslie realized that the leaf was up. He looked at the icy current streaming in fast with the tide, then across to the line of men on the wharf jutting out beside the draw. His color changed. He stamped his foot and swore (the witnesses all agree on the vigor of the Colonel’s oaths throughout the affair), asking what these people meant by obstructing the King’s highway, and ordering them to lower the bridge at once.

A little knot of townsmen had collected at the end of the causeway. One of the group, Joseph Barr, calmly informed Leslie that this was not the King’s highway; the road and the bridge were private. They belonged to the owners of the property on the other side of the draw, who could do with them as they saw fit. After all, they had their rights.

Rights! This was the monotonous theme of everything these troublemakers said and did. Leslie had heard enough. He called out loudly that if the draw was not lowered at once, his men would fire.