- Historic Sites
All The King’s Horses… And All The King’s Men
They marched across a bridge at Salem —and then marched right back again
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
The shipowner John Felt, who had refused to leave the Colonel’s side, now exploded with the kind of remark that goes down in history (thanks to the prompt recording of the Salem Gazette, in this case). “Fire and be damned!” he shouted. “You’ve no right to fire without further orders. If you fire you’ll all be dead men.”
To give emphasis to Felt’s words, Captain Mason spoke up from the other side. Colonel Leslie had indeed better look to the safety of his men; the whole countryside had been alerted, and militiamen would soon be pouring into Salem. Mason was hardly bluffing, for the liveryman Daland had done his work well. In addition to the eight companies awaiting orders at Marblehead, other patriots were on the march from as far away as Amesbury. Before the afternoon was over, some three thousand men (one exaggerated account placed the number at ten thousand) would be on the roads leading to Salem.
Leslie saw his position clearly. The pale February sun was sinking fast, and the thought of his small force trying to reach Marblehead after dark was not comforting. Yet he had his mission; he could not let a mob of peasants and shopkeepers stand in his way. Angrily he glanced back at the crowd of Salemites. His eye moved up the riverbank, and suddenly he saw the solution to his problem.
Captain Felt had seen it too, a moment sooner. Two scows (“gundalows,” according to the records) were drawn up on the bank near the end of the causeway. Just as Leslie’s eye fixed on them, Felt spoke quickly to a fellow citizen standing nearby. The man started running down the causeway, joined by half a dozen volunteers with axes and crowbars that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Before a detachment of red coats could reach the scow, which was the property of John Felt himself, her bottom was stove in.
Farther down the bank was the second boat, owned by Joseph Sprague, a deacon of the North Meetinghouse and proprietor of a distillery situated near the bridge. Sprague was in the crowd, and when he saw what was happening, he started for his scow, calling to one of his workmen, Joseph Whicher, to follow. At his master’s summons, Whicher gave a whoop and, seizing a mattock, rushed for the deacon’s boat, followed by eager assistants.
The redcoats, having arrived too late to save the first stow, lowered their bayonets and ran toward the second, shouting to the wreckers to desist (a detail over which the Gazette grew particularly indignant: by what law was a man forbidden to put a hole in his own gondola if he was so minded?). They were too late. Joseph Whicher, conscious of his role in a drama on which all attention was fastened, gave a mighty blow that sent his mattock crunching through the bottom of the boat. A great cheer went up from the American audience. At this, Whichcr leaped to the bow of the slow and, tearing open his shirt, defied the nearest redcoat to touch him. The invitation was irresistible. The soldier gave a smart jab with his bayonet, and Whicher fell back wide-eyed into the arms of his companions. The wound was slight, but blood spurted over the hero’s chest; the crowd groaned with sympathy and admiration. This was patriots’ blood, and in Salem’s mind it would color the incident for all time. Whicher himself made certain that his gallant effort was not forgotten as long as he lived. With slight urging, the distiller’s assistant would bare his chest and display the mark of “the first wound received in the War of Independence.”
Frustrated in his attempt to use the scows, Leslie turned furiously to Captain Felt and swore that he would cross the river if it took till autumn. He pointed to a dilapidated warehouse on the wharf alongside the causeway: if necessary he would barrack his men right there. Felt pulled his collar higher against the bitter wind sweeping in from the ocean and said he guessed nobody would mind.
Then another bystander asked the Colonel why he wanted to cross the bridge in the first place. By its very impertinence, the question threw Leslie into such a rage that he momentarily forgot discretion. He blurted out that he had come for the cannon he knew to be stored on the other side of the river. The words reached old Richard Derby standing among the defenders by the draw. According to eyewitness accounts, he bellowed across the gap: “Find the cannon if you can! Take them if you can! They will never be surrendered.”
With this challenge, Leslie’s patience came to an end. He nodded to the officer beside him. “Turn this company about,” he commanded, “and have the men fire.” Twelve steps and eight separate orders were involved in the long process of priming, loading, presenting, and firing the “Brown Bess” musket of the English infantryman. The soldiers had scarcely begun this elaborate operation when a figure in a long black gown came rushing through the crowd toward Leslie, and a voice, obviously accustomed to making itself heard, implored him to halt.
The newcomer was none other than the Reverend Mr. Barnard. Until now he had remained discreetly in the background with Major Pedrick, who for reasons of delicacy did not wish to disclose his presence to Colonel Leslie. But with a climax rapidly approaching over the bridge, both men felt that something must be done to avert bloodshed. At Pedrick’s urging, Barnard agreed to try to dissuade Leslie from his course.