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

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The minister’s words must have impressed Leslie—or perhaps he never intended to shoot in the first place. At any rate, he rescinded the order to fire. But the situation was still unresolved. Since Leslie had declared within the hearing of everybody present that he would cross the bridge whatever the consequences, his personal honor was now at stake.

Barnard recognized this, and, thinking quickly, ventured a suggestion. Leslie’s purpose now was simply to cross the bridge. The Colonel knew that he could not hope to find the cannon before dark, and to delay would only invite disaster, hopelessly outnumbered as he was. What if the bridge were lowered? asked Mr. Barnard. Would Colonel Leslie be satisfied to march his men across to some specified point, say thirty rods distant, then turn and march them back again without further action?

The sun was brushing the treetops now. Leslie may have caught sight of Colonel Pickering, the militia commander, moving among his men, and decided that the Americans would not remain passive forever. He did not know, of course, that Colonel Pickering was also in a quandary, that he had been practically immobilized all afternoon on a fine point of ethics. It was only ten days since Pickering had taken command of the Essex Regiment, still a part of the colony’s legally constituted defense force, and his oath to the King was worrisomely fresh in his mind. He would act only in the last extremity.

After a brief consultation with his officers, Leslie told Barnard that he accepted the proposal. The minister promptly stepped to the edge of the bridge and asked the defenders to lower the draw, explaining the agreement with Colonel Leslie.

The proposal was greeted with a chilling silence. After a long moment someone called over: “We don’t know you in this business.” Here was a blow to Barnard’s good intentions, as well as his pride. He had not considered that though he may have been the logical man to approach Leslie, his loyalist sympathies could hardly inspire confidence in the defenders of the forge.

Obviously somebody closer to the patriot cause would have to speak. Leslie looked at Captain Felt, whom he had treated with a good deal of disdain up to now, and asked if he had any authority with the unruly crowd. Felt said that he did not know about authority, but he might have a little influence. This was a modest assumption, since Felt was not only a leader among the patriots but one of the owners of the bridge. It needed only his assurance that Colonel Leslie had indeed given his word, and the draw came rattling down.

The fifes struck up “Yankee Doodle,” which had not yet become the exclusive property of the Americans, and five minutes later the redcoats were tramping up the north bank of the river. As they neared the turning place, the window of a house was thrown open and a sharp-voiced dame, one Sarah Tarrant, cried: “Go homel Go home!”

Of all the afternoon’s humiliations none seemed to strike Colonel Leslie so deeply as these inhospitable words. His face purpled, but he kept his eyes ahead and strode grimly to the place where forty minutemen stood solidly across the road. There he gave the order to halt, face about, and march again. Once more as the troops passed her window Mrs. Tarrant leaned out of it and was reported to have shouted: “Go home and tell your master he has sent you on a fool’s errand, and broke the peace of our Sabbath. What? Do you think we were born in the woods to be frightened by owls? Fire at me if you have the courage, but I doubt it.” As she spoke, this eighteenth-century Barbara Frietchie waved a turkey-wing duster for emphasis.

SIDEBAR: WHAT WAS THAT, A SHOT?

The redcoats did not stop again until they reached Marblehead. Once more Major Pedrick galloped ahead of them; he had started back as soon as the column recrossed the bridge. It had occurred to him that after the fatigues and frustrations of the day, Colonel Leslie might seek the hospitality of his house, and he must set out the Madeira.

But Leslie did not dally for refreshment at Marblehead. He sailed at once for Boston. His report confirmed General Gage’s bleak surmise: the Americans were not only arming, they were on the march. The war that men in England still talked of preventing had begun. Even London realized this when the Gentleman’s Magazine for April, 1775, published the first dispatches on the North Bridge affair with the comment, “The Americans have hoisted their standard of liberty at Salem,” and the conclusion that “there is no doubt that the next news will be an account of a bloody engagement between the two armies.” The last dispatch was received just before the magazine went to press, on April 29. By that time, of course, the fuse lit at Salem had exploded the powder at Lexington and Concord.