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

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Lexington and Concord may argue for another hundred years about where the shot heard round the world was actually fired, but to the town of Salem, over on the Massachusetts coast, the question will remain largely academic. The point of the discussion, after all, is where the War of Independence began, and Salem has her own claims to the honor. It was at Salem’s North River Bridge, two months before the clashes at Lexington and Concord, that British troops first met armed American resistance—and retreated. Although no shots were fired at the North Bridge (not to be confused with the Concord landmark of the same name), at least one bayonet was brought into play, and the first American blood was shed.

All during the winter of 1774-75 rumors of patriot activity at Salem had been drifting through British headquarters in Boston. The military governor of Massachusetts, Lieutenant General the Honorable Thomas Gage, had kept a suspicious eye on the town ever since autumn when the colony’s General Court, meeting in Salem against his express orders, had set itself up as the Provincial Congress, thus bringing rebellion more or less into the open. Then, in February, 1775, Gage learned from a well-placed informer that the Congress was creating an ordnance depot at Salem and had assembled there a sizable number of cannon. Gage decided to act. If he did not seize the weapons at once, his troops would soon be lacing them on the battlefield. By taking the Americans by surprise, he might still avoid an armed collision.

But secrecy was of the utmost importance. Since Gage was aware that all British troop movements in the city of Boston were closely watched by the patriot information service, he assigned the Salem mission to the 64th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Castle William on an island in Boston Harbor. The regiment was commanded by Colonel Alexander Leslie, son of a Scottish earl and an experienced soldier. On February 24, Gage ordered Leslie to have his men ready to embark for Marblehead, the small port next to Salem, the following night.

The regiment sailed on schedule at midnight Saturday, February 25, without being noticed by the evervigilant patriot spies. Only one near-slip occurred. In the early morning after the departure of the troops, Castle William’s milk supplier arrived in his wherry to find the fort deserted except for a skeleton guard. To keep this information from reaching the patriots in Boston, the milkman was held until the regiment returned.

Shortly after noon on Sunday, the ship dropped anchor in Marblehead Bay: to all appearances she was merely a British vessel on patrol. Only members of the crew were visible on her decks; Leslie’s orders were to keep his men under hatches until two o’clock when the townspeople would have returned to church after the noontime intermission in the all-day service. Gage was no stranger to New England. He knew her inhabitants well and had timed the expedition accordingly.

Gage was right about New England piety; but he had overlooked New England common sense. While the majority of Marblehead’s citizens were at church, a careful watch was kept on the British ship, and the troops were counted as they landed at Homan’s Cove. As soon as the column had marched out of earshot on the road to Salem, drums began to beat at all the church doors, and the call to arms was sounded throughout the town. Long before Marblehead’s eight companies of militia had formed, a horseman was galloping to overtake the redcoats and warn Salem.

The messenger had been well chosen. Not only was Major John Pedrick an expert rider, but his presence on the road would not be likely to arouse the suspicion of the British. He was well known to Colonel Leslie, who had been a guest at his house, and he was generally regarded as loyal to the Crown. Leslie could not know that Major Pedrick had just recently gone over to the other side, following the lead of his attractive young daughter. It seemed that Miss Pedrick had found the attentions of a certain British officer so wearing that when she finally got rid of him, she switched her allegiance to the patriot cause.

When he caught up with the British column Pedrick slowed his horse to a canter. The soldiers, noting his fine broadcloth cloak and the silver mountings of his saddle, probably assumed that this was some neighborhood squire taking advantage of the unusually mild February weather for a ride in the country. Colonel Leslie, however, rccognized his acquaintance at once and greeted him cordially, ordering his men to file right and left so that the gentleman might pass. Pedrick thanked Leslie for his courtesy, expressed the hope that they might soon meet again, and jogged down between the files. He kept on at an easy pace until he came to a bend in the road where a low growth of scrub hid him from sight. Then he dug in his spurs and galloped toward Salem.

Half an hour later he was clattering through the empty streets of the town, headed toward the North River. At the North Meetinghouse, just below the bridge, he pulled up sharply and sprang from his horse.

Afternoon service was in progress. The Reverend Thomas Barnard, famed throughout the countryside for his fine voice and commanding logic, had scarcely reached the mid-point of his sermon when the door crashed open and the congregation was brought to its feet by John Pedrick’s loud call to arms and his announcement that the British were headed for Salem. Five minutes later the Reverend Mr. Barnard—himself a staunch loyalist—was gazing at empty pews.