October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
They marched across a bridge at Salem —and then marched right back again
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.
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.
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.
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.