From the Archives - The Battle of Salem, or Leslie’s Retreat
As is well known, the Battle of Lexington, on April 19, 1775, that began the American Revolution, occurred because a British column had marched out of Boston to seize arms Massachusetts had stashed at Concord. Now, the British had actually been running little expeditions like this for some weeks, and not just in Massachusetts, but the colonists had either been unable to muster or rallied too late to stop them, or managed to get the goodies away before the Redcoats arrived. Just seven weeks before Lexington, the colonists had confronted a similar British expedition, and but for the discretion of an officer the Revolution might have begun right then.
In late February of 1776, British headquarters in Boston learned that Massachusetts had some cannon at Salem, about a dozen miles up the coast. Colonel Alexander Leslie was ordered to take a column there and confiscate the guns. On Sunday, February 26th, Leslie loaded 240 men from the 64th Foot on boats, and they rowed over to Marblehead, just three miles east of Salem, which they reached in mid-afternoon. They then took the road to Salem, with the troops marching to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” no less! Meanwhile, of course, word of the expedition had leaked, and militiamen had started to turn out, how many no one knows, though figures as high as an improbable 40,000 have sometimes been claimed. The militiamen concentrated on the North Bridge, at Salem, a draw bridge over the Merrimack River, which Leslie would have to cross to reach his objective. By the time Leslie’s column reached the bridge, ill-armed companies of militiamen from Salem and Danvers, perhaps 80 or 100 troops in all, were ensconced on the opposite bank, and had taken up the draw. For a moment things looked ugly. Profane comments were exchanged, and a couple of Redcoats fell into a physical confrontation with a colonist on their side of the river, one Joseph Whicher, who was scratched by a bayonet. Although Leslie’s force outnumbered the militiamen, and were both better trained and better armed, the good colonel could not bring himself to precipitate a fight, and so offered to negotiate. Pastor Thomas Barnard, of the First Church of Salem, a militia captain, agreed to discuss matters.
Leslie observed that his specific orders were that to march to Salem and conduct a search for hidden cannon. So he proposed that, if the colonists permitted him to cross the bridge and make a token search, he would thereby have fulfilled his orders, and could return to Boston. This seemed like a reasonable proposal, and so the colonists agreed to it. Leslie and his troops were allowed to cross the bridge, march 50 rods (825 feet) into Salem, turn about, and return from whence they came.
As a result, the beginning of the American Revolution was postponed by 52 days.
During the crisis, the men of Amesbury, about 25 miles north of Salem, turned out to support the colonial cause. But somehow they didn’t make it to Salem in time for the confrontation with Colonel Leslie. A fellow-townsman, William Gallison, told of the adventures of the Amesbury company in a lively, and amusing letter to his father, an attorney and commander of the Essex County Militia, reproduced here with all of Gallison’s erratic spelling, grammar, and capitalization intact.
COLL. JOHN GALLISON|
Amesbury, March 1, 1775
Honr'd Sir - An account of the Amesbury Expedition May not be disagreeable to you as you are a Son of Liberty.
having ben informed that a few Days ago a Small Party of Troops took a Sail & a Walk for an airing &c. It was suppos'd their designs was to seize some Military Stores at Salem. The alarm soon reach'd us & Set all the Country round us in motion. Happening at that (time) to be at dinner I saw upwards an hundred men from Various Parts of Merrimack river, moving towards the scene of action. Cyder being exceeding Scarce & the Last Season but an indifferent one for That, they Look'd pale & meagre & seemed to Tremble under the burdfen of their guns & bread & Cheese, which some ill Natured People attribfited to their Fear, but very unjustly: indeed had they really ben Cowards they Would not have had much reason to be afraid, because they knew the Solders must have done their Bussiness& returned to Boston, before they could reach Salem, and this they soon Learnt to be the Case on their first Halt, which was at a Tavern, when they meditated a return, which was Performed in martial order. But bloody Minded men as they were, they resolved not to go home without doing some execution, and therefore they valiently attacked and demolished several Barrels, whose Precious blood they drew and intirely exhausted. Flushed with Victory they made a much better appearance than when I first saw Them. However such another Victory would have brought them all to the ground, if not have ruined them, as it was they were scarce able to Crawl home; and most of them haveing disgorged the blood of the slain which they had so plentifully drank, returned as pale and feeble as they set out, and Look'd as Lank as tbo' they had ben drawn thro' the river instead of Passing over it. So much for this military Expedition.
Your Effectionate Son