Salem, Massachusetts

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Salem, Massachusetts

SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS. 26 February 1775. On orders from Major General Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief in North America, Colonel Alexander Leslie sailed with his Sixty-fourth Regiment of Foot from Castle William (in Boston Harbor) at midnight on 25 February 1775 to destroy an ordnance depot reported to be at Salem. The raiders dropped anchor about twelve hours later in Marblehead Bay, and at about 2 p.m. they started the five-mile march to Salem. Major John Pedrick, an American whom Leslie knew and believed to be loyal, managed to pass through the 240-man column of redcoats on horseback and race ahead to alert the citizens of Salem, who were attending church. Colonel Timothy Pickering, the local militia commander, sent forty minutemen to Captain Robert Foster's forge near the North River Bridge to remove nineteen brass cannon that were there to be fitted with carriages. When the regulars arrived, the cannon had been removed, the draw of the bridge leading to the forge had been opened, and a large crowd had joined the militia on the opposite bank.

Some redcoats barely failed to capture the last available boat in the area, but Joseph Wicher smashed in its bottom and then, in a grandstand gesture, bared his breast—literally—to the enemy. A British soldier obliged him with a bayonet thrust that inflicted a slight but bloody wound. When the British threatened to fire, the Loyalist minister Thomas Barnard and Captain John Felt countered with a face-saving offer to let them cross unmolested if they would then withdraw peacefully. Leslie accepted, marched his troops some 30 rods (165 yards) to the agreed limiting point, faced about, and headed back to Marblehead. Despite its comic-opera nature, this affair came close to setting off the "shot heard round the world"; a company of Danvers militia arrived just as the British were leaving, and other armed citizens were gathering. Salem can claim the distinction of seeing the first shedding of American blood; it also generated a Barbara Fritchie-type heroine in Sarah Tarrant, who after taunting the redcoats from an open window and being threatened by one of them, is alleged to have said, "Fire if you have the courage, but I doubt it" (Commager and Morris, eds., p. 65). Leslie is said to have retreated to the tune of The World Turned Upside Down.

SEE ALSO Leslie, Alexander; World Turned Upside Down.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barnes, Eric W. "All the King's Horses … and All the King's Men." American Heritage, October 1960, 56-59, 86-87.

Commager, Henry S., and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants. Bicentennial ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

                         revised by Harold E. Selesky

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