Leslie's Retreat, the Salem Gunpowder Raid and Resistance

February 26, 1775

Timothy Pickering was a member of the mob that stopped Colonel Leslie and his men from confiscating the military supplies that were hidden in Salem during the incident which became known as “Leslie’s Retreat.” Image Source: National Archives.

Summary of Leslie’s Retreat

Leslie’s Retreat, also called the Salem Gunpowder Raid or the Salem Resistance, took place on February 26, 1775, in Salem, Massachusetts. General Thomas Gage sent a portion of the 64th Regiment of Infantry, under the command of Colonel Alexander Leslie, to Salem, to seize military supplies hidden in the town. The people of Salem confronted the British troops and refused to allow Leslie and his men to proceed. After a brief fight, the two sides negotiated a peaceful solution to the situation. Leslie and his men returned to Boston. The incident is significant because the townspeople defied the authority of Leslie, and added to the growing tension between the people of Massachusetts and British authorities, which would explode about six weeks later at the Battle of Lexington.

Leslie's Retreat, Negotiations at the Bridge
This illustration by Frederick Arthur Bridgman depicts Parson Barnard talking to Lieutenant Colonel Leslie. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Affair at the North Bridge, Salem, February 26, 1775

This account of the incident is adapted from the biography of Timothy Pickering published in 1867. It was written by Octavius Pickering and is based on an article that appeared in the Essex Gazette on Tuesday, February 28, 1775. It is assumed Timothy Pickering wrote the article that appeared in the Gazette. We have taken the liberty to correct the spelling of some words, correct grammatical errors, and add section headings so the article is easier to read.

British Land at Marblehead

…the peace of the town was disturbed by the coming of a regiment of the King’s troops, the particulars relative to which are as follows…

A British transport arrived at Marblehead, apparently manned as usual. Between two and three o’clock, as soon as the people had gone to afternoon church services, the decks were covered with soldiers, who, having loaded, and fixed their bayonets, landed with great despatch, and instantly marched off.

Messengers Sent to Salem

Some of the inhabitants, suspecting they were bound for Salem to seize some materials there preparing for an artillery, despatched several messengers to inform us of it. These materials were on the north side of the North River, and to come at them it was necessary to cross a bridge, one part of which was made to draw up for the convenience of letting vessels pass through. The inhabitants kept a lookout for the appearance of the troops.

British Arrive in Salem

The vanguard arrived and took their route down in town as far as the Long Wharf, perhaps to decoy the inhabitants thither away from the place to which the main body was destined. The main body arrived soon after and halted a few minutes by the townhouse.

It is said inquiry was immediately made by some of the officers for a half-brother — John Sargent — of Colonel Browne, the Mandamus Councillor.

AHC Note — Browne was one of the Mandamus Councillors, appointed by Governor Thomas Gage.

Be this as it may, he was very soon whispering in the Colonel’s ear, in the front of the regiment; and when he parted from the Colonel, the regiment marched off with a quick pace in a direct course for the North Bridge; just before their entrance upon which the drawbridge was pulled up.

Leslie Orders His Men to Fire on the Townspeople

The regiment, however, pushed forward till they came to the drawbridge, not observing — as it seemed — that it was drawn up. The Colonel, who led them, expressed some surprise, and then, turning about, ordered an officer to face his company to a body of men standing on a wharf on the other side the draw-bridge, and fire.

One of the townsmen, Captain John Felt, who had kept alongside the Colonel from the time he marched from the townhouse,  instantly told him he had better not fire; that he had no right to fire without further orders. “And if you do fire,” said he, “you will be all dead men.”

The company neither fired nor faced (the mob).

Leslie Insists on Crossing the Bridge

The Colonel then retired to the center of his regiment, assembled his officers, and held a consultation; which being ended, the Colonel advanced a little and declared he would maintain his ground, and go over the bridge before he returned if it was a month first.

The same townsman replied, he might stay there as long as he pleased; nobody cared for that.

The half-brother before mentioned — it is said — made towards the bridge, but, seeing the draw-bridge up, says, “It is all over with us.” He has since disappeared.

British Redcoats Charge Unarmed Townspeople

Meanwhile, two large gondolas, that lay aground — for it was low water — were scuttled, lest they should cross the channel in them. But, whilst one gentleman, Major Joseph Sprague, with his assistants, was scuttling his own gondola, a party of about twenty soldiers jumped into it, and, with their bayonets charged against our unarmed townsmen — some of whom they pricked — compelled them to quit it; but, before this, a sufficient hole had been made in the bottom.

This attack of the soldiers, and some other occurrences, occasioned a little bickering; but, by the interposition of some of the inhabitants, the dispute subsided.

Leslie Strikes a Deal with the Townspeople

At length, some gentlemen asked the Colonel what was his design in making this movement, and why he would cross the bridge.

He said he had orders to cross it, and he would cross it if he lost his life, with the lives of all his men; and now — or before — asked why the King’s highway was obstructed.

He was told it was not the King’s road, but the property of the inhabitants, who had a right to do what they pleased with it.

Finally, the Colonel said he must go over; and if the draw-bridge were let down so that he might pass, he pledged his honor he would march not above thirty rods beyond it, and then immediately return.

The regiment had now been on the bridge about an hour and a half; and, everything being secured, the inhabitants directed the drawbridge to be let down. The regiment immediately passed over, marched a few rods — toward the location of the hidden military stores — returned, and, with great expedition, went back again to Marblehead, where they embarked on board the transport without delay.

Suspicions of the Townspeople

Leslie’s regiment carried lanterns, hatchets, pickaxes, spades, handspikes, and several coils of rope.

When all the circumstances are considered, there can remain no doubt that the sole purpose of this maneuver was to steal away the artillery materials before mentioned.

  1. The regiment was sent from Castle William so that the inhabitants of Boston were not able to warn the people ahead of time.
  2. The transport arrived at Marblehead a considerable time before the regiment was landed.
  3. The troops were kept hidden.
  4. As soon as the inhabitants of Marblehead had gone to their afternoon service, the troops landed, pushed on their march to Salem, and proceeded to the very spot where the materials for the artillery were lodged.
  5. When the British found out their intentions were known, they made a retreat.
  6. It is unfortunate that an officer of Colonel Leslie’s acknowledged worth should be obliged, in obedience to orders, to come on so pitiful an errand.

Militia Respond to the Alarm

Various reports were spread abroad respecting the troops. The country was alarmed, and one company arrived in arms from Danvers just as the troops left the town. We immediately despatched messengers to the neighboring towns, to save them the trouble of coming in; but the alarm flew like lightning — and fame doubtless magnified the first simple reports — so that great numbers were in arms, and some on the march, before our messengers arrived.

Facts About Leslie’s Retreat

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Leslie’s Retreat is also called the Salem Gunpowder Raid and the Salem Resistance.
  • Date Started: The incident started on February 26, 1775.
  • Date Ended: The situation was resolved on February 26, 1775.

Background of Leslie’s Retreat — The Powder Alarm of 1774

  • Britain passed the Coercive Acts to punish Boston and Massachusetts, primarily for the Boston Tea Party.
  • General Thomas Gage was made Governor of Massachusetts and tasked with enforcing the Coercive Acts.
  • The people of Massachusetts started to remove weapons and ammunition from the storehouses in the colony.
  • Gage did not want hostilities to break out, so he started to make his own plans to remove weapons and ammunition from the storehouses.
  • On September 1, 1774, Gage sent troops to Charlestown to remove military supplies from the magazine in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
  • When the people of Massachusetts found out, the alarm was raised and within a few hours, thousands of militia marched to Boston.
  • Although hostilities were avoided, several of Gage’s Mandamus Councillors were forced to resign.
  • Gage was shocked at how many militiamen responded and he fortified Boston Neck, which was viewed as the British preparing for hostilities.
  • The incident is known as the Powder Alarm of 1774.

Massachusetts Forms the Provincial Congress

  • On October 5, members of the Massachusetts General Assembly met in Salem and set up the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
  • Subsequent meetings were held in Concord, and resulted in several committees and plans for monitoring and responding to British political and military action.
  • Congress, under the leadership of John Hancock, adopted resolutions.
  • Congress condemned the military occupation of Boston and encouraged the people to arm themselves in preparation to defend themselves against British aggression.
  • The Committee of Safety was established and given the power to call up the militia forces.
John Hancock, Portrait, Copley
John Hancock. Image Source: Wikipedia.

British Response to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress

  • Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for America, urged Gage to continue to confiscate military supplies.
  • Gage replied and warned Dartmouth it would have to be done with force.

“Your Lordship‘s Idea of disarming certain Provinces would doubtless be consistent with Prudence and Safety, but it neither is nor has been practicable without having Recourse to Force, and being Masters of the Country.” — Thomas Gage to Lord Dartmouth.

  • After the Powder Alarm, the Massachusetts militia decided to start moving their military stores away from the coast, further from the British garrison in Boston.
  • The primary locations in Massachusetts were Concord and Worcester.

King George III Issues Order in Council

  • On October 19, 1774, King George III issued an Order in Council that banned the colonies from importing weapons and ammunition.
  • The King’s order was supposed to be kept a secret, but it was discovered and the news reached the colonies.

Capture of Fort William and Mary

  • There was growing concern in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that the British would occupy the town, just like they had done in Boston.
  • The Boston Committee of Correspondence received intelligence that indicated troops and ships might be headed to Portsmouth Harbor just 50 miles north of Boston.
  • Paul Revere was sent to Portsmouth with letters to deliver to key leaders in Portsmouth.
  • On December 14, 1774, the people of Portsmouth attempted the seize the military supplies from Fort William and Mary.
  • The governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth, sent a letter to Gage on December 15 and said the cause of the trouble was the publication of the King’s Order in Council and the meddling of the Patriots in Boston.

“This event too plainly proves the imbecility of this government to carry into execution his Majesty’s order in Council, for seizing and detaining arms and ammunition imported into this Province, without some strong ships of war in this harbor. Neither is this Province or custom house treasury in any degree safe, if it should come into the mind of the popular leaders to seize them.” — Wentworth to Gage.

“…this mischief originates from the publishing of the Secretary of State’s letter, and the King’s order in Council at Rhode Island prohibiting the exportation of military stores from Great Britain, and the proceedings in that Colony, in consequence of it, which have been published here by the forementioned Mr. Revere, and the dispatch brought, before which all was perfectly quiet and peaceable here.” — Wentworth to Gage.

  • On December 17, several members of the Portsmouth Committee of Correspondence and Sons of Liberty gathered a mob, marched on the fort, seized the gunpowder, and sent it to Exeter.

Facts About the Weapons in Salem

  • Colonel David Mason of Salem bought 19 French cannons.
  • Mason had a local blacksmith, Captain Robert Foster, mount them on carriages.
  • Carriages are wooden frames with wheels, which allow the cannons to be moved.
  • The cannons and carriages were hidden around Foster’s property, which was on the north side of the river.

Facts About Leslie’s Retreat

  • Leslie and his men were stationed at Castle William in Boston Harbor.
  • Leslie sailed from Castle William to Marblehead with around 240 men from the 64th Regiment.
  • Leslie was ordered to march to Salem and seize the military supplies hidden there.
  • Major John Pedrick of Marblehead road to Salem and raised the alarm.
  • When Leslie and his men reached New Mills, they were delayed because the planks of the bridge had been removed.
  • John Sargent, a Loyalist, pointed Leslie in the direction of the North Fields.
  • The townspeople raised the drawbridge and scuttled boats so the British could not cross.
  • Thomas Pickering was a militia officer at the time and was a part of the mob that blocked Leslie’s path.
  • Pastor Thomas Barnard tried to mediate between the two sides, to avoid fighting.
  • Leslie argued the townspeople were blocking the King’s Road (or the King’s Highway) and the townspeople argued it was a private lane and they were not obligated to follow his orders to lower the drawbridge.
  • While Leslie and the townspeople argued, the hidden weapons were moved to a safe location.

Leslie’s Retreat and Salem Resistance

Visit the Site of Leslie’s Retreat

This shows the present-day location of where Leslie’s Retreat took place.

Text of the Historical Marker at the Location of Leslie’s Retreat

Here, in defiance of King George III, local minutemen hid 17 cannons, and were confronted by 300 British troops under command of Colonel Leslie. The Redcoats were routed, with only Joseph Whicher of Salem being wounded. This was the first open resistance to the King by the colonials, and the first blood shed in America’s war for independence.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Leslie's Retreat, the Salem Gunpowder Raid and Resistance
  • Date February 26, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Leslie's Retreat, Salem Gunpowder Raid, Salem Resistance, American Revolution
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 10, 2024