Thomas Gage, Paul Revere, and the Powder Alarms
A check anywhere wou’d be fatal, and the first stroke will decide a great deal.”
—Thomas Gage, Sept. 2, 1774 1
EARLY IN THE MORNING of September 1, 1774, General Gage set his plan in motion. His first step was to seize the largest stock of gunpowder in New England. It was stored in a magazine called the Provincial Powder House, high on a remote hill, six miles northwest of Boston. Many towns kept their munitions there, as did the Province of Massachusetts itself.
During the summer of 1774, the towns had quietly withdrawn their supplies from the Powder House, leaving only the provincial reserve. Loyalists called this supply the King’s powder. Most people in Massachusetts believed that it belonged to them.
General Gage was told of the withdrawals by William Brattle, a much-hated Cambridge Tory. The British commander resolved to remove the remaining gunpowder before it disappeared into the countryside. As governor of Massachusetts he had the authority to take that step. He kept carefully within the letter of the law. 2
The mission was planned in high secrecy. To lead it, Gage selected one of his most able officers, Lieutenant-Colonel George Maddison, commander of the 4th (King’s Own) Foot. Maddison was given 260 picked men, “draughted from the several regiments” in the garrison. For quick surprise and ease of transport, Gage availed himself of the Royal Navy’s command of coastal waters, and decided to strike suddenly from the sea, using longboats borrowed from ships in Boston harbor.
At 4:30 in the morning of September 1, 1774, while the unsuspecting town was still asleep, Colonel Maddison’s men crept out of their quarters and marched quietly to Long Wharf, where the navy was waiting with a flotilla of thirteen longboats, bobbing gently on the morning tide. The soldiers climbed awkwardly into the boats, and within minutes the coxswains pushed off, rowing across Boston harbor to the Mystic River. 3
The soldiers came ashore at a landing place called Temple’s Farm, and marched quickly to the Powder House on Quarry Hill about a mile away. The sheriff of Middlesex County, Colonel David Phips, gave them the keys to the building, a windowless stone tower with one of Benjamin Franklin’s new lightning rods rising from the center of its shingled roof. No lanterns could be lighted in the building for fear of explosion, and the morning was still very dark. The soldiers waited for the light to improve, then brought out the gunpowder. All 250 half-barrels were carried to the boats and delivered to Boston. As the sun rose over Quarry Hill, a small detachment marched on to Cambridge, and brought away two brass field pieces that belonged to the Province. By noon the munitions were deposited in Castle William, and the men were back in their barracks. 4
The Massachusetts Provincial Powder House still stands today at Powder-house Square, Somerville, Massachusetts. The removal of munitions by the 64th Foot on Sept. 1, 1774, triggered the great New England Powder Alarm. (James Hunnewell, History of Charlestown (Boston, 1888))
General Gage was very pleased. His staff had planned the mission perfectly, and Colonel Maddison had executed it without a hitch. The largest supply of gunpowder in Massachusetts had been secured at a stroke, without a shot fired. It was a model operation in all respects, save one. The British commander had completely misunderstood the temper of New England.
The people were caught entirely by surprise. Through the day, reports began to fly across the countryside. It was rumored that the Province had been “robbed of its powder,” that the Regulars were marching, that war had begun, that six people were killed, that the King’s ships were bombarding Boston. None of this was true, but many people gave way to a wild panic that would long be remembered in New England as the Powder Alarm. 5
All that day church bells tolled in the towns. At dusk great fire-beacons that had warned of war against the French were set alight, burning brightly across the open countryside. As far away as Connecticut, the militia began to march toward Boston. That night, a young traveler named McNeil happened to be on the road from the Connecticut Valley to Boston. He stopped at a tavern in Shrewsbury, about halfway in between. About midnight he was awakened by loud voices and a violent knocking at the door. He heard someone tell the landlord that “the powder was taken.” Within fifteen minutes, fifty men had gathered at the tavern, “equipping themselves and sending off posts to the neighboring towns.” He remembered that “the men set off as fast as they were equipped.”
Early the next morning, September 2, 1774, McNeil set out for Boston. Afterward he wrote that “he never saw such a scene before. All along [the road] were armed men rushing forward— some on foot, some on horseback. At every house women and children [were] making cartridges, running bullets, making wallets [pouches of food], baking biscuits, crying and bemoaning and at the same time animating their husbands and sons to fight for their liberties, though not knowing whether they should ever see them again. … They left scarcely half a dozen men in a town, unless old and decrepit, and in one town the landlord told him that himself was the only man left.” 6
Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist clergyman with a passion for statistics, estimated that “perhaps more than one third the effective men in all New England took arms and were on actual march for Boston.” Another observer reported that 20,000 men marched from the Connecticut Valley alone, “in one body armed and equipped,” and were halfway to Boston before they were called back. 7
William Brattle’s letter to General Gage somehow fell into Whig hands and was given to the newspapers. When the people of New England discovered what had happened, anxiety and fear gave way to unbridled fury. The rage of an entire region fell on a few Tories who happened to be within reach. Whig leaders who had been trying to awaken a spirit of resistance suddenly found themselves trying, in Joseph Warren’s words, “to prevent the people from coming to immediate acts of violence.” 8
On the morning of September 2, a huge crowd of 4,000 angry men gathered on Cambridge Common, mostly farmers from the towns between Sudbury and Boston. Whig leaders persuaded them to leave their firearms in Watertown. Armed only with wooden cudgels, they marched to “Tory Row” in Cambridge, and gathered around William Brattle’s mansion. This elegant house had been his family’s seat through four generations. Its gardens and private mall extended all the way to the Charles River. The property itself was protected by Whig leaders, but Brattle was forced to flee for his life, and took refuge at Castle William in Boston harbor. He sent a pathetic letter to the newspapers: “My banishment from my house, the place of my nativity,” he wrote, “my house being searched though I am informed it was without damage, grieves me deeply … I am extremely sorry for what has taken place; I hope I may be forgiven.” But he was not forgiven. William Brattle was never allowed to go home again. He was a fugitive for the rest of his days.
The mob went on to visit Colonel David Phips, the Tory sheriff who had delivered the keys of the powderhouse, and compelled him to swear in writing that he would never enforce the Coercive Acts and would recall every writ issued “under the new establishment.” Another inhabitant of Tory Row, Thomas Oliver, was made to resign his seat on Gage’s new Royal Council. He wrote on a slip of paper, “My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their command I sign my name.” 9
It was a fiercely hot day, and tempers rose with the thermometer. The crowd moved to the house of Tory barrister Jonathan Sewall, and things got out of hand. Someone inside the Sewall mansion fired a pistol. An unruly mob of boys and servants smashed the windows and threatened to pull down the entire building. While Whig leaders held the crowd at bay, Jonathan Sewall fled to Boston. A few months later he left the country, never to return. Printed papers were nailed to the doors of Sewall’s fellow lawyers, threatening death to any member of the Bar who appeared in the new courts created by the Coercive Acts. 10
Some of the mob, who were mounted, came upon Customs Commissioner Benjamin Hallowell in his opulent “post-chaise,” escorted by a servant in livery. A countryman came up to him and cried, “Damn you, how do you like us now, you Tory son of a bitch?” Hallowell took his servant’s horse and galloped toward Boston with a pistol in his hand, pursued by a howling mob of infuriated Yankees, said to number 160 mounted men and horses. Behind the thundering mob galloped three frantic Whig leaders, hoping to prevent bloodshed. As Hallowell approached the British sentries at Boston Neck, his horse collapsed. With the mob in full cry close behind him he sprinted to the safety of the British lines.
When the danger of violence passed, Boston Whigs rejoiced in the dramatic turn of events and spread the news to other colonies. Paul Revere, unable to travel himself, dispatched riders bearing his personal letters to leaders in other colonies. To his good friend John Lamb, a leading Whig in New York, Revere wrote triumphantly,
I embrace this oppertunity to inform you, that we are in Spirits, tho’ in a garrison; the Spirit of Liberty never was higher than at present, the troops have the horrors amazingly. By reason of some late movements of our friends in the Country, our new fangled Councellors are resigning their places every day; our Justices of the courts, who now hold their commissions during the pleasure of his Majesty, or the Governor, cannot git a jury to act with them, in short the Tories are giving way everywhere in our Province. 11
It is interesting to observe that Paul Revere’s thinking centered on “the Spirit of Liberty,” at a time when Thomas Gage thought mainly about material aspects of the problem. While Imperial leaders were laboring to remove the physical means of resistance, New England Whigs were promoting the spiritual will to resist. The two parties to this great conflict were not merely thinking different things; they were thinking differently.
General Gage was amazed by the rising of the countryside against him, and astounded by the anger he had awakened in New England. Instantly his mood changed, and suddenly he turned very cautious. His staff had already been planning another mission to seize munitions in Worcester, forty miles inland. This second strike was postponed, and later abandoned altogether.
The British commander began to think defensively. He ordered the town of Boston to be closed and fortified. Heavy cannon were emplaced on Roxbury Neck, in fear that the “country people” might storm the town. The inhabitants were ordered to surrender their weapons, lest they rise against the garrison. Stocks of powder and arms in the possession of merchants were forcibly purchased by the Crown. 12
After the powder alarm, this hastily printed handbill was tacked on the doors of Massachusetts lawyers, of whom many were Tories. (Public Record Office)
As commander in chief for America, Gage did what he could to concentrate his forces in Boston. But by late October he had only 3000 Regulars in the town, not nearly enough to control a province that had mustered ten times as many men against him in a single day. The first hints of winter were beginning to be felt in the crisp New England air, and the season for campaigning was nearly at an end. 13
General Gage began to send home dispatches that differed very much from his strong advice of the past five years. In the weeks after the Powder Alarm, he informed London that “the whole country was in arms and in motion.” He reported that “from present appearances there is no prospect of putting the late acts in force, but by first making a conquest of the New-England provinces.” 14
In November Gage went further, and urged that the Coercive Acts (which he himself had proposed) should be suspended until more troops could be sent to Boston. This idea caused consternation in London. The King himself angrily rejected Gage’s advice as “the most absurd that can be suggested.” 15
At the same time, Gage begged his superiors for massive reinforcement. To Barrington he wrote, “If you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty; if one million is thought enough, give two; you save both blood and treasure in the end.” 16
In London those numbers were thought to be absurd, even hysterical. At the moment when Gage was asking for 20,000 reinforcements, only 12,000 regular infantry existed in all of Britain. 17 The King’s ministers replied that “such a force cannot be collected without augmenting our army to a war establishment.” Gage was sent a battalion of 400 Marines, and told to get on with the job. 18
Meanwhile, the Whig leaders of New England were gathering their own resources with greater success. A convention met in Worcester on September 21, 1774, and urged town meetings to organize special companies of minutemen, so that one-third of the militia would be in constant readiness to march. It recommended that a system of alarms and express riders be organized throughout the colony. In October, the former legislature of Massachusetts met in defiance of Governor Gage, and declared itself to be the First Provincial Congress. It created a Committee of Safety and a Committee of Supplies, modeled after the institutions of England’s Puritan Revolution and armed with executive powers.
The people of New England vowed never again to be taken by surprise. In Boston, Paul Revere went instantly to work on that particular problem. His chosen instrument was a favorite device in Boston: the voluntary association. Many years later he recalled that “in the Fall of 1774 and Winter of 1775 I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers, and gaining every intelligence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern.” 19
Paul Revere himself was the leader of this clandestine organization. Its activities were shrouded in the deepest secrecy. He wrote, “We were so careful that our meetings should be kept secret, that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible that he would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church and one or two more.” 20
Despite these precautions, General Gage quickly learned about this secret society. His source was Dr. Benjamin Church, who sat in the highest councils of the Whig movement, and betrayed it for money. The Whigs of Boston were soon painfully aware that Gage knew what they were doing. Many years later, Paul Revere remembered that “a gentleman who had connections with the Tory party, but was a Whig at heart, acquainted me that our meetings were discovered, and mentioned the identical words that were spoken among us the night before.” Paul Revere’s mechanics were unable to discover who was betraying them, and began to suspect one another. All the while they continued to report their activities to Dr. Benjamin Church, never imagining that Church himself was the traitor. 21
Even as General Gage knew what Paul Revere and his friends were doing, he made no attempt to stop them. Perhaps he saw no reason to try, as long as Doctor Church was keeping him so well informed. Without interference, the Boston mechanics met at the Green Dragon Tavern, and organized themselves into regular watches. “We frequently took turns, two by two,” Revere remembered, “to watch the soldiers by patrolling the streets all night.” 22
In our mind’s eye, we might see them in the pale glow of Boston’s new street lights, patrolling the icy streets on long winter nights, their hands tucked under arms for warmth, and the collars of their short mechanics’ jackets turned high against the bitter Boston wind. All the while General Gage’s officers watched the watchmen through frosted window panes, then gathered around white oak fires in cozy winter quarters, and laughed knowingly into their steaming mugs of mulled Madeira.
Early in December, 1774, the British command recovered its nerve, and decided to strike again. An Order in Council prohibited the export of arms and ammunition to America, and ordered Imperial officials to stop “the importation thereof into any part of North America,” and to secure the munitions that were already in the colonies. Particularly at risk was a large supply of gunpowder, cannon, and small arms in New Hampshire. It was kept at Fort William and Mary, near the entrance to Portsmouth harbor, fifty miles north of Boston. The ramshackle fortress was garrisoned only by six invalid British soldiers, and vulnerable to attack.
This time the Whigs of New England were on their guard. Paul Revere’s clandestine network functioned with high efficiency, and caught wind of the new British policy. Once again, Revere himself played a pivotal role. With various reports in hand, he and his friends decided to warn the people of New Hampshire that a large British expedition was ordered to Fort William and Mary, and possibly underway. 23
The date was December 12, 1774. British warships were indeed at sea along the coast of New England in severe winter weather, and were thought to be heading for New Hampshire. Among them was HMS Somerset, a ship of the line with a large force of British Marines on board. In the latitude of Portsmouth, she met a fierce snowstorm that churned the coastal waters of New England into a seamen’s hell. A gale howled through her rigging, and foaming torrents of green water cascaded from her plunging bows. She was forced to heave to, her sails “close-reefed and banded,” with hand pumps “constantly going throughout the ship,” to keep her from sinking. 24
The Green Dragon Tavern was a massive brick building on the west side of Union Street. Modeled on another Green Dragon Tavern in Bishopsgate, London, it was operating in Boston as early as 1712, and became a center of revolutionary activity. The building was bought by Revere’s Masonic Lodge, hence the square and compass in the corner. The vehicle is a one-horse chaise such as Paul Revere himself used on at least one of his revolutionary rides. This ink and watercolor drawing by John Johnson in 1773 is in the American Antiquarian Society.
Admiral Graves wrote later, “This sort of storm is so severe it cannot be looked against, and by the snow freezing as fast as it falls, baffles all resistance—for the blocks become choked, the tackle encrusted, the ropes and sails quite congealed, and the whole ship freezes upon whatever part it falls and soon covers the forepart of a ship with ice.” One may imagine the misery of her crew as they worked the frozen sails against the gale that was blowing in their faces. They had to “pour boiling water upon the tacks and sheets and with clubs and bats beat off the ice, before the cordage can be rendered flexible.” 25
Meanwhile, early in the morning of December 13, Paul Revere saddled his horse and hurried north to warn the people of Portsmouth. It proved to be one of his most difficult rides. Winter had come early to New Hampshire in 1774. The snow was deep on the ground by Thanksgiving Day, November 24. Another snow fell on December 9, and turned the highways into morasses of mud and slush. Then, in a typical New England sequence, the weather turned bitter cold. The thick slush froze in rough furrows on the rutted roads. 26
It was the sort of day when weatherwise Yankee travelers bided their time by tavern hearths. But Paul Revere could not wait for the weather. Determined to win his race against the Regulars, he mounted his horse and rode sixty miles from Boston to Portsmouth, under dark December skies. A piercing west wind howled across the dangerous highway, and chilled him to the bone.
Revere reached Portsmouth on the afternoon of December 13, 1774, and went straight to the waterfront house of Whig merchant Samuel Cutts. Portsmouth’s Committee of Correspondence quickly convened, and Revere reported his news. He told the Portsmouth Whigs that two regiments of Regulars were coming to seize the powder at Fort William and Mary. Further, he warned them that the King had issued an Order in Council prohibiting export of munitions to the colonies, and that new supplies would not be easy to obtain. 27
While the Whigs of Portsmouth were pondering this news, a Tory townsman reported Paul Revere’s arrival to New Hampshire’s Royal Governor John Wentworth, a man of energy and decision. Wentworth instantly alerted the small garrison at the fort, and dispatched an express rider to General Gage and Admiral Graves with an urgent request for help. 28
In fact, Paul Revere’s intelligence was not entirely correct. No British expedition had yet sailed for Portsmouth. HMS Somerset was merely in passage from Britain to America, and her Marines were part of the battalion promised to General Gage. But when Wentworth’s message arrived in Boston, Admiral Graves ordered a small sloop, HMS Canceaux, to depart immediately for Portsmouth with another detachment of Marines on board. A larger frigate, HMS Scarborough, was ordered to follow as soon as she could get under way.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire men were acting quickly on the information that Paul Revere had brought them. Early on the morning of December 14, a fife and drum paraded through the streets of Portsmouth. By noon, 400 militiamen mustered in the town. They collected a fleet of small boats, and prepared to assault the fort. At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon the attack began, under cover of a snow storm. Some of the New Hampshire men marched overland to the fort. Others approached it by sea, paddling down the Piscataqua River in the eery silence of the falling snow, as clouds of white flakes swirled around them. 29
The garrison of British invalids saw them coming through the snow, and prepared to resist. The attackers demanded the surrender of the fort. Captain Cochran told them “on their peril not to enter. They replied they would.” The British garrison, outnumbered 400 to 6, bravely hoisted the King’s colors, manned the ramparts and managed to fire three four-pounders before the New Hampshire men swarmed over the walls from every side. Even then, the gallant British garrison continued fighting with small arms until they were overpowered by weight of numbers. The fort commander, Captain Cochran, surrendered his sword but was allowed to keep it. The New Hampshire men gave three cheers, and then to the horror of the garrison hauled down the King’s colors. Captain Cochran drew his sword that had just been returned to him, and was wounded and “pinioned” by the New Hampshiremen. Another of the British Regulars bravely tried to stop them. A Yankee snapped a pistol in the soldier’s face, then knocked him down with the butt end of it. These were truly the first blows of the American Revolution, four months before the battles of Lexington and Concord. 30
The New Hampshiremen took possession of the fort and broke open the magazine. They carried away more than 100 barrels of gunpowder by boat to the town of Durham, and then by cart to hiding places in the interior. 31
While the fight was going on, couriers were spreading Paul Revere’s message through the country towns of New Hampshire. By morning, more than a thousand men marched on Portsmouth. It was reported that “the men who came down are those of the best property and note in the province.” They returned to the fort and took away a supply of muskets and sixteen cannon, leaving about twenty heavy pieces behind. 32
The British reinforcements were too late. HMS Canceaux did not sail from Boston until December 17. She had a favoring wind, and managed to reach Portsmouth without incident. But when she arrived, a cunning Yankee pilot conned her into shallow water at high tide, and the British warship found herself helplessly “be-nipped” behind a shoal, unable to move for days. Admiral Graves, a rough unpolished sea officer with a furious temper, was reduced to a state of apoplectic rage.
HMS Scarborough was unable to get under way until December 19. As she left harbor the fickle Boston wind veered from the west to the northeast, and the weather turned so threatening that she was forced to anchor in Nantasket Road south of Boston until the wind changed. The storm-beaten frigate did not arrive in Portsmouth until a week after the attack on the fort. The New Hampshiremen had long since released their prisoners and melted away into the countryside. Paul Revere trotted back to Boston, his mission completed. The British commander of the expedition came ashore to find an infuriated Royal governor, a defeated garrison, a looted fort, and a hostile population. 33
For General Gage, the Portsmouth Alarm was a heavy defeat. The people of New Hampshire had been needlessly provoked to commit an overt act of armed rebellion. They had attacked the King’s troops, seized a large supply of powder, and carried it beyond the reach of British arms. Other towns throughout New England had acted in the same way. In Newport, Providence, and New London, cannon and munitions had been removed from forts and hidden in the interior. 34
The British leaders had no doubt as to the identity of the man who had brought about their humiliation. They attributed their defeat directly to Paul Revere. In New Hampshire, Governor Wentworth wrote that the trouble began with “Mr. Revere and the dispatch he brought with him, before which all was perfectly quiet and peaceable in the place.” 35
Paul Revere’s role was well known to British leaders in Boston. Within a few days of the event, Lord Percy wrote home, “Tuesday last Mr. Paul Revere (a person who is employed by the Committee of Correspondence, here, as a messenger) arrived at Portsmouth with a letter from the committee here to those of that place, on receipt of which, circular letters were wrote to all the neighboring towns; and an armed body of 400 or 500 men marched the next day into the town of Portsmouth.” 36
Many British officers wondered why General Gage did not arrest a man who so openly defied him. Some would cheerfully have clapped him in irons, and left him to rot in a damp dungeon at Castle William in Boston harbor. But Thomas Gage believed strictly in the rule of law. The Whig leaders, Revere among them, were allowed to remain at liberty while frustrated British soldiers cursed their commander and their Yankee tormentors in equal measure. Even Gage’s lieutenant Lord Percy, outwardly loyal to his chief, wrote privately, “The general’s great lenity and moderation serve only to make them more daring and insolent.” 37
In February, Gage’s staff began to plan another stroke. A large supply of munitions was thought to be accumulating in the seaport town of Salem, the “shire town” for Essex County in the northeast corner of Massachusetts. Reports reached the British commander that many old ships’ cannon were being converted into field pieces at a Salem forge, and that eight new brass guns had been imported from abroad. General Gage decided to go after them. 38
Command of the mission was given to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Leslie, an able and experienced officer, known for his moderation and restraint. Loyalist Ann Hulton described Leslie as “amiable and good … of a noble Scotch family but distinguished more by his humanity and affability.” Here was a man that Gage could trust.
Again the British commander in chief moved with his habitual caution and secrecy. Thomas Hutchinson Junior wrote of this expedition, “The general is so very secret in all his motions that his aide de camp knew nothing of this till it was put in execution.”39Elaborate precautions were taken to prevent detection by Paul Revere and his mechanics. For security, the mission was assigned to the 64th Foot, quartered on Castle Island in the harbor. These men were ordered to travel by sea directly from the island in the dark of night, so that nobody would see them depart. 40
Once again, Paul Revere got wind of the impending expedition before it sailed. The information came to him in a roundabout way, perhaps from the Colony’s secretary, Thomas Flucker, who worked in Province House with General Gage. Flucker may have passed on the news to his Whig son-in-law, bookseller Henry Knox, who relayed it to Paul Revere. 41
Revere appears to have been informed only that something was stirring in the harbor. His mechanics’ network went instantly into operation. The day before the expedition was to depart, three men rowed out to Castle Island to find out “what was acting,” to use Revere’s favorite phrase. As they approached the island, the British soldiers were waiting, and the Boston men were arrested for trespass. One wonders if the report from Gage’s headquarters may have been leaked to Revere deliberately, as bait for a trap. In any case, the mechanics were caught, and held on the island from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, “lest we should send an express to our brethren at Marblehead and Salem.” 42
Had General Gage been less Whiggish in his respect for the rule of law, Paul Revere might have worn these handcuffs and leg irons, which were later recovered from the wreck of HMS Somerset on Cape Cod and are at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
While Paul Revere’s mechanics were kept prisoner, the British troops of the 64th Foot got off without detection, 240 strong. A little after midnight, February 26, 1775, their transport sailed north across Massachusetts Bay on a course for Marblehead. They reached their destination about nine o’clock in the morning of February 27, and dropped anchor by a secluded beach in Homan’s Cove on Marblehead Neck. Colonel Leslie kept his soldiers hidden in the hold. Only a few crewmen were visible on deck. 43
It was a quiet Sunday in Marblehead, and the countryside was silent and peaceful. The Regulars waited patiently until the people of Marblehead went to their meetinghouses for their afternoon sermon. Then, between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, Leslie ordered his men into action. His Regulars swarmed out of the ship’s hold, landed ashore, and quickly formed on a road near the beach. 44
Colonel Leslie gave the order to advance, and the long red column went swinging into its march toward Salem, five miles away. The Regulars were confident that nothing could stand in their way, and decided to announce their presence. The fifes and drums of the 64th Foot suddenly shattered the stillness of the Sabbath with a raucous rendition of Yankee Doodle.
The landing of the soldiers had already been observed by several men of Marblehead, who sprinted to their meetinghouse and sounded the alarm. Whig leader Major John Pedrick decided to warn Salem, but he could get there only by the road the Regulars had taken. Major Pedrick mounted his horse, and rode slowly past the Regulars, politely saluting Colonel Leslie, whom he had met before. Leslie returned the salute, and ordered his regiment to “file to the right and left and give Major Pedrick the pass.”
When out of sight Pedrick put spurs to his horse, and galloped on to Salem. He went to the home of Colonel David Mason, who ran into the meetinghouse, where the congregation had gathered for the afternoon service, and shouted as he came down the aisle, “The Regulars are coming after the guns and are now near Mal-loon’s Mills!”
Bells began to ring and drums beat “to arms” throughout the town. The people poured out of their churches and ran to save the guns. Baptists and Congregationalists forgot their differences and joined in a common effort. Even Quaker David Boyce hitched up his team and helped to haul away the heavy cannon. Some weapons were taken to an oak woodlot and hidden under the leaves. Others were carried to a remote part of town called Orne’s Point. 45
Meanwhile, the British troops were on the march. To delay them a party of townsmen hurried to a bridge between Salem and Marblehead and frantically ripped up some of the planking to delay the Regulars. Colonel Leslie’s column was forced to halt while a party of soldiers repaired the structure. The Salem men won a few precious moments for the teams who were removing the cannon. But the Regulars soon improvised a surface over the bridge and crossed into Salem center, where they halted for a moment in Town House Square.
The townspeople watched as several of their Tory neighbors came forward. One was seen “whispering in the Colonel’s ear.” Then the British column started off at a quick-march, straight toward the cannon, with a large crowd of Salem men and boys walking beside them.
In their path was a drawbridge over an arm of the sea called North River. Just as the soldiers approached it, the men of Salem raised the drawbridge from the north side. There was no other way across. The troops were forced to halt at the bridge.
Colonel Leslie hurried forward, and demanded to know why the men of Salem dared to obstruct the King’s highway. They replied that the road belonged to them. The British commander “stamped and swore and ordered the bridge to be lowered at once,” threatening to open fire if he was not obeyed. Militia captain John Felt warned him, “You had better be damned than fire! You have no right to fire without further orders! If you fire you’ll all be dead men.”
The crowd began to grow. Several Salem men sat provocatively on the raised edge of the open drawbridge, dangling their feet and shouting defiantly at the Regulars, “Soldiers! Red Jackets! Lobster Coats! Cowards! Damnation to Your Government!”
While the Salem men gathered at the head of the British column, the Marblehead Regiment was mustering behind its rear. These Marblehead men were a special breed. Many were cod fishermen—rugged, weatherbeaten, hard-handed seamen who earned their living in open boats on the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic. Some were veterans of the French wars. They were as stubborn and independent as their Boston cousins, and feared no mortal power on this earth—least of all the red-coated Regulars who had invaded their town. The men of Marblehead moved into strong positions along the Salem Road, and prepared to fight. 46
It was a sharp wintry New England day. As the Regulars stood waiting in their ranks, some began to shiver in the damp cold. The men of Salem taunted them. One shouted across the river, “I should think you were all fiddlers, you shake so!” 47
In the river near the bridge were three large sailing scows called “gundalows” in the old New England dialect. Colonel Leslie noticed the boats and ordered his troops to seize them. The Salem men moved more quickly. They jumped into the boats and smashed their bottoms to keep the Regulars from using them. The soldiers ran to stop them, threatening to use their bayonets. A Salem man named Joseph Whicher, the foreman of a distillery, rose up before them and defiantly tore open his shirt, daring the troops to attack. An infuriated British soldier lunged forward and “pricked” the American’s naked chest with his bayonet. 48
The mood of the crowd began to change. They closed in around the soldiers, who pushed them back with bayonets. Suddenly, a man dressed in black moved through the throng toward Colonel Leslie, and spoke to him in a voice that demanded to be heard:
“I desire you do not fire on these innocent people.”
“Who are you?” said Colonel Leslie.
“I am Thomas Barnard, a minister of the gospel, and my mission is peace,” the clergyman replied. The two men, one in black and the other in red, began to talk. The hour was growing late—five o’clock in the evening. The winter sun was going down, and wind was cruel in the damp salt air.
Colonel Leslie had reason to be concerned, not merely for the success of his mission, but the safety of his force. Whig leader Benjamin Daland (today remembered as the Paul Revere of Salem) had galloped to Danvers with the news of the Regulars. Now he was back again, and many others with him. By five o’clock militia were streaming into Salem from as far as Amesbury, twenty-five miles to the north.
As more men poured into the town, the Salem minister proposed to the British colonel a cunning Yankee compromise—the bridge would be lowered if the Regulars promised on their honor to march only to the forge about 100 yards beyond. If they found no cannon they were to turn around and go back to their ships. Colonel Leslie was willing to accept those terms, knowing that he could accomplish nothing more at that late hour. The people of Salem were happy to agree, knowing that the cannon were safely removed.
The drawbridge came creaking down. The British soldiers marched solemnly across it, found nothing, and turned to march back again. As they started their retreat, a window flew open in a house by the road, and a young Salem woman named Sarah Tarrant thrust out her head. “Go home,” she screamed at the Regulars, “and tell your master he sent you on a fool’s errand, and has broken the peace of our Sabbath.” She added contemptuously, “Do you think we were born in the woods, to be frightened by owls?” An frustrated Regular raised his firelock and took aim at her head. Sarah Tarrant said defiantly, “Fire, if you have the courage, but I doubt it.” 49
The British troops returned ignominiously to their ship, fifes and drums playing with empty bravado. They were escorted by a vast crowd of men from Salem and Danvers and many other towns. As the column crossed into Marblehead, and the men of that community also came out of their positions and joined the procession, marching in mock-cadence beside the British troops.
As the Regulars boarded their transport and sailed away, American militiamen converged on Salem from many towns in Essex County—from Danvers and Marblehead, Beverly and Lynn End, Reading and Stoneham. When they learned that the Regulars had left empty-handed, many shared a sense of triumph that made the Imperial cause seem not evil but absurd. An American journalist commented, “It is regretted that an officer of Colonel Leslie’s worth should be obliged, in obedience to his orders, to come upon so pitiful an errand.” Even Loyalists were appalled by what had happened. Thomas Hutchinson wrote, “It is very uncertain whether he succeeded in the errand he went upon.” 50
General Gage confessed in his candid way that the mission had been a “mistake.” Worse than merely a defeat, it was received by both sides as a disgrace to British arms. Something was happening in these alarms that meant more trouble for the Imperial cause than the loss of a few cannon. When Joseph Whicher exposed his naked breast to a British bayonet, and Sarah Tarrant dared a Regular to fire “if you have the courage,” a new spirit was rising in Massachusetts. Each side tested the other’s resolve in these encounters. One side repeatedly failed that test. 51
Why it did so is a question of much importance in our story. Had General Gage been the tyrant that many New England Whigs believed him to be, the outcome might have been very different. But Thomas Gage was an English gentleman who believed in decency, moderation, liberty, and the rule of law. Here again was the agony of an old English Whig: he could not crush American resistance to British government without betraying the values which he believed that government to represent.
On the other side, Paul Revere and the Whigs of New England faced no such dilemma. Their values were consistent with their interests and their acts. That inner harmony became their outward strength.