As events quickly spiraled out of control in the winter and spring of 1774-1775 around Massachusetts, several armed confrontations between local “Patriots” and the British army heightened tensions. On many occasions, both sides adverted open confrontation and were able to diffuse the situation. Understanding these events and how they made an impression on both sides helps explain what happened on the Lexington Common on April 19, 1775.
As soon as British General Thomas Gage arrived in Boston in the spring of 1774, he set about enforcing the newly passed “Coercive Acts.” In response to these new laws that restricted many of the rights the people of Massachusetts had grown accustomed too, local groups began to arm themselves in opposition to British authority. Even though Gage was once popular in the colonies, he soon became an enemy to those around Boston who believed the Coercive Acts were an overstep of British authority.
Gage, to his credit, had established a decent network of spies and information gathering on local assemblies and the newly formed First Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. This elected body was acting (illegally in the eyes of Gates and Parliament) as the colonial legislature for Massachusetts. The Provincial Congress had passed resolutions to create an armed militia and a highly trained “minute man” force that could respond quickly to British threats. As the Patriots began to arm themselves with not just muskets but also cannon, Gage determined to disarm them. He quickly sought out information on where the Congress was establishing weapon depots.
One such depot of weapons (and supposedly ship cannons being refitted for field use) was located at Salem, Massachusetts. Located approximately 15 miles northeast of Boston along the coast, Salem previously served as Gage’s provincial capital when he arrived in Massachusetts in 1774. Now he planned on sending 240 men of the 64th Foot under Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie. Leslie was trusted by Gage to have a level head, and he knew how precarious his mission was. On February 26, 1775, this British force arrived via water and waited for the residents to attend their regular Sunday sermon. Soon after, the 64th Foot began to make the five-mile march to Salem. A column of nearly 250 British regulars brought a lot of attention, and soon riders were riding ahead to Salem to warn them of the approaching British. The men in Salem began removing the cannon and hid them in the countryside. The main objective for Leslie was a blacksmith shop on the north side of the North River. Here, is where it was reported that the ship cannons were being refitted for field use.
The draw bridge spanned the North River became significant, as it was the only way across. As the British approached, several men raised the drawbridge so the British could not cross. By this time militia was on the opposite banks of the North River; an armed confrontation, one of many this winter, between colonials and Royal troops ensued. Leslie demanded that the bridge be lowered so he could cross, but the militia would not budge. Meanwhile, the cannons Leslie was looking for were being dispersed. Leslie threatened to fire on the militia, but Leslie’s senses got the best of him as he recognized hundreds of townspeople were now turned out and watching. Local townsman John Felt threatened Leslie “Fire and be damned! You’ve no right to fire without further orders. If you fire you’ll all be dead men.” Felt’s words represent just how bold the Americans were becoming in their confrontations with the British army. But Leslie did not want to have blood on his hands this day. Plus, the safety of his own men grew more perilous as the day grew longer, and he knew he had to extricate himself somehow.
As Leslie pondered his next move, more militia showed up behind his regiment. Now his men became nervous as they were virtually surrounded. The Americans began to taunt the British soldiers. Calling them “Lobster Coats” and “Cowards.” Soon a local minister proposed a compromise, the bridge would be lowered and the British could cross and march to the blacksmith forge just a hundred yards beyond the bridge. If no cannon were found (which by now, they were all removed) then Leslie would turn around and march his men back to the ships on the shore. To Leslie, this was an honorable compromise as his orders were to cross the river and investigate the blacksmith forge and shop.
Soon after the British crossed the North River they reached the forge and complied with their part of the deal and re-crossed the river. Though Leslie was not out of danger yet, as the militia and angry citizens lined the road back to their ships. One famous incident was that of Sarah Tarrant. She openly taunted the British as they marched by her house. She yelled “Go home and tell your master he sent you on a fool’s errand…” Soon a soldier lifted his musket towards Tarrant and her defiance was stiffened. She responded “Fire, if you have the courage, but I doubt it.” The solider chose the wise side of caution and lowered his gun. Open rebellion was again thwarted, but a deadly precedent was set. The militia learned that the British did not intend to fire on them and such the bravery of each militia unit at each alarm was amplified. How soon would it be that the British called the colonial militia’s bluff?
The “Salem Alarm” or “Leslie’s Retreat” was one of many incidents where local leaders were emboldened by the acquiescence of the British military. Leslie and Gage were in a no win situation. To open bloodshed would create a firestorm (as would be seen on April 19, 1775) but avoiding combat also encouraged more defiance of British rule. Each event made each side more on edge. Gage believed his superiors in England were downplaying the events in America. He accurately described the situation in September 1774 when he wrote “…no people are more determined for a Civil War.”