From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.
February 28. –Last Sunday [February 26] an attempt was made by a regiment of the king’s troops, under Colonel Leslie, to seize some brass cannon which General Gage had heard was deposited at or near Salem, Massachusetts. The troops were sent to Marblehead in a transport, apparently manned as usual. Between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, as soon as the people had gone to meeting, the decks were covered with soldiers, who having loaded, and fixed their bayonets, landed with great despatch; and instantly marched off. Some of the inhabitants suspecting they were bound to Salem, to seize some materials there preparing for an artillery, despatched several messengers to give information 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 to let vessels pass. The inhabitants kept a look out for the appearance of the troops. The vanguard arrived, and took their route down 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 town-house. It is said inquiry was immediately made by some of the officers, for a half-brother of Colonel Browne, 1 the mandamus counsellor. Be this as it may, he was soon whispering in the Colonel’s ear, in the front of the regiment, and when he parted from the Colonel, the regiment marched with a quick pace towards the north bridge; just before their entering upon which the bridge was pulled up. The regiment, however, pushed on till they came to the bridge, not observing (as it seemed) that it was drawn up. The Colonel expressed some surprise, and turning about, ordered an officer to face his company to a body of men standing on the wharf on the other side of the drawbridge, and to fire. One of the townsmen 2 (who had kept along side of the colonel from the time he marched from his own house) 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 all be dead men. The company neither faced nor fired.
The Colonel then retired to the centre of his regiment, assembled his officers, and held a consultation; which being ended, he advanced a little, and declared he would maintain his ground, and go over the bridge if it was a month first. The same townsman replied, he might stay there as long as he pleased, no one cared for that. The half-brother before mentioned (it is said) made towards the bridge, but seeing the drawbridge up, he said, “It is all over with us.” He has since disappeared. 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 with his assistants was scuttling his own gondola, a party of about twenty soldiers jumped into it, and with their bayonets charged against the unarmed townsmen (some of whom they pricked), and compelled them to quit it; but before this a sufficient hole was 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 disputes subsided.
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 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 bridge was let down so as he might pass, he pledged his honor he would not march above thirty rods beyond it, and then immediately return.
The regiment had now been at the bridge about an hour and an half, and every thing being secured, the inhabitants directed the bridge might be let down. The regiment immediately passed over, marched a few rods, returned, and with great expedition went back to Marblehead,3 where they went on board the transport without delay.4
It is regretted that an officer of Colonel Leslie’s acknowledged worth should be obliged, in obedience to his orders, to come upon so pitiful an errand. 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. Messengers were immediately despatched 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 their march, before the messengers arrived.5
1 Colonel John Sargent. He was a merchant of Salem. His name is at the head of those who addressed Governor Gage on his arrival in Salem, in June, 1774; in which address they acknowledge they “are deeply sensible of His Majesty’s paternal care and affection to this Province in the appointment of a person of His Excellency’s experience, wisdom, and moderation in these troublesome and difficult times.” This was pronounced a most contemptible “Tory production,” which disgraced the public prints. Sargent was a notorious Tory, and was proscribed in the banishment act of 1778, and went to England.
Colonel William Browne was one of the most prominent inhabitants of Salem, and previous to the troubles which led to the Revolution, enjoyed great popularity; but by espousing the cause of the mother country, he forfeited all claim to the favorable consideration of the people. He was one of the “infamous seventeen” rescinders in 1768, –signed the address to Governor Hutchinson in 1774, and accepted office under Governor Gage. Upon the breaking out of the Revolution he became a refugee, and was included in the act of banishment of 1778, and the conspiracy act of 1779. His landed estates, which were numerous and valuable, were all confiscated to the use of the Government; and in 1779 his homestead, in Salem, was sold to the late Elias Hasket Derby, senior, where, in 1799, he erected his princely mansion at an expense of eighty thousand dollars, which was taken down in 1816, and near its site now stands the City Market House. Colonel Browne, after leaving the country, was appointed Governor of Bermuda, and died in England in 1802, aged sixty-five. He was a graduate of Harvard College, of the class of 1755. —Endicott’s Account.
2 Capt. John Felt.
3 “There were eighty military companies in Marblehead at that time, comprising nearly the whole male population, between sixteen and sixty years of age. They were all promptly assembled under Colonel Orne, and ordered to station themselves behind the houses and fences along the road, prepared to fall upon the British on their return from Salem, if it should be found that hostile measures had been used by them; but if it should appear that no concerted act of violence upon the persons or property of the people had been committed, they were charged not to show themselves, but to allow the British detachment to return unmolested to their transport. —John Howard’s Account: Upham’s Address.
4 The following “translation” appeared in the Massachusetts Spy, March 2: — “Caesar, though celebrated for an heroic mind, was liable to be betrayed by the villainous toad-eaters at his table, into low freaks; in the prosecution of which he would sometimes disgrace even his most worthy officers, –for such undoubtedly was Caius Lessala. This brave, sensible, polite man, was despatched from Castellinum two hours after sunset, on the 5th of the Kalends of March, (answering to our 25th of February,) with near 300 picked men in a galley, under verbal orders to land at Marmoreum, and proceed to Saleminum, while the inhabitants of both places were engaged in celebrating a solemn institution. Lessala was not to open his written instructions till he reached the causeway. He conducted the affair with a despatch and propriety worthy of his character, expecting to find he had been sent to surprise one of Pompey’s fortified magazines. But great indeed was his chagrin, when he read that his errand was only to rob a private enclosure in the North-Fields of that village. He suddenly returned to Castellinum, mentioned some obstruction of a Fly-Bridge, and with not a little resentment in his eyes, told Caesar that the ‘geese were flown.’ The base courtiers enjoyed the hum, which they had contrived against the veteran; and laid their heads together for a new scheme to dupe Caesar. — Vi. Caes. Eds. Americ. Fol. 1775.”
5 Essex Gazette, Feb. 28, and Pennsylvania Packet, March 13.