J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, April 06, 2017

A Boy’s View of “Leslie’s Retreat”

My favorite account of “Leslie’s Retreat” appeared in the first volume of the Proceedings of the Essex Institute in 1856. It consists of notes that Charles M. Endicott took when he interviewed Samuel Gray.

This wasn’t the Samuel Gray killed at the Boston Massacre, of course. This was a nine-year-old boy who lived on Peter Street in Salem. Here’s what he remembered about Sunday, 26 Feb 1775:
The family had all gone to meeting, except himself and grandmother. Was out in the yard—while there heard a drum and fife—went in and told the old lady of it—she thought he was mistaken—but he was convinced of it and took his cap and went in the direction of the music—

had reached the N. E. corner of Essex and Washington streets, when he saw the troops coming round the corner of School, now Washington street, from Mill street. They marched up to the Town House and halted a few minutes— . . . When the troops recommenced their march followed close to them, was near enough to touch Colonel [Alexander] Leslie most of the time.—The Colonel was a fine looking officer, rather stout with agreeable features; followed them through Lynde street to the North Bridge; should think the platoons about twelve deep, and when they halted at the draw of the bridge, they reached from there to Colonel [Joseph] Sprague’s distillery; should think there could not have been less than 300 men.

When they came to order they formed a line on the west side of the street facing to the eastward. Saw that the Colonel was quite disconcerted to find the draw of the bridge up; noticed his impassioned manner, but…don’t know that he heard any words he uttered.

Saw his minister, Mr [Thomas] Barnard, in the crowd, and saw him speak with Colonel Leslie;…was afterwards told, that when Mr Barnard heard the Colonel say that he would pass the bridge, that he addressed him in these words: “I desire you would not fire on those innocent people;” (meaning those collected on the north side of the bridge,)

at this Colonel Leslie turned short round and said to him “Who are you, sir?”

Mr. Barnard replied, “I am Thomas Barnard, a minister of the gospel, and my mission is peace.”

Saw three gondolas laying aground; saw the people jump into them for the purpose of scuttling them; recognized Frank Benson and Jonathan Felt—saw Frank Benson open his breast to the soldiers. . . . knew Capt. Robert Foster, and recognized him conspicuous among the crowd on the north side of the bridge.

Colonel Leslie had given some orders, and the soldiers were doing something to their muskets; cannot say what; but being a small boy it frightened him, and he with two or three others about his age, ran off and lay down under the fish flakes which covered almost the whole southern bank of the river from north bridge to what is now Conant street; did not return; it was a very cold day, and he was almost frozen, while laying down upon the ground under the flakes; did not see the troops leave town.
Fish flakes were the wooden shelves where fishermen laid their salted cod to dry. They used to be common in New England ports. The photograph of flakes above comes from the Penobscot Marine Museum.

The next day, Samuel went to the “barn of Capt. Foster” himself—and unlike Leslie, he was able to get in. He found a cannon lying on the ground. And being a nine-year-old boy, he climbed onto it and started asking questions:
asked why they did not carry it away;

was told it was injured—looked round and saw a crack in the breech;

asked how many guns there had been in all,

was told twelve; understood they were French pieces, and came from Nova Scotia after the late French war; were guns taken from the French; does not know to whom they belonged previous to being fitted up on this occasion.

Heard they were distributed in various directions—some to Cole’s hole, in what is now called Paradise; others towards Orne’s point, &c.; were not all carried to one place, for fear if they were discovered by the troops they would all be lost.
The troops hadn’t discovered any of those guns, of course. But to be sage, on the night of 3 March, the Essex Gazette reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, “Twenty seven Pieces of Cannon were removed out of this Town, in order to be out of the Way of Robbers.”

TOMORROW: Where those cannon went.

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