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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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Should Today Be “Salem Gunpowder Day”?

Earlier this month the Boston Globe published an essay by the historian Peter Charles Hoffer that it headlined, “Happy Salem Gunpowder Day! Did American independence start with a peaceful protest? The case for a new holiday.”

That holiday would be today, 26 February, and the article began:
In nine weeks, America will once more celebrate Patriot’s Day, in honor of the battles of Lexington and Concord. . . . But when it comes to the start of the Revolution, history has forgotten another crucial British retreat, one that might just as well be the day we celebrate instead. It happened on a Salem bridge on Feb. 26, 1775—239 years ago next Wednesday.

No shots were fired; no patriots or regulars fell. But on that day, for the first time, the Colonists stood up to a British Army serving field commander, and the British withdrew.

The story of the fierce but bloodless showdown that sparked the war is a reminder that our country was born not just out of violence, but from another kind of resistance altogether. If we were to commemorate that day instead—call it Salem Gunpowder Day—it would put a very different spin on our understanding of how our country’s war for independence began.
By no coincidence, Hoffer’s latest book is Prelude to Revolution: The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775. He was doing his job as an author, using the news media to bring attention to his book and argue for its importance.

But for me this essay left me less convinced Hoffer knows what he’s talking about. That’s harsh, especially since I’ve enjoyed some of his previous writing, but the run-up to the Revolutionary War in New England is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time on.

If we want to celebrate (mostly) non-violent resistance, then we should highlight the events of the late summer of 1774. Crowds in Massachusetts’s western counties closed their courts, and four thousand men massed on Cambridge common, all to protest the Massachusetts Government Act. Those unarmed crowd actions forced royal appointees to resign their posts or agree not to act under that law. By the end of the first week of September, it was clear that Gov. Thomas Gage exercised no authority outside of Boston. That opened a vacuum for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress formed weeks later.

If we want to spotlight the moment when the political conflict in New England turned military, then we might want to look at the shots fired at Fort William & Mary in Portsmouth harbor in December 1774. Nobody was killed there, but that confrontation got closer to being fatal than the Salem raid.

Why wasn’t the confrontation in Salem fatal? Hoffer paints the provincial obstruction as non-violent, but parts of the Essex County militia did mobilize and march to Salem. They simply arrived too late to get involved, after the British troops had started to withdraw. Only because the crisis was over by then could Hoffer call the event “bloodless.”

In fact, local historians didn’t call the confrontation at the drawbridge “bloodless.” Instead, Salem authors claimed that their townspeople shed the “first blood” of the Revolutionary War because the king’s soldiers pricked some locals in the chests with their bayonets. Not many authors from outside the county have agreed that that blood was so significant.

But most striking to me is how Hoffer refers to the “Salem Gunpowder Raid” and “Salem Gunpowder Day.” What gunpowder? In justifying the action to London, Gen. Gage wrote:
The circumstance of the eight field pieces at Salem led us into a mistake, for supposing them to be brass guns brought from Holland, or some of the foreign isles, which report had also given reasons to suspect, a detachment of 400 men under Lieut. Col. [Alexander] Leslie, was sent privately off by water to seize them. The places they were said to be concealed in were strictly searched, but no artillery could be found. And we have since discovered, that there had been only some old ship’s guns, which had been carried away from Salem some time ago.
Gage’s orders were all about cannon. That was why Lt. Col. Lesie headed for a blacksmith’s shop across the drawbridge across Salem’s North River—because David Mason had collected cannon there to be mounted on carriages.

Mason and his Patriot colleagues hadn’t collected gunpowder there. We know that because one of the rules that people in the eighteenth century knew to live by was:

You don’t store gunpowder in a blacksmith’s shop.


G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

Very true!

Garrett said...

The essay sounds like another instance of someone wanting to inflate the importance of their favorite story or event. The Salem affair is important precisely because of its impacts on the mental state of the two sides and the way that affects their views of events. Gage portrays it as a victory...that Leslie fulfilled his mission by acting firmly. The colonists see the cursory search as proof than resistance will pay off and that the soldiers are not likely to use actual violence. In other words, both sides reinforce their interpretation of events and move one step closer to the far more impactful events of April 18/19.

Garrett said...

Upon rereading the essay, it is more of an attempt to use a historical event to advance a modern political agenda. Of course, doing so no matter how altruistic your goal may be raises problems. In this case, the author focuses on one event, which still held the at least implicit threats of violence on both sides, while ignoring the much larger insurgency that had swept through Massachusetts and was working its way through the other colonies at the same moment.

J. L. Bell said...

Hoffer's interview with WBUR yesterday" shows he's had this event in the back of his mind for many years, since he went to Salem for a book on the witchcraft trials. I don't think he widened his lens enough to set the Salem raid in context.

I think Gage was blowing smoke in his cheerful report to London about Leslie turning back. He was much more anxious to find those brass guns he'd heard about (and they weren't from Holland, no matter what he told his bosses). The Salem raid told him he had to send out a much bigger force the next time.

Events like the court closings, Powder Alarm, and Salem raid do bring up useful questions about the possibility of non-violent political change and why we remember when a conflict turns fatal. But Hoffer's op-ed did push beyond raising those questions to implying what sort of event we should remember. Not that I disgaree with his priorities, but his example was ill chosen.

Charles Bahne said...

Peter Hoffer is not the first person to describe the Salem event as a "gunpowder raid". The first time I heard of this excursion by the Regulars, before I became actively interested in the history of the Revolution, was during the bicentennial in 1975 -- and that description said that the Regulars were after gunpowder. I suspect that author (a Boston Globe reporter) probably copied the story from someone before him. So that is a part of the myth that's been circulating for a long time.

Renny Little said...

As the 4th Great grandson of David Mason, I
wish to thank you for enlightening those who read your blog that indeed, "Leslie's Retreat" had nothing to do with locating gunpowder.
I read the article in the Globe and wondered where Hoffer got the information. I then went to his book and again couldn't figure
out where the gunpowder came in.

If I remember correctly the compromise worked out by Mason with Leslie was that his troops could cross the bridge but only for
so many steps and then returmn, thus never reaching the buried cannons. Am I right in thinking that the blacksmith divulged the location in Salem?

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect that the public memory of the Salem raid got mixed with Gage's operation to empty the provincial powderhouse in what's now Somerville in September 1774. Gunpowder was also involved in the Patriot raid on Fort William & Mary in New Hampshire. But the sources about Salem all discuss cannon and cannon alone.

J. L. Bell said...

As I understand the accounts (most written later and by Americans), Lt. Col. Leslie insisted that he had to follow his orders from Gage and march all the way to the forge. Mason had men clearing cannon out of that smithy's yard while he stalled the regulars at the bridge. Eventually Salem town fathers worked out a compromise, with the Rev. Thomas Barnard getting most of the credit: Mason would let down the bridge, Leslie's troops would march to the smithy but not search the surrounding area, and then they'd march back the way they came.

Years later, Mason's daughter Susan Smith said that a British-born employee at the forge had dashed off to Boston a couple of days before the raid and theorized that he was Gage's informant. That doesn't fit with what's in the general's intelligence files in terms of dates or information. Gage probably heard about the cannon at Salem from Dr. Benjamin Church, who had just started to attend meetings of the Committee of Safety and Supplies.

Unknown said...

Being an Alexander Leslie fan, I was incredibly disappointed when I read Hoffer's book, which is more reminiscent of 19th century hagiographies of the Revolution than a 21st century analysis. Hoffer inflated the event with adjectives.