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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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Looking at “Leslie’s Retreat”

Today Salem commemorates “Leslie’s Retreat” on 26 Feb 1775, so I’m highlighting Donna Seger’s Streets of Salem posting about that event. She explores three points, to which I’ll add my thoughts.

“How many damn cannon(s) were there in Salem?”

Seger concludes that the most reliable number comes from Samuel Gray, as I quoted it here. Now I adore this account for preserving the forthright experience of a nine-year-old boy, but I don’t trust all the details. Young Samuel may not have been told accurate information, and he may not have remembered it exactly decades later.

I think the best source for the number of cannon involved in the incident at Salem is a small green notebook deposited at the Massachusetts Historical Society. David Mason used that notebook as he was gathering cannon for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Mason arranged for blacksmith Robert Foster to build carriages for the cannon tubes he collected from town fortifications, the Derby family, and other sources.

On one page of the notebook Mason totaled his own charges for the congress, including for “paint’g 17 Carridges Limbers &c.” On another page he wrote, “fosters acct. 17 field Pieces” [though that figure could also be read as 19]. So I think the most likely number of cannon in Foster’s smithy on the morning of 26 Feb 1775 was seventeen.

But the cannon Mason had collected in north Salem were only one part of what the Provincial Congress amassed in late 1774 and early 1775. That rebel government had artillery pieces in Worcester, Concord, and perhaps other towns. What’s more, some towns acquired cannon of their own. I wrote a whole book about Massachusetts’s effort to arm itself for war, and I still can’t say exactly how many damn cannon there were.

“Major Pedrick was a Tory!”

Quite definitely. According to many Salem historians, John Pedrick fooled Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie into letting him carry a warning about the redcoats marching in from Marblehead. But all contemporaneous sources show Pedrick favored the Crown.

Pedrick’s daughter Mehitable told stories about her family’s brave feats in the Revolution. Even some of her descendants didn’t believe those tales, but her daughter Elizabeth did, and she spread them to local historians. I discussed those family legends in the last chapter of The Road to Concord.

“‘Anniversary History’ was alive and well in 1775.”

Seger notes how newspaper reports of Leslie’s expedition appeared in New England newspapers alongside remarks about the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. With redcoats marching on the streets of Boston and Marshfield, and popping up on a Sunday in Marblehead and Salem, the threat of another confrontation ending in death was very real.

A year later, the date of the Massacre determined when the Continental Army moved soldiers and cannon onto Dorchester Heights. In the cannonade that provided cover for that operation, just a year and a few days after “Leslie’s Retreat,” David Mason was wounded by a bursting mortar.


Unknown said...

Good piece. I wonder if the Pedrick who made the Marblehead to Salem ride, assuming that there was one, was John's brother Capt. Thomas Pedrick, a Marblehead militia captain (as I recall), and definitely an adherent of the rebel cause, future owner of privateers, etc., whose warehouse and sail loft now stand on Derby Wharf, Salem, having been taken down and reassembled there when the town meeting of Marblehead (abetted by the selectpersons and urged on by the Harbor & Waters board) voted in 2003 to raze the Pedrick warehouse, in spite of my having proved that it was built in 1770 and was used as a privateering base.

J. L. Bell said...

Our sole source for John Pedrick’s involvement in this event is a story told by his daughter and later recorded by her daughter. It's therefore highly unlikely that they confused him with his brother.

Furthermore, the story contains unlikely details, and those descendants told some other stories of their family's deeds that are quite implausible. Even within the family, Pedrick's daughter was known for stunning romantic yarns that people weren't sure even she believed.

So I don't think we can credit Thomas Pedrick with this feat. Good to know there's better documentation and at least some preservation of Thomas's deeds.