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Happy Salem Gunpowder Day!

Did American independence start with a peaceful protest? The case for a new holiday.

Games for an imaginary holiday: Children playing Ring-Around-the-Redcoat.

Globe staff/photoillustration

Games for an imaginary holiday: Children playing Ring-Around-the-Redcoat.

In nine weeks, America will once more celebrate Patriot’s Day, in honor of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Even in states that don’t make an official holiday of it, children learn that the Revolutionary War began on that 1775 morning with the “shot heard round the world.” At Lexington, British regulars shot and killed eight Colonial Minutemen. At Concord, the Colonists fired and drove the British back, and from that day, it seemed to both sides that there was no turning back from war.

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.

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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.

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Tensions between the British Army and American Colonists had been simmering for years, and by the beginning of 1774, rebellious New Englanders had begun to arm themselves against what they considered increasingly aggressive and punitive British rule. To prevent further violence, the British governor general of Massachusetts, Thomas Gage, decided to seize cannons and gunpowder in Colonial arsenals, including one in Salem. He sent Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Leslie and the 64th regiment of foot to accomplish that mission.

From the moment Leslie and his men set foot in Marblehead and began their march up the Salem Road to the city, everyone in Salem knew his purpose. Leading members of the community decided to stall him at the bridge over the North River so the cannons and ammunition could be hidden on the far side. When Leslie reached the bridge, he found one leaf of the drawbridge drawn up; on the chain holding it aloft sat a ragged band of brewery workers, farm boys, sailors, rope workers, and day laborers. They hurled insults and incitements across the water at Leslie and his troops. Angry, cold, and tired, the men of the 64th waited for Leslie’s order to load and fire on the townspeople.

An assemblage of locals had just cowed the British regulars into surrender.

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But with the afternoon coming to an end, far from reinforcements, surrounded by townspeople warning him that he might start a fight he could not finish, Colonel Leslie knew his options were narrowing. As the sun was setting, he made a decision that would mark the beginning of the American Revolution. It was not written in the blood of the regulars or the patriots. Instead, it took the form of negotiations with the angry Colonists—followed by a face-saving retreat.

Colonel Leslie turned and marched his command back down the Marblehead Road to the ship that would carry his men back to Castle Island. It was a minor skirmish avoided, but the Colonists knew what it really meant: An assemblage of locals had just cowed the British regulars into surrender.

The implications weren’t lost on Boston’s politically savvy rebels. Paul Revere and his coterie of patriot publicists sped word of Leslie’s retreat through the Colonies. In Boston, Providence, Newport, New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia, newspapers soon reported the event. The message of these articles seemed clear to their patriot readers: If the patriots stood firm, the British would back down. Recourse to force might not be necessary if they displayed the firm purpose of Salem’s townspeople.

The officers and ranks of General Thomas Gage’s occupying force took a very different lesson from the ignominy of the retreat. The honor of his majesty’s troops was at stake: The next time, they resolved, it wouldn’t happen that way. When a much larger British force sallied out on the next gunpowder raid, marching along the road through Lexington toward Concord, Gage ordered that civilian casualties were to be avoided. But when the head of the column came upon a hastily assembled file of Minutemen on Lexington Common defiantly standing their ground, the soldiers remembered Leslie’s retreat. A young British ensign led his men in a charge to disperse the Colonists, his soldiers swearing and loosing off a musket volley. The Minutemen soon realized that this would not be another Salem and tried to flee. Some fell, one dying on his own doorstep. The War of Independence had begun.

Contemporaries viewed the events of April 19th in light of the Salem gunpowder raid six weeks earlier. Americans believed that, in the slaughter of the retreating Minutemen, the British had violated the implicit promise of Colonel Leslie’s prudence. The British concluded, contrariwise, that the Americans had abandoned the restraint they showed at Salem, and forced combat on the regulars. A test of arms which no one claimed to want, and which Colonel Leslie had avoided, would now embroil the entire Atlantic world. Out of it would come a confederation of independent republics, and ultimately the country that we know today.

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In our historical memory, the Salem gunpowder raid is almost forgotten. Salem is a tourist mecca, but not for its role in the coming of independence. Instead, Salem’s tourism is tied to another event entirely, the witchcraft scare of the previous century that resulted in over a hundred trials, 20 executions, and the haunting cliche of the witch hunt. There are few markers to remind visitors that Salem was once the birthplace of the Revolution, and even these have errors: An old plaque at the foot of Route 114 informs visitors that “local militia men” “routed the British,” but in fact the townsfolk who stymied the search were not men at arms, and the British were not routed.

Why have the facts of such an important event been so largely forgotten? Is it because there was no bloodshed? Americans think of the Revolution as a triumph that could not have been achieved without firearms—and indeed, America’s independence would eventually be won through war. But the Salem gunpowder raid carries a different lesson: that a group of ordinary people could successfully assert their rights without resort to violence. Long before Mahatma Gandhi, long before Martin Luther King Jr., the townspeople of Salem proved that a call to liberty did not have to come from the barrel of a gun. And surely that is worthy of celebration.

Peter Charles Hoffer, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is the author of “Prelude to Revolution: The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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