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In Salem, a run-up to Revolution is remembered

In front of the First Church of Salem, left to right, Charlie Newhall, Jonathan Streff, Charles Thorland. The reenactors held a virtual celebration of the event this year.
In front of the First Church of Salem, left to right, Charlie Newhall, Jonathan Streff, Charles Thorland. The reenactors held a virtual celebration of the event this year.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

SALEM — A regiment of British regulars, bayonets flashing atop their muskets, waited until Sunday services were full and the streets were empty on Feb. 26, 1775. They had sailed from Boston, hiding below deck, before leaving a troop ship in Marblehead and marching to neighboring Salem.

Their mission resembled one fatefully ordered two months later for Lexington and Concord: Seize the weapons the restive colonists had been hoarding and hiding as the threat of war grew ever more ominous.

The British troops advanced to a bridge in Salem, just as they would in Concord. And they retreated, just as they would 52 days later after “the shot heard ‘round the world” at the Old North Bridge.

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But instead of recoiling under Colonial fire, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Leslie turned around the 250 soldiers of the 64th Regiment of Foot without a musket ball from either side. Instead, Britain’s military might had been deterred by the stubborn defiance of hundreds of townspeople who stood ready, if necessary, to begin the American Revolution.

“It’s this sleeping giant of a story, and it wakes up only at certain times,” said Rebecca Putnam, who has helped rekindle awareness of the standoff through annual reenactments since 2017.

Outside Salem, Leslie’s Retreat is little-known and barely discussed today. But it was important, an eerie foreshadowing of what soon was to come. The confrontation showed the British what they were up against, and it showed the colonists they could mobilize quickly and stand firm against disciplined, professional soldiers.

“This set the stage for Lexington and Concord because both sides learned a lesson,” said Jonathan Streff, a Medford High School history teacher who lives in Salem.

Streff plays the role of Salem militia Captain John Felt in the reenactments. But this year, the threats posed by COVID-19 scuttled the annual face-off between uniformed British troops and steely-eyed colonials.

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But church bells in Salem rang out on Sunday, just as they did in 1775 to warn the town of the approaching troops. This year, however, the need for social distancing canceled the subsequent shouting and catcalls outside a downtown funeral home, not far from the site of the North River encounter.

“The first year, they were scurrying around for people to play parts. We ended up doing Colonial improvisational theater in the parking lot,” Streff recalled.

“We did have historically correct epithets, though,” said Streff, listing “bloody-back scoundrels!” “lobsters!” and “lobster-back rascals!” among his favorites.

“I thought this was a great story,” said Stacia Kraft, who jumpstarted the reenactments, which usually attract hundreds of participants and spectators. “But it seemed that if you didn’t live here, you didn’t know about it.”

At the present-day bridge over the North River, there are few signs of its Revolutionary connection. There’s a weathered plaque below the bridge, and there’s a Leslie’s Retreat park where city dogs can scamper off-leash.

Neither the British nor the colonists knew it in February 1775, but the Salem foray became something of a rehearsal for the seismic event that lay just ahead. Similar to their trek to Lexington and Concord, the British left Boston under the cover of darkness and in supposed secrecy.

They traveled by ship from Castle Island to Marblehead, their plans and numbers still a mystery to the locals. But when the troops disembarked and began to move, startled messengers from Marblehead — foreshadowing Paul Revere — rode quickly to Salem to alert their neighbors.

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One man burst into a Salem church during its services to shout that “the regulars are coming!” — the same wording some historians say Revere may well have used. Even the bridges in Salem and Concord had similar names.

Once in Salem, Leslie’s troops came to an unexpected halt where colonists had raised a drawbridge over the North River. That prevented the regiment from crossing and searching for at least a dozen cannons that the local militia had acquired, probably as naval surplus from the French and Indian War.

Leslie demanded the bridge be lowered, but a few hundred colonists — men, women, and children among them — refused the order. They had built the bridge, the townspeople said. It was not the king’s property, and they would do with it as they liked.

According to the Boston Gazette, one of the colonists warned Leslie that “if you do fire, you will all be dead men.”

Leslie, the son of an earl, told the militia that “he had orders to cross ... and he would cross it if he lost his life with the lives of all of his men,” the newspaper reported. The colonel also said he was prepared to stay on the bridge for a month if needed.

The colonists joked that Leslie “might stay there as long as he pleased; nobody cared for that,” according to the Gazette.

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Perplexed and perturbed, Leslie spoke with his officers and arrived at a compromise. If the colonists lowered the bridge, he would cross and advance only a short distance before turning around. This way, Leslie could comply with his orders, face would be saved, and no one would be hurt.

The deal was accepted, and its terms probably helped avoid bloodshed. During the negotiations, thousands of minutemen from elsewhere in Essex County had been rushing to Salem to reinforce their countrymen.

According to the Gazette, “The regiment immediately passed over, marched a few rods, returned, and with great expedition went back again to Marblehead.”

Jonathan Lane of the Massachusetts Historical Society said one reason more people don’t know of Leslie’s Retreat is because, in the end, peace prevailed.

Battles are remembered. Blood leaves its mark. But a tale told in taverns of a British regiment marching back to Marblehead with its tail between its legs would soon be eclipsed by other, momentous events.

“The institutional memory has been lost,” said Lane, who is coordinator of Revolution 250, a consortium working to commemorate the anniversaries of events that led to American independence. “And local history is not taught in Massachusetts, except in bits and pieces.”

In Salem, efforts continue to rebuild an awareness, if not the memory, of a step toward revolution that was Leslie’s Retreat.

Its lessons resonate today, Streff said, particularly regarding the perils of political divisiveness.

“There was a sense of unity” at North Bridge that day, he said. “If folks come together, there is power. And if both sides examine the consequences, things can be resolved peacefully.”

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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.