Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Captain John Felt Stood Firm Against British Invasion

Captain John Felt

I thought it would be fun to dig out my genealogy and see if any of our ancestors fought in the War of the Revolution, since it's the 4th of July.  My digging paid off big!

Most people think the Lexington Alarm was the first British invasion on American soil, to put down the rebels.  But the British invaded Salem a few months prior to that, and were repelled with such force that the British chose Boston as the invasion site instead. 

On February 26, 1775, British Colonel Alexander Leslie landed his troops in Marblehead, Massachusetts and started marching towards Salem, single file.  They chose a Sunday supposing that the Puritans would all be in church and Salem would fall handily.  But the cry, "The Foe, The foe, they come!" pulled the worshipers from the meetings.  A prearranged drum beat began outside the meetinghouse door, signalling the residents to gather arms and convene on the town square. 

The British, marching now in beat with drum and fife corps playing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' got as far as the North bridge in Salem when they were halted as the bridge had been drawn up.  Dialog (minus the abundant profanities) follows:

Leslie:  Draw down that bridge!  It's a part of the Kings Royal Highway into Salem.

Crowd:  We built it with our own hands and paid for it ourselves.  It's our [bleep] drawbridge and road.

Leslie (stamping and swearing): I demand you lower that bridge or we'll fire.

Captain John Felt:  You had better be damned than fire.  You have no right to fire without further orders.  If you fire, you'll all be dead men.

Men were sitting on the raised drawbridge trash talking the British.  Others formed a line in front of the drawbridge.  They taunted them, one man opening his shirt coat and demanding to be speared.  The Redcoat pricked his chest and drew blood.  The crowd only got more agitated.  A woman shouted from an upper window, taunting the soldiers to shoot her. 

A clergyman negotiated that the British be allowed to pass through the drawbridge, survey the town for any stolen cannon, and leave.  Finding no cannon (they had been hidden during the stalling) the British left to a flat and defeated cadence.  The local militia 'escorted' the Redcoats back to their ship empty handed.  Being that Captain John Felt was a leader in the conflict, and spoke for the men, I imagine that he had more to do than just shout that challenge.  He may have directed the movements of the militia as the conflict played out.  I would love to know his whole role in this...

Here's an interesting insight by John Goff:  
The involvement of minutemen and liberty-protectors from many communities made the Leslies' Retreat Affair a very early and tide-turning American victory.  It proved the British could be halted-- and repelled.  It was a needed early victory before Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill.  It involved profound tension, military and verbal posturing as well as a clash of wills.  Yet it emboldened colonial citizens from all walks of life and contributed substantially the primary ingredient needed before any great victory:  self confidence.  In April, 1775, before Concord, the British reported "The Americans have hoisted their standard of liberty --  at Salem." 
There IS a place for trash talking!

Some comments by Charles Endicott about the character of Captain John Felt and why he is credited for this coup:
He was at this time about fifty years of age.  His frame, square, strong and muscular, denoted him a man whom it would be the part of purdence to avoid in single combat.  Salem possessed many men whose social position in life was perhaps superior, men of more wealth, of more erudition, of more influence in her public councils; but none of greater moral worth or irreproachable private character.  His love if independence and hatred of tyranny hda shone through his whole life, and with these qualities was blended the most intrepid resolution.  There lived no one in whose heart glowed a warmer love fore the liberties of his country, and none more ready to peril, and if need be to sacrifice, his life in support of her cause.  In a word, he was just the man for an emergency:  of cool, determined bravery, calm and collected in the hour of danger.  These qualities inspired every one with confidence in his ability successfully to control and direct any daring enterprise or forlorn hope which his inclination prompted him to lead.  Had a man of less firmness and weaker judgement stood in his place in all probability the first battle of the war would have been fought at the North Bridge, Salem.
I'm proud to be related to him!


Endicott, Charles M.  "Leslie's Retreat or the Resistance to British Arms at the North Bridge in Salem on Sunday, PM, February 18, 1775."  Proceedings of the Essex Institute,  January 18, 1855.  

Fischer, David Hackett, Paul Revere's Ride, pgs. 62-64.

Goff, John.  "More to the Story:  Col. Alexander Leslie's Retreat."  Gate House News Service February 29, 2008.



  1. Hello Melanie J. Johnson...and now I am proud to be related to you! John Felt is one of my favorites in the family to be sure. As you probably well know, our Salem ancestor left its boundaries in 1845 and now we number about 5,000 across the world.

  2. Dear Melanie,

    You must be referring to Nathaniel H. Felt.

    I am sure there are MANY more than 5,000. We probably have that many on our side of the Felts.