The Nurse Who Nearly Started a War

Sometimes the most significant moments in history are the ones that don’t happen—the ones that could have forever altered the course of America, but didn’t. Even the smallest missteps that weren’t made or mildest insults that weren’t countered can have the most profound of impacts.

This is the forgotten history of the nurse who nearly started a war.

Sarah Tarrant was a passionate woman with a sharp tongue but a soft heart for her patients. A nurse in Salem, Massachusetts, she cared for the people of her town and also protected them from any threats that might befall them.

On a cold February day in 1775, she watched from her front room window as a crowd gathered outside. Word had gone out that British soldiers were marching from Boston believing that American rebel forces were hiding a cannon somewhere in Salem.

When they arrived, the young men of the town drew up its drawbridge and sat on top of it shouting insults at them.

William Gavett, who witnessed it as a young boy, wrote later that the men began “calling the soldiers red-jacketed lobsters and damnation to your government.”

The British realized they wouldn’t be able to enter Salem on foot, so they marched to boats that were docked nearby and prepared to board.

Suddenly one of the men from the bridge jumped into the freezing river, waded over to the redcoats, and let one of the boats loose. The soldiers immediately pointed their bayonets at him and ordered him to back off, but he refused. One of the soldiers pressed his bayonet into the man's chest strongly enough to draw blood.

The soldiers realized, though, that they wouldn't be able to launch the boats without bloodshed and marched back to the bridge.

"This is not the King's highway!" yelled one of the Americans.

The British colonel, though, made a deal with them. If they would just lower the bridge, his men would turn around and march back to Boston. By this time, Salem's village elders had arrived to try to calm the men and convinced them to take the deal, but right behind the village elders came Salem's militia, armed with muskets.

They stared down the soldiers as they crossed the bridge, and Sarah Tarrant, watching from her window, decided that she could take no more. She ran out of her home and started screaming at the British.

"Go home and tell your master he has sent you on a fool's errand!" she shouted. "Do you think we were born in the woods to be frightened of owls?"

One of the soldiers stepped out of formation and pointed his musket right at Sarah's chest.

"Fire if you have the courage," she sneered, "but I doubt you have it."

The soldier's commanding officer ordered him back, but he refused, staring down Sarah with his musket still trained on her. The fate of the Colonies hung in the balance.

If he squeezed the trigger, war was inevitable. The militiamen had the British troops surrounded and their muskets were ready to fire. The seconds dragged on like hours as Sarah kept yelling and the soldier refused to back down.

The militiamen prepared to fire as soon as he did. Would Sarah Tarrant be the first victim of the American Revolution?

Then the soldier abruptly backed down, and walked back to his line. The colonel was true to his word, and marched his men back to Boston. A crisis, and a war, were averted.

But not for long. Two months later, war broke out at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, but had cooler heads not prevailed in Salem, Sarah Tarrant would have been the victim of the "Shot heard 'round the world."