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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Friday, December 12, 2008

Aaron Barr: Casualty on Bunker’s Hill

Yesterday I noted how George C. Gilmore’s research for A Memorial of the American Patriots who Fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1889) cast some doubt on the tradition that the first man killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill was Asa Pollard of Billerica. He was in Col. Ebenezer Bridge’s regiment, which indeed sent some of the first companies onto the battlefield, but that regiment’s records indicate that Pollard continued to draw pay for four days after the battle.

Looking at other muster rolls and similar records, Gilmore found a document contemporaneous with the battle stating that the first man killed was Aaron Barr of “Meryfield” (also spelled Myrifield, now Rowe), Massachusetts. Barr was in Capt. Hugh Maxwell’s company in Col. William Prescott’s regiment, which was also in the battle. There’s evidence that Maxwell oversaw the building of some of the redoubt on Breed’s Hill: his daughter later wrote that he used his experience as a town surveyor to complete Col. Richard Gridley’s fortification. Maxwell was definitely wounded in the battle.

Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts, published in 1855, confirms that Barr was one of the first casualties of the battle—but it indicates that he could not have been the man whose head was taken off by a cannon. According to that book:

At the battle of Bunker Hill, Aaron Barr of Myrifield was the first wounded man brought into Cambridge, from the field. He belonged to Capt. Maxwell’s company. He was struck by a cannon ball in the morning, had his leg taken off, and died the same day.
So Barr wasn’t buried on the battlefield without his head, as Col. Prescott and other witnesses recalled.

Some authors have split the difference, saying Barr was the first man wounded and Pollard the first man killed. However, if both men were fatally wounded early in the fighting and died later, then we still don’t know whose head was taken off by that cannon ball. Pollard appears to be the more likely suspect, but I don’t know if we can say for sure. Like a lot of other details and anecdotes about the Bunker Hill battle, our earliest sources don’t appear until decades after the event.

TOMORROW: And then there’s the question of that chaplain.

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