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.

Follow by Email

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Asa Pollard: Casualty on Bunker’s Hill

The last two Boston 1775 postings have been two similar descriptions of the first American death in the Battle of Bunker Hill—a man killed by a cannon ball. Apparently, neither Col. William Prescott nor the subordinate officer who told the same story to Prescott’s son stated that man’s name. But as the fiftieth anniversary of the battle arrived, people came out with new information.

Three days after the Newburyport Herald reprinted Prescott’s words from a newspaper in Maine, it added a scoop of its own:

We published in our last, a letter from a Major in the Revolutionary War, who was present at the battle of Bunker Hill, in which it will be recollected was an anecdote of the circumstances attending the death and burial of the first victim of that event. It was stated that his name has not been and probably will not be ascertained.
(Actually, the major who was quoted, Abraham Butterfield, wasn’t at the battle and didn’t claim to be; he was recording his memory of a conversation with Col. Prescott sometime in the 1790s.)
A gentleman, who was a spectator of the contest, however, has informed us, that it was generally understood at the time, that his name was POLLARD, the son of an inn-holder in Billerica, and that he came to his death by a cannon-ball discharged from the frigate Somerset. Of the correctness of this belief, our informant observes there can be but little doubt.
Of course, that gentleman didn’t claim firsthand knowledge, either. He’d seen the battle only from a distance (“as a spectator”), and recalled hearing about the first casualty at the time. But that was enough for Samuel Swett, who was expanding his 1818 essay on Bunker Hill to make a book. In a new footnote he identified the dead man as “Pollard, of Billerica.”

The anniversary of the battle was commemorated on the site in Charlestown, with a great many veterans (or would-be veterans) attending, and quite possibly Swett’s book for sale. A couple of weeks afterward, on 1 July 1825, the Newburyport Herald had yet more information for its readers:
The Concord Register confirms the account we published a few days since, that ASA POLLARD, of Billerica, was the first man killed on Bunker-Hill. He was killed by a cannon-ball before the battle had actually commenced on the part of the Americans. Being fatigued with his march and the labors of the night, preparatory to the battle, he was resting on the ground, when the ball struck his head, while in a horizontal position, and battered him literally to pieces.
So now history had the full name of the first casualty, right? Swett added that name to his 1826 edition, and many other authors have accepted that information and built on it. Abram E. Brown’s Beside Old Hearth-Stones (1897) stated:
Asa Pollard was the fourth son of John Pollard and Mary, daughter of Isaac Stearns, born November 15, 1735, at a farm located in North Billerica.
However, there are some discrepancies in the accounts of Asa Pollard’s death. To begin with, different sources say he was doing different things when the cannon ball hit. Was he lying on the ground to rest, working on the fortification, or (as this waymarking webpage says) going to get water?

Later in his book Swett added this juicy detail:
The heart of Pollard, the first killed, continued beating for some time after it was cut out of him by the cannon ball.
But didn’t Col. Prescott and the last Newburyport article above say that the first fatal cannon ball had taken off the man’s head?

Finally, according to George C. Gilmore’s findings in A Memorial of the American Patriots who Fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1889), the records for Pollard’s company say that he enlisted on 8 May 1775 and served one month and thirteen days—past the date of the battle. He was paid through 21 June. That implies that Pollard died of his wounds four days after the fight, which is a long time to live without a head or a heart.

TOMORROW: Another candidate for the first fatality.

No comments: