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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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“A black soldier named Salem, shot him thro’ the head”

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Bostonians were particularly interested in knowing who killed Maj. John Pitcairn during the Battle of Bunker Hill. No other British officer killed that day seems to have attracted the same interest.

In 1786, John Trumbull painted The Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill. Though the dying Dr. Joseph Warren is naturally the focus of that painting, the artist showed Pitcairn wounded close by, even though eyewitnesses indicated the two men weren’t wounded within sight of each other or at the same time. Also in that painting, though hidden and somewhat out of the action at the lower right, is a musket-carrying young black man.

In 1787 the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, set this down in his notebook along with other details of the battle:

A negro man belonging to Groton, took aim at Major Pitcairne, as he was rallying the dispersed British Troops, & shot him thro’ the head, he was brought over to Boston & died as he was landing on the ferry ways.
Those notes weren’t published until 1875, so they probably didn’t influence Samuel Swett, who wrote the first major retrospective study of the battle. In 1818, he wrote:
Young [Lt. William] Richardson of the royal Irish [or 18th Regiment], was the first to mount the works, and was instantly shot down; the front rank which succeeded shared the same fate. Among these mounted the gallant Major Pitcairn, and exultingly cried “the day is ours,” when a black soldier named Salem, shot him through and he fell. His agonized son received him in his arms and tenderly bore him to the boats.
A few years later, in his History of Bunker Hill Battle, Swett named his source, now dead:
Gen. [John] Winslow [1753-1819] stated, a contribution was made in the army for Salem and he was presented to [George] Washington as having slain Pitcairn, who was killed on the British left, according to all authorities.
But there are some difficulties with those details. In a recent study for the National Park Service titled Patriots of Color, George Quintal, Jr., found no African-American soldier from Groton named “Salem.” The only black soldier documented as being in the battle with a connection to that town was named Barzillai Lew, and detailed accounts of his military service say nothing about killing Pitcairn. In addition, there’s no record of any black soldier being presented to Gen. Washington as Winslow stated.

TOMORROW: Identifying the “black soldier named Salem.”

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