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, February 13, 2009

“Supposed to be the man who killed Maj. Pitcairn”?

A couple of days ago I noted a series of early reports that the American soldier who killed Maj. John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill was a black man named Salem. Was that man Peter Salem or Salem Poor? Or should we be looking at other men entirely?

Here’s the account recorded by Charles William Janson in The Stranger in America, published in 1807, as he described touring the site of the battle in Charlestown a couple of years before:

By a man whom we met on the road, we were informed, that when the British forces rallied, and again ascended the hill, led on by Major Pitcairn, they had advanced near to the redoubt, when the major called to his soldiers to hasten their speed, as the enemy had abandoned the fort. A boy, who, he observed, was then [i.e., in 1807?] a shoemaker in Boston, replied from behind a trench: “We are not all gone,” and instantly fired his musket, which proved the death of Major Pitcairn.
Richard Ketchum picked up the cry of “We are not all gone!” in his 1962 history of the battle, Decisive Day. However, he implies that boy wasn’t the shooter.

Next, here’s an obituary from the Boston Gazette on 3 Aug 1820:
At Chelmsford, Mr. Joseph Spalding, aged 64.—He was one of the heroes of Bunker Hill;—he fired the first gun, and was supposed to be the man who killed Maj. Pitcairn, having frequently declared he took deliberate aim at him.
Spalding would have been nineteen years old in 1775, the right age for military service. As for firing the first gun and shooting Pitcairn, that seems like a big claim. In fact, most of the time Spalding didn’t talk about shooting the major. His local epitaph said:
He was among the brave asserters & defenders of the liberties of his country at Bunker Hill, where he opened the battle by firing upon the enemy before orders were given...
Hang on—at that battle the American officers supposedly said, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” And here Spalding boasted about firing early. Apparently, some people asked him about that discrepancy. According to Abram E. Brown’s Beside Old Hearth-stones (1897), Spalding told his grandson:
I fired ahead of time, and [Gen. Israel] Putnam rushed up and struck at me for violating orders. I suppose I deserved it, but I was anxious to get another good shot at [Gen. Thomas] Gage’s men ever since our affair at Concord. The blow from “Old Put” hit me on the head, made a hole in my hat, and left this scar.
Yes, Grandpa, we’re proud of you.

TOMORROW: Yet more suspects.


Trip said...

In the words of Willy Wonka..."the suspense is killing me...I hope it lasts..."

Is this story going to turn out to be "we never will really know who killed Maj. Pitcairn, etc etc" type ending?!

J. L. Bell said...

I’m thinking Murder on the Orient Express.