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, June 16, 2009

Aaron White’s Tale of Bunker Hill

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Earlier this year, while digging into the question of who killed Maj. John Pitcairn during that fight, I ran across an anecdote that promised to shed light on that topic, but is actually evidence of why it’s so hard to pin down details of this famous battle.

The following passage comes from George Livermore’s “An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers,” presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1862. This paper was part of the Abolitionist effort to convince the U.S. government to enlist African-Americans as soldiers, as the Continental Army had done in 1776.

Relying on previous writers, Livermore said that Peter Salem had killed Pitcairn, and then quoted from “a letter written to me recently by Aaron White, Esq., of Thompson, in Connecticut, in answer to an inquiry on this subject”:

With regard to the black Hero of Bunker Hill, I never knew him personally, nor did I ever hear from his lips the story of his achievements; but I have better authority.

About the year 1809, I heard a soldier of the Revolution, who was present at the Bunker Hill Battle, relate to my father the story of the death of Major Pitcairn. He said the Major had passed the storm of fire without, and had mounted the redoubt, when, waving his sword, he commanded, in a loud voice, the rebels to surrender. His sudden appearance, and his commanding air, at first startled the men immediately before him. They neither answered nor fired; probably not being exactly certain what was next to be done.

At this critical moment, a negro soldier stepped forward, and, aiming his musket directly at the Major’s bosom, blew him through. My informant declared that he was so near, that he distinctly saw the act. The story made quite an impression on my mind. I have frequently heard my father relate the story, and have no doubt of its truth.

My father on the day of the battle was a mere child, and witnessed the battle and burning of Charlestown from Roxbury Hill, sitting on the shoulders of the Rev. Mr. Jackson, who said to him as he placed him on the ground, “Now, boy, do you remember this!” Consequently, after such an injunction, he would necessarily pay particular attention to anecdotes concerning the first and only battle he ever witnessed.
According to this webpage, White was born in Boylston, Massachusetts, in 1798, so he was about eleven years old when he heard the veteran’s anecdote. White’s father, also named Aaron White, was a prosperous storekeeper in Boylston; here’s a bit of his wife’s diary from Old Sturbridge Village. Thomas White’s Genealogical Sketches of the White Family apparently stated that the older Aaron White was born in Roxbury on 9 June 1771, meaning that on the day of the battle he’d recently turned four.

Livermore and White evidently thought their sources comprised a “better authority” on Maj. Pitcairn’s death than hearing from Peter Salem himself—presumably because a man might be boastful about his own feats. White’s letter cited not just the “soldier of the Revolution, who was present at the Bunker Hill Battle,” but also his father himself, who had witnessed the fight and went on to “pay particular attention to anecdotes” about it.

However, White didn’t record the name of the veteran whom he recalled hearing at the age of eleven. He didn’t mention the circumstances of the conversation, which could help us assess the man’s reliability. More than thirty-five years elapsed between the battle and the telling. White’s memory of that anecdote undoubtedly got mixed with hearing his father “frequently” retell it. The older Aaron White enjoyed both paternal authority and the stature of an eyewitness to the battle, but in 1775 he was so young and so far away that all his details had to be secondhand.

Thus, like a lot of other anecdotes about Bunker Hill, Aaron White’s account comes to us with a wrapping of unimpeachability. He obviously believed it, and believed it was important. But the story itself has obviously been shaped for maximum drama. And its details don’t match accounts of Pitcairn’s death written right after the battle.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog while searching for details of the life of Aaron White.

"Aaron White’s account comes to us with a wrapping of unimpeachability. He obviously believed it, and believed it was important."

One reason it might have been important to him was that his family were strong abolitionists who were desirous of improving the image of the Negro and countering the arguments of the slavery apologists.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it’s clear that abolitionists kept the story of a black man killing Maj. Pitcairn in the public eye. When White’s account was published, it was part of an argument for enlisting African-American soldiers based on Revolutionary precedent.

It’s striking that abolitionists had to put such effort into telling and retelling that story since the record from 1775 is perfectly clear that the provincial army included black soldiers. And people were crediting “a negro man” with killing Pitcairn within a dozen years of the battle.

What made those facts so much more emotionally and politically meaningful than other facts about the same battle was the persistence of slavery and racial inequality in American society.