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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Monday, June 23, 2014

Reports of Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s Death

The highest-ranking British officer to be killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill was Lt. Col. James Abercrombie, commander of a special battalion of grenadiers. Sometimes Salem Poor is credited with shooting Abercrombie rather than the most popular target among the British officers, Maj. John Pitcairn (who never scaled the wall of the redoubt as stories claimed).

A contemporary source suggests instead that Abercrombie was a victim of friendly fire. This passage is from the Scots Magazine, August 1775:
A private letter mentions the following particulars of the death of Lt-Col. Abercromby. This gallant officer, who on a slight repulse almost maintained his ground, by his example immediately recovered the troops, who returned with impetuosity to the charge.

In this tumultuous onset he unfortunately received a ball near the groin, (supposed accidentally from some of his own soldiers), which came with such power from its proximity, as to force a toothpick-case, which he had in his waistcoat pocket, along with it.

From the lodgement of the ball it could readily be extracted: but part of the toothpick being got so far, it baffled the art of the surgeons, and began to mortify. In this state amputation was thought necessary; but he died in the operation.
Abercrombie died on 23 June. Some sources say he died in the house used by Capt. John Montresor of the Royal Artillery.

Another letter from Boston quoted in British periodicals told a different story about Abercrombie. The 27 July 1775 Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser (and probably London papers earlier) stated that a letter described the officer telling the people around his deathbed:
My friends, we have fought in a bad cause, and therefore I have my reward, as the rest have had that have gone before me. Had I fell in fighting against the enemy, I had died with honour, but posterity will brand us for massacreing our fellow subjects; therefore, my friends, sheath your swords till you have any enemy to engage with.
Lt. Col. Abercrombie supposedly died two hours after saying that.

I find the Scots Magazine report a lot more convincing.

1 comment:

G. Lovely said...

Can never resist a Limerick challenge:

It twas I that shot the Major dead,
Twas me, that shot ‘em others said,
Though clearly not,
On the rampart shot,
Still Pitcairn died as rebels fled.