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 18, 2018

EXTRA: Who Killed Pitcairn?

The Journal of the American Revolution has just published an article by me titled “Peter Salem? Salem Poor? Who Killed Major John Pitcairn?”

This exploration of one aspect of the Battle of Bunker Hill grew out of a series of postings here from 2009, which I then rewrote as an article for the first Journal of the American Revolution print collection. With that book no longer available, we’re sharing the full essay online.

Here’s a taste:
…after Lexington lots of New England men were gunning for the major. They wanted to see Pitcairn receive his just deserts for supposedly ordering his men to fire. They, and later generations of Americans, wanted his story to have meaning, and being brought low just when he thought he had triumphed — by a black man, of all soldiers — provided that satisfaction. A popular nineteenth-century engraving encapsulated that story in its caption: “The shooting of Major Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the Colored Soldier Salem.”
But the best evidence shows, I argue, that Maj. Pitcairn wasn’t killed by a black soldier as that print depicted, or by any of the other nineteenth-century claimants. Whatever Salem Poor did to merit extraordinary praise from Massachusetts officers, and whatever Peter Salem did in his Continental Army service, neither man shot Pitcairn as he mounted the edge of the Breed’s Hill redoubt.

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