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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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Did Isaac Freeman Kill Maj. John Pitcairn?

The centerpiece of Isaac Freeman’s 1780 petition to the Massachusetts General Court, the basis of his request for compensation and the setting for his expression of ultra-patriotism, is his description of having fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill:
Your memorialist would beg leave to acquaint your honors, that in the second battle that was fought in June following, on Bunker’s Hill, he in the retreat, lost a very good fire-arm, his knapsack, containing one handkerchief, shirts, hose, &c. &c. which cost him in that day, forty or fifty hard dollars…

That your memorialist was the happy man (tho’ a poor negro) that put an end to the life of that bold, and of course, dangerous man, Major [John] Pitcairn, with eight or ten others that day, besides wounding a number of other villains; in the execution of which service, your memorialist received three very bad wounds from the British pirates; in this wounded and bleeding condition, he continued like a bold soldier, fighting for the country, till he was obliged with the heroes of the day, to retreat, which was worse than death to a soldier, and give up the ground to those (British hell-hounds,) and all for want of the help of those cowardly commanders and the poltroon fellows under their command, whose i[n]f[amou]s names I conceal, who lay during the whole action at the back of the hill out of danger:

Had they like men come on, instead of the shame and disgrace of that day, a most compleat victory would have taken place, and the whole of the British army would, by the close of that day, been snuggly sent DOWN DOWN to the abode of shame, disgrace and despair; whose just fate they would have received my hearty amen and amen, as those did which I sent there in battle.—
Freeman’s petition is thus the first surviving written statement that a black man killed the infamous Maj. Pitcairn.

In my J.A.R. article on who killed Pitcairn, I quoted letters from a British marines officer near the major when he was shot. I concluded that Pitcairn was wounded and taken out of action well before he reached the redoubt on Breed’s Hill. The traditional American account of Pitcairn being struck down as he mounted the walls was thus a product of wishful thinking; soldiers wanted to believe they killed an important officer, and chroniclers wanted to believe the officer who supposedly ordered the firing at Lexington was killed in dramatic fashion.

Part of that drama was that an African-American soldier shot the major. My article quoted two early sources saying so. First, in 1787 the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap wrote in his notes on 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…”

Decades later, Samuel Swett credited John Winslow with the information that on the walls of the redoubt “mounted the gallant Major Pitcairn, and exultingly cried ‘the day is ours,’ when a black soldier named Salem, shot him through and he fell.” Swett said Winslow also told him “a contribution was made in the army for Salem and he was presented to [George] Washington.” I found no confirmation of such a presentation, but it does date the report to when the commander-in-chief was in Massachusetts in 1775-76.

It seems likely, therefore, that rumors about a black soldier killing Pitcairn circulated soon after the battle. Isaac Freeman identified himself as that soldier five years later. I doubt his claim just as I doubt every other claim to that kill. But Freeman might sincerely have believed he shot the major. Or he (and anyone who helped him prepare his petition) might just have decided to try for the credit. The petition doesn’t offer any supporting details, such as when Freeman made the shot or how he recognized Pitcairn.

What’s more, Freeman’s petition should prompt some skepticism. It said he killed not only Pitcairn but “eight or ten others that day, besides wounding a number of other villains.” That’s nearly a dozen fatal shots, plus others that found their mark, not to mention misses. That’s an awful lot of shooting when the provincials at Bunker Hill were under orders to hold their fire as long as possible because gunpowder was scarce.

Nonetheless, the Massachusetts General Court responded to Freeman’s story with an award of £5. Should we take that as a contemporaneous endorsement of his claim to having killed Pitcairn? Should Isaac Freeman’s name replace Salem Poor’s and Peter Salem’s (and a bunch of others)? Or was that small payment rapidly devaluing currency simply how the legislature sent away a poor black man with some powerful connections?

I wish there were more information about Isaac Freeman beyond the 1780 petition and the 1782 probate file. (I should acknowledge that it’s not even certain those sets of documents pertain to the same man.) Unfortunately, those sources don’t mention Freeman’s home town, age, family, and so on.  We don’t know if his surname came from a family that enslaved him or reflected his status as a free man. We don’t know if he had always gone by the name of Isaac. (Peter Salem, for example, also lived under the name of Salem Middlesex.) Perhaps someone will spot some new dots and we can see a little more of this picture.


G. Lovely said...

When I read the line "...put an end to the life of that bold, and of course, dangerous man with eight or ten others..." I interpreted it as meaning he was part of a group that killed Pitcairn. Is it possible that the problem all along has been that in the fog of battle no one in a group was sure who fired the fatal shot, but all felt they had a hand in the fatal exchange?

J. L. Bell said...

The last line of the petition I quoted refers to having killed multiple British soldiers. That’s why I interpret "eight or ten others" to refer to the enemy, not his own comrades.