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 19, 2019

The Myths of Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s Death

Lt. Col. James Abercrombie (1732-1775) led the battalion of British grenadiers, detached from their regiments, at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was mortally wounded, becoming the most senior British officer to die in the fight.

Not only did Abercrombie outrank all the other British dead, but he was known to be close to Gen. Thomas Gage and he was a Scotsman. Some combination of those factors meant that his death almost immediately began to accrete myths like barnacles on an underwater wreck.

Don Hagist wrote about Abercrombie at the Journal of the American Revolution, quoting from a letter the lieutenant colonel dictated to solidify the real story:
The grenadiers and light infantry were the first to land on Charleston Neck at a point out of American musketry range. Here they formed, the grenadiers into a line facing the rail-fence breastwork that extended from the redoubt down to the shore, the light infantry into a column for their advance along the beach to the right. Two regiments formed on the left facing the redoubt. While the grenadiers advanced with deliberate slowness as a distraction, the light infantry trotted along the beach. It was expected that the narrow beach would provide an avenue around the end of the breastwork. Unknown to the attackers, the Americans had constructed a barrier across the beach and manned it. . . .

It is not clearly exactly when the grenadiers became aware of the failure of the flanking movement, but they fatefully continued their advance towards the breastworks. Progress was perilously slow…because of a series of fences, brick kilns, enclosures and other obstructions. . . . The battered light infantry battalion, having withdrawn from the barricade on the beach, reformed into a line near their initial staging area. The shape of the coastline put them behind the advancing grenadier battalion. From this disadvantageous position they opened fire. The distance was too great to have any material effect on the enemy, but the impact on the grenadier battalion was disastrous.

This friendly fire incident is occasionally mentioned by historians, but the importance of it is largely overlooked. . . . In a letter dated three days after the battle, Abercrombie indicated that “our Light Infantry killed many of the Grends.” After ordering them to desist, the friendly fire abated for eight or ten minutes, but then the light infantry “gave me a plumper & killed two officers & 3 private.” He used the vernacular “plumper” to refer to a volley of lead. . . . Of particular importance was that the grenadiers’ commander, Abercrombie himself, was among the wounded.
In my own J.A.R. article about who really killed Maj. John Pitcairn, I quoted an 1880 Massachusetts local history which said Salem Poor shot Abercrombie “As that officer sprang on the redoubt.” That was how American sources described his death. But the lieutenant colonel had been taken out of action much earlier, before the final British push against the main provincial position. In addition, from 1775 the British press reported that Abercrombie was a victim of what we now call friendly fire—shot “supposed accidentally from some of his own soldiers.”

As with Pitcairn, Americans wanted to believe that their soldiers killed such an important officer at the climax of the battle. Therefore, Abercrombie was listed among the officers shot storming the redoubt on Breed’s Hill. And after both Peter Salem and Salem Poor got credit for killing Pitcairn, one American author decided that Salem Poor must have killed Abercrombie instead.

John Trumbull’s painting of the death of Dr. Joseph Warren reflects the American belief that Abercrombie should have died at the end of the battle and near the center of the action. The detail above portrays the lieutenant colonel lying dead at the redoubt as Maj. John Small steps over (on?) him. In the key that identified figures in the painting, Trumbull acknowledged that he didn’t know what Abercrombie actually looked like.

Another legend of Abercrombie’s death appeared in the 14 Oct 1775 Pennsylvania Ledger, quoting the Public Ledger of London:
A letter from an officer who was wounded at the late engagement at Boston, says, that when the troops were very near the trenches, the rebels called out to Col. Abercrombie, who was among the first of the troops, “Abercrombie, we won’t miss you.” However, the Colonel got into the trenches unhurt, and was run through the body. When he was dying, he told the officers about him, that if they took Gen. [Israel] Putnam prisoner, not to hang him as he was a brave fellow.
That story was reprinted in many American newspapers and, through Samuel Swett’s early history of the battle, many history books. It’s attached to inaccurate information—Abercrombie wasn’t “run through” but shot—and seems unlikely.

Lt. Col. Abercrombie didn’t die until 22 June. At first doctors didn’t think his wound would be fatal, but then infection set in. Back in 2014, I quoted a description of his death from the British press. The August 1775 Scots Magazine said the musket ball had pushed “a toothpick-case, which he had in his waistcoat pocket, along with it. . . . part of the toothpick being got so far, it baffled the art of the surgeons, and began to mortify.” Don’s article quotes the 17 Aug 1775 Edinburgh Advertiser saying something very similar except that the fatal foreign body was “part of the pen case…which he had in his side pocket.” I have no idea why those reports differed.

The Pennsylvania Ledger also quoted a speech that Abercrombie supposedly delivered two hours before his death:
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 an enemy to engage with.
I’ve found this printed in the 27 July 1775 Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser, so it definitely circulated in Britain. It’s almost certainly propaganda from someone supporting the Americans, using Abercrombie’s good name to discourage men from joining the British military.

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