“The Subscribers begg leave to Report to your Honble. House, (which wee do in Justice to the Character of So Brave a Man) that under Our Own observation, Wee declare …”
“… that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Fryes Regiment Capt. Ames. Company in the late Battle at Charlestown behaved like an Experienced officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier, to Set forth Particulars of his Conduct Would be Tedious, Wee Would Only begg leave to Say in the Person of this Sd. Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier.”
“The Reward due to so great and Distinguisht a Caracter, Wee Submit to the Congress” (Petition, signed by thirteen Continental Army officers and a brigade surgeon, to the Massachusetts General Court, December 5, 1775)
Let’s look back …
To prevent British soldiers from conducting further attacks on the countryside after the march to Lexington and Concord, 20,000 provincial militiamen encircled Boston in the spring of 1775. The Charlestown peninsula and Dorchester Heights, commanding both the city of Boston and Boston harbor, lie abandoned. This has been referred to as the Siege of Boston.
Hoping to make the British “masters of these heights,” General Gage, in conference with Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne, planned to seize the neglected positions before the colonists do so.
News of Gage’s intent filtered across from Boston and down from New Hampshire on June 15. Acting quickly on this intelligence, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety ordered General Artemas Ward, commander of the colonial militia surrounding Boston, to race the British to the Charlestown peninsula, capture Bunker Hill, and then seize the Dorchester hills.
Construction began sometime around midnight as hundreds of colonial men with pickaxes and shovels constructed a fort atop the lower hill overlooking the settlement of Charlestown and the beaches along the Harbor. (NPS)
Astonished British generals woke on the morning of June 17 to discover the newly erected defenses. As the day continued, British ships bombarded the untrained militia as they worked, and Colonel Prescott walked the fortifications to raise morale. Thirsty and tired, the soldiers received “no refreshment.”
At three o’clock in the afternoon, over 2,000 British soldiers, commanded by General Howe, landed on the Charlestown shore. Continental snipers fired at the British as they marched, and General Howe ordered a combustible shell launched on Charlestown. Amid smoke and flames, local inhabitants fled their homes in order to escape “Charlestown’s dismal fate.”
Then, British troops headed uphill, where they were frustrated by fences, pits, and tall grass. In dust and heat, the continental militia waited behind their walls. They hold fire until the British are in within 150 feet of the fortifications.
(Contrary to urban legend, there’s no evidence anyone ordered the men to hold their fire until they saw “the whites” of the enemies’ eyes. The writer Parson Weems seems to have invented this decades later.)
The Americans opened fired at about 50 yards, much too distant to see anyone’s eyes. However, one commander did tell his men to wait until they could see the splash guards – called half-gaiters – that British soldiers wore around their calves.) (Smithsonian)
The British charged three times. Prescott’s men again waited until the last minute to fire. On the final charge the Americans were running out of ammunition and were soon overrun by the British; then they fought with rocks and the butts of their muskets.
No longer able to withstand the British attack, Prescott’s men retreated north over the road to Cambridge, as General Stark’s New Hampshire troops covered them in the rear.
In total, 140 colonists were dead and 271 wounded. Before dark, the British again command the Charleston peninsula, though 226 British lie dead and 828 are wounded. Popularly known as ‘The Battle of Bunker Hill,’ as noted, the battle actually occurred on Breed’s Hill.
Despite renewed British control of the peninsula, colonial forces still trapped the British in Boston. As supply issues and shortages plague them, the British prepared for further military commitment to defeat the “poor and ignorant” colonists. Meanwhile, the colonies scrambled to assemble more soldiers.
About Salem Poor
Born enslaved in Andover, Massachusetts, Salem Poor (~1747-~1802) worked on the farm of John and Rebecca Poor. In 1769, at 22 years old, he bought his freedom for 27 pounds, which equaled a working man’s annual earnings.
In May of 1775, Poor enlisted in the interim Massachusetts Army. This last-minute army consisted of colonial forces primarily from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Thus, the troops that fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 were under the command of Massachusetts and New Hampshire officers.
During the battle, Salem Poor served in an Andover unit commanded by Capt. Thomas Drury, whose company included several other African American minute men. Poor’s unit arrived as a secondary force, in order to “assist in the building of fortifications.”
Instead, due to the dire circumstances, they covered the retreating units that had constructed the barriers on Breed’s Hill and had run out of ammunition. His unit received heavy fire; the British Regular Army killed five Andover men near him on the spot and left another six seriously wounded.
As he helped the wounded, Poor slowly retreated and fired one last shot that killed British Army Lt. Col. James Abercrombie. The British Regular army successfully drove the New England forces off the Charlestown Peninsula, but not without paying a heavy price in losses themselves. (NPS)
Salem Poor fought on with the Continental Army to the end of the American Revolution. He re-enlisted for a three-year term with Colonel Edward Wigglesworth’s 13th Massachusetts Regiment, starting in mid-1777.
This brought him to Monmouth, New Jersey and Saratoga, New York. He also served at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and White Plains, New York. He returned home in 1780, free and with veteran status.
On the home front in Andover, he married four times: in 1771 to freed woman Nancy Parker, with whom he had a son in 1774; in 1780 to Mary Twing, no longer enslaved; 1787 to Sarah Stevens, White and therefore free; 1801 to Hannah Ayliffe, a Black woman of unknown status.
In 1802, at age fifty-five, Salem Poor died and was buried anonymously at Boston’s Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. What he went through after his years of enlistment and battles, we can only imagine.
Here are some solid facts: he was a hero of Bunker Hill, recognized by all regimental leaders, and was one of at least 5,000 African Americans who served on the side of the Colonists throughout the Revolutionary War. (NPS)
Click the clinks below for a general summary that helps explain it – the file ending with ‘SAR–RT’ is a formatting used by the Sons of the American Revolution for presentations by its members under its Revolutionary Times program: