During the 1775-76 Siege of Boston, American patriots were trying to keep the British Army bottled up in the city and impede its resupply by sea. To protect its supply lines, the British wanted to move troops to the hills outside Boston and take control of the harbor. When the colonial forces surrounding Boston learned of the plan, they quickly occupied those hills.
By the time the British learned about the occupation, the colonials had already reinforced Bunker Hill and built a fortified defensive position, called a redoubt, on nearby Breed’s Hill. Some 3,000 Redcoats moved to attack the 1,200 militiamen defending the hills. They assaulted the redoubt three times, taking heavy casualties each time.
On the third assault, the colonials were finally overwhelmed. British Lt. Col. James Abercrombie, leading British grenadiers, climbed atop the fortification and shouted, “Surrender, you rebels!” Abercrombie fell a second later, shot and mortally wounded by a musket round. The shot came from the weapon of Salem Poor, a free Black man.
Salem Poor was born into slavery in Andover, Massachusetts Bay Colony, around 1747. He would earn enough money to purchase his freedom at age 22, paying £27 for himself, the U.S. equivalent of more than $7,600 in 2023. In 1775, Poor was among the first Massachusetts men to join a militia as a “Minuteman,” able to respond to British aggression at a moment’s notice.
Later in 1775, the Massachusetts town of Lexington would be the site of “The Shot Heard ’Round the World,” when a British force of 700 regulars confronted rebel Minutemen at Concord. The British were dispatched to capture the colonials’ weapons cache there. Eight militiamen were killed and the British pressed on to Concord, where a larger militia engaged the British after they split their forces to search for the weapons.
By the time the British were holed up in Boston, Salem Poor had joined a unit of regular militia, along with fellow Black Minutemen Titus Coburn, Peter Salem and Seymour Burr. Under the command of Capt. Thomas Drury, this Andover company was only supposed to play a secondary role on Breed’s Hill, helping to build the fortification.
As British warships fired at their position and British troops assaulted the redoubt, the Andover men were forced to cover the retreating colonials who constructed the redoubt until they ran out of ammunition. Poor himself was low on ammo and moved to help the wounded escape from the fighting. He retreated in good order and helped his fellow militiamen before firing his last round -- the one that killed Lt. Col. Abercrombie.
Col. William Prescott, colonial commander of patriot forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and 13 other regimental commanders testified to Poor’s extraordinary conduct on the battlefield that day. He was the only patriot soldier singled out to the colonial leadership that day.
“A Negro Man Called Salem Poor ... in the late Battle of Charleston, 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 [sic] leave to say in the person of this Sd. [said] Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier -- the Reward due to so great and Distinguish a Character, We submit to the Congress.”
Poor was among the militiamen who retreated to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the winter of 1777, where he reenlisted for three years. He is also known to have fought at the 1776 Battle of White Plains, the 1777 Battle of Saratoga and the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. In 1780, he returned home to Massachusetts, a free man with veteran status. He died in 1802 at the age of 55, one of 5,000 Black men who fought in the Revolutionary War.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at email@example.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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