It is reported that a quick check of the Massachusetts State Archives will introduce you to a petition written to the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony about the Battle of Charlestown, part of which reads: “…we declare that a Negro man…of Col. Frye’s Regiment, Capt. Ames Company in the late Battle of Charleston, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent officer.”
The document was dated December of 1775, six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, and is signed by fourteen officers who were present at the battle including Colonel William Prescott. It added that “to set forth particulars of his [The Negro’s] conduct would be tedious. We would only beg leave to say in the person of this Negro centers a brave & gallant Soldier.”
Over 2,000 colonists had participated in the battle and even though there were brave men, no one was given any special mention like the above. This revolutionary hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill was Salem Poor, an African-American who was born into slavery in 1747 on a farm in Andover, Massachusetts, owned by John Poor and his son John Poor, Jr.
In 1769, Poor managed to buy his freedom for 27 pounds (then about a year’s salary for the ordinary working man) and married before leaving his wife and son behind in May 1775 to fight for the patriot cause at the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was actually fought on Breed’s Hill.
The Bunker Hill Battle took place on June 17, 1775, just a few months after the start of the American Revolutionary War. Historians state that Boston, a city that was then part of a colony under the control of the King of Britain and was full of British troops, was being besieged by thousands of American militia.
The British were making attempts to keep control of the city and control its valuable seaport, thus, they decided to take two hills, Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, in order to gain a tactical advantage.
When the American forces got knowledge of this, they secretly moved their troops, including African American soldier, Poor, to defend the hills resulting in an attack between the two opposing forces. Although the British won the about three-hour battle and gained control of the hills, they suffered the most casualties of any single fight during the American Revolutionary War as 268 British soldiers, including a large number of officers, died as against 115 American soldiers, while dozens from both sides got wounded.
The Battle showed how determined the colonists were to fight and many more colonists joined the army after this battle as the revolution continued to grow. According to accounts by Legends of America, Poor and his regiment were sent to build a fort and other fortifications on the night of the battle but there are no concrete details as to what contributed to his commendation by the officers although some accounts state that he had killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie as well as several British soldiers.
Poor may also have served at Saratoga and Monmouth, and spent the winter at Valley Forge, said Celebrate Boston.
The following is Salem Poor’s service record from Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. A Compilation From the Archives:
“Poor, Salem, Andover. Private, Capt. Benjamin Ames’s Co.. Col. James Fry’s Regt.; company return dated Oct. 6, 1775; also, order for bounty coat or its equivalent in money dated Boston, Dec. 13, 1775; also, Private, Capt. Abram Tyler’s Co., Col. Edmund Phinney’s Regt.; muster roll dated Garrison at Fort George, Dec. 8, 1776; enlisted May 14, 1776; also, list of men raised to serve in the Continental Army from 1st Andover Co., as returned by Capt. Samuel Johnson; residence, Andover; engaged for town of Andover; term, 3 years, to expire Jan. 1, 1780; also, list of men mustered by Nathaniel Barber, Muster Master for Suffolk Co., dated Boston, May 11, 1777; Capt. Alexander’s Co., Col. Wigglesworth’s Regt.; also, Private, Major’s Co., Col. Calvin Smith’s Regt.; Continental Army pay accounts for service from May 20, 1777, to March 20, 1780; also, Capt. Nathaniel Alexander’s Co., Col. Edward Wigglesworth’s Regt.; return [year not given]; mustered by Maj. Barber; also, same Co. and Regt.; muster roll for May, 1778, dated Camp Valley Forge; also, same Co. and Regt.; muster roll for June, 1778, dated Camp near White Plains; also, same Co. and Regt.; pay roll for Oct., 1778; also, Maj. John Porter’s Co., (late) Col. Wigglesworth’s Regt. commanded by Maj. Porter; muster roll for March and April, 1779, dated Providence; enlisted April 20, 1777; enlistment, 3 years.”
Poor is one of the many African Americans who fought at Bunker Hill, including the likes of Peter Salem and Isaac Freeman. An article on Legends of America says “5,000 African Americans, both freemen and slaves, fought on the patriot side, while many more, perhaps 20 to 30 thousand, aided the British.”
Many have wondered what compelled Poor to make that sacrifice to fight as all those who participated in that battle could have been hanged for treason. For some, his reason could have been based on patriotism while others assume that he sided with the many African Americans who had hopes of gaining full equality after entering into military service.
Yet, these promises were not forthcoming after the battle as despite slavery later being abolished in northern states, the inhumane practice still took place in the South, with free blacks also facing huge discrimination in society.
In his later years, Poor would be described as a polygamist, after having married four times in his lifetime. In 1802, he passed away in a homeless shelter (Almshouse) in Boston at the age of 55 and was interred at Copps Hill Burial Ground near Boston, Massachusetts.
He has since been hailed by historians as a perfect example of the African-American contribution to the founding of the nation. On March 25, 1975, the Revolutionary War soldier was honoured with his image on a ten cent postage stamp, as part of the Postal Service Revolutionary War Bicentennial Series of stamps entitled “Contributors to the Cause.”