Sunday, May 17, 2015

Salem Poor bought his freedom, then fought to protect it.

     Originally, they called the Battle of Bunker Hill, thee Battle of Charlestown, which actually made more sense. Six months after the battle, Colonel William Prescott and 13 fellow officers who served in that battle against the British, wrote a letter to the General Court of Massachusetts:
     "The Subscribers beg leave to Report to your Honorable. House (Which We do in justice to the Character of so Brave a man) that under Our Own observation, we declare that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Fryes Regiment, Capt. Ames. Company, in the late Battle of Charlestown, behaved like an Experienced Officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier, to Set forth Particulars of his Conduct would be Tedious, We Would Only beg leave to say in the Person of this Negro Centers a Brave and gallant Soldiers."
     The letter of commendation was a political device aimed at protesting a racial injustice. As commander-in-chief of the American military, General George Washington had just kicked Salem Poor and every other soldier of color out of the Continental Army because of the color of their skin. Slavery was legal and existed in every one of the 13 colonies, even Rhode Island, which has always prided itself on its devotion to liberty. At the time, 6.3 percent of Rhode Island's population consisted of African-American slaves. The high praise for Salem Poor was a calculated move against segregation, which those 14 officers not only thought was impractical, as it cost them good soldiers, but immoral. While it would be the next summer before the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence declared, in unanimity, that all men are created equal, Americans had already begun their century-long discussion of the cognizant dissonance of demanding one's own liberty while denying freedom to another race of men.
     Washington's expulsion of all Negro soldiers, as they were then called, was in his viewpoint necessary because including African-Americans in his Band of Brothers would be an admission of the humanity of his slaves, as well as an encouragement for their own rebellion against slaveowners. Thus on July 10, 1775, George Washington issued an order, which ended the recruitment of all African-Americans, free or slave. Those black soldiers already in the Continental Army were allowed to continue their service until another order from Washington on November 12, 1775, which prohibited their continuation in the military.
     Sadly, the Massachusetts General Court ignored the petition by the 14 Bunker Hill officers. However, action by the British Crown would compel the Patriots to include Africans-Americans in the rebellion. The British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, delighted at this news and eventually offered manumission to any and all slaves who volunteered to serve with the British. How well this went over with Loyalist plantation owners is unknown, but the effect on Washington was almost immediate, as sensing disaster, he rescinded his orders and encouraged the recruitment of African-Americans again.
     However, the letter of commendation for Salem Poor also was earned on the battlefield at Bunker Hill, for he was the man who killed Colonel James Abercrombie, the highest ranking soldier among the 19 British officers who were killed at Bunker Hill. Technically, the British won the battle, but because of the disproportionately high casualties among its officer corps, the British victory was more worthy of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC, hence the phrase Pyrrhic Victory. British Henry Clinton said, "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."
     Details of Salem Poor's life are sketchy, however, we do know he was born a slave sometime in 1747. Slaves often could receive pay for their services, especially if they had a specialty skill. Poor earned and saved £27, and purchased his freedom from John Poor Jr. on July 10, 1769, at age 22. Two years later, he married a servant of Captain James Parker, Nancy Parker, who was listed as a half-breed Indian.
     Days after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Salem Poor enlisted under Captain Samuel Johnson in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment on April 24, 1775. Shortly after the British retreat from Lexington, minuteman Salem Poor enlisted under Captain Samuel Johnson in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment on April 24, 1775. The British planned to seize and fortify their forces in the Dorchester Heights and Charlestown peninsulas, which would strengthen their hold on Boston, which they controlled.
     When the Patriots caught wind of the British plans, Americans acted. On June 16, 1775, Colonels Israel Putnam and William Prescott led patriot militia to construct a redoubt on Breed's Hill, which amazed the British. The next morning, General William Howe, commander-in-chief of the British North American forces, personally led 3,000 soldiers to Charlestown to attack 2,400 American soldiers. As the British approached, the command to the Americans came: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."  Historians have attributed that quote to various commanders. I say they all said it as that was common tactic of American soldiers in the age of muskets when it took so long to reload.
     After his heroics at Bunker Hill, Salem Poor's service to his country becomes vague. He re-enlisted after Washington restored African-Americans to the military, and spent that terrible, long winter at Valley Forge. But he left service in 1780, and generally was abandoned by his country as just another veteran. After having a son, Jonas, with Nancy Parker in 1776, Poor married Mary Twing, a free African American, and moved to Providence. I could not determine whether he divorced or abandoned his first wife, or she died. I do know that city officials ordered the Poor family to leave because they could not support themselves. In 1785, he divorced his second wife, marrying a white woman, Mary Stevens, in 1787. But he was unable to support himself and died of extreme poverty in 1802, after marrying for a fourth time in 1801.
     Salem Poor worked hard to wrest his freedom and fought hard to maintain that freedom. He died poor, but free.

My collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.

1 comment:

  1. Love the unknown (to me) Americans you keep finding!