This Day in History: Peter Salem, former slave & Revolutionary War veteran
On this day in 1816, Peter Salem passes away. This Patriot was born into slavery, but he ended life as a free man—and a veteran of George Washington’s army.
Many details of Salem’s early years are lost to history, but we do know that he leapt to the defense of the Patriot cause early on. Salem served alongside those minutemen who were present when the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington Green. And after the British were chased back to Boston, Salem enlisted in Colonel John Nixon’s Sixth Massachusetts Regiment.
He’d been freed by his owner so he could join the fight against Great Britain.
Salem is perhaps best known for the role that he played at the Battle of Bunker Hill, although questions admittedly remain about what exactly happened that day.
Perhaps that is unsurprising, given the chaotic scene? Indeed, the Battle was so confusing that it hasn’t even been named correctly. You might remember that the Battle of Bunker Hill was notoriously named after the wrong hill. The conflict was actually fought on Breed’s Hill. (See June 17 history post.)
Whatever hill it might have been fought on, Salem has been given credit for shooting Major Pitcairn in the heat of that battle. Most modern Americans have never heard of Pitcairn, but he would have been better known to the Patriots fighting at Bunker Hill. He was the officer who’d been leading the British forces at Lexington Green mere weeks earlier. Now Pitcairn was again leading British forces up Breed’s Hill, toward the American defenses.
Pitcairn had just mounted one of the American breastworks when he reportedly called out triumphantly to those around him: “The day is ours!” Just at that moment, one early historian reports, “a black soldier named Salem shot him through, and he fell.”
Peter Salem was reportedly presented to George Washington as the man who had killed Pitcairn.
There is just one small problem with some of these facts: There was another black man fighting alongside the Americans that day. His name was Salem Poor. Which Salem shot Pitcairn? Salem Poor often gets the credit for shooting Pitcairn as well.
Either way, the brave black men who fought during these early battles had an important effect on George Washington’s army.
Early in the war, Washington and his senior officers had agreed “unanimously to reject all Slaves, & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.” It wasn’t long before Washington changed his mind. On a practical note, he’d learned that the British army was recruiting black men by promising them their freedom. But his personal views were changing as well: He saw the valor of black men such as Peter Salem and Salem Poor. He reversed the policy and began accepting black men into the army.
Peter Salem would continue to serve in the Continental Army for several years. He served in the important Battle of Saratoga, and he took part in General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s attack on the fort at Stony Point.
Sadly, things didn’t go so well for Salem after the war. He settled in Massachusetts, but he had trouble making ends meet. He got married, but it did not last. This Patriot eventually died in a poorhouse.
His years in service had earned him one final honor, though: He was buried in the town cemetery, a privilege not normally accorded to former slaves. A monument was later erected in his memory:
Peter Salem A Soldier of the Revolution Concord Bunker Hill Saratoga Died August 16, 1816
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (1961)
Council of War (Oct. 8, 1775)
Who Killed Major Pitcairn? (Journal of the American Revolution; Oct. 23, 2013)
George Washington, General Orders (Nov. 12, 1775)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (2013)
Samuel Swett, History of the Bunker Hill Battle: With a Plan (1827)
William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855)