This Day in History: Salem Poor, former slave turned Revolutionary War fighter
On this day in 1769, a slave named Salem Poor purchases his freedom. He would go on to also fight for American freedom during the Revolution.
Much of Poor’s story is lost to history, but we know that he escaped slavery in Massachusetts when he purchased his freedom for 27 pounds. That was a lot of money in those days! Poor got married and had a son. When the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington, Poor left to join the Patriot cause.
Poor apparently did something remarkably brave at the Battle of Bunker Hill. We know this because fourteen officers ended up submitting a petition, asking that Poor be commended. The petition affirmed that Poor had “behaved like an Experienced officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier.” It asked that the Massachusetts General Court consider the “Reward due to so great and Distinguisht a Caracter.”
What did he do? If only the petition told us. Some have theorized that Poor was responsible for the death of either British Lt. Colonel James Abercrombie or Major John Pitcairn. No one is quite sure, though, and those stories may be no more than legend.
Poor never received an official commendation, but the existence of the petition seems to have influenced another issue then brewing in the Continental Army: Should free black men and/or slaves be allowed to enlist?
Americans had been stewing over the question for months. One reason that many southerners, in particular, opposed the measure? Slave owners did not want their slaves to have guns. Would armed slaves rise up against them?
Perhaps it is not so surprising that Americans would later see the value in ratifying a Second Amendment. And perhaps it is equally unsurprising that many Americans began to see the conflict between the war they were fighting and the institution of slavery.
One American to change his mind about slavery was George Washington. This debate in 1775 surely helped push him out of the slaveholding culture into which he had been born.
Washington met with his senior officers on October 8. They agreed “unanimously to reject all Slaves, & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.” This decision was later affirmed when Washington met with a committee from the Continental Congress. Thus, in November, Washington issued general orders forbidding the enlistment of “Negroes, Boys unable to bare Arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign.”
Within a matter of weeks, Washington had changed his mind. For one thing, he’d learned that the British army was recruiting black men by promising them their freedom. But “the most compelling reason he decided to put aside the prejudices of his southern upbringing,” historian Nathaniel Philbrick notes, “had to do with what transpired six months before at the Battle of Bunker Hill.”
In other words, Salem Poor’s bravery helped to change Washington’s mind! The petition praising his service was submitted mere weeks after Washington’s general orders forbidding the enlistment of black men. The General decided to reverse himself and to allow free black men to reenlist in the Army.
He explained his decision to John Hancock: “[I]t has been represented to me that the free negroes who have Served in this Army, are very much disatisfied at being discarded . . . . I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them, & have given Licence for their being enlisted, if this is disapproved of by Congress, I will put a Stop to it.”
One person who took advantage of this changed policy? Salem Poor! This brave man reenlisted and continued to fight for American freedom.
Council of War (October 8, 1775)
General Orders (Nov. 12, 1775)
George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (1882)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (Dec. 31, 1775)
Manumission paper of Salem Poor (July 10, 1769)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (2013)
Reports of Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s Death (Boston 1775 blog; June 23, 2014)
Salem Poor, “a Brave & gallant soldier” (Boston 1775 blog; Feb. 12, 2009)
Salem Poor: “A Brave and Gallant Soldier” (National Park Service)