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Pvt. Salem Poor, Continental Army (1775-1780)

In June 1775, colonial patriots in Boston got wind of a British plan to occupy the hills outside the city, which would give the redcoats control of Boston Harbor. British troops occupied the city, but control of the surrounding hills would give the rebels the ability to lay siege to Boston and force the British occupiers out, so they took control of those hills and began to build fortifications. The main defenses were on the hill closest to the city, Breed’s Hill. Once the colonials began reinforcing the position, British forces under Gen. William Howe set out to attack and capture it with 3,000 men. Col. William Prescott led the colonial defense with just 1,200 men in what would be remembered (in a weird twist of history) as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Among those defenders was a Black man named Salem Poor, who would become one of the most celebrated Soldiers of the entire American Revolution. 

Salem Poor: From Slavery to Freedom

Poor was born into slavery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in or around 1747. By the age of 22, he had earned enough money in his work to buy his freedom, paying £27 (more than $7,600 in today’s dollars), an annual salary in those days. He stayed in Massachusetts, and when the colony formed its army, Poor joined it. He wasn’t the only Black man in his unit, either. Titus Coburn, Peter Salem, and Seymour Burr were also minutemen in the outfit. Three dozen Black men would fight in the battle. The unit was originally supposed to help build the fortifications on Breed’s Hill, but the British forced a change of plans.

Salem Poor at the Battle of Bunker Hill

On June 17, 1775, Gen. Howe led a series of direct assaults against the defenders of Breed’s Hill, assisted by fire from British ships in Boston Harbor. The rebels fought off two of the attacks. After running out of ammunition, they were forced to retreat. Poor and the men from Andover stopped building the defenses to help cover their retreat. Under heavy fire, five of his fellow Soldiers were killed and six wounded. Poor helped tend to the wounded while returning fire, even killing a British officer, Lt. Col. James Abercrombie.

Although it was a strategic and tactical victory for the redcoats, the British paid a heavy price for taking Breed’s Hill. More than a third of their force was killed or wounded, while the rebels suffered just 140 dead. It was a loss, but it showed that the rebel army was more than the “rabble” British officers thought they were. One officer even remarked, “We have … learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans if they were equally well commanded, are full as good Soldiers as ours.”

Recognition and Legacy of Salem Poor

Poor was one of those good Soldiers. He was the only Soldier recognized by Prescott by name after the battle, and he was singled out by 13 other colonial officers. The General Court of Massachusetts released a statement citing Poor’s gallantry.  

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.”

Despite Poor’s performance, Gen. George Washington ended the recruitment of Black Soldiers in July of 1775 and forbade them from serving in the Continental Army. Those who were already enlisted, like Salem Poor, were allowed to continue their service. Poor’s Revolutionary War career would lead him through the winter at Valley Forge and to the battles of White Plains, Saratoga, and Monmouth. He would fight until 1780, when he was discharged in Rhode Island. He died in 1802, never receiving an award for his service. 

Read About Other Profiles in Courage

If you enjoyed learning about Pvt. Salem Poor, we invite you to read about other profiles in courage on our blog. You will also find military book reviews, veterans’ service reflections, famous military units and more on the TogetherWeServed.com blog.  If you are a veteran, find your military buddies, view historic boot camp photos, build a printable military service plaque, and more on TogetherWeServed.com today.


Tags: Breed's Hill, Col. William Prescott, famous military units, military book reviews, Rhode Island, veterans’ service reflections, William Howe, William Prescott


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