Peter Salem by Harry Schenawolf

African American Soldier in the American Revolutionary War

Artist's Rendition of Peter Salem at the Battle of Bunker Hill
Artist’s Rendition of Peter Salem at the Battle of Bunker Hill

Peter Salem, a slave who was freed to fight in his master’s militia, is credited for stepping forward at a critical point in the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston in 1775; he fired the shot that killed British Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn. At the time of the battle, Salem was already a veteran who had stood in defiance with the Framingham militia at Concord Bridge two months earlier. He continued to serve in Colonel Nixon’s regiment, seeing action in the New York City Campaign and several major battles throughout the war, including pivotal battles at Saratoga, NY – the 19th of September and the 7th of October, 1777.  He was also present at the Battle of Stony Point, July 15-16, 1779, a midnight assault on a British garrison about ten miles south of West Point on the Hudson River.

Peter Salem was born a slave in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1750; his birthday is still celebrated in Framingham on October 1st. The names of his parents have been lost to history. He was owned by Jeremiah Belknap, an army captain who reportedly named Salem for his own earlier residence in Salem, Massachusetts. Some earlier scholars report that Salem fought as a slave in Belknap’s regiment. It is now widely believed that he was sold to Major Lawson Buckminster sometime in early 1775.

Because of fear of slave insurrections, both north and south, African Americans were barred from legally serving in militias since 1656. The Committee of Safety, fearing hostilities and dealing with a low turnout rate for white recruits, allowed the recruitment of free blacks. Major Buckminster freed Salem so he could enlist in his regiment and thus Salem joined Captain Simon Edgel’s company of ‘minutemen’, those who were prepared for action at a minute’s notice.

On April 19th, 1775, Salem stood by his former masters and fought at the Battles of Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts. Five days later, he enlisted in Colonel John Nixon’s Fifth Massachusetts Regiment and was assigned to Captain Thomas Drury’s company.

The Death of General Warren by John Trumbull. Salem is in the far right bottom corner.
The Death of General Warren by John Trumbull. Salem is in the far right bottom corner.

Though Salem fully participated in the Battle of Lexington and Concord Bridge, it was in the Battle of Bunker hill that he gained notoriety among the officers of the new Continental Army.  Though skeptics have questioned Peter Salem’s role in firing the fatal shot that killed one of the most important figures on the British side, there is no denying the important role Salem played in the battle. Several witnesses noted Salem’s actions in their diaries or later writings. The most accurate account of the battle is referenced in a letter by Aaron White of Thompson, Connecticut, which provides what many scholars believe to be the most accurate account of what took place. In 1807, White recorded the following, based on an account by an eyewitness:

The British Major Pitcairin had passed the storm of our fire and had mounted the redoubt, when waving his sword, he commanded in a loud voice, the rebels to surrender. His sudden appearance and his commanding air at first startled the men immediately below him. They neither answered or fired, probably not being exactly certain what was to be done. At this critical moment, a negro soldier stepped forward and, aiming his musket at the major’s bosom, blew him through.

Peter Salem in John Trumbull's painting "The Death of General Warren"
Peter Salem in John Trumbull’s painting “The Death of General Warren”

Salem’s superiors later introduced him to General George Washington as “the man who shot Pitcairn.” A celebrated painting by John Trumbull that was painted in 1787 and entitled The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. It shows a black soldier prominent in the painting that is thought to be Peter Salem holding a flintlock musket as Pitcairn falls, though many experts believe that he is more likely the much smaller image of a black soldier at the top of the painting.

Major General George Washington remained a southern planter with deep roots of prejudice and fear of slave insurrections. On November 12th 1775, as supreme commander, he issued an order forbidding African Americans, slaves or freemen, from serving in the new American armed forces. With many enlistments expiring by the end of the year, the recruitment of whites was not going as well as hoped and many regimental leaders asked for their black soldiers to remain. Peter Salem resigned and left for home. When word reached Washington that on November 7th 1775, Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, had freed all slaves of patriots willing to serve the British, he canceled his order. A new edict was issued on the 30th of December that permitted free African Americans. After the Continental Congress approved the order on the 16th of January, 1776, Peter Salem reenlisted and joined the forces en route to the Northern Army with orders to ward off General Burgoyne’s attempts to cut the colony in half.

Salem was discharged from the army on March 1st, 1780, but remained in the Framingham Militia until the end of the war. After the war, he built a small cabin near Leicester, Massachusetts. He was married to Katy Benson in September, 1783.  He tried his hand as a vegetable gardener but was unsuccessful and resorted to earning a meager living by weaving and repairing baskets and cane bottom chairs.

He was listed in the Framingham census of 1790 as head of a household of two free people of color. He and Katy had no children and the marriage was dissolved soon after the census was taken. Salem was favored by many members of the community and was popular among the children, telling them stories about the war. He remained poor his whole life and was destitute in old age, forced to seek charity. He died in the Framingham poorhouse and was buried in the town cemetery among whites, which was considered an honor for a former slave.

Peter Salem's grave at the Old Bur
Peter Salem’s grave in the Old Burying Ground in Framingham, Mass.

Framingham established an annual Peter Salem Day on June 17th, 1882. A monument was erected at the Old Burying Ground. It reads:  Peter Salem, A Soldier of the Revolution, Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Died August 16, 1816. Some years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a stone on the grounds where Salem’s cabin had once stood. It is inscribed: Here lived Peter Salem, A Negro soldier of the Revolution.

RESOURCES: 

Davis, Burke.  Black Heroes of the American Revolution.  1976, 1991 by Harcourt Bruce Jonanovich, San Diego, CA

Grundset, Eric (editor & proj. mang.), Researchers:  Briana L. Diaz, Hollis L. Gentry, Jean D. Strahan. Forgotten Patriots: African Americans and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War.  2008 by The National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, Washington D.C.

Lanning, Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning (ret.) Defenders of Liberty.  African Americans in the Revolutionary War.  2000 by Kensington Publ. Corp., New York, NY.

Nell, William Cooper & Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution.  1855 by Robert F. Wallcut  pbl. Boston.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revoluition. 1961, 1996 by The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC

Swett, Samuel. Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle, With a Plan.  1818;  Boston.

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