Salem Poor

Jun 26th, 2011 | By | Category: Aviation, Military & Exploration
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Salem Poor1750?-?  Salem Poor was a distinguished military hero who fought valiantly in the American Revolution.  This courageous African American made a significant contribution to the struggle to create an independent United States of America.  But in a sad commentary on the plight of Blacks of that time, he was unable to enjoy any fitting recognition or reward despite a distinguished record of service.

Passion for Freedom

Poor was born into slavery, but succeeded in buying his freedom in 1769 at the age of approximately 19, for 27 pounds sterling (at the time, the equivalent of a working man’s full year’s salary). He married a free black woman named Nancy and together they had a son. Poor’s obvious passion for freedom must have been immediately frustrated; he and his family inhabited a world in which African Americans could attend church, but were forced to sit in the balcony separated from Whites on the main floor. A free black man, Poor was permitted to work and earn wages, but very few jobs were available for those of his race. And any earnings he might have received would have been taxed, although he, his wife, and his son would never earn the right to vote in the democracy he was to bravely help create.

In spite of these oppressive cultural and legal restrictions, Poor (at roughly 25 years of age and a resident of the Massachusetts colony) volunteered in 1775 to join in the Revolutionary War with the Continental forces. He served in a Massachusetts Militia company commanded by Benjamin Ames. Some 5,000 other black men, both free and slaves, served on the side of the “Patriot” Revolutionary Army, in addition to hundreds more in the Navy. However, thousands of other African Americans fought on the side of the British due to the more strenuous efforts by these loyalist forces to recruit and reward them for fighting. Most often, this came in the form of a promise that any black slaves (especially those belonging to Patriot masters) would be freed in return for fighting. As proclaimed by Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia:

“And I hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to this Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

More often than not, the promise was empty; many if not most of these “bribed” soldiers were abandoned by the retreating British forces, or even actively returned to their former owners at the end of the war.

In the historic and strategically important Battle of Bunker Hill (then known as the Battle of Charleston), only some three dozen Blacks fought. Of them, Salem Poor would emerge as a distinctive and valorous warrior. On June 17, 1775, Poor fired the shot that killed Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, a high-ranking British officer. The effect of his death was to cripple the morale of the enemy force, turning the tide of battle.

Furthering his record of distinction, Poor also fought at Valley Forge, White Plains, Saratoga, and Monmouth. In acknowledgment of his exceptional service to the cause of liberty, 14 officers, including Colonel William Prescott, petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts to honor his heroism, and bestow a monetary reward in recognition of his achievements. The petition stated in part:

“A Negro called Salem Poor of Colonel Frye’s regiment, Captain Ames’ company, in the late battle at Charleston, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. It would be tedious to go into more detail regarding his heroic conduct. We only beg leave to say, in the person of this said Negro centers a brave and gallant soldier.”

Active Climate of Oppression

The Court failed to take any action on the petition. This passive failure to recognize an African American’s achievement would soon become an active climate of oppression. In marked contrast to the British loyalist strategy, the Patriot leaders often resisted black participation in the war. In 1775, General George Washington, Commander of the Continental forces and “the father of our country” in today’s popular imagination, ordered that no additional Blacks were to be recruited into his army. Several months later, Washington decreed that even volunteer reenlistments by Blacks were forbidden. This position was reversed only under duress, when Continental Army troops dropped to dangerously low levels compared to the British-bribed black forces.

Poor reacted to these horrible events with a signal act of selfless dedication;  he continued to fight bravely with the Continental force on behalf of the American cause of liberty, a concept that clearly held greater meaning for Poor than it did for the nascent country’s leaders.  This patriot and soldier is remembered for his great contribution to the war that won America its freedom, but which would prove to be only a first step on the path of generations of African Americans to ultimately succeed in winning theirs.


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