A Scot and the American War of Independence.
John Pitcairn was the son of a minister David Pitcairn of Dysart in the Kingdom of Fife. The town Dysart has long history and it is said when something is old, it is as old as the trees of Dysart. It is also claimed as the place where St Serf met the devil in a cave to dispute religion.
John was born on December 28th 1722 and baptised at Saint Serfs Church. His mother was Katharine Hamilton and like her husband was from the gentry. David, the father had served as a Chaplain in the Cameronians during the War of Spanish Succession 1701 - 1714.
He returned to Dysart and remained its Reverent for near fifty year. The manse they lived in was near the harbour on the Firth of Forth where the sea air and tides drew John to its adventures. John married Elizabeth Dalrymple while in his twenties and they conceived a girl named Annie in Edinburgh. Elizabeth was a distant cousin of his father’s old Colonel the Earl of Stair. In that same year of 1746 John attained the rank of Lieutenant in Cornwall’s 7th Marines.
The Marines were disbanded to save the Admiralty’s pennies and were not reformed on a permanent basis till 1755. John then had his Lieutenancy confirmed and in 1756 promoted to Captain of Marines. He served in the 7 years War that drew in all the major European powers. Johns father died in 1757 the same year his daughter Johanna was born. Johns ship HMS Lancaster on route over the Atlantic took part in the taking of Louisburg Cape Breton Island ending the French dominance in North America 1758.
Some time in the 1760s the Pitcairn family move from Edinburgh to Kent, there John joined the Chatham Division of Marines. The Pitcairn family consisted of four girls and six boys. David the eldest son most resembled his father, who followed his uncle to become a doctor. Eventually becoming the physician to the Prince Regent. Robert another of Johns sons was made midshipman and in 1767 he later sighted an island in the Pacific named in his Honour.
Pitcairn Island was to be the hideaway of the Bounty mutineers. Three years later Robert at the age of 17 was lost at sea. Alexander in time became a Barrister and settled in London. William became a Marine like his father. Thomas chose the Army while the girls married Naval and Army officers. At 48 years John reached the rank of Major in 1771 in the Chatham Division. The Marines were not allowed to buy a commission accounting for the length of time taken to reach his majority.
The British Government had interfered in the colonies of North America for some time. They had sole powers to adjourn the House of Representatives in the Colony of Massachusetts and the right to negate that Houses choice of speaker. The passing of the Intolerable Acts subsequent to the Boston Tea Party was designed to suppress any dissent and regain law and order in province of Massachusetts Bay. It was an arrogant legislative weapon to chastise errant behavior and an acceptance of the inability to control the local government. The final split came as the year of 1774 progressed when the House of Representatives divided from the Royal Governor General Thomas Gage.
The Intolerable Act closed the port of Boston and allowed the British to quarter their troops in the town. The General Court evolved into the first Provisional Congress on the 7th October 1774. The Committee of Safety was formed as an executive of the Congress and was seen as the legitimate government of all Massachusetts except that under British control. By early December unrest spread in the Colony of Massachusetts. John Pitcairn arrived in Boston with 600 Marines of the Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth Divisions. John had to listen to the disputes between Admiral Graves and General Gage over the landing of the Marines.
The Plymouth Marines were not properly trained and had unfit officers similar to the Army regiments. They had no proper weather clothing or equipment and had a tendency to be to be undisciplined. The appearance of the Marines was pitiful in white facing uniforms difficult to keep them clean in the dusty country side. Some of the disgruntled men sold their equipment to buy the local run and a number died from lethal doses.
With Johns Pitcairn’s example and patience he managed to drill them into shape. He did not believe in harsh punishment and found it hard to apply it to discipline the wilder men. He lived in the barracks with his men to keep them sober and succeeded in gaining their respect. They eventually became an effective fighting force. John was later billeted with Frances Shaw a close neighbour to Paul Revere. He won Shaw’s respect when according to the family story John prevented a duel between Lieutenant Wagg and Sam Shaw’s son. The quarrel had been about some anti American remark by Wagg and Shaw throwing wine at him. Sam responded to Johns warmth and humour and later became a successful diplomat. Even Boston’s radical’s had respect for John who was seen as being trustworthy and honest. This was especially so when dealing with local and military disputes. Ezra Stiles a clergyman and dedicated supporter of the American Revolutionary cause called John “a good man in a bad cause”. John attended the Boston Christ Church every Sunday. In Shaw’s house he held meetings with British officers and locals including Paul Revere. He socialised freely and appreciated the views of others. His family would also visit including Lieutenant of Marines William and Thomas of the Royal Artillery his sons and Captain Charles Cochrane his daughter Katharine’s husband. Charles was the son of the eight Earl of Dundonald. He later threw his cap in the air when the American line broke at Brandywine Creek and killed by a cannon ball at York Town as he stood next to Cornwallis.
On the 19th April 1775 John was placed in second command of 400 troops sent to destroy a cache of Rebel stores in the village of Concord. Rebel preparations had been underway during the previous winter storing arms, munitions and training of Militia, minutemen and defensive organisations. The idea was to confiscate the weapon stores and capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were reported as staying in Lexington village. A message by lantern from the steeple of North Church alerted Paul Revere the night before the raids. He and William Dawes rode to spread the news. Before day break the drums and bells called some 70 Militia to the village green.
At Lexington Green John Pitcairn came face to face with Armed Rebel Militia. John ordered his men not to fire and asked the Militia to lay down their arms and disperse. "Lay down your arms, you damned rebels..." was called out. One of the Militia Sylvanus Wood aged 23years recalled on hearing the bells toll took his gun and ran with Robert Douglas to the green some three miles away. The militia leader Captain Parker ordered the drummer William Diman to beat to arms. Captain Parker asked us to join them and when we did so he said. 'Every man of you, who is equipped, follow me; and those of you who are not equipped, go into the meeting-house and furnish yourselves from the magazine, and immediately join the company.' The Captain then led those of us who were equipped to Lexington Common. I went to count those present and found it to be 38 and no more. The British had placed themselves between the meeting house and the our men. This cut them off from us. The British approached in platoons with an officer on horse back. They halted and the officer swung his sword and demanded ‘we lay down our arms or you are all dead.’ The first platoon fired but no person was hurt or killed.
That was probably because it was powder only. Captain Parker ordered every man to take care of himself. Our company dispersed and climbed over a wall. A second British platoon fired killing some. Where I was situated I would have known if any of our man had fired and they had not. It was some time later that one of the men said, ‘he had fired giving them the guts of his gun.’
On the British side the infantry was drawn from General Gage's infantry regiments. Major John Pitcairn commanded 10 elite light companies including 1st Battalion Marines while Colonel Benjamin Bernard commanded the Grenadiers. They were all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Smith.
The Lexington Militia stood on ranks on the common as some 100 spectators watched. Their Captain John Parker a veteran of the French Indian Wars was suffering from tuberculosis and could not be heard by his men at all times. Around a quarter of the Militia were related to Captain Parker. He was supposed to have said. "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair protecting the flanks led his men to surround and disarm the Militia. His men ran towards the Militia shouting. ‘Huzzah.’ Then formed battle lines on the green. Major Parker arrived placing his men of three companies to the left. During this time Colonel Smiths men were further down the road that led to Boston.
It was either John Pitcairn or Lieutenant Sutherland who rode towards the Rebels demanding them to lay down their arms. Captain Parker agreed to do so and told his men to disperse but some did not hear his order. While some men left the green slowly others did not and kept their arms. The shot that began the American War of Independence came from an unknown source. Captain Parker later said to his troops, “unless they should insult or molest us; and, upon their sudden Approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire:—Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation there for from us.” in fact no one knows but it is possible according to witnesses it came from a colonial behind a hedge or from a mounted British officer.
The British charged with fixed bayonets. Jonas, Parkers cousin was run through and 8 colonists were killed and 10 wounded.
Of those killed that began the War were, John Brown, Samuel Hadley, Caleb Harrington, Jonathon Harrington, Robert Munroe, Isaac Muzzey, Asahel Porter, and Jonas Parker. Jonathon Harrington, fatally wounded by a British musket ball, managed to crawl back to his home, and died on his own doorstep.
One of the British soldiers was wounded. A drummer beat assembly and the light infantry fired a victory volley before marching off to Concord.
Concords Militia of 250 had received reports of firing from Lexington moved east to higher ground to meet the British but chose not to fight rather waited for reinforcements. Major Pitcairn knew cannon and munitions had been buried in Concord and ordered the tavern keeper at pistol point to show were the guns were buried. The guns were smashed and the trunnions set alight but the fire spread to the meeting house. Martha Moulton persuaded some soldiers to help put out the fire. The rest of the food supplies and musket balls were thrown into the millpond.
The colonials under Colonel Barrett made towards the higher Punkatasset Hill. Two British companies seeing colonials let them have the hill as they retreated to the North Bridge. With ample reinforcements the Militia formed line and Barrett ordered his men not to fire until fired on. Captain Laurie of the British made a fatal error an ordering his men to form for street fighting.
As the British crossed the North Bridge and hastily formed street firing positions Lieutenant Sutherland saw the error. But he was from a different company and only three men obeyed. A shot was fired by a tired soldier of the 43rd and two others joined in and a ragged volley followed. Two minute men were killed and four wounded. Major John Buttrick of Concord's second minute company shouted "Fire, for God's sake, fellow soldiers, fire!" Both sides were separated by the bridge and only 50 yards apart. Shots from the colonists struck into the thick British ranks wounding officers and sergeants, killing privates Thomas Smith, Patrick Gray and James Hall. Finding themselves leaderless and outnumbered the British ran leaving the wounded behind.
Lieutenant Colonel Smith on hearing fire from Concord and on just receiving a request for reinforcements sent two companies to assist. As Smith moved to see what was happening minutemen spotted him from behind a wall. They had been given no orders to fire, "If we had fired, I believe we could have killed all most every officer there was in the front, but we had no orders to fire and there wasn't a gun fired."
That time lasted 10 minutes and a mentally disturbed man Elias Brown went to both sides to sell strong Cider. The two assisting companies met the despondent men from the North Bridge and continued thought the battlefield, where they saw the wounded and dead. They returned to Concord around 11:30 am under the watchful eye of the minutemen just in time to have lunch.
After searching the town and satisfied they made their way back to Boston. This delay allowed the rebels to reinforce and encounter the British in running battles all the way back to town, suffering heavy casualties under accurate fire. Johns Pitcairn’s horse at Fiske’s Hill has scraped by a bullet and ran to the rebel lines. It took with it a brace of highly decorated pistols made by John Murdoch.
With the loss of his horse John was forced to walk to Boston. Ebenezer Munroe told of Captain Parker reassembled his band of militia some bandaged up and awaiting in ambush. They did not fire until they saw Colonel Smith come into view and ambushed him calling it ‘Parkers revenge.’ Captain Parker died of tuberculosis in September of that year.
Major Pitcairn sent men up a hill to clear out the Militia. One officer was the only one fit in three companies and was contemplating surrendering when he heard cheering ahead. It was Earl Percy and 1,000 men with cannon at the rescue. Percy and his men had marched to Lexington to the tune of ,Yankee Doodle and within a few months it became popular with the Colonials.
Percy had decided not to take extra munitions with him prompting General Gage to sent two wagon of supplies. They were ambushed by colonials over 60 years who were considered to be too old to join the Militia. They shot the leading horse and killed two sergeants and wounded and officer. The rest run for it and six others surrendered.
This left Percy’s men with 36 rounds each and only a few cannon rounds. John Pitcairn supplied meaningful material on how the colonist fight and Percy heeding the information ordered his rear guard to rotate each mile of the journey. He strengthened his flanks and had Johns Marines were to act as vanguard. In response the rebels fired from long distances into the ranks from the sides and in front. Some fired and then rode off.
Percy later reported, “the rebels attacked us in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance and resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so. Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself very much mistaken."
On retreat as they crossed the river Menontomy fighting stiffer resistance while Percy’s cannon at Watson’s Crossing inflicted heavy casualties on the colonials.
The Bridge ahead had been part dismantled and the militia of some 4,000 waited on the rivers banks. Percy took another route along a narrow path. A large force of militia arrived to cut them off and for some reason procrastinated. Johns Marines soundly defeated the last attack on Percy’s rear and allowed the British force to arrive in Charleston. Percy’s force held the high ground and began to build bunkers. Bunkers that were never completed and were used by the colonials in the subsequent Battle of Bunkers Hill.
Washington on hearing the news of Concord, wrote. “the once-happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?"
Bunker and Breed Hill.
The story of the Bunker Hill Battle, Allen French wrote, "is a tale of great blunders heroically redeemed."
Boston peninsula was protected by British war ships and as such considered safe from siege. The Massachusetts Committee of Safety thought otherwise.
Deciding to fortify the Charleston heights and hold it against the cooped up British in Boston after their hasty withdrawal from Lexington and Concord. The peninsula is approximately one mile long. Bunker Hill rises 110 feet and Breed Hill 75 feet and neared to Boston, both link up to the road to Cambridge and Concord.
Commander of the British forces was General William Howe and the Commander of the occupying army in Boston was General Gage, who had under him 6,000 men.
Work began on the 16th June at night when Colonel Israel Putman and Colonel William Prescott grandson of a Lincolnshire man and his 1,000 men set up defensive positions on Bunker Hill. On Breed Hill they constructed a redoubt. Fire was to be directed at Boston and Breed Hill being nearest was chosen and easiest defended. They began building a redoubt 160 feet long and 89 feet wide. Ditches were dug and strengthening of the fence on their left. At 4am a lookout on HMS Lively spotted the heightening fortifications. Immediately Lively was ordered to open fire. The thunderous sound woke Admiral Graves who ordered the bombardment to stop. General Gage countermanded the order and had 128 guns to fire at the Fortifications. General Gage asked Colonel Prescott’s brother in law Abijah Willard if he would fight.
He answered, “ As to his men I cannot answer for them, but Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of hell.”
Although the cannon fire was not effective it killed Asa Pollard. The General ordered he be buried quickly without fuss. But a large group gathered to give Asa a proper funeral after which some deserted.
Some 6 hours were wasted in organising a suitable force to attack the hills. General Howe himself would lead the mayor assault around the colonist left flank and take their rear. General Robert Pigot would assault the fortifications at Breed Hill which was held by Prescott.
It was a warm June day at 3pm and the British with their 60 pound packs and heavy uniforms began to feel its upshot as the Grenadiers and Light Infantry were ready to assault.
Battle positions were now ready. As the British had command of the waters around the peninsula it would have been easy for them to land on the north side and strike the colonists in the rear. Instead the main force was ordered to march straight up against the enemy lines.
The men sent to reach the colonist position along the shore found themselves up against the enemy fortified lines along the Mystic River.
All the delaying had given the colonist time sent reinforcements and to put up barriers across the beach manned by a company of New Hampshire riflemen led by John Stark son of a Scot and a veteran of Roger's Rangers. The fighting by the rail fence was the bloodiest (for the British) in the whole battle, with Stark and his troops inflicted 70% casualties on them, His men concentrated especially on officers; several companies had every single one of their officers killed or wounded by the deadly American fire.
General Howe took his light infantry and grenadiers to assault the left wing personally up to Bunker Hill. Meanwhile the Light infantry were on their way along the narrow beach. The infantry were lined four deep and hundreds across urged on by their officers in scarlet scarf’s sure targets for the sharpshooters. Behind stone walls, ditches and fencing the colonists waited. No one who saw what happened next would ever forget it. It was a brilliant clear day when the first assault began with the light infantry on the far beach and the cannons firing into Charleston setting the town in flames.
While the main assault troops moved slowly forward in full kit over knee deep grass and old fencing and low broken down walls. The about half of the colonists opened fire as the others awaited till the red clad lines were within 150 yards.
At this range it was pure slaughter and the man fell “as thick as sheep in a field.” Howe’s staff was wiped out and large gaps appeared in the near perfect lines. The British began to run in dismay. British reserves to the north of Charleston were being shot at by snipers and began to set the town alight.
A second assault was made this time determined to take the redoubt breastwork at Breed Hill with Generals Howe and Pigot. Again the colonist held fire to the last moment.
The volley ripped the lines and then shots formed, "an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines," a British officer wrote, "it seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes." A Connecticut private observed, ‘When at length the redcoats were only six rods away, a sheet of fire belched from the fence with such fearful precision that whole platoons of the British were swept down.’
The front line fell back against the second and then they broke and ran down the hill. A hazza of victory reechoed through the Colonist lines. Officers of Howe begged he stop the attack and reconsider the situation. General Clinton arrived with 400 reinforcements from Boston. General Howe decided to send in a third assault this time with the correct artillery munitions to give covering fire. He ordered the troops to take off their heavy kits and fix bayonets.
Volley after volley made gaps in the ranks but this time they charged and poured over the defenses. It is now all right to say the colonists ran out of munitions. But what is true they had no answer to the determined bayonet charge and ran. Israel Putman known as ‘Old Put’ tried to entice hundreds of colonists who stood by on the roadways and watched the Battle.
Major John Pitcairn had taken command of the reserve force and in long boats transport them to Moultons Hill on the east corner. John had with him two of his sons on this third attack. Major Pitcairn gave directional orders to land as near the redoubt as possible.
As they landed the firing began and those landing in the first boat found it difficult to form up. Despite the difficulty they formed a line of order with the loss of only one man. Then they marched into the field and formed in line with the 43rd and 47th Regiments. To avoid unnecessary casualties they were ordered to take cover by lying down in the grass. Soon they were ordered to advance attack and storm the redoubt. Slowly they gained ground on the enemy as the Marines climbed the rails, stone walls, old brick kilns and hedges breaking the line when they did so. Several men were shot down as they climbed but they continued with little loss. They reached the bend of fortifications where a road ran with hedges and trees on either side of a low wall, which forced them to cluster and bunch over rail and wall barriers.
These obstacles had forced the 47th Regiment to divide the two companies on the right of the Marines from the other six companies on the left. The colonials put down very heavy fire from selected positions and the high redoubt forcing back a line of infantry. John Pitcairn ordered them to make way for the Marines shouting, ‘Break and let the Marines through.’ It was said he also added if not, ‘bayonet the buggers.’ John waved his sword yelled, "Now, for the glory of the Marines!"
A number of men fell and Major Pitcairn was struck in the chest by a musket ball, and was caught in the arms of his son William. With the lack of his leadership the man remained for about a quarter of an hour in the danger zone. More men were shot while they directed fire in files and became maddened by the inactively. Colonel Nesbit was requested to form up on the left and advance on the enemy with fixed bayonets without firing their muskets. Captain Campbell did the same on the right flank and the Marines pushed over the hedges without firing a shot.
Then they charged up the ridge and into the ditch and up to the redoubt. Archie Campbell fell dead and Ellis Chudliegh and Dyer fell wounded. In the redoubt blood ran freely and the dead and dying lay around. The soldiers seeing red stabbed and bashed the heads of those close by. The colonist retreated to a strong breast work covered by three cannon. With great loss the position was taken especially amounts the officers. The heights were taken and posted. The men lay on the ground and when they recovered posted themselves in strong trench work. Davy Johnson of the 1st battalion Marines was wounded and Gallant Jesse Adair was one of the first who scaled the parapet and behaved exceptionally.
Major Pitcairn was carried from the battle scene by William who was drenched in his fathers blood. A long boat took him back to Boston and he was placed in a bed. John was conscious in a house in Prince Street, but knew full well he had little chance of survival. General Gage send a doctor named Thomas Kast to examine John, who told him not to touch him until he put his affairs in order. Then he agreed to the doctors examination. Dr Kast opened Johns waistcoat to find a massive hemorrhage. The doctor removed the musket ball and dressed the wound. Major John Pitcairn died an two hours later at the age of 52. His uniform buttons and the fateful musket ball was sent to his wife. William had returned to the fight and told the Marines “I have lost my father.” some of the Marines added. “We have all lost a father.”
Adjutant Waller of the Marines days after the Battle Wrote:
The rebels had five thousand to seven thousand men, covered by a redoubt, breastworks, walls, hedges, trees, and the like ; and the number of the corps under General Howe did not amount to fifteen hundred.
It was in any case the leadership of John Pitcairn that a report at that time stated.
"The reputation of the Marines was never more nobly sustained. Their unshaken steadiness was conspicuous and their valour in closing with the enemy when part of the attacking column wavered gained them not only the admiration of their comrades but the commendation of their distinguished chief."
Major John Pitcairn was buried in the Old North Church in Boston crypt. John is still spoken of with respect and admiration. He was certain he nor any of his men had fired first at Lexington Green he had reported:
They began to file off towards some stone walls on our right flank. The Light Infantry, observing this, ran after them. I instantly called to the soldiers not to fire, but surround and disarm them, and after several repetitions of those positive orders to the men, not to fire, etc. some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall fired four or five shots at the soldiers, which wounded a man ...and my horse was wounded in two places ...and at the same time several shots were fired from a meeting house on our left.
We leave the final facts the historians who change their minds as much as we did.