Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dr Joseph Warren's Home

   The Bostonian Society has in its collections a nineteenth century engraving purporting to be a depiction of the house Dr Joseph Warren rented on Hanover Street in Boston's North End. In this home Warren lived with his wife (before her death in May 1773) and four children and from it conducted his medical practice. There are conflicting accounts of when he rented this house from Joshua Green, but it most likely was in June 1770, for on that date Warren signed a note setting forth the terms of purchase of a "Negro boy", apparently a servant that came with the home.
  The engraving was donated to the Bostonian Society by the owner of a large hotel which subsequently stood on the site of the Warren home and its accuracy cannot be verified since it appears it was drawn from the memory of people who saw it when it was standing. The home was not far from the Green Dragon Tavern and Paul Revere's House.

The Green/Warren Home
Map of Boston's North End. "Hannover" Street is just south of the Mill Pond (No 6)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bunker Hill

   Following are two prints by Don Troiani depicting the Battle of Bunker Hill. The first print is a snapshot of the action at about 3PM in the afternoon. Col Prescott is the man standing with the sword in his hand. The British are about to mount their first assault on Bunker Hill.

   The second is of the redoubt on Breed's Hill. As the patriots' ammunition runs out, the British Marines & 47th Regiment of Foot pour over the earthen walls. The colonists are forced back out of the redoubt in one of the most brutal hand-to-hand fights of the war, giving ground only in the face of overwhelming force.
"I cannot pretend to describe the Horror of the Scene within the Redoubt when we enter’d it, ’twas streaming with Blood & strew’d with dead dying Men the Soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the Brains of others was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on..." Lt John Waller, First Marines 


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Update to December 5th Post on Major John Pitcairn

  A faithful reader has pointed out to me that my December 5th post on Major John Pitcairn had been posted without sufficient editing since it was obvious that some information had been left out in my discussion concerning the incident at Francis Shaw's home involving his son Sam, Lt Wragg and Major Pitcairn. I have now edited that post and published an updated version. Mea culpa.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Pitcairn-Putnam Pistols

The Pitcairn-Putnam Pistols
  On May 27th, 1879, the widow of John Putnam, grandson of Revolutionary War hero Major General Israel Putnam, who died in 1790, gave these pistols to the Cary Library in Lexington, Massachusetts. Later on they became the property of the Lexington Historical Society and are now displayed in the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington. A 1901 biography of Putnam, written by William Farrand Livingston,who had access to Putnam's papers, furnished the following background for these pistols:

   Although Putnam was not present at the battle of Lexington, the pistols which he carried in the American Revolution were a trophy of that eventful day. They were none other than those of Major Pitcairn who had discharged one of them when he gave his soldiers the order to fire on the minutemen who were drawn up on Lexington Green. Later in the day when the British were retreating, Pitcairn's horse was shot under him, and in the haste of dismounting in order to escape his pursuers, the British officer left his weapons behind him. They were captured by the Americans and, a few weeks later, were offered as a gift to General Washington, but he declined them. They were then presented to Putnam and were his constant companions during the rest of his military career. These silver mounted and handsomely engraved pistols are now kept in the Cary Library at Lexington, having been given to the town by the widow of John P. Putnam of Cambridge, N.Y.

   However, because of a sharp-eyed observer of the pistols and additional research by J.L. Bell, it now appears most likely that these pistols actually belonged to Captain William Crosbie, commander of the Grenadier Company of the 38th Foot. since the crest on the escutcheon plate of the pistols is not that of the Pitcairn family but of the Crosbie family. Crosbie was on the march to Concord but would have been with Smith's column when the confrontation at Lexington occurred and he would have been with Pitcairn when the Marines and Grenadiers searched Concord for military stores. On the retreat from Concord, the Grenadiers marched along the roadway. It was not the practice for Grenadier Company commanders to be mounted but it is possible that Crosbie obtained a mount somewhere on the march.
   In 1827, these pistols were shown to three surviving members from Captain Parker's company who had been at Lexington Green that April day in 1775. One of them said he recognized them from their peculiar construction and ornament and said he saw Major Pitcairn fire them before any other shot was fired. Obviously an identification some 50 years after the event must be viewed with caution; but it is entirely possible, if not probable, that Pitcairn did carry pistols very similar to those now displayed in Lexington. It's also possible, but rather improbable, that Pitcairn acquired these pistols from Crosbie either through loan, purchase, or a gambling debt.
  The pistols are magnificent all steel pistols made by Christie & Murdoch of Doune, Scotland, which had become a major center for making pistols sometime in the late 17th century. A Doune pistol is a uniquely Scottish pistol, particularly recognizable because of its scroll butt, intricate engraving and inlaying throughout, and a flintlock firing mechanism. The pistols were made all of steel or steel with a rams horn butt  - supposedly because of the shortage of suitable woods in Scotland. Originally designed for the hot-tempered Highlanders, the pistols have no trigger guard and no safety catch. They fire a half inch ball with deadly accuracy and were sold in pairs for right and left hand use. Highlanders were known to throw them at their enemy if the initial discharge had failed to stop them.
   By the mid 1700s these pistols had become famous throughout all of  Europe and were particularly desired and favored by Highland Scot's officers and other officers in the British Army and Marines. The pistols were not only desirable as a fashion statement but they could be drawn and fired quickly, had all the accessories needed built in, were very sturdy, and were very deadly.
  Major Pitcairn's family home was about 50 miles from Doune.
  So I think it highly likely Major Pitcairn carried Doune pistols, whether his or someone else's on April 19, 1775 when he confronted those "peasants" on Lexington Green.
   It's also possible that minutemen observed Pitcairn armed with a pair of Doune pistols, which are very distinctive, at Lexington and when Crosbie's pistols were captured or discovered, they assumed they belonged to Pitcairn.

   In the spirit of you never know what you are going to come across when you start researching something, I offer this.:

   On September 29, 1835, John Putnam paid a visit to Aaron Burr to gain written proof of the authenticity of his grandfather's pistols. Burr had served as an aide to General Putnam for several months in 1776 and 1777  and should have been very familiar with the pistols. Burr had become immobile with a stroke in 1834 and all he could manage was a very shaky signature. He died in September 1836 after another stroke.

Aaron Burr's signature on certification of authenticity for the Putnam pistols.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pitcairn at Breed's Hill

 After arriving safely in Charlestown on the night of April 19, 1775, Brigadier Percy and his exhausted troops received a resupply of ammunition and some reinforcements. By dawn on the following day thousands of militia had responded to the call and estimates are that there were 15-20,000 colonials choking off Charleston neck. The British Army and Marines had been seriously bloodied by a people they considered their inferiors and little more than rabble. General Gage now made the momentous decision to withdraw Percy's force and all other forces from Charlestown and concentrate them in Boston

  Major John Pitcairn, back in Boston, submitted this report to General Gage:

                                                                                                                         Boston Camp,
                                                                                                                    26 th April, 1775
To: General Thomas Gage
As you are anxious to know the particulars that happened near and at Lexington in the 19th Inst agreeable to your desire, I will in as concise a manner as possible state the facts, for my time at present is so much employed, as to prevent a more particular narrative of the occurrences of that day.
Six companies of Light Infantry were detached by Lt Colo Smith to take possession of two bridges on the other side of Concord, near three in the Morning, when we were advanced within about two miles of Lexington, intelligence was received that about 500 men in arms were assembled, determined to oppose the Kings troops, and retard them in their march. On this intelligence, I mounted my horse, and galloped up to the six Light Companies. When I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two officers came and informed me, that a man of the rebels advanced from those that were assembled, had presented his musket and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan. On this I gave directions to the troops to move forward, but on no account to fire, or even attempt it without orders; when I arrived at the end of the Village, I observed drawn up upon a Green near 200 rebels; when I came within about 100 yards of them, 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 of the Tenth and my horse was wounded in two places, from some quarter or other, and at the same time several shots were fired from a meeting house on our left. Upon this, without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire, and continued in that situation for some little time, contrary to the repeated orders both of me and the officers that were present. It will be needless to mention what happened after, as I suppose Colo Smith hath given a particular account of it.
I am, Sir, Your Most Obedt
Humble Servant
John Pitcairn
   John Pitcairn suffered no apparent damage to his reputation within Gage's command and took up his duties in the Boston garrison, except now he and  his marines were billeted in tents erected on Boston Common. Pitcairn was, by several accounts, extremely bitter towards the Infantry, blamed them for losing control at Lexington and for failing to obey his orders. He remained adamant that the shooting that erupted on Lexington Green was not his fault but the fault of the rebels. Of course, he could adopt no other attitude. To do so, he would make himself a convenient scapegoat and he be risking a courts-martial.
    It's not my purpose to relate an entire account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, but only that portion of the final assault on the redoubt on Breed's Hill in which Pitcairn took part. Although approximately 100 marines were involved in the battle of Hog and Noodle's Islands on May 27-28, I could find no information indicating that Pitcairn took any part in them.

   On the morning of June 17, 1775, General Gage ordered General William Howe to attack the colonists and remove them from the Charlestown peninsula. While the troops prepared for action, the British navy and artillery continued a rather ineffective bombardment that had lasted much of the day.
British Lanes of Fire

     British troops landed unopposed on the southeastern tip of the peninsula and, once they were deployed, General Howe ordered two frontal attacks on the rebels' positions on Bunker Hill. Both attacks failed with murderous results. The Marines served as a reserve during these two assaults. Howe, if nothing else, was a bound and determined commander that day and around 3PM, after reinforcements had arrived, decided on another attack. This attack would be concentrated against the American redoubt on Breed's Hill. Brigadier Robert Pigot,( Lt Col of the 38th Foot) commanding five regiments as well as the reinforced Marine battalion, was to have two of his foot attack the southern half and the front of the redoubt on Breed's Hill while the 47th Foot and 1st Marines would sweep between Charlestown and the redoubt to attack its south and west faces. Once in possession of Breed's Hill, Howe could deploy to meet a counterattack, or advance on Bunker's Hill, as he wished.
Brigadier Robert Pigot

  But that's the legend.
  The earliest extant account of Pitcairn's death is from the almanac of Rev John Eliot, D.D.,( Richard Frothinghams' "History of the Siege of Boston, published in 1849)  who wrote:,
 This amiable and gallant officer was slain intering the intrenchments. He had been wounded twice; then putting himself at the head of his forces, he faced danger, calling out, “Now for the glory of the marines!” He received four balls in his body.
  We don't know the basis for Dr Eliot's account and, even though it is amongst the earliest, it is not necessarily the most reliable. Dr Eliot could be recounting accurately something that he was told but that something itself was embellished or inaccurate. He was not in the battle. Secondly, it's difficult to believe that someone who had been wounded by four, or possibly six, musket balls could have survived being evacuated to Boston by boat, and presumably cart, and survived the loss of blood. The four, or six, wounds also do not seem to mesh with the story of Pitcairn's death, which has the air of credibility.
    General Gage's own account indicates that Pitcairn did not die on the field of battle. "Major Pitcairn  wounded - since dead."
   A notice in an edition of a Boston newspaper for August 15, 1775 reads: "Lieutenant Pitcairn, of the marines ( who brought his father Major Pitcairn, when mortally wounded at Boston, off the field of action,) is appointed a captain-lieutenant and captain in the said named corps, though not in his turn, as an acknowledgement of the services of his gallant father."
   The following is from a  June 21, 1775 letter to a friend by Lt John Waller, the adjutant of the First Marines Battalion:

As soon as our Battalion were in the Boats Major Pitcairn gave directions to be landed, as near the Redoubt as possible, as the Light Infantry had then (tho’ at a great distance) began the Attack. we Landed accordingly where we were attack’d before I cou’d get those in the first Boat form’d, however, we soon form’d into tolerable order with the Loss of one Man only, and then March’d into a Field where we form’d in Line with the 43rd. & 47th Regts. and were then order’d to shelter ourselves by laying on the Grass. We were soon order’d to advance and attack the natural defences of the Redoubt and to storm that also at all Events. we gain’d Ground on the Enemy but slowly, as the Rails Hedges & stone walls, broke at every time we got over them and several Men were shot, in the Act of climbing them, we at length overcame these difficulties with very little loss till we came to the Talus of the Redoubt at the bottom of which was a Road with Hedges & Trees on each side besides a low stone wall, on the part we were Jumbled together. I say Jumbled, as the March over the Rails & c (?) had shifted the 47th Regt. (that was on our Right on leaving the low Ground) in such a manner as to divide the 2 Companies on the right of our Battalion from the other 6 on the Left; but as they were nearly in a Column of Files we were not far asunder: in this situation we received a Check (tho’ with retreating an Inch) from the very heavy and severe Fire from the Enemy in the Redoubt, and in this Spot we lost a number of Men, besides the irreparable loss of poor Major Pitcairne, whose worth I never was sensible of till that day. We remaind about Ten Minutes or near a Quarter of an Hour in this dangerous situation, where the poor Fellows were kill’d as I was directing the Files how to level their Fire, at length half mad with standing in this situation & doing nothing towards Reducing the Redoubt, I requested Colnel  Nesbit to form upon our Left in order that we might advance to the Enemy with our Bayonets without firing: this was with difficulty perform’d and Captain Campbell coming up at this Instant, and forming upon our Right we mounted the Hedges without firing a Shot, and ran directly up the Talus, got into the Ditch and mounted the Parapet. Here let me stop and mourn for a moment the loss of my dear and amiable friend Archy Campbell, for here he fell, poor Ellis also on this fatal spot perform'd his last services to his country, Shea  rec'd also his mortal wound here; and Chudleigh Ragg & Dyer were also wounded in this attack. I cannot pretend to describe the Horror of the Scene within the Redoubt when we enter’d it, ’twas streaming with Blood & strew’d with dead  dying Men the Soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the Brains of others was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on...

   In a letter on June 22, 1775, Waller wrote:

We landed close under Charlestown, and formed with the 47th Regiment close under the natural defences of the redoubt, which we drove the enemy from, climbing over rails and hedges. So we closed upon them; but when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy, but did not retreat an inch. We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails, etc. I did all I could to form the two companies on our right, which at last I effected, losing many of them while it was performing. Major Pitcairne was killed close by me, with a captain and a subaltern, also a serjeant, and many of the privates, and had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged Colonel Nesbitt of the 47th to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing, while this was doing, and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire. . . .

   From Lt Waller's account of the battle, it appears that Major Pitcairn was mortally wounded when the Marines had been checked in their advance up Breed's Hill by withering fire from the redoubt just as they had arrived at a road lined by trees and a stone wall. The Marines were in some confusion, with units jumbled together as a result of having to climb over and around rail fences and other natural obstacles. The road and wall would have offered a momentary respite and temporary shelter.  It would be a logical time and place for a commander to reorder and reorganize his troops for a final assault on the redoubt. Lt Waller's use of the term talus would indicate that there were no obstacles for the attackers from that road to the redoubt and that only the natural incline of the slope would serve as a defense prior to the breastworks.
   It was the rebels practice and doctrine to deliberately single out and shoot to kill British officers - for obvious reasons. British officers could be easily distinguished by the style of their uniforms and the fact that the dye used for officers' uniforms was much more expensive than that for enlisted uniforms and therefore much brighter; thus offering a much better target for militiamen, a number of whom were quite expert marksmen.
 I think it quite possible that once stymied at the road and stone wall, Major Pitcairn would have made a very visible and conspicuous target for militiamen in the redoubt as he attempted to reorganize his troops, and rally them for a final assault on the redoubt. Given Pitcairn's actions on April 19, 1775, that is precisely what one would expect from him. Pitcairn would have been on his feet making himself visible to his men and directing officers and enlisted men into some type of order - an irresistible target to one or more marksmen in the redoubt. We do not know the distance Pitcairn and the Marines were from the redoubt  or what obstacles the terrain offered, so that hitting him would not have necessarily taken that good a shot.
 There is probably some elements of truth to the legend and Pitcairn's words and actions as related. The sequence may just have been jumbled or truncated.
   David Hackett Fisher identifies the man who shot Pitcairn as an African-American militiaman named Salem Prince. Other names have also been brought forth as the shooter. Perhaps several men all shot at him and one, or two, or more actually hit him. We just do not know.

John Trumbull - The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Trumbull an eyewitness to the battle, painted this in the 1780s. The depiction of the event should be considered allegorical. Included in the painting is the death of John Pitcairn, to the right of Warren collapsing into his sons' arms. In the lower left of the painting behind the man with the sword is a representation of Salem Prince.
     Pitcairn was taken by boat back to Boston and believed to have been lodged in a house on Prince Street. He remained conscious. The army surgeons were overworked because of the heavy casualties, so General Gage sent a Loyalist physician, Thomas Kast, to tend to him. Edward G Porter's "Rambles in Old Boston", published in 1887, offers this account of the death of Pitcairn:
It was now late in the afternoon. Entering the chamber where the Major was lying on a bed, the Doctor announced that he had come at the request of General Gage, who wished to have everything done that was possible to help the Major in his distress. Pitcairn, with his usual courtesy, asked the Doctor to thank the General for remembering him at such a time, and added that he feared he was beyond all human aid. On being asked where he was wounded, he laid his hand on his breast and said, " Here, sir." The Doctor proceeded to remove the sheet in order to examine the wound, but the Major objected and said: "Excuse me; it is useless; my time is short. You cannot do anything for my relief; my wound must cause death immediately; I am bleeding fast internally." "But let me see the wound," said the Doctor; "you may be mistaken in regard to it;" and again he attempted to raise the sheet. The Major kept his hand upon it, and said: "Doctor, excuse me; I know you can do nothing for me; do not argue the matter with me. . . . Let me say a few words to you about my private concerns." The Doctor yielded for a moment, and listened to such messages as the dying man had to give. This seemed to relieve his mind, and soon after he allowed the Doctor to open hi» vest and loosen the matter which had collected about the wound, when suddenly the blood spurted out with great force upon the floor. The stains remained a long time, and the room was called "Pitcairn's chamber" for many years.

After doing what he could for the sufferer, Dr. Kast returned to the General and reported the case; but before he could reach Prince Street again, the brave officer had died of his wounds.
   Pitcairn was buried in a crypt in Christ Church (The Old North Church) where he had been a faithful communicant while assigned to the Boston Garrison.
   As I mentioned in a previous post, there is some dispute as to whether Pitcairn is still buried in Christ Church. I would refer those interested in whether he is or is not buried there to the excellent  research and discussion about it by J.L. Bell in his Boston1775 blog.

   One last item. Major Pitcairn's widow received a pension of L200 per year.                                     

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pitcairn's Retreat from Concord

    As Lt Col Smith started his men on their march back to Boston, he undoubtedly was wondering just where the relief force he had requested was. General Gage had a contingency plan for reinforcing Smith should it become necessary even before Smith started out on his march to Concord. Gage had ordered his most senior officer, Brigadier Hugh Percy* to have his brigade ready to march by 4 AM on Wednesday, April 19th, 1775 in case Smith would request support; but Gage had addressed the order personally to the brigade's adjutant, a certain Captain Moncrieffe who was attending a party when the messenger delivered Gage's order. Montcrieffe stumbled into bed totally unaware of Gage's order so that when Smith's request arrived at dawn, not a single soldier was set to march. It took another two hours to wake the troops and get them in formation ready to march. Fiasco turned to farce when an army officer realized that a contingent of marines that was to accompany the relief force had not arrived. Since the Marines were separate from the Army chain of command, Gage had sent a separate order to the Marine battalion commander. Of course, the Marine battalion commander was Major Pitcairn who was somewhere on the road between Lexington and Concord; the order lay unopened on his desk. Finally another Marine officer was located, the Marines mustered, and another 90 minutes was lost. Finally, shortly before 9AM, five hours behind schedule, the I1s brigade, flags flying and band playing, started out into the Massachusetts countryside. This unit was considered the elite unit in Gage's army and deployed over 1,000 men.

Withdrawal from Concord. This engraving , after the nineteenth century painting by Alonzo Chappell, illustrates the close nature of the fighting along the road back to Boston; however, the company sized unit of militia to the left is probably not accurate since the rebels preferred to work in small groups and to shoot from cover.
   The first mile of Smith's march back to Boston was uneventful but as the column arrived at Meriam's Corner, where several country lanes came together and the road passed over a bridge, and where, for the first time, the colonists could engage Smith's column with the certainty of numerical superiority. Gunfire erupted and the British suffered casualties. Most importantly, as many as half a dozen British company grade officers were hit. Moving on, Smith's column got pass Meriam's Corner and into a countryside dominated by prosperous and cultivated farms, orchards, fields and meadows in a countryside that today little resembles that of April, 1775.
A 19th century photo of the road facing east from Meriam's Corner.
The narrow road on which the British traveled dropped at times into small ravines, commanded by the hills and ridges above, perfect ambush sites. Many of these ravines and hills were leveled in the nineteenth century and the road straightened so that today's terrain in no way resembles that of 1775. In addition, the terrain was not as heavily wooded as today and the fields were lined with stone fences made up of roughly piled rocks and topped with heavy logs and split rails, again, perfect for ambushers.
The Meriam farmhouse today.

The column pressed on and was again attacked at Fiske Hill, with more casualties. As it approached Lexington, this time from the west, it ran into another prepared ambush. This one included men from the company that it had fired upon at dawn on Lexington Common. Along with men from the militia of the neighboring town of Lincoln, they took positions in the granite rock strewn pastureland and found cover in drainage ditches and large stone outcroppings. The Lexington men held their fire until the van of the British column came right up to them. As Lt Col Smith rode up, they opened fire. Smith tumbled out of his saddle, painfully wounded in the thigh. The fire was so intense that the British column was momentarily stunned and stopped in its tracks, the soldiers compressing onto the road.
   Seeing Smith go down, Major Pitcairn rode up from the rear of the column and ordered several units of grenadiers to launch a bayonet charge up the slopes of what later became known as Parker's Hill. The British Regulars forced the Lexington minutemen to retreat from the crest of the ridge; but the redcoats quickly confronted even heavier fire when they approached an even steeper heavily wooded slope called the Bluff. The British were stopped cold. Pitcairn called up his reserve force of marines and personally led them in a desperate charge to occupy the militia while the rest of the column pushed through down the road. Pitcairn was injured when his horse bolted in the furor of battle, unhorsing him, but the pressure on the colonial lines quickly evaporated. It was this type of action and courage that explains why Pitcairn's Marines suffered the heaviest loses of all of the British units engaged this day.
   With Smith and Pitcairn down, the column was ready to disintegrate. Indeed had there been some colonial officer in charge to whom they could surrender, it's probable that the Regulars would have surrendered.
   The injuries to Smith and Pitcairn threw
Lord Hugh Percy - eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland. Affected with terrible eyesight, severe gout, and what was probably asthma.

  Once Percy assumed command, Major Pitcairn returned to command his marine battalion. Percy reorganized and reordered the now combined column and sometime around 3:30 PM, he started back for Boston. In the new order of march, Percy placed Pitcairn's Marine battalion, now some 400 strong,  at the end of the column just after Smith's army forces. The Marines would alternate with the 23rd Foot as the rear guard. One of the few mistakes Lord Percy made that day was his belief that his march into Lexington would so unnerve the rebels that he would face no opposition on his march back to Boston. As soon as the colonists saw the Marines begin to move out, they surged in against the rear guard and heavy firing began from burning houses and the high ground near the Munroe Tavern.
  Percy's column now faced the same type of ordeal as Smith's did on its way from Concord to Lexington. As the column approached Mentomy (Arlington), it again came under severe attack. The commander of the rear guard, Lt Col Bernard, was wounded and his regiment so battered that Percy ordered Pitcairn to relieve it. The Marines were thrown in to save the rear and they were in constant combat as the column made its way into Cambridge and further into Charlestown. At Cambridge neck, it was the Marines, under Pitcairn, who held the swarming colonials at bay so that Percy could reach Charlestown and safety.
  It was nearly dark at  approximately 6:30 PM when John Pitcairn reached the safety of Charlestown. It had been a long day.
British Marine Private-1775.

* The British Army does not consider a Brigadier a General officer, but rather classifies one as a field officer.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pitcairn at Concord

After leaving eight patriots dead ( to include one prisoner shot "trying to escape") and nine wounded on Lexington Green, and after gaining control of his men, Lt Col Francis Smith gathered his officers around him and advised them that they were to continue their mission to seize the stores at Concord. Several officers were appalled at the prospect of continuing this mission now that all surprise had been lost, the entire countryside alarmed and aroused, and they advised Smith to abandon his mission. They may or may not have been aware of the fact that Smith had some time before dispatched a message to General Gage in Boston requesting reinforcements. Lt Col Smith listened to their views and then firmly and politely informed them that he had his orders and he was going to obey them. By now the sun was fully up and the entire countryside was awake as the British Regulars, drums and fifes playing, scarlet and white coats glistening in the April sun, put the events of Lexington Green behind them, formed into columns, and began the approximately six and a half mile march to Concord along the left fork that Lt Adair had abandoned to confront the militia gathering on Lexington Green. The column, artillery in the rear, stretched for a quarter of a mile.
Smith also abandoned his previous plan to send several companies ahead of the main body to seize the bridges in Concord.
This view of Concord in 1776 shows the town center looking west from the town cemetery. The meeting house is at the extreme left. Wright's Tavern is center foreground. The road heading into the distance leads to South Bridge.

As the British approached Concord sometime after seven a.m., they found that the terrain was not to their advantage. A network of ridges and hills allowed the rebels to keep their militia out of easy reach of the British and always in a position to observe and strike, if necessary. Minutemen were now streaming into the outskirts of Concord and they had the advantage of moving from ridge to ridge and hill to hill with impunity. Smith led his column into Concord where there were no militia but only women, children, and the elderly. One report, unsubstantiated, relates that an elderly man attacked Major Pitcairn with his fists before he was restrained.
This illustration is from Osprey's Campaign Series. British Forces are in red; colonists in blue. Lexington is at the southeast, off the map. Click to enlarge.

Smith then conferred with his officers to give them their orders. He dispatched company grade officers from his own regiment, the 10th Foot, with contingents of the light infantry to secure the bridges and to conduct the search at Colonel Barrett's farm where the rebels' military stores were thought to be secreted. The grenadiers were to remain in the center of town to search it for any contraband. Significantly, he ordered Major Pitcairn, Major Edward Mitchell of the 5th Foot who had led the twenty man contingent General Gage had sent out to intercept American messengers in order to maintain the secrecy of this expedition, and several unattached company grade officers to supervise the work of the Grenadiers. As John Galvin observed in "The Minutemen" and I heartily agree:
"In view of the fact that Smith knew he had 200 or 300 armed rebels prowling about his flanks, his use of the officers does not seem too sound, until one remembers that the last time he let Pitcairn and Mitchell out of his sight for a minute, he found himself in the middle of a wild exchange of musketry, searching for a drummer to sound "cease fire." He may well have had more faith, at this moment, in men who though of lesser rank were better known to him. And in view of what happened later, Smith's keeping his volatile majors under his thumb may have been the most sensible move he made that morning."

Lt Col Smith ordered his company officers to maintain tight control over their men to prevent the repetition of the bloodshed that had occurred at Lexington and to insure, as Gage had instructed him, that no private property was destroyed. No one was to fire unless attacked; only officers could initiate a search of a building. While the Colonel and some of his officers sat in chairs "borrowed" from some of Concord's finest houses, they soon came to realize that if there were substantial stores in the town, the rebels had not been taken by surprise and had time to remove them.
Major Pitcairn and several of his marines scored the biggest catch of the day when they barged into Ephraim Jones' tavern, put pistols to the innkeeper's head, and forced him to reveal the location of three 24 pounder cannon buried in the tavern's backyard. Maj Pitcairn supervised his men spiking the gun and then treated his men to breakfast. In accordance with General Gage's and Lt Col Smith's orders not to confiscate private property, Major Pitcairn paid the still quivering tavernkeeper a generous amount for the breakfast they had eaten. Legend has it, first recorded 60 years later, that Pitcairn stirred his brandy with a bloody finger and remarked "He hoped he should stir the Yankee blood so before night."

At this point, the deployed British contingents fell back or were forced back upon the town and by 11:30 AM virtually the entire force of Regulars was reunited. One contingent of four companies which had been sent to search the farm where the British believed the rebels had stored their military supplies was allowed to re-enter Concord even though the minutemen on the ridge near Concord center had a clear line of fire at them. While this force was still making it's way back to the center of town, Lt Col Smith took Maj Pitcairn and they both climbed to the top of Concord's burial ground. Smith saw the threat emerging to his forces. Yankee militia were taking position on the ridge just north of town. He would soon be flanked on the north and if the militia continued to move eastward, they would cut the road he would need to retreat to Boston. As he stood on the hill with Pitcairn, Smith saw that was exactly what the militia were doing, moving from one high place to another ever approaching the Lexington Road. At the same time militia were moving in from the south. Smith finally could see the final elements of his deployed forces making their way back to the center of town.
In this Earl and Doolittle engraving from December 1775, Lt Col Smith and Maj Pitcairn survey the situation from the cemetery in Concord.Both Earl and Doolittle were members of Capt Benedict Arnold's Governor's Second Company of Guards who reported to Cambridge in late April 1775. Both men surveyed the terrain at Lexington and Concord and later executed four plates depicting the two battles

   It was now past noon and there was no sign of the reinforcements Smith had sent for some seven hours earlier. The rebels completely ringed the town and clearly outnumbered the British forces. More rebel forces seemed to be streaming in all the time. One far Smith must have had was that the rebels would place artillery on the high ground they held. It was seventeen miles back to Charlestown and, if he did not leave now, he would not arrive there before dark. General Gage had given Smith command of a lightly supplied force that was to rely on surprise and speed. Smith had no supplies other than what his men carried and each had only been issued 36 rounds of ammunition. If the colonists attacked him and drove him into a defensive position, he could not hold for very long. Smith then faced the ignominious possibility of surrendering hi force to the rebels. he had to march and as soon as possible. If the rebels closed off the Lexington Road to the east, he would have to attack to clear it, exhausting his precious supply of ammunition.
   As soon as the last elements were safely in town, Smith ordered his officers to march. The column was lined up just as it had been earlier in the day when it marched into Concord, the grenadier and marine companies each in three files on the road and the light infantry in skirmish formation on the ridge to the left of the column. In addition, Smith placed some light infantry south of the road. Horse drawn carts, wagons and carriages were commandeered from the townspeople to serve as ambulances for the wounded. These were placed in the column in front of the rear guard. And so, Lt Col Smith gave the order to march.
   Little did he know how bloody the day would get.

                                                                      White Cockade                            

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pitcairn at Lexington

  Paul Revere's ride to Lexington, despite its romanticism and fame, was really a side show and militarily insignificant in terms of what happened at Lexington and Concord. Revere was dispatched  by Dr Joseph Warren to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, resident in Lexington, of a British attempt to arrest them even though no such arrest order had been given or contemplated by General Thomas Gage, the British commander. Dr  Warren had received faulty intelligence from someone who will probably never be identified; if, indeed, Warren did receive such intelligence.
   General Gage had ordered an expedition to Concord to "seize and destroy all the Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military stores whatever." Loyalists and informants had provided sufficient information to him so that Gage had had a map prepared showing a detailed inventory of arms and munitions believed to be stored in the Concord area, building by building and barn by barn. Gage anticipated the possibility of armed resistance and so ordered the officer selected to command the expedition, Lt Col Francis Smith, to march to Concord by the Lexington Road since that offered the least danger of ambush. Gage hoped to take the rebels by surprise, having the expedition arrive at Concord in the early morning hours and so took elaborate measures to preserve the secrecy of the expedition.  Among these measures was the dispatch of mounted men out into the country to stop all traffic on the roads to keep the word from spreading that the British were on the march. It was these men who apprehended Revere and the other messengers sent by Warren. But whatever precautions Gage took were bound to fail and there is no doubt he totally underestimated the organization, resources, and most importantly, will of the rebels.
Click to expand

 Gage was sending approximately 800 men* twenty miles into a countryside controlled by the rebels without artillery, without supplies except for one day's rations which each soldier carried, and with only thirty-six rounds of ammunition per man.
    Gage's selection of Lt Col Smith to command the expedition and Major John Pitcairn as his second in command speaks volumes about the British Army and Gage. Gage had rightfully selected companies of Grenadiers and Light Infantry companies (specialist troops) from the various Regiments under his immediate command in Boston to man the expedition. These companies, however, were not formed into regiments of their own and, although the British Army often formed expeditionary forces by using specialized troops from several regiments, the command arrangements were never comfortable and were, to some extent, a morale problem in an army that traditionally put the greatest emphasis and distinction on the regiment.
    Lt Col Smith was chosen for command, and although historians have belittled this choice, Smith  was actually the best option that General Gage had for command.  Lt Col Smith has been criticised as an unimaginative, portly officer, slow in his manner and certainly not the type to command an expedition that relied on speed and stealth to march twenty miles into "enemy territory"  to perform its mission.Yet, Smith, for all his perceived faults, did display  characteristics and leadership skills that would prove invaluable on the ill fated march. As far as Gage was concerned, however, the selection of Smith avoided problems in the garrison; his seniority made reactions of a political nature from his more well connected officers, all eager to gain glory and a reputation, unlikely.  Gage had excellent political connections in England which he would not wish to endanger. By assigning Pitcairn as second in command, Gage also side-stepped any political problems and grumbling among his officer corps. There were nine regiments of infantry besides Smith's in the garrison. Eight regimental commanders would have been disgruntled if an infantry major was chosen as second in command. There was only one regiment of marines, commanded by an officer reporting to the Admiralty.
   Historians have emphasized the fact that Lt Col Smith applied for retirement in August of 1775, implying that he was too old and ponderous and recognized that he should be "put out to pasture." Not mentioned by these same historians  is the fact that Lt Col Smith's application for retirement in August 1775 came after he had sustained a painful thigh wound on the retreat from Concord - a wound so debilitating that Maj Pitcairn had to assume command-  and that the application was denied and Smith later went on to command a brigade at Long Island and to retire as a Lieutenant General .
Lt Col Francis Smith by Francis Cotes, c 1764.
   Historians have long characterized Major Pitcairn as an "experienced" officer and convey images of a hardened marine. Is this an accurate characterization or are we projecting our own mental images of American and British Royal Marines, two modern elite combat units, onto a mid-18th century marine
unit and a military that had not fought any major battles since Minden and Quebec in 1759. After fifteen years only a very small number of NCOs would have had battle experience from that earlier period and most privates would have passed out of service. In fact, the American militia that confronted Smith's expedition probably had a much much higher percentage of men who had battle experience. As far as Pitcairn is concerned, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in in Cornwall's Seventh Marine Regiment in 1746. Although he saw service in the French and Indian War as a marine in HMS Lancaster and participated in the siege of Louisburg, it's doubtful that he had any actual combat experience. Pitcairn moved to Kent in the early 1760's when he became permanently attached to the Chatham Marine Division. Until he was selected to command the marine regiment, drawn from all three marine divisions, in Boston, Pitcairn was a garrison officer. In Boston, he found that the marines  he was to command were lacking adequate supplies, clothing and were an ill-disciplined lot. Drunkenness, fueled by the potent and cheap rum available in Boston, was so bad that Pitcairn took to living in the barracks with his men to keep them from drinking rum and  wrote directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty describing the problem. He even blamed the rum for deaths in his regiment. Pitcairn enforced  harsh discipline and marched his regiment hard and often on Boston Common. This toughening-up up proved invaluable to his marines on the long and bloody retreat from Concord.
  For a number of reasons, Smith's expeditionary force got off to a slow and a late start. Smith, a worrier by nature, set a blistering pace in an attempt to make up for lost time. As the British arrived at the village of Menotomy (Arlington), Smith halted the men for a short rest and summoned Pitcairn. Mindful of General Gage's instructions to seize the bridges at Arlington to prevent the local militia from seizing them and cutting off his retreat, Smith ordered Pitcairn to take command of the six leading companies of light infantry, seize the bridges to the north and south of Concord, and hold them until the Grenadiers came up . Pitcairn moved out immediately, setting a fast pace. He placed one of his marine lieutenants, Jesse Adair, at the head of the column to ensure that it kept moving and moving fast. In the van with Adair was a Loyalist scout and two unattached officers, one of whom was Lt William Sutherland of the 38th Foot.

Officer on Campaign in North America by by G Embleton

   What has always astonished me and other observers of that night was the number of people out and about at all hours. Lt Adair and the officers who had been sent out mounted to insure the secrecy of the movements had encountered a number of colonials about on horseback or in carriages. They stopped them and "commandeered" their horses. From these riders and from Paul Revere the soldiers had been told various accounts of how anywhere from 500 to 1,000 militiamen were mustering on Lexington Green. The colonials fed them these bald face lies and the officers swallowed them whole, with no question in their minds that they were about to face battle.
   Then at around four in the morning as Pitcairn's column approached Lexington a private at the head of the column saw a flash of flame and smoke. No one is sure just what happened, but the green skittish troops at the head of the column were convinced they had been fired upon. Combined with the intelligence of militiamen mustering on the green, the officers called Major Pitcairn to the head of the column and reported that that a "provincial" had fired on them. Pitcairn immediately halted the column, ordered his men to load their muskets, and sent out flanking parties. Apparently, he made absolutely no attempt to weigh the report and asked no questions to determine just what happened.
   It was now about 4:30 a.m., and dawn was breaking. The British rounded a turn and Lexington came into view. The sun was rising at their backs and they could start to make out the buildings on the Common.

From David Hackett Fisher's "Paul Revere's Ride"
     The Lexington Common that Pitcairn saw that April morning was  a two acre triangle with an ungainly, three storied oblong meeting house facing down the road towards the oncoming British column. On the left was a belfry that looked like it had been plucked off the top of the meeting house and left on its side. Behind the belfry was a schoolhouse; to its left the town well. Behind the meetinghouse was a tall tree but the common was almost entirely cleared. On the road to the right was Buckman's Tavern. Stretching along the road  was the tavern's stables and out-buildings. On and around the common stood approximately a quarter of the town's population. There were perhaps forty militiamen in line on the common with perhaps another 30 moving about in various pursuits. Townspeople, unarmed but curious, stood all around the common. So seventy or so militia and perhaps a hundred spectators.
   Lt Adair, the marine officer Pitcairn had chosen to keep the column moving, was at the head of the lead companies with Major Pitcairn somewhere to the rear, when the vanguard approached the fork in the road just prior to Lexington common. The left fork, which bordered the green to the south, led to Concord; the right fork led past the Buckman Tavern to Bedford. Lt Adair, without consulting Major Pitcairn, and spotting the militia off to his right, immediately ordered the three lead companies to take the right fork towards the militia. This, despite the fact that his specific orders were to move the column as expeditiously as possible  to seize the bridges at Concord, the mission's objective.
  David Hackett Fisher argues that the decision to take the right fork was Lt Adair's to make and that the column could not afford to leave a body of men on its right flank as it moved towards Concord. I disagree. The militia posed no immediate danger to this column and confronting it led the column in a direction away from its main objective. Coming quickly behind the lead column was Lt Col Smith's main column which had sufficient troops to handle any threat from the right flank. Adair could have pushed the lead companies onto Concord and informed Pitcairn, his superior, of the potential threat to his right flank and allowed Pitcairn to deal with it. Fischer's argument that Adair had to make a split second decision just does not hold water. It was an impetuous act by an ill-disciplined officer.

Buckman Tavern as it appears today
   Riding back in the column, Major Pitcairn saw what Adair had done and spurred his horse to the front of the column where he had the remaining companies under his command follow him down the left fork towards Concord. He halted them somewhere just below the meeting house. At the same time the last of the three companies that Adair had lead off to the right stopped, but the two lead companies, light infantry of the 4th and 10th Foot, probably totalling about 70 men, continued marching straight towards the militia. Lt Adair put them in quick march and then at a run that took them halfway across the Commons to a position, in some dispute, approximately 50-75 yards from where the militia was in line. Adair, then, totally on his own initiative, ordered his men to deploy from column into line of battle. Pitcairn by now had not only lost sight of Adair, he had lost control of him and two of his lead companies.
   ( David Hackett Fisher characterizes Lt Jesse Adair as a hard-charging young Irish officer. My preliminary research indicates that Jesse Adair, if I have the correct man, was 44 years old in 1775. A Capt Jesse Adair of the Marines is buried in Lincoln Cathedral, England and his age, at the time of death, is listed as 66. Given the fact that promotion in the Marines officer corps was strictly by seniority, this is not only plausible, but likely.)
   The British troops then let loose with their battle cry and continued to shout it so hearing above the din was very difficult. Pitcairn, pistol in hand, spurred his horse towards the battle line where several mounted officers had already gathered. Pitcairn swears he ordered the rebels to disperse and ordered his men not to fire.
"I instantly called to the soldiers not to fire but to surround and disarm them."
   As the two companies moved towards the militia drawn up on the green, Major Pitcairn and his group of mounted officers moved their horses to a position to the left of the meeting house. Pitcairn said that he then repeated his order to his troops not to fire and for the colonists to lay down their arms.
What happened next and who fired first is a matter, as we know, of some confusion and one has to filter a number of accounts and determine whom to believe and what to believe. A number of criminologists have done studies that indicate that eyewitness evidence is really unreliable and that people witnessing the same incident view it differently, all believing that what they are saying is truthful and an accurate of what happened.
    Major Pitcairn is adamant that he did not fire his pistol. Most of the Lexington men, who were less than 50 yards from the five or six mounted British officers with Pitcairn, clearly saw one of those British officers fire at them. Some thought that the first shot came from Pitcairn, but Pitcairn was  adamant that he did no such thing. Other very reliable colonists were adamant that one of the group of officers with Pitcairn fired a shot. A number of the officers with Pitcairn were on "confiscated " horses despite General Gage's orders not to deprive civilians of their property and perhaps a shot was fired from an officer on a fractious horse.
   What happened next was not a battle but a massacre as British troops, who had lost all control, were engaged in shooting as many of the militiamen who were in the process of obeying their commander's order to disperse, as they came across. Major Pitcairn could not restrain troops who had broken ranks and were firing at random. No one on the Britsh side was in command. Pitcairn rode in amongst the troops, shouting orders in an attempt to gain control, and striking his sword down in the regulation cease firing signal. The troops totally ignored him.
   At this point, the much maligned Lt Col Smith arrived on the scene. Quickly, he sized up the situation and ordered a drummer to "beat to arms"; the firing immediately ceased. This was none too soon as Smith noticed that his wild troops were about to break into the buildings around the common.
   By this time the rest of Smith's column had come up and his whole force swarmed over the Common and everything around it. After both Smith and Pitcairn dressed down their soldiers for their "too great warmth" in not "attending their officers and keeping their ranks," and they urged a more steady conduct to them in the future," they had the soldiers replenish their cartridge boxes and in perhaps the stupidest action of this day of stupid actions allowed the troops to fire a victory volley and shout out the three cheers traditional in the British Army after a successful engagement.
   The fact of the matter is that Pitcairn was the senior officer on the scene. It was up to him to maintain firm control over his troops. He positioned himself to the left of his troops out of the line of sight, surrounded by five or six officers. He was a marine officer leading army troops who had had very little contact with him.  And it must be emphasized again that Pitcairn had no business even being on Lexington Green. His mission was to seize the bridges at Concord, the real objective of the campaign. Pitcairn was known to be contemptuous of the colonists and a hardliner when it came to suppressing the perceived insolence of the "peasants." A month before Lexington, Pitcairn wrote to the Earl of Sandwich :

        "I am satisfied that one active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to right."
    Pitcairn had to know that the mission to Concord was in severe jeopardy. There was no way he and Smith could take Concord by surprise, confiscate the military stores, and get back to Boston unmolested. Even before shots were fired at Lexington, Lt Col Smith had sent back to Boston for reinforcements. Historians have portrayed Pitcairn as a level headed officer, revered by his regiment (of which there is scant evidence and one could justly argue that his severe discipline he meted out could have made him hated) and one not to set off a tinderbox with a single shot. Yet, there is just as much evidence to indicate that he was willing to take hard measures against what he perceived as insolent and rebellious colonists.
   Pitcairn must take the blame for allowing the situation on Lexington Common to develop as it did. He allowed one of his officers to violate orders and dispatch three companies to engage in what could be argued as unnecessary confrontation. He was also a Marine officer commanding two foot companies over whom he had never exercised command. It was incumbent upon him to establish that control. Pitcairn allowed subordinates and events to control the situation.
  We will never know what Pitcairn's real intentions were on that April day, but I think the historical consensus about Pitcairn needs to be examined and a more critical light shown on his actions and motives that day.
A 1794 sketch of Lexington Common.

    ** The exact numbers of this British expedition are not exactly known and, over the years, different researchers have come up with different numbers. 800 is the one I am most comfortable with.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Major John Pitcairn

   I recently read a British newspaper report on the cost to the British taxpayer of supporting the less than 50 descendants of the "Mutiny on the Bounty" mutineers and their Tahitian wives who still reside on Pitcairn's Island in the South Pacific.This reminded me of the little known fact that Pitcairn's Island was named after the son of Major John Pitcairn of Lexington and Concord fame who was killed at Bunker Hill. Major Pitcairn had a very large family - six sons (one of whom died young) and four daughters. His son Robert, who was lost at sea in 1770 at the age of 17,  was a midshipman standing watch on a British ship on July 3rd, 1767 when he spotted Pitcairn's Island and it was decided to name the island after him.( Not that it is much of an island.).

Although this miniature is purported to be of John Pitcairn, it most certainly is not. The uniform style is post 1775 and no known contemporary portrait of Pitcairn exists. It may be of one of Pitcairn's sons, substituting for his father.
   I have always had somewhat of a problem accepting the traditional view of Pitcairn - a man described by Ezra Stiles as a "good man in a bad cause." But first a little background on Major Pitcairn. He was born a "lowland" Scot in 1722, the youngest son of a Scottish minister who had served as regimental chaplain to the 26th Regiment of Foot (Cameronians) and was a veteran of Blenheim. For forty years David Pitcairn, M.A (St Andrews) served as a minister at Dysart on the Firth of Forth. John was born in 1722 and in his early 20s married Elizabeth Dalrymple*. Their first child was born in 1746, the same year John was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 7th Marines Regiment.
   At this point I will divert a little from a brief description of Major Pitcairn's life to give a little precis on one of my pet peeves. Historians insist on referring to the British marines who occupied Boston in 1774-1775 and who took part in the battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill as Royal Marines when, in fact, the various British Marine Regiments were not so designated until 1802. The designation of a British military unit as Royal is a specific honorific given by the monarch for distinguished service. The exploits which primarily earned the marines this distinction did not occur until after 1775. Up until 1755, the many British marine regiments were, in fact, British army units. Lawrence Washington, George Washington's half-brother, served as an officer in a colonial regiment of Army marines that saw action in the War of Jenkins Ear, although Lawrence served as an officer on Admiral Vernon's flagship and was not personally involved in combat. In April 1755, His Majesty's Marine Forces, in three divisions, was formed under Admiralty control; the first time the Royal Navy controlled the marines. At first. only Naval Officers could serve as field officers, meaning that Marine officers could advance no higher than Lieutenant Colonel. It was not until 1771, that a marine was promoted to Colonel. But, unlike in the British Navy and Army, marine officer commissions could not be bought. That did not mean, however, that promotion was based on merit; it was based on seniority. Pitcairn thus was 48 years of age when he was promoted to major in 1771. Although Pitcairn served during the French and Indian War, it's not clear that he actually saw any action. He did serve aboard HMS Lancaster which was involved in the taking of Louisburg in Canada. Pitcairn moved to Kent in the 1760s when he became permanently attached to the marine division at Chatham.

1775 watercolor of a British marine aboard ship.
   Why does it matter then, I can hear people murmuring, whether the Marines were designated as Royal or not in 1775. I think it matters because it conjures up images to contemporary readers of the British marines from the Napoleonic Wars and later. These were truly elite units. The Marines who landed under Pitcairn in Boston in 1774 were hardly an elite fighting unit. They had little training, little discipline,  were poorly equipped, and gave their officers a number of problems including drunkenness and desertion. A contributing factor was the potency and cheapness of Yankee rum.
   It has been commonly accepted, although I have not yet found any specific evidence of it other than Ezra Stiles' description of Pitcairn's character and I don't believe that Stiles, who was pastor at the Second Congregational Church in Newport, R.I. during 1774 and 1775 and who I have discussed in prior posts) ever met Pitcairn, that the Boston radicals came to respect Pitcairn's integrity, honesty, and sense of honour, and trusted him to deal justly in disputes between the locals and the military. This from a man who had nothing but contempt for Americans and referred to them as peasants. He once wrote to a fellow marine in Britain that
 "I have so despicable an opinion of the people of this country that I would not hesitate to march with the Marines I have with me to any part of the country, and do whatever I was inclined. I am satisfied that they will never attack Regular troops."
   Anecdotal evidence of the respect that the Whigs allegedly had for Pitcairn comes from the family of Colonel Robert Shaw, he of the 54th Massachusetts and "Glory" fame. Pitcairn. along with a Lt Wragg, was billeted in the home of Francis Shaw, a tailor and fierce Whig, in Boston's North End - Paul Revere's neighborhood. Family legend has it that Lt Wragg and Shaw's son, Sam, got into an argument about politics in which Wragg made some derogatory comments about the Whigs. Sam responded by throwing a glass of wine at him. Shaw's family believes that Pitcairn was able to prevent a duel between Wragg and Sam through good humor and  his diplomatic skills. I think that this is one of those family legends that, upon reflection, does not stand up to scrutiny. Some type of incident probably occurred; but I believe that Wragg would have most likely laughed in derision had Sam Shaw challenged him to a duel. British officers didn't fight duels with tailors' sons and certainly didn't fight them with teenage boys. It would have been in everybody's interest, especially Major Pitcairn's, to ease the situation since he was billeted in Shaw's house and the last thing he needed was a confrontation between one of his officers and and a teenage boy in the tinderbox that was occupied Boston. In any event I hardly see how this incident demonstrates that Pitcairn was highly respected by the denizens of Boston.
   My thoughts on Major Pitcairn's military abilities and performance will have to wait for another day. I would just note that two of Pitcairn's sons and his son-in-law were present on Bunker Hill when he received his mortal wound.
   Major Pitcairn is believed to be buried in Christ Church (Old North Church) in Boston. Whether his body is actually there is a matter of some dispute.

* Little known is the fact that Major Pitcairn was the uncle of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, a notorious courtesan who had affairs with a number of nobles in England and France to include the Prince Regent (George IV) with whom she is believed to have had a daughter and the Duc d'Orleans. She is the author of a journal that purports, with how much accuracy is disputed, her adventures in England and revolutionary France. Grace is believed to have met her 20 year senior husband, the wealthy physician John Elliott, in the home of William Pitcairn, John's physician brother, in Edinburgh. She eventually received a divorce settlement of L12,000 from Dr Elliott but only after allegedly being kidnapped by her brother and confined in a French convent. It only gets better after that. She was twice painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

King Philip's War - Part One

   If one could take an aerial view of Southern New England in 1675, he would see an almost unbroken expanse of forest  and wilderness; but here and there the wilderness was broken by a few acres of cleared land and a small cluster of houses - a village amidst the forest. But many forests were set besides extensive open areas that, in places like Boston, might be entirely absent of trees, desperately needed for building and firewood. The diversity of the land was remarkable, ranging from open oak woodlands, to wet lowlands, to bogs of densely matted moss, swamps, and to the sandy soil of the coast which featured oyster beds a mile in length and clam banks so dense that a person traversing them was showered with spouting water.
   New England was a land of isolated villages and occasional towns interconnected by a network of woodland paths which served as virtually the only means of access to most of the inland settlements. But New England was also a highway engineer's dream with a network of trails knitting together Indian villages with local connectors and long-distance routes. These trails, developed over centuries, followed the most efficient paths over hills and mountains, and, with river fords, constituted a means of rapid transit that was almost modern. Some of the important trails had been so heavily pounded by moccasined feet that they ran two feet below the surface of the surrounding forest.
Indian trails and Villages of southern New England

   Today tourists crowd the Mohawk Trail in Western Massachusetts reveling in the vibrant fall foliage. But the Mohawk Trail got its name and bloody reputation from the seventeenth century when the much feared Mohawks, allied to New York's Iroquois Nation, came charging down over the Berkshires into the Algonquian villages of the Connecticut River Valley. Their depredations were so severe that, by the time the Europeans discovered the valley, the valley was very thinly populated.
   Tensions between the Natives and New Englanders had been building for years. Previously we talked of the transformation of the Algonquian way of life because of the fur trade and its use of wampum. Two other factors, besides the inevitable clash of two different cultures, led to the outbreak of war - a baby boom among New Englanders requiring an expansion in settlements and the inexhaustible desire of the English mentality for more and more land. The colonist would use any means - legal or illegal - to obtain title to land and it was important that a "title", however meaningless that concept was to the Algonquian,  be obtained. If all else failed, the English would get a sachem to sell the land to him, even though the sachem had no right to sell the land and was illiterate in English.
King Philip's Mark
   When Massasoit, who had befriended the newly arrived settlers and helped them avoid starvation, died in 1661, he was succeeded as sachem* of the Pokanoket by his son Wamsutta. Wamsutta faced a different world than his father. The English had grown in power and stature and the relationship between them and the Pokanoket had grown more complex. The Algonquian often changed his name as he entered a different phase of his life and so, shortly after becoming sachem, Wamsutta asked the authorities in Plymouth to give him and and his younger brother, Metacom,  English names, probably to help them move more freely between English and Wampanoag society. Soon after, Wamsutta became Alexander and Metacom became Philip (curious choices).
   Alexander proved to be more independent than his father and was ordered to respond when the Plymouth authorities heard rumors that he was discussing war plans with the Narragansett, an adjoining tribe and long time foe of the Pakanoket. Alexander refused and was soon taken into custody by the Governor's son to force the issue. Sometime shortly thereafter, Alexander became ill and died. The Pokanoket, including Philip, believed he was poisoned. His death is one of the great mysteries of colonial history. A plausible thesis is that Alexander had developed appendicitis and was killed when a well meaning English physician administered a "working physic."
   Alexander was laid to rest in July, 1662, and his younger brother Philip, perhaps 24 years old, became sachem. With his father's memory still in his mind, watching the erosion of Wampanoag land to a new, aggressive generation of English settlers, believing that his brother had been murdered by the Plymouth authorities, concerned about a strained relationship with his Narragansett neighbors, Philip took over leadership of the Pokonoket.
   Five years later in 1667, Philip was in the center of a war scare in which he was accused of cooperating with the Dutch and French to launch an attack on English settlers. Philip manged to avert a crisis but was not as successful in 1671 when Philip reluctantly agreed to meet representatives of Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to answer charges that the Wampanoag and Narragansett were readying to wage war. Philip was forced, at this meeting, to sign the Taunton Agreement in which he confessed to planning an attack against English settlements and agreed to give up seventy weapons brought to the meeting, with the surrender of his remaining weapons to follow. Most historians today believe that Philip was only agreeing to these terms because of overwhelming pressure.

The English who came to this country were but an handful of people, forlorn, poor and distressed. My father was then sachem, he relieved their distresses in the most kind and hospitable manner. He gave them land to plant and build upon...they flourished and increased. By various means they got possession of a great part of his territory. But he still remained their friend till he died. My elder brother became sachem...He was seized and confined and thereby thrown into illness and died. Soon after I became sachem they disarmed all my people...their land was taken. But a small part of the dominion of my ancestors remains. I am determined not to live until I have no country.
      To be continued

* A sachem is a chief, most often hereditary, of an Algonquian Indian tribe. The English, with their experience of European monarchy, when first in contact with the Algonquian, misunderstood the nature of the duties of a sachem and, influenced by their hereditary nature, translated the word "sachem" as "king." Although sachems had authority within the tribes, that authority was often dependent on the abilities and stature of the person who held that position. A sachem's authority was further limited by the fact that their power was entirely secular whereas the religious authority lay with the "powwow." A "powwow" is a shaman, literally one who derives his power from his visions (dreams.) By virtue of their control over spirits, the powwows advised the shamans. Normally, the hereditary role of the sachem and the inspired role of the powwow were not combined in one individual. The few persons who combined both were seen as extremely powerful.

N.B. Now that we have set the background for King Philip's War, future posts will focus exclusively on the role played in it by Benjamin Church. The war, while not long in duration, ranged all over New England. We will concentrate on the war in southeastern New England.