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.                                     

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the praise and the link! Here’s another that might be of interest to readers of this entry: the name “Salem Prince” appears to have been an error by Allen French when he intended to write “Salem Poor.” At the very least, I haven't found any mention of “Salem Prince” before French’s First Year of the American Revolution.

    I suspect that Lt. Waller’s account of Pitcairn’s mortal wound is the only reliable one. There are American stories of him being shot on the redoubt, but of course it was so much more exciting to describe the villain of Lexington dying in such a dramatic way than to acknowledge that it was some other officer.