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.


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