Powered By Blogger

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.



  1. The moon is made of ice, is it not?

  2. I appreciate this article and referenced it on my website. I have much respect for Major John Pitcairn's love for his men and I believe that was one of his greatest strengths. He committed an error at Lexington that seemed to hurt his standing with Francis Smith. Thanks again for this article. I referenced you in this article: http://thehistoryjunkie.com/john-pitcairn/