J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

“He received four balls in his body.”

And at last it’s time to unveil the Boston 1775 answer to that burning question: Which provincial soldier killed Maj. John Pitcairn of the British Marines as he led the final assault on the provincial redoubt atop Breed’s Hill? Was it—

Do we even have enough information to hazard an answer? How much longer can I draw this out?

Okay, okay. My answer to that question is:
Wrong question.

Let’s go back and look at the earliest description of how Pitcairn was shot, the Rev. Dr. John Eliot’s note in his almanac for 1775:
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.
So according to someone who was actually in Boston when Pitcairn died, the major was struck at least four times, perhaps six. Even if he was wounded twice with a single shot (a possibility with eighteenth-century muskets), that still means there were multiple shooters.

Furthermore, the June 1775 letters of Lt. John Waller cast doubt on Samuel Swett’s 1819 story of Maj. Pitcairn being shot as he “mounted [the works]...and exultingly cried ‘the day is ours’.” And on the 1807 battlefield guide’s tale that “the major called to his soldiers to hasten their speed, as the enemy had abandoned the fort.”

According to Waller, Pitcairn was fatally shot at “the Talus of the Redoubt”—at the bottom of the rise and the wall the provincials had built the night before. Between the Marines and the redoubt were “Hedges,” “the Talus,” “the Ditch,” and “the Parapet.” Furthermore, those British troops were suffering a “very heavy and severe Fire from the Enemy in the Redoubt,” so no one would have considered it empty.

Waller recalled that his men were pinned down in that spot for “Ten Minutes or near a Quarter of an Hour”—in which time Maj. Pitcairn was shot and his son started to carry him back to the waterside. It probably took more minutes for Waller to regain command of that unit and coordinate the final attack with two superior officers as he described. Maj. Pitcairn wasn’t shot during the final storming of the redoubt, as the stories have come down to us, but a significant period before.

TOMORROW: So, jeez already, which provincial soldiers were responsible for Maj. Pitcairn’s death?


Theodore Scott said...

Now you are just toying with us.

J. L. Bell said...

But as in any good murder mystery, all the clues were there from the beginning.

Mike B said...

The suspense is getting to me. What time to you post tomorrow???

J. L. Bell said...

9:13 A.M., Blogger time.