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—
- Peter Salem, as most historians have written since the mid-1800s?
- Salem Poor, commended for his conduct in that battle?
- Joseph Spalding, credited in his 1820 obituary?
- Benjamin Webber of Gloucester?
- Phinehas Whitney of Maine?
- An unnamed boy who became a shoemaker by 1807?
Okay, okay. My answer to that question is:
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?