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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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Making Meaning of Major Pitcairn

So what’s the right question about the story of Maj. John Pitcairn’s death in the Battle of Bunker Hill? I think it’s why so many stories—some quite dubious—have grown up around that fatally wounded Marine when he was only one of 226 British men killed that day (including nineteen officers).

We humans want stories with meaning. That instinct might be especially strong when it comes to boiling down big, chaotic events such as battles, and even stronger when they’re battles our side has lost—and, really, everybody lost the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Pitcairn was the officer in charge of the British troops that fired on the militia at Lexington. Though he didn’t order those soldiers to fire, many Americans in the early republic believed he did. Therefore, his death two months later was bound to be treated by American chroniclers as historic justice.

As a result, a lot of stories about killing British officers at Bunker Hill appear to have gravitated toward Pitcairn. So a man who shot an officer (such as Phinehas Whitney and Benjamin Webber) was eventually credited with shooting Pitcairn. Men who simply aimed at an officer (such as Joseph Spalding) were said to have shot Pitcairn.

And as the decades passed, that shooting became the battle in miniature. The proud British officer mounts the embattled redoubt, boasts too loudly (saying the provincials have fled, “The day is ours”), and is shot down. And shot not just by any soldier, but by a “boy” or “black,” the most common of common men. How republican is that! (It’s not surprising that people whose idea of a republic included equal rights for all citizens were most vigorous in promoting the story of an individual soldier shooting Pitcairn.)

For Pitcairn to have been shot as he moved forward in a body with his Marines—to have been shot by multiple soldiers, impossible to identify for certain—to have been shot without having a memorable verbal exchange with his killer—that just wasn’t meaningful enough. It might even get too close to the truth, which was that two groups of close to three thousand men were trying to kill each other, all in the name of British values, over a small peninsula that turned out to be virtually meaningless in the war.

(On the other side of the battle line, Pitcairn’s comrades also sought meaning in his death. Gen. John Burgoyne praised how Pitcairn’s son had carried him from the battlefield and bade farewell, saying the incident belonged “in the hands of a good painter or historian.” A story arose that many of Pitcairn’s Marines wailed with his son that they, too, had lost a father, demonstrating the loyalty of his men. And then there’s the legend of the major’s stoic death somewhere in the North End.)

So did any of the Massachusetts men who’ve been credited with killing Pitcairn have a hand in doing so? I suspect the most commonly named shooter, Peter Salem, got linked to Pitcairn’s death only because Emory Washburn read about that “black soldier named Salem” in Samuel Swett’s history, recalled a black veteran of the battle named Salem from Leicester, and put 2 and 2 together to make 5 for the glory of his home town. Washburn never cited any more specific evidence for his claim about Peter Salem.

I think Salem Poor is more likely the man whom John Winslow recalled as the “black soldier named Salem.” Salem Poor might also be the “negro man belonging to Groton” whom the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap wrote about. He wasn’t from Groton, but Col. William Prescott—who tried to get Poor special recognition from the Massachusetts legislature—was from that town, and people might have assumed it was Poor’s home as well. Whether Winslow correctly reported what Poor did to be commended is another question, but I think the earliest sources put him on top of the list of Pitcairn’s likeliest killers.

As for the other guys, their stories imply that they killed other officers in different circumstances—somebody had to have done so, after all. However, some of those stories appeared in print so late, and were shaped by the growing legend of Maj. Pitcairn’s death, that they might not be reliable.

But when it comes to assigning credit, I think we have to remember Pitcairn died in a pitched battle which involved thousands of men. Most of the provincial soldiers probably never had a clear shot at the Marines major, but by staying in the redoubt and manning the rail fence they held off two British advances while inflicting the worst casualties that army would suffer in the entire war. In the middle of that chaos, Maj. John Pitcairn was fatally wounded—which isn’t that surprising. All the provincial soldiers at Bunker Hill helped to kill Maj. Pitcairn.

COMING UP: Sooner or later, what happened to Maj. John Pitcairn’s body? (But first, another break from CSI: Colonial Boston.)

4 comments:

RJO said...

While in no way denying that individual soldiers did aim at particular people and did sometimes hit the people they aimed at during the 1770s, I wonder if some of the ways in which people conceived events like this by, say, the 1830s, were influenced by improvements in technology. It's much easier to imagine, in the 1830s, that a single rifleman could have reliably hit an individual target, that it would have been for an actual musketeer of the 1770s to have really done so. The "lone gunman" theory becomes (retrospectively) more plausible to people over time as guns improve.

J. L. Bell said...

Improved weaponry could indeed be a factor in how people misremembered the war.

Another factor, I bet, is that in the early 1800s most New Englanders hadn’t seen war. (The War of 1812 was so unpopular in the region that a relatively small number of men participated.) Thus, fewer people remembered the chaos of a large battle, and it was easier to imagine that you could tell where all the bullets went.

A Staunch Whig said...

Great thread and nice conclusion.

A Staunch Whig said...

Another thought: there are many references of how dusty it was in the redoubt, not to mention of the gunsmoke...makes you wonder if they some would report they had to feel their way out of the redoubt, how they could clearly see that it was they who shot Pitcairn.