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 09, 2009

“Now for the glory of the marines!”

Here are some immediate reactions to the death of Maj. John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, as described by Marines comrade Lt. John Waller in yesterday’s post.

The Rev. Dr. John Eliot reportedly made this note about Pitcairn in his 1775 almanac:

This amiable and gallant officer was slain entering the intrenchments. 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.
Around the same time, Gen. John Burgoyne (shown above, courtesy of the University of Houston’s Digital History site) described Pitcairn’s loss in a letter to Lord Palmerston:
Major Pitcairn was a brave and good man. His son, an officer in the same corps, and near him when he fell, carried his expiring father upon his back to the boats, about a quarter of a mile, kissed him, and instantly returned to his duty. This circumstance in the hands of a good painter or historian, would equal most that can be found in antiquity.
This letter was printed in an 1876 volume with the fine title Political and Military Episodes in the Latter Half of the Eighteenth Century Derived from the Life and Correspondence of the Right Hon. John Burgoyne.

Finally, here’s a letter published in the 22 June 1775 New-England Chronicle, one of the newspapers outside of Boston. This document was, the printers wrote, “thought by many judicious Persons to contain Accounts not far from the Truth.” [How reassuring.]
Hingham, June 19.

Yesterday I came out of Boston at 2 o’Clock P.M. I heard the Officers and Soldiers say that they were sure that they had a Thousand or more killed and wounded; that they were carrying the wounded Men from 4 o’Clock on Saturday until I came away.

General [William] Howe commanded the Troops. They buried their Dead at Charlestown. Among the Dead was Major Pitcairn. A great many other Officers are dead. There were 5000 soldiers went from Boston. The Soldiers and Officers exult very much upon taking our Lines.

It seems significant that the only dead officer this refugee named was Pitcairn. That might have been because at the time he was the British forces’ highest-ranking casualty. (Lt.-Col. James Abercrombie succumbed from his wounds a few days later.) But I think it also reflects Pitcairn’s visibility in the town, and his notoriety in the countryside after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

TOMORROW: More details about who killed Maj. Pitcairn surface after the war.


tod forman said...

J.L., Tom O'Connor in class told us that the Battle of Bunker Hill had more officer casualities proportionally than any other battle [ever?]. This was due to the fact that they wore large gordets [sp?] on their chest for identification. The rebels took aim at those along with "the whites of their eyes". Tod

J. L. Bell said...

The Bunker Hill battle was the worst for the British army in the entire war, and indeed was especially hard on the officer corps. I’m not sure it was the worst ever, but it was really bad.

In addition to having metal gorgets hanging around their necks (the only remnant of knights’ armor), officers wore scarlet coats. The coats given out to privates and corporals were dyed in a darker, cheaper shade of red. That made it possible for provincial soldiers to pick out officers at a distance and aim for them if they chose.