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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Saturday, March 21, 2009

How Those Pistols Really Got Here

At the risk of turning Boston 1775 into “all Major Pitcairn, all the time” (and we still haven’t addressed the whereabouts of his body), I return once more to the question of the pistols on display in Lexington that were said to belong to that British Marines officer.

As I reported earlier this week, the heraldic emblem on those pistols is actually that of the Crosbie family, and a Capt. William Crosbie was listed among the British army’s wounded officers that spring.

Nat Taylor, who’s been trying to nail down the family history of Capt. Crosbie, asked about the story behind the pistols. How good is the evidence that they really came from a British officer unhorsed on 19 Apr 1775? How did they come into the hands of descendants of Gen. Israel Putnam, who wasn’t in Massachusetts that day? How did they come back to Lexington?

The evidence for the traditional provenance looks quite solid. The first mention of those pistols that I could find appeared in Samuel Swett’s 1818 addition to David Humphreys’s An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam. The very same paragraph that discusses how “a black soldier named Salem” killed Pitcairn then goes on to say:

It was he [Pitcairn] who caused the first effusion of blood at Lexington. In that battle his horse was shot under him, while he was separated from his troops; with presence of mind he feigned himself slain; his pistols were taken from his holsters, and he was left for dead, when he seized the opportunity and escaped.
A footnote then adds, “This trophy afterwards belonged to General Putnam, and yet remains in his family, from whom we have the above anecdote.”

Nine years later, Ezra Ripley supplied more detail in A History of the Fight at Concord:
From this time, there was a general though not entire cessation of firing, until the enemy had entered the bounds of Lexington, when Capt. [John] Parker’s company attacked the British from the woods on the south of the road. When the enemy were rising Fiske’s hill in the west part of Lexington, they were very hardly pressed, the Americans having run forward and placed themselves advantageously behind trees and fences. The British faced about, and a very spirited and bloody contest ensued. Here Maj. Pitcairn was wounded and unhorsed: his horse, pistols, &c. were taken.
And Ripley has his own footnote:
The horse was taken to Concord and sold at Auction. Capt. Nathan Barrett bought the pistols, and afterwards offered them to Gen. [George] Washington, but he not accepting them, they were given to Gen. Putnam.
We know the Barrett family, headed by Col. James Barrett, was deeply involved in the events at Concord that day. And it makes sense that the Putnam family didn’t know or preserve the detail that their ancestor wasn’t the first choice to receive the pistols. We appear, therefore, to have independent sources corroborating each other. (Note, however, that the Ripley account means Putnam did not have the pistols at Bunker Hill, as some later authors say; Washington didn’t arrive in Boston until July 1775, so Barrett couldn’t have tried to give him the guns until then.)

William Cutter’s Life of Israel Putnam, published in 1859, reported of the guns: “They are still in the possession of one of his grandsons, John P. Putnam, Esq., of Western New York. They are represented as being of exquisite workmanship.” So Cutter learned about them but didn’t see them.

John P. Putnam’s widow Elizabeth loaned the pistols to Lexington for its centennial observance of the battle in 1875. According to Mary E. Hudson, writing in 1900, she had no children to pass them on to. The Secretary of War made noises about buying the pistols, and in 1880 the Lexington historian Charles Hudson [father of Mary?] said Elizabeth Putnam had “several liberal offers in coin” to buy the guns. But she decided to donate them to the town of Lexington, and there they remain.

So the only doubtful part of the pistols’ legend was the most questionable part from the start: how people could be so sure that they came from Maj. Pitcairn as opposed to some other, less notorious British officer unhorsed in the battle. After all, the man didn’t stick around to give autographs.

Speaking of autographs, though, I came across another detail of those pistols while researching this post. Yankee Magazine‘s July/August 2007 issue reported: “These foliate-engraved, ram’s-head-butted pistols bear Pitcairn’s monogram or initials amid the scrollwork.” Or is that wishful looking?


Garden Keeper said...

The idea that the pistols were taken from a fallen Pitcairn at the Lexington green is silly. Even if one assumes that his horse fell and Pitcairn was thrown to the ground, the militia was outnumbered by a 2 to 1 ratio in the immediate confrontation and by nearly 10 to 1 in the overall numbers. No militia man would have dared approach a fallen Pitcairn and survived.

Again, nice work on the follow-up. Looking forward to the discussion of Pitcairn's remains.

J. L. Bell said...

The account is not that Pitcairn (or Crosbie) lost his pistols on the British column’s march through Lexington in the morning. Rather, the officer was unhorsed and his mount captured during the army’s withdrawal from Concord through Lexington in the afternoon.

By that point, the provincial militia in the field outnumbered the regular army, and was growing. Some historians think that Col. Francis Smith’s tired column had effectively broken into a panicked retreat.

In central Lexington, Col. Smith’s troops heading east met Col. Percy’s reinforcement troops hearing west, which saved them from disaster. But by that point, Maj. Pitcairn or (more likely) Capt. Crosbie had lost his pistols.

Mike B said...

I enjoy your posts and tend to read them daily since I 'discovered' you a month or so ago.

I can do nothing but admire your research talents as evidenced on your blog. Excellent! The stories are interesting - though I have to admit I had to keep my mental groans to myself in your Salem series a short while ago... talk about a cliffhanger that kept one coming back.

I'm happily promoting your site to our district's history teachers, and hope they join in on the material you present here. Great stuff. Thank you.

Nathaniel Taylor said...

John, I've found material to identify William Crosbie--he was actually first cousin of the anglo-Irish peer, Maurice Crosbie, 1st Lord Brandon, so he certainly had the legal hereditary right to the Crosbie crest on the pistols. He committed suicide in 1798.

Given what you've unearthed in this post, what is the possible origin of the statement implied in the Wikipedia article on Major Pitcairn, that the pistols were seized in the baggage train?

-- Nat Taylor
a genealogist's sketchbook

J. L. Bell said...

I take responsibility only for what I myself write on Wikipedia, and sometimes not even then.

The “baggage” phrase appears in the earliest, unsourced version of the Wikipedia article on Pitcairn, from 2005, and has remained there since. But there was no baggage train in Col. Smith’s column to Concord, to my knowledge.

Furthermore, it wouldn’t make sense for the owner of those pistols to leave them in a baggage wagon. If he wanted to keep them safe because they were so pretty, he’d have left them in Boston. If he wanted to have them handy for use, he’d keep them on his body or his horse.

I suspect that some writer found the traditional account of the officer being unhorsed too dramatic, and guessed that a captured baggage wagon was more likely. But in this case the sources do point to local troops capturing a horse with the pistols on it and their owner not.

Nathaniel Taylor said...

Thanks. I've graded far too many history papers to take any stock in Wikipedia, but was surprised that there was some sort of explicit statement there going against the horse tradition. Over on rec.heraldry someone objected that a mere Captain would not have been mounted in such an operation (only 'field officers' -- i.e. major and above--were mounted), so if the pistols came from a horse they shouldn't have been Crosbie's. Are the narrative sources explicit about which British officers were (or should have been) mounted on the 19th?

--Nat Taylor
a genealogist's sketchbook

J. L. Bell said...

Before the march, many British army officers with ranks as low as ensign and lieutenant rode out of Boston to scout and secure the route. Some locals spotted them. They stopped some locals, including Paul Revere. Witnesses said explicitly that those men had horses and pistols.

Crosbie may not have been among that group, however. He was captain of the 38th Regiment’s grenadier company, and the grenadiers and light infantry were the troops on the march. So he might have traveled with his men, and, if so, he might have marched or ridden. I’m still looking for specific evidence on that.