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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Sunday, February 08, 2009

“Major Pitcairne was killed close by me”

CSI: Colonial Boston returns with a series I’m calling “The Mysterious Death of Major Pitcairn.” That’s him dying at the right, a small detail in John Trumbull’s The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Maj. John Pitcairn was the highest-ranking British Marine in Boston in 1774-75. He was in charge of the British troops who confronted the Lexington militia at dawn on 19 Apr 1775. And in the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was one of the highest-ranking British officers killed.

How did Pitcairn die? The sources closest to the event seem to be two letters from Lt. John Waller, adjutant (i.e., administrative officer) of the first Marines battalion. A copy of the first, dated 21 June 1775, is available online from the Massachusetts Historical Society in two forms:

As soon as our Battalion were in the Boats Major Pitcairn gave directions to be landed, as near the Redoubt as possible, as the Light Infantry had then (tho’ at a great distance) began the Attack. we Landed accordingly where we were attack’d before I cou’d get those in the first Boat form’d, however, we soon form’d into tolerable order with the Loss of one Man only, and then March’d into a Field where we form’d in Line with the 43rd. & 47th. Regts. and were then order’d to shelter ourselves by laying on the Grass.

We were soon order’d to advance and attack the natural defences of the Redoubt and to storm that also at all Events. we gain’d Ground on the Enemy but slowly, as the Rails Hedges & stone walls, broke at every time we got over them and several Men were shot, in the Act of climbing them, we at length overcame these difficulties with very little loss till we came to the Talus of the Redoubt at the bottom of which was a Road with Hedges & Trees on each side besides a low stone wall, on the part we were Jumbled together.

I say Jumbled, as the March over the Rails &c. had shifted the 47th Regt. (that was on our Right on leaving the low Ground) in such a manner as to divide the 2 Companies on the right of our Battalion from the other 6 on the Left; but as they were nearly in a Column of Files we were not far asunder: in this situation we received a Check (tho’ with retreating an Inch) from the very heavy and severe Fire from the Enemy in the Redoubt, and in this Spot we lost a number of Men, besides the irreparable loss of poor Major Pitcairne, whose worth I never was sensible of till that day

we remaind about Ten Minutes or near a Quarter of an Hour in this dangerous situation, where the poor Fellows were kill’d as I was directing the Files how to level their Fire, at length half mad with standing in this situation & doing nothing towards Reducing the Redoubt, I requested Colnel [William] Nesbit [of the 47th] to form upon our Left in order that we might advance to the Enemy with our Bayonets without firing: this was with difficulty perform’d and Captain [Archibald] Campbell [of the Marines light infantry] coming up at this Instant, and forming upon our Right we mounted the Hedges without firing a Shot, and ran directly up the Talus, got into the Ditch and mounted the Parapet. . . .

I cannot pretend to describe the Horror of the Scene within the Redoubt when we enter’d it, ’twas streaming with Blood & strew’d with dead & dying Men the Soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the Brains of others was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on
The next day, Waller wrote to his brother:
We landed close under Charlestown, and formed with the 47th Regiment close under the natural defences of the redoubt, which we drove the enemy from, climbing over rails and hedges. So we closed upon them; but when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy, but did not retreat an inch.

We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails, etc. I did all I could to form the two companies on our right, which at last I effected, losing many of them while it was performing. Major Pitcairne was killed close by me, with a captain and a subaltern, also a serjeant, and many of the privates, and had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off.

I saw this, and begged Colonel Nesbitt of the 47th to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing, while this was doing, and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire. . . .

One captain and one subaltern fell in getting up, and one captain and one subaltern was wounded of our corps; three captains of the 52nd were killed on the parapet, and others that I know nothing of. God bless you! I did not think, at one time, that I should ever have been able to write this, though in the heat of the action I thought nothing of the matter.
This letter was published in 1845 in Historical Record of the Royal Marine Forces, by Paul Harris Nicolas. The text also appears here.

TOMORROW: Immediate reactions to Pitcairn’s death in Boston.


Anonymous said...

Hey John, when you're done with CSI: Colonial Boston, are we going to see Colonial Boston Legal? :-)

Denny Crane -vs- John Adams...

Ron Stein

J. L. Bell said...

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in invoking these television shows since I don’t watch them. (I’d be better off doing a Revolutionary War version of Eerie, Indiana—that’s a show I know well.)

I notice I’ve posted a few articles already about Bostonians hitting each other in the head with sticks and then suing about i. Hmmm, maybe if I link all those together...