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, February 14, 2009

Two More Suspects in the Death of Maj. Pitcairn

And here are two more claimants to the honor of having killed Maj. John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The last two I stumbled across on my own. For these two names I’m indebted to the research of Mark Nichipor of the National Park Service, as reported in George Quintal’s Patriots of Color.

David Noyes’s History of Norway, Maine (1852) recorded this story from a man named Phinehas Whitney, who died in 1830 at age eighty:

He was in the battle of Bunker Hill, and I have often heard him tell the story of that memorable contest. He said that just as he had put his last charge into his gun, the British forces had about reached their rude breastwork; a British officer mounted the embankment, and cried out to his soldiers to “rush on, as the fort was their own;” Whitney then took deliberate aim at him, and, to use his own language, “let him have it,” and he fell into the entrenchment. He [Whitney] then clubbed his musket, and cleared his way the best he could, and finally made good his retreat.
That account doesn’t single out Pitcairn, but Charles F. Whitman made the connection in his own 1924 history of the Maine town. Whitney’s story dovetailed so nicely with what Samuel Swett had first printed in 1819—except for the anecdote involving another provincial soldier.

But that’s not all! James R. Pringle’s History of the Town and City of Gloucester (1892) credited local son Benjamin Webber with shooting Pitcairn:
At the rail fence, young Webber’s attention was drawn to a British officer on horseback actively engaged in directing the movements of his troops. It was Major Pitcairn, brave, but somewhat boastful. “Do you see that officer on horseback?” remarked Webber to a comrade, “Well, I am going to try and bring him down.” Raising on his knee, the young farmer took unerring aim, fired with deadly effect and Major Pitcairn fell mortally wounded. . . .

Such is the story told the writer some eight years ago by the late Mr. Benjamin Webber, a man of the highest respectability and veracity, whose descendents still occupy the old homestead erected on the land granted to their ancestor Michael, at Fresh Water Cove. This account is here given to the public for the first time
This story greatly resembles an incident in Gen. Henry Dearborn’s account of the battle, published in 1818:
An officer was discovered to mount near the position of Gen. [William] Howe, on the left of the British line, and ride towards our left; which a column was endeavoring to turn. This was the only officer on horseback during the day, and as he approached the rail fence, I heard a number of our men observe, “there,” “there,” “see that officer on horseback”—“let us fire,” “no, not yet,”—“wait until he Sets to that little knoll,”—“now”—when they fired and he instantly fell dead from his horse. It proved to be Major Pitcairn, a distinguished officer.
However, the letters of Lt. John Waller show that Pitcairn was with his Marines, not near Howe; on foot, not mounted; and killed at the redoubt, not along the rail fence.

Furthermore, if I read Pringle’s words correctly, he spoke to Benjamin Webber in 1884, or more than a century after the battle. Perhaps the author meant a descendant of the same name, in which case the story came to him second- or third-hand. All in all, I find Webber’s account less than convincing.

TOMORROW: Why we remember Peter Salem instead of all these other guys.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't it mentioned earlier that 4 bullets were shot into his body? If that is the case, can't we just say they all had a hand in killing the Major?

The way he died is eerily similar to the way Col Shaw is portrayed as dying in the movie Glory.

J. L. Bell said...

Good—somebody noticed!

But there are other discrepancies in the accounts of Pitcairn’s death as well.

Anonymous said...

they really filmed Col. Shaw's death to look like Maj. Pitcairn? Or am I just gullible?!

J. L. Bell said...

Sorry—my “noticed” comment was about the four balls.

I agree that Shaw’s death is usually described as similar to Pitcairn’s. And probably there were some British officers who died much like Shaw, as they stood atop the enemy’s fortification.

But Pitcairn wasn’t one of them.

Anonymous said...

I had a feeling the 4 balls is what you meant, but I doubted myself and thought it was too obvious! Guess not!