For the Glory of the Marines: The Life and Legacy of Major John Pitcairn
Major John Pitcairn of the British Marines is an historical personage that many of my friends have been acquainted with through my novel-in-the-making, The Third Charge of Crimson, which features him as a main character. Even before reading my scribblings, many of them probably already read his name in American History texts covering the American Revolution and that fateful day at Lexington Green when “the shot heard round the world” was fired. My fascination with the man has been long in gestation, as there has always been something so colorful and daring about him, so inescapably paradoxical and yet also unflinchingly heroic, and also slightly tragic as he became an early casualty of a war that would tear apart two peoples and change history forever…
John Pitcairn was born in 1722 in the bustling port town of Dysart, Fife in the Lowlands of Scotland. His parents, Rev. David Pitcairn and Katherine Hamilton, were both members of the gentry, and through them, he could claim blood relations with Robert de Bruce of Scotland, Edward III of England, Viscount Stair, “The Father of Scottish Law”, and various other prestigious personages. His father had served as a military chaplain for the Scottish Cameronian Regiment under Colonels Lord Stair and Ferguson during the War of Spanish Succession.
The regiment had a prestigious history and distinctly religious origin, dating back to when Presbyterians were finally readmitted into the military under King William III after an era of persecution against anyone who refused to acknowledge the reigning sovereign as the Head of the Church, in the Episcopal tradition . Proud of the 17th century Scottish Covenanters who signed a “Covenant” in defiance of King Charles I at Greyfriars when he attempted to meddle in affairs of the Kirk, the regiment continued to hand out Bibles to its members as a matter of time-honored tradition.
After his term of service expired, Rev. Pitcairn had settled down in Dysart where he raised his large family and served as Presbyterian minister of St. Serf’s Church for some fifty years. John was the youngest surviving member of the family. The Pitcairns lived in the manse (minister’s house) near the old harbor on the Firth of Forth. Not far from that were the historic caves where St. Serf himself was said to have spent time in prayer and meditation, and at one point wrestled the devil himself!
The medieval church building and adjoining tower were historic monuments, and the latter had often been used to ward of English pirates making their way up the Firth of Forth. But living in the old manse was not easy for Rev. Pitcairn, who often complained of its dilapidated condition which did little to keep out the bitter seaside weather. But the old veteran was of sturdy stock, and held his post with firm resolve.
The combination of Rev. Pitcairn’s past military service and being reared on the doorstep of the sea seemed to have had an effect on his youngest son, and in his early 20’s John Pitcairn joined 7th Marines of Cornwall. This was a rather unusual move, as he had breeding and money to purchase a commission in any one of the most affluent army regiments. But the young man seems to have been repelled by the idea of a desk job and determined to be in the heat of the action, even if that meant slow promotions and the possibility of being disbanded as the Marines often were. Pitcairn became an enthusiastic advocate of making the Marines a permanent feature of the British military, saying that he had “a great desire to convince everybody of the utility of keeping a large body of Marines, who are capable of acting either by sea or land as the public service requires.”
In 1746, the British Marines were called to action by the government to confront the threat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobites who had marched through Scotland and into England the previous year, winning unexpected victories as they went. For John Pitcairn, as a staunch supporter of the Hanoverian government, it must have been rather unnerving to know that the rebels had managed to capture Edinburgh – not a far cry from his home-town and family by any means. But the scare was ended when the Jacobites met with brutal defeat at the hands of government troops on Culloden Moor outside of Inverness. While the Highland rebels dealt with bloody reprisals by the Duke of Cumberland and his troops, the marines were disbanded to save the Admiralty “unnecessary” expense. We can easily surmise Pitcairn was not thrilled.
But life moved on, and he soon married Elizabeth Dalrymple, a well-to-do relative of Lord Stair, his father’s old superior. It was a good match, certainly in light of upper-class breeding and financial security. And it seems likely that the marriage was not loveless either, as John and “Betty” went on to have a total of ten children together, six sons (David, Thomas, William, Robert, Clerke, and Alexander) and four daughters (Annie, Katherine, Joanna and Janet). The eldest son, David, eventually became a physician for the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. Thomas joined the Royal Artillery. William followed his father into the Marines. Robert joined the Navy and was the first to site Pitcairn Island in the Pacific before he and his ship were lost at sea. Clerk died in childhood, and Alexander went on to become a barrister in London. All the girls married into high-born military families.
When the Marines were finally reestablished permanently in 1755, Pitcairn had his rank of lieutenant reconfirmed. A year later, he was promoted to a captain. During the Seven Years’ War, Pitcairn served in the New World theatre on board the warship H.M.S. Lancaster which took part in the capture of the French fortress of Louisburg in 1758. Back in Britain, the Pitcairn Family moved about quite a bit — Dysart, Edinburgh, and Kent were all home bases at different points, and it seems as though Mrs. Pitcairn returned to Dysart to give birth to several of her children. Due to the slow-moving process of promotion in the Marines, it took until 1771 for Pitcairn to be made a major. Ironically, the date of his promotion was April 19, a date which would be forever connected with him for another event yet to take place.
In 1773, the unrest in Boston over the direct taxes levied on the American Colonies by British Parliament resulted in the destructive demonstration known to history as the Boston Tea Party. The British government responded by closing Boston Harbor until the citizens paid for the ruined tea. To ensure the submission of the Bostonians, British troops were sent to the port city, including 600 Marines under the command of Major John Pitcairn. He initially found himself caught in a standoff between General Thomas Gage of the British Army and Admiral Graves of the Royal Navy with regards to who held rank over the Marines. This caused multiple delays in scheduling, and prevented the Marines from landing until Pitcairn’s insistence persuaded the commanders to disembark them in small groups and quarter them in private residences via the hated Quartering Act.
As a staunch Scots Tory, Pitcairn’s personal attitude towards the colonists’ plight was markedly unsympathetic, and he advocated taking a firm hand with the rabble-rousers. Infamously, he wrote in a letter that he believed that a decisive action and “burning two or three towns” would be the only way of putting the situation to rest. He also boasted that such an ill-organized rabble would never be able to sustain any meaningful resistance against the King’s Arms, and that would run “before I can pull my sword from the scabbard.” But in spite of being brusque in many instances, there was another side to his rather complex character.
After being billeted in the home of Francis Shaw, a Patriot merchant in the residential area of North Square in Boston, Pitcairn managed to win them over on a personal level through his courtesy and genial charm. Later on, the Shaws would have another very important reason to like Pitcairn. When the major’s aide, Lieutenant Wragg, insulted the Patriot cause, their teenaged son, Sam, threw wine in his face and a duel almost broke out between them. Another British officer might have had the young man arrested for technically attacking the lieutenant, or otherwise just let Wragg take care of him in his own way. But Pitcairn, a father of many sons himself, intervened to defuse the situation and let the boy go with a tacit warning.
As representative of martial law on North Square, Pitcairn helped settle disputes between soldiers and civilians, organize street-sweeping committees, assemble a fire brigade (sweet irony, considering his threats of fire and sword!), and other necessary duties that prevented a break-down of civic order during the British occupation. Through it all, he endeared himself to the people with whom he dealt because of his integrity and good-humor in spite of the often strained circumstances. One citizen of Boston called him “an amazingly gentle man”, and insisted that that “he was perhaps the only British officer in Boston who commanded the trust and liking of the inhabitants.” Even the Patriot propagandist, Rev. Ezra Stiles, said that he considered him to be “a good man in a bad cause.” The major also seems to have one over his next-door neighbor Paul Revere, who is said to have painted a portrait of him on horseback.
Pitcairn held social gatherings at the Shaw House, where he broke tradition by inviting an assortment of military friends, family members (including his sons, William and Thomas, and son-in-law Charles Cochrane, the youngest son of the Earl of Dundonald, all of whom were in military units stationed in Boston), and opposition locals to the same event, presenting them with the opportunity to discuss their differences in a civilized manner. In essence, he turned a private salon into a rough equivalent of a modern-day block party! It seems more than likely that Pitcairn’s own sarcastic humor and wry wit thrived in this atmosphere of initial tension and unusual comradery.
In an official capacity, Pitcairn made an impression on his marines through his hands-on leadership style. He was a strict disciplinarian and demanded excellence, but led by example and maintained the same high standards in his own comportment. Ever active, he received daily reports from his battalion commanders, personally oversaw drilling, struggled to ascertain needed supplies from the high command, accompanied the marines on long marches into the hostile countryside, and at one point even lived with his men in the barracks (a drastic step for an 18th century gentleman officer) in order to assure regularities were observed and to prevent the practice of selling their kit to buy “cheap Yankee rum”, which not only made them drunk, but poisoned several of them. “Depend on it, my lord, it will kill more of us than the Yankees”, he wrote in a letter to the Earl of Sandwich.
Pitcairn was certainly not a person to cross, although he was generally humane in his treatment of those under his command, using the punishment of flogging only as a last resort, and even then with some distaste. He was also occasionally willing to spare the life of deserters. This, of course, did not stop him from verbally disparaging them for their lack of discipline (he promptly dubbed them “the animals”!) and over the problem of their height (for some strange reason, the marines recruited really short men, earning them the mocking French nickname “le petite grenadiers”, and Pitcairn found it difficult to fit them with proper uniforms!). Nevertheless, he showed himself to be a conscientious leader who was concerned for their individual welfare and would make gestures on their behalf, such as writing a letter to the Earl of Sandwich seeking monetary assistance for the “worthy but unfortunate under my command”. They earned respect for their tough, tenacious commander and came to view him as something of a surrogate father and embodiment of their fighting spirit. In time, he did turn them into an effective fighting force.
Being the son of a preacher evidently had some lasting effects on his character, for he attended church services every Sunday out of a strong sense of moral obligation, and rented a pew for himself and the rest of the Pitcairn Family Clique at the Anglican Old North Church. Although he may have shown signs of piety on the Sabbath, he was infamous around town and in his regiment for swearing like a marine (go figure…) during the rest of the week! Needless to say, he was quite convinced that Divine Justice was on the British side of the political tension, and referring to the rebels, commented: “Poor deluded people! God open their eyes.” In a twist of history, Old North Church, would go down in history as the church that had two lanterns hung in the bell-tower to signal Paul Revere to begin his Midnight Ride.
Pitcairn officially secured him place in the pages of history when he volunteered to go on a secret expedition as second-in-command to Colonel Francis Smith. The mission statement from General Thomas Gage was to arrest the rebel ring-leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock and then to proceed to Concord and capture or destroy a cache of ammunition the rebels were said to have hidden there. It was an odd mission for Pitcairn to go on, since there were no other marines present. However, it seems as if he was craving some action and this presented a juicy opportunity to have some. His eager-beaver attitude the day before the mission probably alerted his Patriot hosts that something was amiss from the start. Beyond that, the Patriot spy network had other sources of information, almost certainly including General Gage’s American wife, Margaret. Thanks to Paul Revere and his fellow riders of warning, by the time the British reached Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, the Patriot militia had already turned out with guns in hand to confront them.
This is where history gets a bit hazy. I won’t go into every “who-dunn-it???” theory in the books, but basically it seems that Pitcairn, commanding the advance guard, road up to the rebel militiamen and demanded that they lay down their arms, famously shouting, “Disperse, ye rebels! Disperse! Why do ye not lay down your arms? Disperse or ye are all deadmen!” Some took the hint and started to disband, but Pitcairn had orders to capture their weapons and ordered his men to surround and disarm the militia. Then an anonymous shot (or shots) were fired, and the British soldiers opened fire without orders from their superiors. Pitcairn and his fellow officers claimed that they did all in their power to stop the firing but could only put an end to the melee when a drummer was located to beat recall and Colonel Smith arrived at the scene. Whoever fired “the shot heard ‘round the world”, the beginning of the American Revolution was underway, and Pitcairn would be branded as the first villain of American mythology.
After the skirmish at Lexington, the British moved on to Concord to hunt for the ammunition cache. In the course of the search, a townsperson slapped Pitcairn across the face, and he in turn wound up knocking down a tavern owner who refused to be cooperative in the searching process. Then the major proceeded to order breakfast and a brandy at the same tavern, and was unexpectedly conscientious about paying for everything. However, apocryphal legend insists that while stirring his brandy with his finger, he growled “I hope to stir the Yankee blood like this by night fall!”
The epic house-by-house search came to naught because the Patriots had been forewarned and hid most of their cache in the woods. Only a few barrels of gunpowder could be found, which the British burned in a bonfire in the center of the square for dramatic effect. The blaze accidentally caught fire to the courthouse, and the British soldiers and townspeople alike temporarily joined forces to put out the blaze. But the militia, which had snow-balled in numbered since Lexington, saw the smoke rising from the town and the British were burning it. Upon this currently incorrect although not implausible notion, they charged the bridge at Concord and another skirmish broke out.
By now, the British were severely outnumbered and virtually surrounded. Pitcairn, realizing the trouble brewing, sent a messenger back to Boston for reinforcements. However, confusion ensued when General Gage, who seems to have been unaware that Pitcairn had volunteered for the mission, sent a message to the Shaw House ordering him to take his marines and relive Colonel Smith! It took about an hour of searching Boston before everyone realized that Pitcairn had gone to Concord, and Sir Hugh Percy was put in his place at the head of the reinforcements to rescue them.
Meanwhile, rebel snipers were harassing Colonel Smith’s columns from behind trees, walls, and hedges as they attempted to get back to Boston. Eventually, the colonel himself was wounded, and the command devolved to Pitcairn, who rallied his wavering ranks and ordered a counter-attack on the rebels in the woods. But a volley grazed his arm and wounded his horse, which threw him to the ground and bolting into the American lines, taking with it his prized pistols in the saddle bag. They would be presented to American General Israel Putnam, who carried them for the remainder of the war.
When Pitcairn fell, his men assumed he was dead and order completely collapsed. It was every man for himself in a pell-mell route to escape the range of the rebel marksmen, and their semi-conscious leader was left to shift for himself. Even after coming to, he had to play dead so as not to attract the attention of nearby Patriots who were quite gleeful at the idea of having killed him. When they finally left, he staggered off in search of his scattered ranks, and was relieved to discover that Sir Hugh Percy had finally showed up with reinforcements – including his “animal” Marines – and cannons.
After the subsequent street fighting in towns along the route back to Boston (which tragically including some of the first atrocities of the war as independent bands of soldiers gunned down civilians, looted valuables, and torched homes), the British troops managed to limp back to Boston and cross back over the River Charles from whence they came. In keeping with his character, Pitcairn was the last man to get in the boats ferrying them across. But if the British thought the skirmishes could be easily forgotten, they were wrong, and they soon found themselves bottled up in the city by Patriots who took possession of the high ground overlooking Boston. For two months the opposing sides watched each other warily, knowing that a full-scale battle was inevitable.
On June 17, 1775, the British launched three assaults on the Patriot positions on Breed’s Hill (later mistaken by historians for nearby Bunker Hill). The first two were repulsed with horrendous casualties, faced down by the same General Putnam who now was armed with Pitcairn’s pistols and had given his soldiers the famous order “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” The third British charge saw Major John Pitcairn leading his marines up hill, brandishing his sword, and urging them on, “Hurrah, the day is ours!” Then their lines almost got entangled with another British regiment being driven back by heavy fire from the American redoubt. “Break and let the Marines through!” Pitcairn bellowed, and threatened to “bayonet the buggers” if they would not give the Marines right of way!
The summer heat was beating down mercilessly, but when one of his captains complained of it, the major reprimanded him, saying “Soldiers should enure themselves to any hardship. They shouldn’t even recognize heat and cold.” Pitcairn was wounded twice by stray shot, but still he refused to quite the field. For his whole life, he had championed the necessity of his service branch, and he knew that this was their moment to shine. He shouted over the din of battle in his distinctive Scottish burr, “Now, for the glory of the Marines!” Then four more musket bullets smashed into his chest (multiple persons were credited fired one of the shots, including Peter Salem, a freed slave fighting with the rebels, and a certain British deserter who Pitcairn had previously spared from execution). He collapsed into the arms of his horrified son, William, who carried his father off the field, as his men looked on in shock. Laying him in a boat to ferry him over to Boston, he kissed his father for the last time before returning to the battle. The Marines took the hill as Pitcairn lay bleeding to death in a house in Boston.
General Gage, not wanting to lose such a valuable officer, sent his personal physician, the loyalist Dr. Thomas Kast, to attend to him. He was still in his 20’s, around the same as Pitcairn’s own doctor son, David. Still conscious, the major told him that he appreciated the gesture but he should not to bother with him since he was bleeding internally and was beyond help. Kast asked him where he the wound was. Pitcairn put his hand to his chest. The doctor suggested the wound might not be mortal and tried to turn down the sheet, but Pitcairn kept his hand firmly over the wound. Only after expressing the personal concerns on his mind – and swearing his innocence with regards to the Lexington incident – did he allow the doctor to try and dress the wound.
But when he removed Pitcairn’s waistcoat, it tore open the wound and his blood flowed freely, staining the floorboards. Within a couple of hours, in spite of Kast’s efforts, John Pitcairn was dead at age 53. His son William was seen wandering through a street after the battle, covered in blood. When someone approached to help him, he haltingly explained that it was not his blood but rather his father’s. “I have lost my father,” he murmured, close to tears. Some Marines nearby added, “We have all lost a father.” His regiment wore black bands on their arms for six weeks after his death. One marine officer wrote: “The loss of our Major Commandant was not only a loss to his Family as one of the best Husbands and Fathers, but a great loss to the Marines and the Army in general as a brave soldier and an excellent officer.”
General Gage said he counted Pitcairn among those officers under his command who “exerted themselves remarkably.” King George III, when informed of the story, wrote of him, “That officer’s conduct seems highly praiseworthy.” General John Burgoyne said he thought the story of Pitcairn’s death at the height of the battle would make a wonderful painting. In fact, it later did, in the form of John Trumball’s epic historical painting, The Battle of Bunker Hill, in which Pitcairn’s son David posed as his father, since was said to have the most resemblance. His brother Thomas posed as his brother William, who had since died of a fever during the war. Pitcairn’s son-in-law Charles Cochrane also would become a casualty of the war when he was beheaded by a cannonball at Yorktown. His wife Catherine, traumatized by the both the death of her father and husband, also lost two her infant children while waiting for Cochrane’s return in New York.
Major Pitcairn’s body was interred at Old North Church, his parish in Boston, not far from where Paul Revere would later be buried, assuring that the two would be neighbors in life and death. One of the fatal bullets and his uniform buttons were sent back to his wife Betty and their two youngest children, Janet, aged 14, and Alexander, aged 7. Ironically, one of his grandsons would eventually immigrate to the newly founded United States and exert the Pitcairn charm to woo and win the hand of young lady whose own grandfather had been one of the minute men who had fought the British at Lexington and Concord! In 2002, a memorial plaque was raised in Dysart, Scotland in honor of Major Pitcairn, recognizing him as a heroic native son who fell in battle far away from home.
Major John Pitcairn was a man of many facets and paradoxes. In my exploration of his character over the course of my novel-writing, I have come to deeply respect his courage in battle, competence in his responsibilities, and humanity towards those under his command and even those who were opposed to him. He was tough as nails and willing to use force to achieve the desired result, but he also managed to win the personal respect of friend and foe alike. He swore profanely, but also charmed proficiently. He seems to have had a close bond with his family and a sense of duty that made him both devoted his king and country and a practicing Christian. He also left a proud legacy of honor for those who served and continue to serve in the Royal Marines, now a standing force in the British military.
In the process of hunting for information on Major Pitcairn, I have come into contact with a variety of fascinating and helpful people from both sides of the Atlantic. I am especially grateful to have befriended Carol McNeill of the Dysart Trust, author and local historian, who, with her Scottish wit and charm that gives me a glimmer of the real Pitcairn, continues to supply me with a wealth of information on “Our John’s” native town. I am also pleased to have corresponded with the late Jim Swan, also of the Dysart Trust, the late Anne Watters of the Kirkcaldy Civic Society, Les Soper, Pitcairn reenactor, Matthew Little of The Royal Marines Museum, and Dr. Marianne Gilchrist of Glasgow, a prolific Pitcairn enthusiast and creator of the online historical site, “Whistle World”. I’ve also had the pleasure of speaking with Sheila Pitcairn, who has confirmed that one of Major Pitcairn’s direct descendents, her grandson Ryan Pitcairn, is currently serving in the Royal Marines. Hence, the tradition really does live on.
By Rosaria Marie