Thursday, August 21, 2014

Major John Pitcairn -- "For the Glory of the Marines"
 
General Gage had placed Major Pitcairn second in command of the 700 plus soldiers he would send to Concord April 19, 1775, to locate and destroy illegally stored gunpowder, cannon, and miscellaneous military supplies.  Having started their march later than what Gage had expected, the expedition’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith (see my blog “Fat Francis,” July 11, 2014), ordered Pitcairn to hurry six light-infantry companies ahead of the remaining troops to seize control of Concord’s two key bridges.  Entering Lexington on his way to Concord, Pitcairn encountered approximately 60 militiamen formed up in two lines on the village common.  Recognizing the threat they presented, Pitcairn ordered his soldiers not to fire but, instead, to “surround and disarm them.”  One or two musket reports came not from the common.  Insensitively employed  earlier by Smith, fatigued, in a temper, Pitcairn’s soldiers, shouting, cursing, wanted to fight.  The closest to the militiamen of the six companies redeployed itself.  The first rank fired a volley.  Over the shoulders of the kneeling first rank, the second rank volleyed.  Chaos ensued.  Here is part of the action as I envisioned it, taken from “Crossing the River.”
 
     He shouted, “Soldiers, do not fire! Keep your ranks! Sairround and dis-arrm ‘em!”
     A few faces turned to stare at him. Others, heads upright, necks stiff, ranted. This is the culmination, he thought, of months of confinement, of daily provincial abuse, of this day hours and miles of exhausting toil.
     “‘Pon my orr-der, sairround and dis-arrm ‘em!” he repeated.
     He saw that officers were relaying his message to the three companies behind. The 4th and 10th continued to rage. Let them, he thought. Let their profanity expend their wrath. Hardening himself, he rode toward the defiant sixty.
     Seventy-five feet away, feeling his own rush of temper, he drew his sword. Here was the source of his frustration. Why hadn't they separated?! Contemptible fools! Wanting to be blasted to eternity! “Dispairse, ye damned rebels! Lay down your arrms, ye damned rebels, and dispairse!” He jerked his reins sideways; his horse veered sharply to the right.
     Still they remained, rooted, obdurate. “Lay down your arrms, damn ye!” he shouted. Obscenities culled from years of service issued from his lips. “Bloody rebels! Why don't ye lay down your arrms?!”
     Veering left, he repeated his order. Two colonials, another, two more stepped back; three, crouched, were moving toward the Concord road. A beginning. Others would surely follow.
     A musket report!
     God’s blood in purgatory! Pot-boiling shit!
     Who?! Who had disobeyed his order?!
     He stared at the rebel line. Not one militiaman had fallen! Who, who had been fired at?!
     Looking right, he stared at the King’s Own. Its first rank was kneeling!
     Behind him, he heard the command, “Fire! Fire, damn you, fire!”
     Gunpowder along the battle line detonated! Smoke billowed.
     “Damn ye! God damn ye! Cease firing!” he shouted. Riding toward the 4th, he slashed his sword downward.
           
     Pitcairn was enveloped by rushing soldiers. Where the men of the 4th stood, a cacophonous second volley resounded.
     Swearing, bellowing, his voice lost in a maniacal roar, Pitcairn was swept along. Only when all but the dead and dying had fled the Common did many of the soldiers stop. The others, rabid savages, vaulting stone walls, searching yards, scouring woods, pressed on.
 
It is not my intention to chronicle every action Pitcairn took during the lengthy day’s events.  It is sufficient to say that at Concord, unlike Colonel Smith, he acted responsibly.  During the harrowing march back toward Lexington, Smith, wounded, called upon him again to perform a difficult, perilous duty: this time keep the soldiers at the head of the column in disciplined marching order despite the continuous fire they were receiving from both sides of the road.  Pitcairn’s action deserve your notice.  At the summit of Fiske Hill, just west of Lexington, ahead of the column, Pitcairn attempted to halt what would become a head-long, runaway stampede.  Again, my enactment.
 
     Hard riding took him past the front of the column to the top of the hill. Standing in his stirrups, facing the advancing soldiers, he shouted, “Halt! Ye will halt and forrm up!”
     He saw sweat-drenched, dust-encrusted soldiers possessing scarcely the strength to stand. How in God’s name am I to incite them? He began with six choice obscenities.
     “Beyond this hill is Lexington! We are the King’s soldiers! We are not afraid! Hear this!” His eyes scorched the faces of those closest.
     “We will have splendid fighting orrder! We will stay together! We will obey absolutely every officair! We will not yield! We will not succumb! Mark this! If we do these things, only if we do these things, we will prevail! Forrm up, two deep! Quickly now! Do it!” To the officers that had formed the restraining barrier behind him, he shouted, “It is imperative that ye enforrce this orrder down the column!”
     Off both sides of the road gunpowder blasted. Pitcairn's horse reared. Twisted in his saddle, Pitcairn toppled.
     Seated in the road, legs spread, he felt a sharp pain in his right hip, then in his right elbow.
     Had a soldier seized his horse’s bridle?! Ignoring the pain, standing, staring up the slope, he spotted his mount vaulting a fence, carrying to the rebels, holstered upon his saddle -- buggering crap! -- his prized, ivory-handled pistols!
    Desperate men were surging past him.
    Where was the fatigue he had witnessed?! Crazed, stampeding horses they were, charging down the long slope! Fleeing to Lexington hell-bent!
 
Unbeknownst to Pitcairn, Smith, and the beleaguered army, Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Percy and approximately 1,000 soldiers had arrived just east of Lexington from Boston.  General Gage had sent reinforcements.  Colonel Smith’s reeling army was able to collapse within Percy’s hastily formed, secure perimeter.  Hours later, the combined forces reached Charlestown, to be rowed later across the Charles River to Boston.
 
The Committee of Safety of the illegal Provincial Congress decided thereafter to fortify Breeds Hill, the closer to Boston of Charlestown’s two abandoned promontories, their intention to shell the city.  Generals William Howe, George Clinton, and John Burgoyne had arrived by ship to assist Gage in quashing what had become widespread insurrection.  During the night of June 16 militiamen built a redoubt 160 feet long and 89 feet wide on Breeds Hill.  Supplementary ditches were also dug.  Informed to the activity, Gage approved of Howe’s plan to seize the hill by direct, frontal assault.  At 3 p.m. June 17, the first wave of Howe’s forces, each man wearing a 60 pound pack, was ready to ascend the hill.  Positioned behind stone walls and fences and crouched in ditches the provincials waited, ordered to hold their fire until the enemy closed to within 150 yards. 
 
Men fell “as thick as sheep in a field,” one observer would remark.  Survivors turned about, fled down the hill.  Howe, determined to take the redoubt breastwork, ordered a second assault.  The colonists waited again until the last moment to fire.  One British officer wrote: “An incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines.  It seemed a continued sheet of fire for nearly thirty minutes.”  A Connecticut private commented: “A sheet of fire belched from the fence with such fearful precision that whole platoons of the British were swept down.”
 
Major Pitcairn, leading a contingent of marines and elements of the 43rd and 47th infantry regiments, participated in the third assault.  Slowly they gained ground, advancing over rails, stone walls, old brick kilns, and hedges.  They reached a bend of fortifications where hedges and trees extended beside a low stone wall that paralleled a road.   The line of infantry that attacked this position was forced to fall back.  Pitcairn ordered the line to make way for his marines.  “Bayonet the buggers if they don’t,” he shouted to his men.  Waving his sword, he yelled, “Now, for the glory of the Marines!”  A number of them fell, including Pitcairn, shot in the chest.
 
While the redoubt was being taken, Pitcairn lay in the arms of his young son William.  Drenched by his father’s blood, William carried Pitcairn from the battle field.  A long boat transported Pitcairn to a house in Boston where he lay dying.  General Gage sent him the best doctor he could find available, a Thomas Kast.  The 25-year-old doctor informed Pitcairn that it had been General Gage that had sent him.  Pitcairn asked the doctor to thank the General for remembering him, but he believed he was beyond human assistance.  Kast wanted the sheet covering Pitcairn removed, but Pitcairn objected.  He wanted time to dictate messages to loved ones.  Afterward, he permitted Kast to open his waistcoat and remove material that had collected about the wound.  Blood poured forth in great quantity.  Kast removed the musket ball and dressed the wound.  Pitcairn died two hours later.
 
William returned to the hard-won field of battle.  He said to his fellows, “I have lost my father.”  Several responded, “We have all lost a father.”
 
Pitcairn was buried in the crypt of Christ Church.  A modern-looking plaque in the Old North Church reads:
 
Major John Pitcairn
Fatally wounded
while rallying the Royal Marines
at the Battle of Bunker Hill
was carried from the field to the boats
on the back of his son
who kissed him and returned to duty
He died June 17, 1775 and his body
was interred beneath this church.