Major John Pitcairn -- "A Good Man in a Bad Cause"
Major John Pitcairn is an intriguing historical figure. The fact that he was respected by many north
his residence in the city prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill is evidence that
he was not the stereotypical close-minded, arrogant British officer. Boston
Pitcairn was baptized at Saint Serf's Church in the flourishing merchant
port of Dysart,
December 28, 1722. He was the youngest
son of Reverend David Pitcairn, cleric of Scotland St. Andrews
in Dysart, and Katherine Hamilton, both of well-connected gentry families. David Pitcairn had served as a chaplain in
the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714.
He was Dysart’s minister for nearly 50 years.
Raised in the church’s manse, which overlooked the Firth of Forth, the estuary of the River Forth where it flows into the North Sea, John Pitcairn entered the Crown’s service in 1746 as a lieutenant in the 7th (
) Regiment of Marines. That same year he married Elizabeth Dalrymple.
They conceived a child, Anne, while
living in Cornwall . The regiment was subsequently disbanded to
save the Admiralty money. It was not
reformed permanently until 1755, at which time Pitcairn’s rank was
confirmed. The following year he was
promoted to Captain. Edinburgh
Pitcairn’s daughter Joanna was born the same year his father David died, 1757. The Seven Years War had begun in Europe as had its counterpart, the French and Indian War, in
America. Aboard the HMS Lancaster in route across the
Atlantic, Pitcairn participated in the capture of Fort
Breton Island, in 1758.
During the 1760s, Pitcairn and his family moved from Edinburgh
where he joined the Chatham Division of Marines. His family then consisted of four girls and
six boys. His oldest boy, David, would
become a doctor and, eventually, the physician of the Prince Regeant. His son Robert was the midshipman that sighted
in 1767 an undiscovered, obscure Pacific island, which was named after him and where
in 1789 the mutineers of the HMS Bounty hid after they had set adrift their captain, William
Bligh, and 18 loyal crew members. Robert was
lost at sea in 1770. Pitcairn’s youngest
son Alexander would become a barrister. His
sons William, a marine officer, and Thomas, an officer of the Royal Artillery, were
stationed in Kent
in 1775. Pitcairn’s daughters married army
and naval officers. Boston
Pitcairn was appointed Major of the Chatham Marine Division in 1771. He arrived in
in December 1774 with 600 marines of the Chatham,
Plymouth Divisions. Parliament had passed
the Coercive Acts to punish disloyal Bostonians for their defiance of royal and
parliamentary authority, blatantly demonstrated December 16, 1773, with the
dumping of 342 chests of East India Company tea into Portsmouth .
Among the punitive measures enacted
were the closing of the harbor and the quartering of officers in private
residences. Boston Harbor Massachusetts
military governor and North America’s
commanding general Thomas Gage was charged with enforcing the Coercive Acts,
which would remain in effect until the cost of the destroyed tea was paid and
colonial rebellion was entirely quashed.
Pitcairn’s arrival did not begin well. First, he was made aware of the ongoing rift between General Gage and Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves. Among
duties was the task of transporting troops across water to land. Pitcairn witnessed their argument about where
the newly arrived marines were to be deposited.
Second, Pitcairn was displeased about the appearance of his men. How poorly they looked, compared to the
appearance of the King’s infantry. They
were small, too small; he would send a letter to the Admiralty advising that
future recruits exceed five feet six inches in height. Additionally, his marines lacked proper
winter clothing and equipment. And their
white facing uniforms were forever dirty, owing to the dust and dirt of the
surrounding countryside. Worst of all his
frustrations was his marines’ unruliness – animals,
he called them. Some had actually killed
themselves, having drunk locally made, lethal rum purchased with the coin they
had received selling their equipment.
Pitcairn’s immediate task was to instill self-esteem, a shared purpose, and unit cohesion. To keep them sober he lived with them in their barracks for weeks. With rare exceptions he did not flog malcontents. He sought to inspire by example. He drilled his marines continuously. Gradually, he earned their respect. It had become evident to them that he cared about them. One of his last acts of compassion, demonstrated just before his participation in the Battle of Bunker Hill, was his request by letter to authorities in
that assistance be given to
those he commanded that were destitute. England
Pitcairn gained as well the respect of many of the artisans of north
, most of whom
hated the British military and the punitive acts the army was assigned to
enforce. He attended Boston
every Sabbath. At the home of Samuel
Shaw, where he was billeted, he held meetings with British officers and local
citizens that included Paul Revere. He
socialized freely and listened to the viewpoints of all who attended. He came to be regarded by the citizenry as
trustworthy and honest. Ezra Stiles, a
clergyman and staunch supporter of the anti-British opposition, called Pitcairn
“a good man in a bad cause.” Christ Church
Notwithstanding, Pitcairn was fiercely loyal to his king and country. He believed that colonial obedience to Parliamentary rule was right and just. He saw the necessity of enforcing, militarily if needed, total obedience to that rule. But on a personal level, he was fair-minded, almost empathetic. He earned the respect of his anti-British host Samuel Shaw by stopping a duel from being fought between Shaw’s intemperate son and Lieutenant Wragg, an arrogant British officer also billeted at the Shaw house. A quarrel had erupted at the dinner table. Wragg had uttered an anti-American remark, something offensive, and the young Shaw had thrown wine on him.
Sometime before the evening of April 18, 1775, General Gage apprised Pitcairn of the assignment that would place Pitcairn’s name in every
textbook. Pitcairn must have realized
beforehand that he would be selected to participate in an expedition into the
country to seize and destroy illegally stockpiled military stores. Here is a scene from my novel “Crossing the
River” that dramatizes the character of the man and the ambiguity of his
The day had remained cold, dreary. It will rain during the night, John Pitcairn predicted.
He stood, as he often did, at the top of Boston Common, facing the River and its complement of ships. Across the River lay
Beyond it were the towns of Menotomy and Cambridge .
He suspected that within the week he would be directing regulars through those
villages to seize and destroy munitions stockpiled in Lexington . Concord
The inactivity of his long stay in
had made him testy. He was a man that craved action. Little about his life,
save his rank, had changed since he had fought the French. Notwithstanding his
need for stimulation, he adhered to the belief that whom a soldier waged war
against mattered. This particular day his divided perception of the present
conflict had caused him, standing high and far above the river, to try to
formulate a practical resolution. Boston
Folly! Beyond all help!
He stepped off aggressively toward his lodging.
John Pitcairn was a decisive man. In conduct and speech he did not equivocate. Negligent soldiers by the hundreds had suffered his infamous wrath. Yet his longevity of service and his consequent exposure to a wide gamut of people had been instructive. Over the years he had developed a certain tolerance toward courteous, honorable gentlemen that happened to espouse wrong-headed beliefs. He was not boisterous or waggish in their company as he often was with fellow officers. Instead, he was polite, even congenial. Being quartered amidst the plain-speaking, hard-working craftsmen of
North Square hadn’t
been a hardship. He had felt at ease with them. They, in turn, had been civil.
The son of a minister, he attended weekly the services at
Walking about Christ Church North Square,
he acknowledged always the presence of those individuals with whom he was
acquainted. Occasionally, he engaged in good-natured, restrained banter. He
never argued. Honorable men, not of the same mind, valued restraint.
He knew what most believed. The basis of their entire quarrel with Parliament was that they were denied the rights of Englishmen. In that august body they had no representation. Thus Parliament inflicted injury upon them. So went their argument. He could have pointed out that the war against
France on the Continent and here in
had been costly and that the colonies had benefited. They would continue to
benefit. Why then should they be exempt from paying their share? Tough-minded,
aggressive people they were. Englishmen in that respect. Interacting with them
at a personal level had allowed him to feel on occasion a degree of kinship.
Their generalized conduct, however, -- especially their contempt for the
uniform -- ignited frequently his temper. America
To his Marine friend in
Colonel John Mackenzie, he had written in December: “I have so despicable an
opinion of the people of this country that I would not hesitate to march with
the Marines I have with me to any part of the country, and do whatever I was inclined.” To Lord Sandwich, the First Lord
of the Admiralty, he had declared that stern measures must be taken. “One
active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will
set everything to rights. Nothing now, I am afraid, but this will ever convince
those foolish bad people that England
is in earnest.” England
Tough words. To re-establish English law, to reaffirm Royal and Parliamentary authority, he would indeed slay his colonial brethren. But his personal contact with individual Northenders had given him cause, during quiet moments, to temporize, comportment in a major in the King’s service not to be countenanced!
Anticipating strife, he passed reluctantly through the front doorway of Samuel Shaw’s house. Most probably Lieutenant Wragg would again antagonize at the family table the old tailor’s son. Pitcairn would be forced to intercede, dousing temporarily the acute hostility that Parliament had created and Wragg stoked, volatile enmity perpetuated by colonial rabble-rousers and obnoxious junior and senior officers of the King.