John Pitcairn ( was a British marine and officer during the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Battle of Bunker Hill. It would be during the Battle of Bunker Hill that he would die. Pitcairn was remembered as being one of the more reasonable British officers in the colonies, but privately shared a dislike for their rebellion and a disrespect for their militia. His lack of control at Lexington resulted in a full assault on the Lexington Minutemen and quite possibly began the American Revolutionary War.
John Pitcairn was born in 1722 to a Scottish family and eventually joined the British Marines. By the time of the French and Indian War, Pitcairn had been promoted to the rank of Captain. He served with distinction throughout the war and was promoted to Major by 1771. He arrived in Boston in 1774 with 600 marines.
A common belief that was expressed with those who knew Pitcairn was his love for his men. He arrived in Boston in 1774 and took his 600 marines along with the Plymouth marines and began to whip them into shape. He was discouraged with the lack of discretion in many of his men when it came to the purchasing of a lethal rum that killed many of them. He lived with them in the bunker and enforced harsh discipline on men who violated his rules. With reluctance he had many of these men flogged, but these actions were taken in order to preserve their lives.
The men who landed in Boston with Pitcairn and went on to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill were not the elite Royal Marines that were involved in the Napoleonic Wars. While this detail may seem minute to some it would probably not sit well with the dead. Royal Marines did not appear until 1802.1
Pitcairn’s love of his men was perhaps equaled by his distaste for the patriot cause. He penned this shortly before the Battles of Lexington and Concord:
Orders are anxiously expected from England to chastise those very bad people. The General had some of the Great Wigs, as they are called here, with him two days ago, when he took that opportunity of telling them, and swore to it by the living God, that if there was a single man of the King’s troops killed in any of their towns he would burn it to the ground. What fools you are, said he, to pretend to resist the power of Great Britain; she maintained last war three hundred thousand men, and will do the same now rather than suffer the ungrateful people of this country to continue in their rebellion. This behaiviour of the General’s gives great satisfaction to the friends of the Government. I am satisfied that one active campaign, a smart action, and burning of two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights. Nothing now, I am afraid, but this will ever convince these foolish bad people that England is in earnest.
John Pitcairn has always been made to appear as a reasonable man. This he may have been, but his writings to Britain do not suggest that he was that reasonable to the colonists. He grossly underestimated the minutemen of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and again at Bunker Hill. His pen never shows anything but scathing opinions directed at the rebels.
Battles of Lexington and Concord
Francis Smith was the commanding officer in charge of the British march towards Lexington and Pitcairn was placed in the advance party. While it is unclear as to everything that happened it does seem that Pitcairn lost control of his men and was unable to restrain them when they encountered Captain John Parker and his minutemen on Lexington Green. Parker was in a parade formation and had given strict orders to only fire when fired upon. The men of Lexington had formed beside the road that was heading towards Concord and did not seem to have any intention of blocking their march. However the British advance unit that marched up the hill towards Lexington made a straight line towards Parker and his men. Shots were fired, most likely from the British but nobody can say for certain, and the war had officially begun. Pitcairn gave conflicting orders to his inexperienced men and the provincials. All hell broke lose and it would take Francis Smith coming up from the rear to rein in the madness. While Smith never gave a negative opinion of Pitcairn’s actions, he did keep him close by throughout the rest of the battle.((Galvin, John R. The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 1989))
On the retreat from Concord the British were under heavy fire while the local militia and minutemen used a “circle of fire” technique that allowed them to use the terrain to their advantage. Pitcairn’s actions at Lexington had left a bad taste in the mouth of Captain John Parker who was waiting for the British at what became known as Parker’s Revenge. Here Parker and his minutemen unleashed a devastating volley that caused chaos in the British ranks. It was Pitcairn who rallied them men and charged into Parker. This charge was helpful as it pushed Parker and his men back, but it did little to help the outcome of the battle since it caused a delay in the British retreat and waiting up ahead at Fiske Hill were more minutemen who managed to run to the front while Pitcairn was pushing Parker back.
Battle of Bunker Hill
Throughout the Battle of Bunker Hill the British had been repelled quite successfully. William Howe continued to rally his men and assault the hill, but it was to no avail. Howe received reinforcements and with those reinforcements was Major John Pitcairn. Pitcairn led his men bravely in the charge and was cut down in front of the redoubts by men under General John Stark. The wound was from a provincial rifle that was fired by an free black named Peter Salem. The force of the shot sent Pitcairn back into the arms of his son, William. William and Pitcairn’s men mourned the loss of their commander.
Pitcairn was carried back to Boston and buried in the Old North Church.
- Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York. Penguin Books, 1997.
- Galvin, John R. The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 1989.
- Ketchum, Richard M. Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill. New York, NewYork: Owl Books, 1962.
- Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How The War of Independence Was Fought.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007
- Witek, E. J. ”Major John Pitcairn,” http://drbenjaminchurchjr.blogspot.com/2011/12/major-john-pitcairn.html. (Accessed January 14, 2003.)
- Witek, E. J. ”Major John Pitcairn,” http://drbenjaminchurchjr.blogspot.com/2011/12/major-john-pitcairn.html. Accessed January 14, 2003. [↩]