John Pitcairn and Francis Smith

John (left) and Francis Smith supervise the destruction of Rebel arms at Concord
Engr. by Amos Doolittle after Ralph Earl

John Pitcairn was baptised at St. Serf's, Dysart, on 28 December, 1722 (Old Calendar - 1723, New Calendar): his date of birth is not recorded separately, so it may have been the same day. He was the youngest surviving child of the Rev. David Pitcairn, M. A. (St. Andrews), former regimental chaplain to the Cameronians and veteran of Blenheim, who served as minister of Dysart for 49 years, and his wife Katharine Hamilton of Wishaw.

In his early 20s, John married Elizabeth Dalrymple (1724-1809). Their first child, Annie, was born in Edinburgh in 1746, in which year John was commissioned Lieutenant in Cornwall's 7th (Marines) Regiment.

Soon after that, however, the Marines were disbanded. When they were established permanently in 1755, John's Lieutenancy was reconfirmed. The following year, he was promoted Captain. He served during the Seven Years' War, and in 1757 (when his father died, and his daughter Johanna was born in Dysart) was aboard the warship H.M.S. Lancaster - presumably en route to Canada, where the Lancaster was involved in the taking of Louisbourg. The Pitcairns moved down from Edinburgh to Kent in the early 1760s, when John became permanently attached to the Chatham division of Marines.

Detail from Trumbull, <em>Bunker Hill</em>John and Betty had six sons (one of whom, Clerke, died young) and four daughters. Their Dysart-born eldest son, David, followed his uncle Dr. William Pitcairn to become an eminent physician at Bart's, and, eventually, physician to the Prince Regent. Physically, it was he who most closely resembled his father. In 1786, when the American artist John Trumbull came to London to make sketches for his painting The Death of General Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, he based his likeness of John upon Dr. David. (The detail shown here links to Ed the Saint's site) Robert, born in Burntisland, became a midshipman. In 1767 he sighted the Pacific island named in his honour, but was lost at sea in 1770, aged only 17. William, born in Carnbee, followed his father into the Marines, while Thomas joined the army. The girls - Annie, Katharine, Johanna and Janet - all married army or naval officers of good family. The youngest child, Alexander, born in Kent in 1768, eventually became a barrister in London.

In the Marines, unlike the army, commissions were not purchased, and so it was only in 1771, aged 48, that John reached the rank of Major. In early December 1774, as unrest spread in the Colony of Massachusetts, he arrived in Boston with some 600 Marines drawn from all three divisions: Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. He had to contend with a dispute between Admiral Graves and General Gage over landing them, and the fact that they had no proper winter clothing and equipment.

The Plymouth Marines had been sent out with inadequate officers, who could not keep order. As a result, they proved an ill-disciplined trial. Indeed, when John got them ashore, he was astonished by the Marines' poor appearance in comparison with the army. He wrote to the Admiralty, suggesting an end to the recruitment of men under 5' 6". He also observed that issuing uniforms with white facings were not a good idea, given the men's difficulty in keeping themselves clean.Some Marines were selling their kit to buy the lethal local rum, which killed a number of them. John spent several weeks living in barracks with them to keep them sober. He was a humane man, to whom harsh punishments went against the grain. The fact that he had to have some of the Plymouth "animals" (his word!) flogged distressed him. Respected and popular, he eventually succeeded in drilling them into an effective force.

John was billeted on Francis Shaw, a fiercely anti-British tailor, neighbour to Paul Revere on North Square, and ancestor of the Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw. Remarkably, despite their political differences, he won over his reluctant host on a personal level. According to Shaw family tradition, John prevented a duel between young Lieutenant Wragg, also billeted on the household, and Sam, Shaw's equally hot-tempered teenaged son. The Lieutenant had made some anti-Rebel remarks, and Sam had responded by throwing wine on him. Fortunately, John was able to defuse the situation with his characteristic warmth and good humour. Sam must have learned his lesson, since he later became a diplomat!

Other Boston radicals also came to respect John's integrity, honesty, and sense of honour, and trusted him to deal justly in disputes between the locals and the military. His genial charm gained their affection: even the Rebel preacher and propagandist Ezra Stiles describing him as "a good man in a bad cause". Every Sabbath he attended Christ Church, but during the rest of the week he was noted for his profane language. He held salon at Shaw's house, where British officers and locals, including Revere, could meet, socialise, and exchange views in a civilised manner. He also had family company: his sons William and Thomas - the former a Lieutenant in the Marines, the latter in the Royal Artillery - and his daughter Katharine's husband, Captain Charles Cochrane, a younger son of Lord Dundonald.

On 19 April 1775, John Pitcairn was second-in-command of the troops sent to destroy Rebel stores in Concord. At Lexington Green, they came face-to-face with a body of armed American militia. John ordered his men NOT to fire, and commanded the militiamen to lay down their arms and disperse. They began to do so, but, as John wrote in his report to Gen. Gage:

...some of the Rebels who had jumped over the Wall, Fired Four or Five Shott at the Soldiers, which wounded a man of the Tenth, and my Horse was Wounded in two places, from some quarter or other, and at the same time several Shott were fired from a Meeting House on our Left - upon this, without any order or regularity, the light Infantry began a scattered Fire, and Continued... contrary to the repeated orders both of me and the officers that were present...

There is still controversy over the source of the first shot; possibly provocateurs from extremist circles in Boston were involved. Despite John's efforts to restore order, eight 'Minute Men' were killed. The American War of Independence began as news of the shootings spread to the neighbouring villages. After continuing and fulfilling their mission to destroy the arms stores in Concord, the British came under heavy fire on the road back to Boston. They suffered severe casualties. At Fiske's Hill John's horse was again grazed by bullets, and threw him. He was forced to march the rest of the way, as the wounded animal had bolted into the American lines.

It is alleged that the horse took with it his brace of richly decorated metal scroll-butt pistols, made by John Murdoch of Doune. The pistols were presented as a trophy to the Rebel officer Israel Putnam. They are displayed in the Hancock-Clarke Museum in Lexington during the tourist season, and off-season in The Museum of Our National Heritage, also in Lexington. However, there is a question-mark over their provenance: the heraldic crest engraved on the escutcheon plates depicts three swords, with a snake twined around the middle one. This does not resemble the known crest of the Pitcairns of Forthar, a moon rising from a cloud. So whose the pistols really were is uncertain.

On 17 June, the British launched 3 assaults on the American position at Bunker Hill (actually on Breed's Hill) at Charlestown, near Boston, and won the day - but at horrific cost: 50% killed and wounded. Even the surgeons were horrified at the number of double leg-amputations needed because the Rebels, low on bullets, had stuffed their guns with broken glass, nails, and scrap metal.

Among the casualties was John Pitcairn. In the summer heat he led his Marines - including his own sons - on foot up the hill, to take part in the third attack. While advancing, they crossed another line of infantry, who were being pushed back by heavy Rebel fire. John told them to "Break, and let the Marines through!", and, more colloquially, is said to have threatened to "bayonet the buggers" if they would not! Waving his sword, he urged his men on: "Now, for the glory of the Marines!" - Then a musket-ball smashed into his breast, and he collapsed into William's arms. While the Marines charged forward in the final assault, the young Lieutenant carried his wounded father out of the line of fire, before returning to the battle. The boy was so bloodied that some witnesses thought that he himself was hurt.

John was taken by boat back to Boston, and put to bed in a house on Prince Street. He was conscious, but, experienced veteran that he was, he knew his chances were poor. The army surgeons were overworked because of the heavy casualties, so General Gage, anxious to save a valued officer, sent a Loyalist town physician, Thomas Kast, to tend him. John told Dr. Kast - at 25, of an age with his own doctor son - that he was bleeding internally and would die soon. Kast asked him where he was hurt. He placed his hand upon his chest: "Here". The young doctor suggested that it might not be fatal, and made to turn down the sheet, but John refused to move his hand. Kast tried again; still the Major kept his hand pressed over the sheet across his wound. Firmly but courteously, he asked him not to touch him until he had set his affairs in order. Only then did he submit to an examination. But when Kast pulled John's waistcoat away from his breast, the blood gushed out, staining the floor. The wound was dressed, but within a couple of hours, while Kast reported back to the General, John died from the effects of the hæmorrhage. He was 52.

When William told the Marines: "I have lost my father!", some of them responded: "We have all lost a father!" Mourned by friend and foe alike, Major John Pitcairn was buried in the crypt of Christ Church, 'the Old North Church', in Boston. The fatal bullet and his uniform buttons were returned to Betty and the children - the youngest of whom, Janet and Alexander, were aged only 14 and 7 respectively.

There is no authentic portrait of John Pitcairn, other than a cartoonish image by Earl and Doolittle. The frequently reproduced miniature, charming though it is, is too late, judging by the style of the uniform. It may represent his son Thomas; or else be derived from the 1786 Trumbull painting, for which Dr. David posed.

Old North Church, Boston, Mass.

It has been alleged that in 1791 the family sent for John's body to be reinterred in his brother Dr. William Pitcairn's vault at St. Bartholomew the Less in London. The story goes that a Boston doctor, Amos Windship, a notorious conman and crook, exploited the Pitcairns for personal gain, and sent them another body instead. However, the Old North Church in Boston is sure it has got the real John Pitcairn, and there is no entry in the burial register at Bart's about the alleged re-interment. The only Pitcairns buried there are John's brother Dr. William (d. 1791), son Dr. David (1749-1809), Betty Dalrymple, John's widow, who outlived her son by only a month (1724-1809), and David's widow, Elizabeth Almack (1759-1844). So this looks very much like an old wives' tale.

There is a modern-looking plaque in Old North Church, Boston. It mistakenly refers to his corps as 'Royal Marines' - the 'Royal' designation was granted in the early 19C:

Pitcairn Plaque, Old North Church, Boston

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

Photo: Frank Collins


Dysart, Fife.

John's birthplace, the old manse of Dysart, was demolished over a century ago. The marble plaque John erected to his parents' memory in 1757-8 in St. Serf's was destroyed by vandals in the early nineteenth century, after the kirk fell into ruin. As a result, until recently there was nothing to commemorate John in his hometown.

Dysart Plaque

Photo: M M Gilchrist

For the past couple of years I have been working with the Kirkcaldy Civic Society and the Dysart Trust to get a plaque installed in John's memory near the site of the old manse. On Saturday 13 April 2002, it was unveiled in a small ceremony involving Ann Watters and Jim Swan of the KCS and Dysart Trust respectively, genealogist Mrs. Sheila Pitcairn, and yours truly. John is now the first of 'our boys' to get a memorial plaque here in Scotland!

Unveiling Ceremony 13 April 2002

Anne Watters, Kirkcaldy Civic Society, speaks.

Unveiling Ceremony 13 April 2002

Yours truly.

Unveiling Ceremony 13 April 2002

Sheila Pitcairn performs the unveiling honours.

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