A few weeks ago, Stephen Fletcher, Director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner, handed me a small watercolor sketch. The two names written along the bottom caught my attention immediately: “Major John Pitcairn” and “Paul Revere, Del.” [delineavit]. I couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hands! Not only could this be a rare painting by the famed engraver Paul Revere, but it could also be the only known period image of Major Pitcairn.
Children learn the story of Paul Revere and his midnight ride in grade school. But the only people likely to know of Major Pitcairn are avid historians of 18th century America. Still, he played an important role in the American Revolution, and gave his life for the British cause.
Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, I first heard the lore and legend of Major Pitcairn at the Wright Tavern, which was once his temporary headquarters. Purportedly, he once used a bloody finger to stir a drink, stating that he “hoped to stir Yankee blood before nightfall.”
Unrest in the Colonies
John Pitcairn was born in 1722 in Dysart, Scotland. In November of 1774, tensions between the British and the colonists were running high. Major Pitcairn arrived in Boston with his marines to help quell the unrest in the colonies and to bolster the occupation of Massachusetts Bay.
Pitcairn was quartered at a home in Boston that belonged to Francis Shaw, Paul Revere’s neighbor. According to lore, the locals respected Pitcairn at first. Paul Revere may have sketched his portrait during late 1774 or early 1775 in preparation for an engraving. But it seems that before an engraving could be made, a revolution intervened.
Unhappy about the quartering act, taxation, the closure of the port of Boston, and other insults, the colonists had formed a Provincial Congress and had begun to stockpile cannons, arms, and other supplies to form a Provincial army. The town meetinghouse in Concord, Massachusetts became the headquarters for the Provincial Congress.
Spies for General Thomas Gage, military Governor of the colony of Massachusetts Bay, informed him of the meetings happening in Concord and the stockpiled military supplies – which included three 24-pound cannons buried in the yard of the town prison. Under pressure from England, Gage ordered a secret expedition to disarm Concord to take place on April 19, 1775. Major Pitcairn volunteered to go along, and Lt. Col. Francis Smith made him second in command.
A Midnight Ride
Paul Revere learned of this secret mission, and on the night of April 18, 1775, he rowed through the Boston harbor, mounted his horse in Charlestown, and spread the alarm to the countryside that the British were on the move. That same night, Pitcairn landed nearby in Cambridge and helped form the British column for the march to Concord. Some of the light infantry (elite troops in a British regiment) were placed in the front under the command of Major Pitcairn.
As the troops marched, they heard alarm bells and shots in the distance. Col. Smith sent a message back to Gen. Gage in Boston calling for reinforcements. They also sent a request to Pitcairn’s quarters, asking him to form his marines for the march – but he was already on the expedition as a volunteer. It took two hours to figure out this mistake, costing the British valuable time.
At about dawn, the lead elements of the British column under Pitcairn arrived in the town of Lexington, which was on the road to Concord, where they faced off with about 70 men from the local militia. Pitcairn told them to lay down their arms, but a shot was fired. The British unleashed a volley and charged at the retreating militia. The clash left 8 Patriots dead and 10 wounded. Pitcairn’s horse and possibly one other British soldier had been wounded.
The company marched on to Concord, but by the time they arrived, most of the supplies they had come for had been removed to other towns. While British soldiers searched and pillaged the town, the light infantry sent to hold the Old North Bridge came under fire, and three British light infantrymen died. After a long and bloody day, the British finally arrived at Charlestown and retired to the safety of Boston.
Streaming with Blood
Almost two months after the ill-fated expedition to Concord, Provincial forces dug earthworks in Charlestown on Breeds Hill, overlooking Boston and its harbor. Gage could not let the Provincials keep this important piece of ground. On June 17, 1775, he began to shell the hillside, and ordered British troops, including Maj. John Pitcairn’s marines, to attack the hill. On the third assault, Pitcairn was mortally wounded. He was brought back to Boston, where he soon died. He was 53 years old.
John Waller, a member of the marines, described the fighting:
“We received a check from the very heavy and severe fire from the enemy in the redoubt, and in this spot we lost a number of our men, besides the irreparable loss of poor major Pitcairne… I cannot pretend to describe the horror of the scene within the redoubt, when we enter’d it, ‘twas streaming with blood & strew’d with the dead & dying men the soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of other was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on.”
Major John Pitcairn was interred in a crypt at the Christ Church in the North End of Boston. He remains there to this day, a reminder of the many lives lost on both sides during the American Revolution.
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