PITCAIRN, JOHN. (1722–1775). British officer. Born at Dysart, Scotland, the son of a minister, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Marines in 1746. He was promoted to captain on 8 June 1756 and to major on 19 April 1771. He commanded a battalion of four hundred marines sent to garrison Boston in November 1774. He had a reputation for piety as well as for being a tough but fair disciplinarian who was well liked by his men, living with them in barracks "to keep them from their pernicious rum" (ANB). General Thomas Gage appointed him to settle disputes between soldiers and civilians, in which role he earned the respect of the people of Boston.
Gage named him as second in command of the expedition to Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. He led the advanced party of six light infantry companies onto Lexington Green in the early morning of the 19th, deployed his men when he saw Captain John Parker's minutemen in formation alongside the road to Concord, and lost control of the situation for several fateful minutes. When a shot rang out (or perhaps the sound was just the fizzle of powder exploding in pan of a flintlock), the light infantrymen fired into the minutemen, and although Pitcairn did his utmost to stop this unauthorized fire, eight Americans died. Pitcairn, a major of marines, was that day in command of soldiers from six different infantry regiments. Neither Pitcairn nor the soldiers had trained or worked together before, and perhaps this unfamiliarity and lack of cohesion led the soldiers to disobey the major's positive order not to fire into the American ranks. The British marched on to Concord, but on the return to Boston they were almost engulfed by American militiamen firing from behind cover every step of the way. Pitcairn's horse, wounded at Lexington, finally threw him and ran into the American lines with a brace of his pistols on its saddle.
At the battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, Pitcairn commanded the marine battalion that was part of Robert Pigot's left wing demonstrating in front of the Breed's Hill redoubt. In the final assault, he led his men forward with the cry of, "Now for the glory of the marines." In one of the final volleys from the redoubt, his chest was crushed by a bullet said to have been fired by an African American, Peter Salem, an encounter that John Trumbull featured in the background of his painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill. Pitcairn was carried to a boat by his son, a marine lieutenant, but despite the efforts of Dr. Thomas Kast to stop the flow of blood, he died at Boston either later that day or early the next morning. He left eleven children. Ezra Stiles, Congregational minister at Newport and later president of Yale College, provided an appropriate epitaph when he wrote in his "Literary Diary" on 21 August 1775 that Pitcairn was "a good man in a bad cause."
SEE ALSO Lexington and Concord.
revised by Harold E. Selesky
"Pitcairn, John." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pitcairn-john
"Pitcairn, John." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History. . Retrieved July 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pitcairn-john
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.