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