On New Year’s Day, Monday, January 1, 1776, British officers approached the American lines in Roxbury under a flag of truce. At least one of the men was carrying copies of a broadside for distribution among the soldiers of the Continental Army. This was King George III’s speech, delivered before Parliament back on October 27, 1775. It had been published with the hope of putting the fear of God into the rebel army.
The king declared that the colonists’ “strongest protestations of loyalty to me” were both absurd and offensive given that they were presently engaged in a “rebellious war . . . carried for the purpose of establishing an independent Empire.” The colonists must either return to the British fold or admit that they were engaged in a war of independence.
The reaction among the army was rage and indignation. The speech was burned in public by the soldiers. Its charges of traitorous rebellion and its ominous reference to “foreign assistance”, assuredly ended any hope of reconciliation or a short war. The effect of the King’s speech on George Washington was profound.
If nothing else could “satisfy a tyrant and his diabolical ministry,” he wrote to Joseph Reed, “we were determined to shake off all connections with a state so unjust and unnatural. This I would tell them, not under covert, but in words as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness.”
As it happened, Washington had already acted to strengthen the solidarity and resolve of his troops. January 1 was the first day of “a new army, which in every point of view is entirely continental.” He stressed the hope that “the importance of the great Cause we are engaged in will be deeply impressed upon every man’s mind.” Everything “dear and valuable to freemen” was at stake.
To celebrate this event, Washington replaced the large red flag previously raised by Israel Putnam on the heights of Prospect Hill. With the crash of a 13-gun salute, he raised a new flag — a flag of thirteen red and white stripes, with the British colors (the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew) represented in the upper corner. The works at Prospect Hill were the equal of any fortification in Boston being situated on a large outcropping with a commanding view of the Mystic River and all of Boston Harbor.
Soon after the Battle of Chelsea Creek, Israel Putnam’s men had transformed the British schooner Diana’s seventy-five foot mainmast into a flag pole, and it was from this tar-stained pine that the Union flag of the Continental Army proudly waved. When the British in Boston saw it flying from Prospect Hill, they at first mistook it for a flag of surrender.
It has been argued that the Somerville, Massachusetts annual New Year’s Day flag ceremony on Prospect Hill commemorates something that never really happened. There are others who claim it is accurate.
The Siege of Boston began on April 19, 1775 after British troops retreated to Boston following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. With American artillery retrieved from Ft. Ticonderoga staring down at the town from Dorchester Heights, British General William Howe evacuated his troops and several thousand loyalists from Boston on March 17, 1776.
British army forces in North America were primarily tied up with the siege; therefore, the British planned an expedition to the southern colonies seeking bases of operations where they had more control. British General Henry Clinton was to travel to Cape Fear, North Carolina, where he would join with largely Scottish Loyalists raised in the North Carolina backcountry, and a force of 2,000 men from Ireland under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.
In January 1776, John Rutledge, a member of the Continental Congress, delivered information of the British plans to move into South Carolina. Rutledge organized defenses to be established on Sullivan’s Island to defend the city from an incursion by the British. Sullivan’s Island was a strategically suitable place to construct a fort, because it was a geographic shield to Charleston Harbor. Vessels sailing into Charleston had to cross Charleston Bar, which consisted of submerged sand banks south of the city.
Colonel William Moultrie and his 2nd South Carolina Regiment began building the fort on Sullivan’s Island in March 1776. The fort, named Fort Sullivan at the time, was planned as a square redoubt, with bastions at each corner. The construction was of an inner and an outer wall, made with palmetto trunks up to a height of twenty feet, with the sixteen-foot space between the walls filled with sand.
Clinton left Boston on January 20 and arrived at Cape Fear, North Carolina on March 12, expecting to find the European convoy already there. He met with the royal governors of North and South Carolina and learned that the recruited Scottish Loyalists had been defeated at Moore’s Creek Bridge two weeks earlier.
British Admiral Peter Parker’s fleet, which sailed from England with the Irish and General Cornwallis on board, encountered extreme difficulties crossing the Atlantic. Battered by storms and high seas, the first ships of the fleet did not arrive at Cape Fear until April 18, and Cornwallis did not arrive until May 3. After several weeks there, Clinton, Cornwallis and Parker concluded that Cape Fear was not a suitable base for further operations.
Parker sent some of his fleet on scouting expeditions up and down the coast, and reports on the partially finished condition of the Charleston defenses were sufficiently promising that the decision was made to go there. By the time the British flotilla arrived off Charleston at the end of May 1776, the fort on Sullivan’s Island was unfinished, but was sufficiently advanced to provide a substantial defense to the city.
Congress had appointed General Charles Lee to command the Continental Army troops in the southern colonies. Lee arrived in Charleston shortly after the British fleet anchored outside the harbor, and he took command of the city’s defense. On seeing the uncompleted fort, he recommended that it be abandoned, describing it as a ‘Slaughter Pen’. Acting on Colonel Moultrie’s advice, Rutledge refused to leave the fort.
Arriving there in early June, British troops were landed on Long Island (now called Isle of Palms), near Sullivan’s Island. The intent was that these troops would wade across the channel (now known as Breach Inlet) between Long and Sullivan’s, which the British believed to be sufficiently shallow to do so, while the fleet bombarded Fort Sullivan. General Lee responded to the British landing with several defensive actions.
General Clinton encountered the first major problem of the attack plan on June 17. An attempt to wade the channel between the two islands established that part of the channel was at least shoulder-deep, too deep for troops to cross even without the prospect of enemy opposition.
On June 26, the British repositioned at Five Fathom Hole, ready for the assault. On the morning of June 28, 1776 at around 9:00 am, a British ship fired a signal gun indicating all was ready for the attack. Less than an hour later, nine warships had sailed into positions facing the fort.
A plan of the fort was prepared by an officer of the Royal Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James after the battle. The plan showed 28 pieces of artillery in Fort Sullivan. One is described as a mortar and the rest as being 32 and 26 pounders. If James was correct the British ships were heavily out-gunned by Fort Sullivan.
The largest British ship, HMS Bristol, carried twenty-two 24 pounder guns, twenty-two 12 pounder guns and other smaller cannon. HMS Experiment carried the same size and number of guns. The British frigates deployed nothing larger than 9 pounders.
Around noon the frigates Sphinx, Syren, and Actaeon were sent on a roundabout route, avoiding some shoals, to take a position from which they could enfilade the fort’s main firing platform and also cover one of the main escape routes from the fort. However, all three ships grounded on an uncharted sandbar, and the riggings of Actaeon and Sphinx became entangled in the process. The British managed to refloat Sphinx and Syren, but Acteon remained grounded.
At the fort, Moultrie ordered his men to concentrate their fire on the two large man-of-war ships, Bristol and Experiment, which took hit after hit from the fort’s guns. Chain shot fired at Bristol eventually destroyed much of her rigging and severely damaged both the main- and mizzenmasts.
Admiral Parker eventually sought to destroy the fort’s walls with persistent broadside cannonades. This strategy failed due to the spongy nature of the palmetto wood used in its constructions; the structure would quiver, and it absorbed the cannonballs rather than splintering. The exchange continued until around 9:00 pm, when darkness forced a cessation of hostilities, and the fleet finally withdrew out of range. The following morning, the British, unable to drag the grounded Acteon off the sandbar, set fire to the ship to prevent her from falling into enemy hands.
The flag that flew over the fort during the battle was created by Colonel Moultriewhen he was ordered to take over Fort Johnson on James Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina in 1775. It was the first United States flag flown in the south.Moultrie designed a blue flag with a white crescent moon in the canton with the word “Liberty” on the moon. Keeping with this theme, Moultrie’s South Carolina regiments wore blue uniforms with a silver crescent on their caps and the words “Liberty or Death.” Moultrie chose the design to honor his soldiers and continued the tradition of using the crescent as a symbol of resistance to tyrannical rule.
During the battle, the pole holding up the Fort Moultrie Flag was broken by a cannon shot and the flag fell down outside the fort. Sergeant William Jasper, risking death from the bullets and cannon balls flying all around him, allegedly cried, “We cannot fight without a flag!” He replanted the flag on the walls of the fort, earning him a place of renown in the American Revolution.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island was a decisive American victory over the British. The outcome on Sullivan’s Island would prevent other British efforts in Charleston for over three more years, and it revived the American spirit. The pride of victory at Sullivan Island was initiative for more Americans to support the break from Great Britain, because the victory was achieved against all odds.
Fort Sullivan was renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of Colonel William Moultrie’s success in defending Charleston. Today, the flag of the State of South Carolina is based on the Fort Moultrie Flag. It is exactly the same as the original, except that the word “Liberty” is removed from the crescent and it has a Palmetto Tree added in the center of the blue field. The Palmetto Tree was added by the state during the Civil War. Several variations appeared during that time, but the version with the palmetto added, to represent the palmetto logs that were used at Fort Moultrie, is the one that survived as the official flag of South Carolina.
I visited Fort Moultrie recently. The following pictures are from my camera.
William Moultrie was promoted to Brigader General after the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. He died in 1805 at the age of 74 and was buried outside Charleston, in the family cemetery on his son’s property at Windsor Hill Plantation. The exact location of his body was unknown until 1977 when it was found by archeologists. On June 28, 1978, the remains of this Revolutionary War hero and early leader in South Carolina history were reinterred on Sullivan’s Island near the water at the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center. Today, William Moultrie’s grave is marked by a flagpole and a tombstone enclosed by iron fencing.
Grave of General William Moultrie
Grave of General William
The fort that stands today reveals no traces of the fort that defended Sullivan’s Island. The original fort fell into decay and was rebuilt in 1798. It too suffered from neglect and was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. However, Fort Moultrie was rebuilt for the third time. By 1809, a new brick fort stood on Sullivan’s Island.
After South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, Fort Moultrie was abandoned for the stronger Fort Sumter across the harbor. The fort was modernized several times and was used as a defense in WWI and WWII. It was maintained until 1947. The fort fell into decay once again. In 1960, South Carolina transferred Fort Moultrie to the National Park Service as a unit of Fort Sumter National Monument.
Rally the boys! Hasten the chiefs! Our Warren’s there and bold Revere. With hands to do, and words to cheer! ~~The words written along the top of the back bar in the Green Dragon Tavern from a 1700’s tavern ditty about Revere’s part in the Boston Tea Party.
And Warren was there. You just had to look a little harder to find him.
My seven day return trip to Boston was a pilgrimage I’m sure few people take. My husband and I were determined to find evidence that Dr. Joseph Warren was indeed still in and around Boston.
Green Dragon Tavern. The Sons of Liberty regularly met here. This isn’t the original tavern or site which was located in the North End in the mid-1700’s. Aside from the back bar, he was listed on the menu with his fellows, who each had a menu item. We ate and drank at the tavern four nights.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is massive. It was no easy feat finding the gallery where John Singleton Copley’s paintings hung. The painting of Joseph Warren hung on a wall between the paintings of John Hancock and Mercy Otis Warren. Copley’s paintings of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere were also in the gallery. The paintings are almost life-size and breathtaking!
We found John Trumbull’s painting of The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 in a different gallery. It was small and somewhat faded and hung out of the reach of tourists.
The State House. Joseph was mentioned in a small exhibit on the second floor. What looks like a hacksaw to the right behind the sword’s tip is a doctor’s bone saw. In April 1776, his remains laid in state here until his funeral at King’s Chapel (the Stone Chapel) on April 8.
The Old South Meeting House. Joseph delivered two Boston Massacre Orations in the meeting house. One in 1772, and one in 1775. This was where the patriots met to build a revolution. To my dismay, the Plexiglas in which his likeness and achievements is etched, reflected light (even without a flash) and the camera shot was impossible to see. This is the pulpit (today) from which he gave his oration.
King’s Chapel. After the Siege of Boston ended in March 1776, Joseph’s remains were identified and removed from Bunker Hill. The Freemasons made the arrangements for their Grand Master’s funeral, which was held in King’s Chapel in the heart of Boston.
Boston City Hall Plaza. The house where Joseph lived with his family and his medical apprentices was once located here. It’s recently been in the news. Joseph’s biographer, Dr. Samuel Forman, and others are intent on erecting a monument on the grounds proclaiming that this was the spot where the Revolutionary War began because Joseph dispatched Revere and Dawes to Lexington from his house. This is a view of the plaza (where the event tents are) from the Bell in Hand tavern across the street. The WWII Holocaust Memorial is the green glass between the two locations.
Bunker Hill. Dr. Joseph Warren and Colonel William Prescott are the only names on the Massachusetts Gate. While my husband climbed the monument, I sat inside the adjoining building and watched the tourists largely dismiss the seven foot tall statue of his likeness, which commanded the attention in the sparse room. It saddened me to witness how obscure he really is.
Warren Tavern. Located a few blocks from the Bunker Hill monument, the tavern, named for him, dates to 1780 and is dedicated wholly to all things Joseph Warren. Of course he was never there, but the tavern was a favorite watering hole for his close friend, Paul Revere. We visited Bunker Hill and ate at Warren Tavern on my birthday.
The Clarke-Hancock House in Lexington. Joseph dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes to this house to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British regulars were out. We were the only tourists there at the time.
Harvard. Of the three buildings that made up the Harvard campus when Joseph attended from 1755 to 1759, only one original building is still standing — his dormitory, Massachusetts Hall. Washington housed his army in the dormitory in 1775 – 1776.
The Roxbury Latin School. We didn’t visit the school where Joseph was a student and later a teacher after graduating from Harvard. There is a statue of him in the school’s courtyard that was once located in Warren Square in his childhood town of Roxbury. The General Joseph Warren Society contributes to the school’s annual fund. This picture is from the school’s website.
Grand Lodge of Masons of Massachusetts. We didn’t visit the masonic lodge, that houses a museum, because we arrived after it closed and it was our last day in Boston. We will visit next time and look for Grand Master Joseph Warren.
Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plains, MA. Perhaps, if Joseph remains hadn’t been moved from Granary Burying Ground in Boston, where some of his fellows are buried, like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, and a place thousands of tourists visit daily, history may not have forgotten him. But the magnificent beauty of Forest Hills Cemetery where he’s buried changed my mind. As soon as I saw the cemetery gates, I knew he belonged there. The cemetery is expansive and magnificent: full of beautiful gravestones, monuments, statues, and gracefully curving roads. Forest Hills Cemetery
The road where his burial site is located is called Mount Warren.
Joseph’s remains are buried in a joint family plot with his paternal grandmother, Deborah Warren; his mother and father, Mary and Joseph Warren; his oldest son, Joseph; his youngest brother, Dr. John Warren; and John’s son also named John. A glacial boulder selected by the Warren family serves as a giant tombstone. The remains of each person was, at one time, buried in their own grave. Except for Joseph’s, it appears that the original tombstones surround the boulder.
A statue of Joseph stands atop the boulder. The statue was erected on October 22, 2016 by the 6th Masonic District that hosted a ceremony where their Grand Master dedicated a new memorial to “the namesake of our Distinguished Service Medal, M.W. Joseph Warren” in conjunction with members of the Warren family. The flags on his grave site are new, so someone is visiting.
Forest Hill Cemetery Gates
Statue of Joseph Warren erected on his family grave site by the 6th Masonic District October 2016
Warren family grave site in Forest Hills Cemetery
General William Heath and William Dawes is also buried there.
Vine Lake Cemetery. We traveled to Medfield, MA to visit the grave of the woman who was nanny to Joseph’s four children and assumed to be his fiance at the time of his death: Mercy Scollay. My husband gathered acorns from the ground around Joseph’s grave site and placed them on Mercy’s grave. The inscription on her gravestone was disturbing because I wondered if she was referring to Joseph. It read:
I know whom I have believed and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day.
Mercy lived another 50 years after Joseph’s devastating death. She never married.
This was the last picture I took in Boston the evening before we left. Faneuil Hall is the brick building to the left. Samuel Adams’ statue is in the mall in front. Faneuil Hall was only two stories high during Joseph’s time.
I posted this picture on Facebook. “Good night, Boston. Good night, Joseph Warren.”
Dr. Joseph Warren is an important character in my award-winning historical fantasy series Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook. Angels & Patriots Book One
Angels & Patriots Book Two, The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two
“We shall cut no small figure in going through the Country with our Cannon, Mortars, etc., drawn by eighty yoke of oxen” ~~Henry Knox in a letter to his wife, December 1775
General George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 2, 1775. He had been led to believe by the Continental Congress that he would find 20,000 battle-tested provincial soldiers. What he found was not a proper army. In his opinion, it was a mob of dirty and nasty “puritanical savages”. Further, on his arrival, he was assured that the army had 308 barrels of gunpowder. It was actually only 90 barrels. A lack of heavy weaponry, made offensive operations virtually impossible.
What was Washington, who was intent on ending the Siege of Boston in one decisive stroke, to do?
Enter a twenty-five-year-old former book seller with militia and battle experience, an interest in artillery, and a talent for building fortifications: Henry Knox.
Henry impressed Washington with his energy, ingenuity, determination, and knowledge. Which man brought up the cache of artillery at Ft. Ticonderoga in upstate New York is unknown, but Henry volunteered to travel the 300 miles to Ticonderoga and bring the artillery back to Cambridge.
Washington issued the order, backed Knox financially, and wrote to General Philip Schuyler asking him to assist Knox in the endeavor.
Leaving on horseback and accompanied by his nineteen-year-old brother, William, and an expeditionary force, Knox reached Ticonderoga on December 5, 1775. The plan was to transport over 60 tons of artillery by scows from the northern tip of Lake George thirty-two miles to Ft. George on the southern tip of the lake.
Henry had prayed for warm weather, and until that point, the weather had remained mild, but the wind picked up and forced Knox’s freezing men to row into an icy gale. One of the scows fetched up on a rock and filled with water. As long as the scows gunnels remained above the water line, the boat could be floated. With heroic effort, they finally succeeded in getting all the cannon to the southern end of the lake just as it began to freeze over.
On December 17, Henry wrote to Washington, “I have had made forty two exceedingly strong sleds & have provided eighty yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp. . . . I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”
Henry began earnest negotiations with local Stillwater (Albany-area) native George Palmer for the expected oxen and sleds. Per Henry’s journal, Palmer walked off in a huff after General Schuyler complained he was charging too much for his services. Thus, Knox relented to using mostly horses to pull the laden sleds.
While William Knox remained at Ft. George to procure the needed sleds, Henry went ahead to the Hudson River, where he and his men took steps to strengthen the river ice in anticipation of the artillery’s arrival and crossing.
Once the horses and sleds (and some head of oxen) were secured, the Noble Train of Artillery left Ft. George and moved along a difficult and exceedingly slow route following the Hudson River, with the crews forced to cross the frozen Hudson four times before reaching Albany. On January 5, from Albany, Henry wrote Washington: “The want of snow detained us some days, and now a cruel thaw hinders [us] from crossing [the] Hudson River, which we are obliged to do four times from Ft. George to this town.”
When the train was able to move on, Henry was forced to break up his caravan into smaller groups of sleds due to logistics. On crossing the Hudson east to Massachusetts, cannon broke through the ice and crashed into the water. With the help of locals, they recovered the cannon. On January 9, the last of the cannons had crossed the Hudson.
Crossing and recrossing the Hudson had proved difficult, but the hills and mountains of western and central Massachusetts were just as challenging. On the down slopes, the huge heavy sleds threatened to run ahead of the teams that were pulling them. They were plagued by lack of snow. Another “cruel” thaw left them stranded in Westfield.
In Westfield, Henry entertained the locals, many who had never seen cannon, by firing a mortar that became known as “Old Sow”. It was here that Henry learned that John Adams and George Washington had named him to succeed the ailing Richard Gridley as colonel of the Regiment of Artillery. (Gridley’s artillery regiments had been an embarrassment at Bunker Hill.)
In the last week of January, 1776, the first of the noble train arrived in Framingham, Massachusetts. Henry Knox was back in Cambridge by January 24.
Knox’s journey provided the Continental Army with a windfall of artillery that ultimately led General William Howe to evacuate his British troops from Boston, taking thousands of loyalists civilians with them, and effectively ending the Siege of Boston without a single shot fired on either side.
Colonel Henry Knox was eventually promoted to major general and remained loyal to Washington throughout the war.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 2013: Penguin Books, New York, NY.
#10. Family physician of John Adams. He was an active organizer of the Boston Tea Party and participated in the Continental Congress.
#9. Printed a radical rebel newspaper in Boston, the Massachusetts Spy and founded The American Antiquarian Society.
#8. Edes published the antagonist Boston Gazette, a newspaper which financed the Boston Tea Party and printed anti-British propaganda.
#7. Became a spy for General Thomas Gage, first Surgeon General of the Continental Army, character in the video game Assassin’s Creed III.
#6. Arnold, along with Ethan Allen and his boys, won control of Ft. Ticonderoga for its aging artillery. Gave $500 to Joseph Warren’s orphans.
#5. April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren dispatched Dawes to Lexington to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams, & the militias, of British movement.
#4. April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren dispatched Revere to Lexington to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams, & the militias, of British movement.
#3. Hancock used his wealth to support the colonial cause. Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and Hancock were the ultimate triumvirate for liberty.
#2. “Father of the American Revolution” because of his early stand against the tyranny of Great Britain. Failed in business and pecuniary matters.
#1. Handsome idolized leader of the rebellion April – June 1775, Major General, killed at Bunker Hill at age 34, America’s first martyr.
Dr. Joseph Warren is an important character in my award winning novel Angels & Patriots Book One: Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill. Buy it today on Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook. Angels & Patriots Book One
#6“There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.” ~~Benjamin Rush, referring to George Washington, 1776
#5 “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.” ~~James Otis, Rights of the British Colonies, 1764
#4 “Now what liberty can there be where property is taken away without consent?” ~~Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists, 1772
#3 “When liberty is the prize who would shun the warfare? Who would stoop to waste a coward thought on life?” ~~Joseph Warren, Letter to Patriots in Connecticut 1774
#2 “Give me liberty, or give me death!” ~~Patrick Henry in a speech to the Second Virginia Convention, 1775
#1“There! His Majesty can now read my name without glasses. And he can double the reward on my head!” ~~John Hancock, after signing the Declaration of Independence, 1776
Dr. Joseph Warren is an important character in my award-winning historical fantasy novel Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook. Angels & Patriots Book One
Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two
Many of you are aware of my excessive interest in the patriot leader and Son of Liberty, Joseph Warren. In fact, the first novel in my series, Angels & Patriots, is dedicated to Dr. Joseph Warren and another man, who was not an American patriot—Major John Pitcairn.
I’m not sure at what point (or why) in my research, these men peaked my interest. Perhaps, it was because both men have largely been forgotten, yet they each played a vital role in the infancy of the Revolutionary War. I read and studied them until I felt I could make an attemptto write about them from their point of view, I perceived them as having some of the same characteristics— integrity, honesty, charm, and heroism.
Both Warren and Pitcairn were mortally wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill, on June 17, 1775. Their deaths were recorded in a 1786 painting by John Trumbull – The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. This version shows the location of Warren and Pitcairn in the historically inaccurate painting.
There is more information on Dr. Joseph Warren, (who died at 34) than on Major John Pitcairn (who died at 52). A biography about Warren’s life was published in 2012.
I found no dedicated writings about Pitcairn aside from resources on the internet, and a video game, Assassin’s Creed III (2012), in which Pitcairn is ultimately assassinated. Pitcairn was cast as an antagonist in the TV mini-series Sons of Liberty (2015). I wondered why he was singled out as a “bad-guy” when history describes Pitcairn as having a sense of honor and the respect of both the Loyalists and the Patriots of Boston.
After reading accounts of Pitcairn’s life, I tried to picture him as a man, not just a bunch of statistics, dates, and speculation. Ironically, there are no known likenesses of him.
John Pitcairn was baptized at St. Serf’s, Dysart, a port town in Fife, Scotland, on December 28, 1722 (Old Calendar – 1723). His date of birth is not recorded separately, so it may have been the same day.
In his early 20s, John married Elizabeth Dalrymple. Their first child, Annie, was born in Edinburgh in 1746, the year John was commissioned a Lieutenant in Cornwall’s 7th (Marines) Regiment. The couple went on to have six sons and four daughters.
The Marines were disbanded for a time and reformed on a permanent basis in 1755. John retained his lieutenancy. In the Marines, commissions were not purchased. John didn’t reach the rank of Major in the Chatham Division until 1771, at age 48. His son, William, followed him into the Marines.
In December 1774, as unrest spread in the Colony of Massachusetts, he arrived in Boston with some 600 Marines drawn from three divisions: Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. The Plymouth Marines were not properly trained, had unfit officers, had no proper weather clothing or equipment, and were undisciplined. Some of the men sold their equipment to buy rum.
Here, I saw John as a humanitarian with a sense of duty and responsibility for his marines. Not as a naive task master, but as a sensible mature man who understood that respect far out lasted threats and punishments. He found it hard to apply harsh discipline. By example and patience, he managed to drill them into shape. He lived in the barracks with his men to keep them sober and succeeded in gaining their respect.
On the night of April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage ordered a handpicked assembly of 800 troops to gather on the shores of Back Bay, in Boston. Their clandestine mission was to capture rebel weapons hidden in Concord. Gage assigned Colonel Francis Smith as officer in charge, with Major Pitcairn as Smith’s second.
Pitcairn was in charge of the companies in the vanguard of Smith’s column of British regulars. These men weren’t Pitcairn’s marines; therefore, he was unfamiliar with them and their skills. When his vanguard marched into Lexington, led by Lieutenant Jessie Adair, they accidentally veered down the wrong road and marched toward Captain John Parker’s line of militiamen. Pitcairn was genuinely horrified. I tried to imagine his sense of urgency as he galloped across Lexington Green shouting for his companies in the van to halt and hold their fire.
Still, a shot rang out, and eventually eight provincials lay dead.
After the bloodshed later that day in Concord, the exhausted and frightened British troops retreated from Concord to Boston under constant rebel fire. Pitcairn tried to maintain order among the ragged ranks even after his horse was shot, forcing him to walk.
Two months later, on June 17, 1775, John Pitcairn and his marines were ordered to stand ready as reinforcements for British General William Howe’s regulars as they attempted to march on a little rebel redoubt hastily constructed on the wrong hill on the Charlestown peninsula.
I imagined Major Pitcairn and his marines as they rushed the redoubt; Pitcairn waving his bayonet at the rebels and yelling, “Now, for the glory of the Marines!” I wondered what John’s son, William, saw and thought when a rebel in the redoubt aimed his musket at his father.
Did John Pitcairn see the man who was about to mortally wound him? What were his thoughts when he realized he had been shot in the chest? I’ve read that he knew the shot was fatal, but there had to be more rushing through his mind. Legend says he fell into his son’s arms, and was bleeding so badly that William was covered in his blood.
History paints John Pitcairn as a brave sensible man even as he faced his own death. He was taken by boat back to Boston, and put to bed in a house on Prince Street. General Gage sent a loyalist town physician, Dr. Thomas Kast, to tend to Pitcairn.
John insisted that he get his affairs in order before allowing the doctor to examine him. Hours later, Dr. Kast pulled John’s waistcoat away from his wounded chest. John hemorrhaged to death. His son cried out to the marines, “I have lost my father!”
John was buried in the crypt of Christ Church, the Old North Church, in Boston. The fatal bullet and his uniform buttons were returned to his wife and children.
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
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.
Read more about Major John Pitcairn in my novel Angels & Patriots Book One. Buy it today on Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook. Angels & Patriots Book One