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.
In October, my husband and I are taking a return trip to Boston. We shall pay our respects to Major John Pitcairn.
“Even in this unfortunate event he has served his country, for he has taught the sons of Freedom in America, that the laurel may be engrafted upon the cypress, and that true glory may be acquired not only in the arms of victory, but in the arms of death.”
~~ A eulogy for Joseph Warren published in Philadelphia; 1775 (author unknown).
The Day: perhaps the decisive day is come on which the fate of American depends. My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his country-saying better to die honourably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the gallows. Great is our loss…and the tears of multitudes pay tribute to his memory…
~~Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband, John Adams: June 1775
For this tribute, we will join Joseph Warren in the months that comprised his swan song: April – June 1775.
In early April 1775, after the adjournment of the Provincial Congress in Concord, John Hancock and Samuel Adams didn’t return to Boston for fear they would be arrested or hung. Instead, the two leaders of the American rebellion, sheltered at the home of Reverend Jonas Clarke in Lexington.
Joseph ran a spy ring for the Sons of Liberty out of his home medical office. On the evening of April 18, he received word from one of his informants that, under orders from British General Thomas Gage, troops were assembling on the shore of Back Bay. Gage’s troops were readying to march to Concord, where a stockpile of rebel armaments was stored.
Joseph knew the armaments in Concord had been well-hidden or moved in early April; therefore, weapons were not his primary concern. He feared for John Hancock’s and Samuel Adams’ lives if the British discovered them hiding in Lexington. Joseph summoned Paul Revere and William Dawes to his home on Hanover Street in Boston, and then dispatched them to warn Hancock and Adams, and the countryside that the British regulars were out.
On the morning of April 19, Joseph received news of fighting in Lexington. He slipped out of Boston, and made his way to Menotomy to attend a Committee of Safety meeting. During the meeting, messengers came and went, delivering the latest news.
Afterward, Joseph fought alongside General William Heath. Heath and his men fired on the British as they retreated to Boston along what is now called Battle Road. Joseph was nearly killed when a musket ball hit a pin in his hair.
Despite his unabashed courage, Joseph knew the gallows awaited him if he returned to Boston. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, he lodged at Hastings House in Cambridge, close to the Provincial Congress and Committee of Safety meetings. With John Hancock and Samuel Adams soon to depart for the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Joseph had emerged as the de facto leader of what a militia captain described as “the intended revolution”. 
On April 20, under the auspices of the Committee of Safety, Joseph issued a colony-wide, almost threatening, circular letter urging men to enlist in the provincial army. He wrote, “Death and devastation are the instant consequences of delay . . .” 
A few weeks later, Joseph was elected to the loftiest political position of the rebellion—president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. As president, he also presided over the Provincial Congress’ various committees.
In late April, Captain Benedict Arnold told Joseph and the Committee of Safety there was a stockpile of aging cannons in the poorly guarded Ft. Ticonderoga. The committee sent Arnold, equipped with two hundred pounds of valuable rebel gunpowder, to confiscate the cannons. It was a portent of what was to come.
Several skirmishes erupted between the British and the Americans, leaving the store of rebel gunpowder severely depleted. Joseph, General Artemas Ward, and Moses Gill, the chairman of the Committee of Supplies, sent a plea to New York to send as much gunpowder as they could spare. The supply never arrived.
By June 15, it was clear that the British were about to make a preemptive strike on Roxbury, Dorchester, and Charlestown. Joseph, who now held a major general’s commission, and the Committee of Safety decided that the provincial army must make a preemptive move of their own despite the shortage of gunpowder.
At 9:00 p.m. on Friday, June 16, nearly one thousand provincial soldiers under the command of Colonel William Prescott assembled on the common in Cambridge opposite Hastings House. Joseph was not among them as they marched toward Charlestown. General Israel Putnam and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gridley, commander of an artillery regiment, joined Colonel Prescott just outside of Charlestown Neck.
Colonel Prescott and his men commenced building a redoubt on the Charlestown peninsula under the cover of night. The Committee of Safety’s order was to build a redoubt on Bunker Hill, but by mistake Prescott and his men built the redoubt on an unnamed (later called Breed’s Hill) hill closer to Boston.
Joseph was nowhere to be found on the morning of June 17. There are speculative reasons for his absence, but what is clear is that Joseph suffered from a sick headache that afternoon. Around 3:00 pm his former medical apprentice, Dr. David Townsend, arrived at Hastings House with the news that the men on Bunker Hill were being fired upon by the British.
After Joseph donned his elegant wedding suit, he and David made their way to Charlestown Neck. David stayed to care for men who had been wounded in the battle. Joseph went on to Bunker Hill. He encountered General Putnam. Putnam relinquished his command to major general Joseph Warren, but Joseph refused saying that his commission was not finalized, and he had come to fight as a volunteer.
When Joseph entered the redoubt, Colonel Prescott and his 150 exhausted men, raised a cheer of Huzza! Huzza! The sight of their leader joining the fight invigorated them. Like Putnam, Prescott relinquished his command to Joseph, and again Joseph refused saying that he had come to fight as a volunteer.
The rebels had, thus far, repelled the British regulars. What ended the American resistance was neither lack of courage nor unstoppable British resolve. It was the depleted supply of rebel gunpowder. The British regulars, grenadiers, and marines swarmed the redoubt. The rebels tried to make their last stand by swinging their muskets or throwing rocks at the British. Colonel Prescott ordered a retreat.
Joseph was one of the last remaining men in the redoubt. There has been much debate about what happened next. What is known is that Joseph was shot, at close range, in the face just below his left eye, and probably by someone who recognized him. His biographer, Dr. Samuel Forman, wrote that Joseph would have died instantly, unlike the scene depicted in John Trumble’s painting, “The Death of General Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill”.
The British stripped Joseph of his fine clothes, mutilated his body, and buried him in a shallow grave with a farmer. Exactly who and when Joseph’s body was mutilated has been lost to lore. His youngest brother, Dr. John Warren, attempted to find Joseph’s body, but he was stopped by British sentries at Charlestown Neck.
Joseph’s body wasn’t recovered until after the Siege of Boston ended in March 1776. The corpse was badly decomposed. Paul Revere identified him by a tooth he had made for Joseph.
Joseph Warren shouldn’t have been on the battlefield that day. The people needed him to lead the patriotic movement. They needed him as a friend, brother, and physician. His four children were orphaned.
Dr. Joseph Warren sacrificed his life for liberty, and in doing so, became America’s first martyr. His death encouraged the people of a nation yet to born, to keep fighting despite their grief. It’s what he would have done.
Painting of “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” by John Trumbull the Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Forman, Samuel A. Dr. Joseph Warren, The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty. 2012: Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 2013: Penguin Books, New York, NY.
The violences committed by those who have take up arms in Massachusetts Bay have appeared to me as the acts of a rude Rabble without plan, without concert, & without conduct, and therefore I think that smaller Force now, if put to the Test, would be able to encounter them with greater probability of Success…..
….In this view of the situation of the King’s affairs, it is the opinion of the King’s servants, in which his Majesty concurs, that the essential step to be taken toward reestablishing government would be to arrest and imprison the principle actors and abettors in the Provincial Congress (whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason….
~~Lord Dartmouth to General Thomas Gage, about April 16, 1775
The Earl of Dartmouth Secretary of State for the Colonies 1772 – 1775
This was part of Lord Dartmouth’s long awaited, cross-Atlantic response to General Gage’s admonishments, which he had written to Lord Dartmouth in late January 1775, on how to handle the rebellious acts of the colonists. Those defiant acts were seemingly endless: the illegal proceedings of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Continental Congress, the Suffolk Resolves, smuggling, seizures of powder and munitions, and threats to march into Boston “like locusts and rid the town of every soldier.” (Philbrick quoting Rev. John Andrews, pg 71)
General Thomas Gage Royal Governor of Massachusetts 1774 – 1775
General Gage did not consider himself a royalist, but part of his advice to Dartmouth was something he believed the King wanted to hear:
“It’s the opinion of most People, if a respectable Force is seen in the Field, the most obnoxious of the Leaders seized, and a Pardon proclaimed for all other’s, that Government will come off Victorious, and with less Opposition than was expected a few Months ago.”
By the time Lord Dartmouth’s lengthy letter of advice reached Thomas Gage, tempers among the British ministry, the loyalists, and the patriots in Massachusetts had simmered down. In fact at this point, there was growing discord among the patriots’ own ranks, rooted in a misguided optimism that once King George III saw for himself that his ministers had misled him, the king would withdrawal his troops and the demand for unfair taxes would withdraw with them, leaving New England free. That optimism was founded in the colonists’ previous experiences with protests and the king’s withdrawal of the transgressions.
If Gage had chosen to do nothing in response to Dartmouth’s letter that spring, the patriots may have had a difficult time maintaining a united front. Ironically, Dartmouth’s letter, based on information and instructions months old, arrived around the same time Gage was receiving valuable information from his British spies. Those things came together to lead Gage to make a series of decisions that would change the course of history.
Just as ironically, one of Thomas Gage’s spies was a trusted colleague among the members of the Sons of Liberty and the Provincial Congress: Dr. Benjamin Church.
Dr. Benjamin Church
When it came to rebel secrets and plotting; only Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Joseph Warren were more involved than Benjamin Church. But Benjamin had an expensive mistress, and spying brought the ready cash he needed to please her. He had no qualms about betraying his fellow patriots in exchange for the means to pay for the treasures that lay between the legs of his mistress, Phoebe Yates.
Church, among other spies, assured Gage there was a stockpile of provincial armaments located in Concord. Instead of taking Dartmouth’s advice to arrest the leaders of the Provincial Congress, Thomas Gage focused on securing and destroying the rebel military stores in Concord.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.
Borneman, Walter R. American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.
Patriots’ Day celebrations get underway this weeked in Boston, Lexington, Concord, and other towns where citizens and visitors pay their respects to the “shot heard ’round the world” which was fired in Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775. It was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.
If you’re lucky enough to attend the battle reenactments in Lexington and Concord and along Battle Road, or you’re just a modern day patriot who enjoys reveling in the history of our country, you may need a few things to get in the mood and character of the celebrations.
A fife is essential so you can march into battle with music.
The fife must be accompanied by a drum.
A flag so the enemy can clearly identify your intentions. There are so many to choose from. The red and white flag is specific to the Sons of Liberty!
A musket. Need I say more?
Knowledge about ammunition (flint, powder, etc) and how to load your musket.
How about a tricorn hat? Gold braiding isn’t required.
You’ll want to get dressed before participating in the battle.
Rum is an essential beverage in colonial America. Here is a guide to it’s proper use.
The colonials didn’t use cannons during the Battles of Lexington and Concord, but the British reinforcements did. Here’s one just in case you want one anyway.
Last but not least, you’ll need an alarm clock. The battle on Lexington Green began at the crack of dawn.
Celebrate the heroes from all walks of life, who made this country great! Happy Patriots’ Day!
“The spring of 1775 was filled with a rush of decisive events that ultimately brought a war no one had planned to fight.“
American Spring is a nonfiction account of the first six months of 1775, and the opening acts of the Revolutionary War. Borneman reveals the events leading up to the war, and those who participated in those events and the struggles between Great Britain and the American colonies. We are enlightened by the lives and faces of patriots that history has forsaken, such as the handsome charismatic Dr. Joseph Warren, as well as, those whose who are well-known, like the wealthy egotistical John Hancock. The author ventures into the backgrounds of the many British participants whose stake in the future of the American colonies was equally important, and the forgotten participants: women, Native Americans, and African Americans.
Borneman illustrates the alliances of the British and Americans soldiers during the French and Indian War, and their importance. He points out, as examples, campaigns shared by the future generals, George Washington and Thomas Gage; and the military tactics Gage learned from colonial frontiersman Robert Rogers.
He brings to light little commonly known information:
Did you know that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, led by Warren at the time, financially backed Benedict Arnold’s mission to capture cannons from the wilderness outpost Ft. Ticonderoga? And the congress’ decision to send 200 pounds of gunpowder with Arnold may have led to the colonial defeat at the battle at Bunker’ Hill?
The reader is presented with hundreds of vital questions that to this day have gone unanswered, and the author provides a variety of ways to ponder what may have actually happened:
Did Margaret Gage, the American born wife of British General Thomas Gage, slip the patriot, Dr. Joseph Warren, the information that led him to order the midnight ride of William Dawes and Paul Revere?
What of British General William Howe’s mentally instability after he led over a thousand soldiers to their death during the Battle of Bunker Hill?
American Spring is a splendidly vivid and detailed account of the choices, the blunders, the victories, the fears, and the boldness that shaped the events that led to the battles of Lexington and Concord, the ensuing calm that followed, and one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution: the Battle of Bunker Hill.
This book was my first resource for my research into the Revolutionary War for my WIP. I recommend this wonderful well-rounded book.