John Pitcairn

1722–1775

John Pitcairn was a British officer most famous for leading British troops at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, triggering the American Revolutionary War.

John Pitcairn, British Officer, Shot at Bunker Hill, Illustration

This illustration depicts the moment John Pitcairn was shot and mortally wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

John Pitcairn Facts

John Pitcairn (1722–1775) was a British officer during the early days of the American Revolutionary War. Pitcairn led British troops into Lexington, Massachusetts on the morning of April 19, 1775, where his men engaged the Lexington Militia, inadvertently starting the American Revolutionary War. Two months later, Pitcairn commanded British Marines during the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775). During a third assault on the Americans, Pitcairn was shot in the chest while he led his men up the hill. After falling into the arms of one of his sons, who was a Marine, he was taken to Boston for medical attention. He died later that day.

The following facts and details provide an overview of Pitcairn’s role in the American Revolutionary War and his significance to American History.

Early Life and Military Career

  • John Pitcairn was born in Dysart, Scotland, in 1722.
  • His parents were Reverend David Pitcairn and Katharine Hamilton.
  • In 1746, Pitcairn joined the Royal Marines and was commissioned as a Lieutenant.
  • He rose through the ranks of the British Army, becoming a Captain on June 8, 1756, and a Major on April 19, 1771.

Boston Garrison

  • In November 1774, John Pitcairn was sent to the Boston Garrison, with 400-600 Marines under his command.
  • General Thomas Gage placed him in charge of settling disputes between soldiers and civilians.
  • While living in Boston, Pitcairn earned a reputation for treating the people of Boston fairly and being a disciplined commanding officer. He was known to attend church but also had a reputation for swearing.
  • Pitcairn lived near his men to keep them from drinking too much rum.
  • The house he lived in was owned by Francis Shaw, a Patriot and neighbor of the famous artisan Paul Revere.

British Expedition to Concord

  • General Thomas Gage named John Pitcairn as the second-in-command of the expedition to Lexington and Concord on April 18–19, 1775, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith.
  • The expedition’s purpose was to seize and destroy military supplies hidden in Concord by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
  • The Patriot Spy Network in Boston learned about the expedition and Dr. Joseph Warren sent two express riders — Paul Revere and William Dawes — to warn Patriots in Lexington and Concord (see Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride).
  • The British expedition moved slowly, providing time for the Alarm to spread through the countryside.
  • Upon hearing the firing of the Alarm Guns, Lieutenant Colonel Smith sent Pitcairn ahead with an advance force and sent a messenger back to Boston, asking General Gage to send reinforcements.
  • Pitcairn’s advance party was made up of men from six different Light Infantry Companies, all of whom were unfamiliar with him and his style of command.
  • Although the British Marines made up a significant portion of the Boston Garrison, they were not part of the expedition.

Captain John Parker and the Lexington Militia

  • When John Pitcairn and his men marched into Concord, they found Captain John Parker and approximately 80 men from the Lexington Militia and other towns assembled on Lexington Common.
  • The Americans were armed, so Pitcairn ordered them to lay down their weapons and disperse. According to Dr. James Thacher’s diary, Pitcairn shouted “Disperse, you Rebels! throw down your arms and disperse.”
  • Captain Parker ordered his men to disperse, but they took their weapons with them, which created confusion.
  • According to the Deposition of Thomas Price Willard, Pitcairn shouted, “Lay down your arms! Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms!?”
  • It is also believed that Pitcairn ordered his men not to fire unless he ordered them to, however, he did have them attach their bayonets to their muskets.

Battle of Lexington

  • As the Americans left Lexington Common, a shot was fired.
  • According to John Pitcairn’s report of the Battle of Lexington, a group of Americans fired first, from behind a wall.
  • According to the Deposition of William Draper, the shot was fired on Pitcairn’s command. Draper said, “the Commanding Officer of the troops (as I took him) gave the command to the troops to “fire! Fire! Dam you fire!” and immediately they fired before any of Capt Parkers Company fired.”
  • Pitcairn’s men rushed the Americans, firing on them and attacking with bayonets.
  • Some of the Americans fired back, but not before at least 7 were killed by the British.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Smith heard the shots and rode into Lexington where he, Pitcairn, and other officers restored order.
  • Afterward, the British marched to Concord.
  • Other than eyewitness accounts, there is no proof that Pitcairn ordered his men to fire, or that they fired first. However, it is undeniable that Pitcairn’s men did attack the Americans, setting in motion a series of battles that took place the rest of the day.
Battle of Lexington, 1775, Doolittle, Plate 1 Detail, NYPL
This 1775 engraving by Amos Doolittle depicts the Battle of Lexington. Pitcairn is on his horse, behind the British line, appearing to order his men to fire. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Pitcairn and Smith in Concord

  • While the British were marching to Concord, Militia Companies from Concord and nearby towns, including Acton and Chelmsford, were gathering on Punkatasset Hill, overlooking the town.
  • When the British arrived, John Pitcairn and Lieutenant Colonel Smith climbed a hill and surveyed the town from a graveyard.
  • Smith dispatched contingents of troops to guard the South Bridge and North Bridge and sent others to search Concord and the Barrett Farm.
Concord Fight, 1775, Doolittle, Plate 2 Detail, Smith and Pitcairn, NYPL
This engraving by Amos Doolittle depicts the British marching into Concord while Smith and John Pitcairn observe the Massachusetts Militia gathering on the hills around the town. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Concord

  • The British found some of the military supplies they were looking for and burned them.
  • The Militia Companies saw the smoke and thought the town was on fire, so they formed ranks and marched to the North Bridge.
  • British troops guarding the bridge fired on the Americans, who responded by firing the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
  • After a brief firefight, the British fell back to the town. The Americans did not follow them but withdrew and took positions along the road back to Boson.
  • Around noon, Lieutenant Colonel Smith organized his men and started the march back to Boston.
Concord Fight, 1775, Doolittle, Plate 3 Detail, North Bridge, NYPL
This Amos Doolittle engraving depicts the Concord Fight at the North Bridge. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Meriam’s Corner and Parker’s Revenge

  • The British were about a mile east of Lexington when they were attacked at Meriam’s Corner.
  • From that point, the Americans harassed the British back to Lexington, attacking them in force at Brooks Hill, and a bend in the road known as the “Bloody Angle.”
  • Just outside of Lexington, Captain John Parker and the Lexington Militia were waiting for the British, hiding alongside the road.
  • When the British came into view, Parker and his men opened fire.
Lexington and Concord, 1775, Meriam's Corner, NYPL
This postcard from the early 1900s shows Meriam’s Corner, where the Massachusetts militia attacked the British. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Pitcairn Takes Command at the Bloody Bluff

  • The British continued their march to Lexington, and the Americans continued to fire on them from behind walls and trees.
  • Near the Bull Tavern, the British took positions on top of an outcropping of rocks — known as the “Bloody Bluff” — and fired on the Americans.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Smith was shot in the leg and badly wounded.
  • At that point, John Pitcairn took command of the British expedition.

Legend of the Pitcairn-Putnam Pistols

  • Reverend Edmund Foster of the Reading Militia said a British officer was “mounted on an elegant horse, and with a drawn sword in his hand, was riding backwards and forwards, commanding and urging on the British troops.” 
  • According to legend, this officer was John Pitcairn.
  • Foster said that a group of Americans hiding behind a “pile of rails” opened fire on the officer, causing him to fall from his horse. Foster believed the officer was killed, and the horse ran off.
  • Pitcairn survived and was given another horse to ride.
  • However, the horse that ran off was carrying a pair of silver pistols. The horse was captured by the Americans, who found the pistols.
  • According to historian Frank W. Coburn, the pistols were sold at an auction in Concord, and purchased by Captain Nathan Barrett.
  • Barrett offered them to George Washington, but Washington declined the gift.
  • Barrett gave them to General Israel Putnam who carried them during the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) and the rest of the war.
  • The pistols remained in the Putnam Family until 1879 when they were donated to the Lexington Historical Society.
  • Today, the pistols are on display at the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington.
  • Over time, historical research has suggested the pistols belonged to Captain William Crosbie.
Israel Putnam, General
General Israel Putnam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Siege of Boston

  • At Lexington, the British expedition was reinforced by General Hugh Percy, who took command and led the way back to Boston.
  • General William Heath took command of the American troops and pursued the British.
  • As the British approached Boston, General Percy decided to return to Boston via Charlestown instead of crossing over Boston Neck.
  • This led to the Battle of Menotomy.
  • The expedition made its way through Charlestown to Bunker Hill.
  • The Americans ended their pursuit, but stayed in Cambridge and the surrounding area, starting the Siege of Boston.

Battle of Bunker Hill

  • On the night of June 16–17, 1775, American forces built defensive works (known as a redoubt, or small fort) on Breed’s Hill, near Charlestown, overlooking Boston Harbor.
  • When the British discovered this, they decided to launch an attack.
  • John Pitcairn led a battalion of Marines during the battle, and was part of the British left wing, under the command of General Robert Pigot.
  • Pitcairn and his men were on the extreme left of the line, closer to Charlestown.
  • One of Pitcairn’s sons, William Pitcairn, was one of the Marines under his command.
  • After two failed assaults, the British mounted a third attack on the American position.
  • The left of the British line was led up the hill by the infantry, followed by the Marines.
  • The infantry was bout 10 yards from the redoubt when the Americans opened fire, forcing them to fall back.
  • Pitcairn led his men up the hill and moved past the infantry, reportedly shouting, “Now, for the glory of the Marines!”
  • As he moved up the hill, he was struck in the chest by a musket ball.
  • He fell, and his son, William, caught him in his arms in a moment that was depicted by John Trumbull in his famous painting of the battle.
  • The third assault on the Americans succeeded in driving them from Breed’s Hill, but the British suffered heavy casualties.
John Pitcairn, British Officer, Detail from Trumbull Painting
This detail from John Trumbull’s 1786 painting, “The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775,” depicts Pitcairn falling into the arms of his son William. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

Pitcairn’s Death

  • John Pitcairn was removed from the battlefield and taken to Boston for medical care.
  • General Thomas Gage sent his personal physician, Dr. Thomas Kast, to tend to Pitcairn.
  • When Kast removed Pitcairn’s coat, he bled profusely and died within about two hours.
  • Pitcairn was 52 years old.
  • His remains were buried in the crypt of Christ Church in Boston.
  • Reverend Ezra Stiles, who would become the President of Yale College, said Pitcairn was “a good man in a bad cause.”
  • Although some sources indicate Pitcairn’s son, Thomas, was the one whose arms he fell into after he was shot, the Yale University Art Gallery identifies the man as William Pitcairn, as does the Library of Congress.

Who Shot John Pitcairn?

  • In 1787, Dr. Jeremy Belknap noted that Pitcairn was killed by “A negro man…”
  • In 1818, another historian, Samuel Swett, said a “black soldier named Salem” was the man who shot Pitcairn.
  • Because of these accounts, it was assumed the American solder was either Peter Salem or Salem Poor, however, there is no way to know who shot Pitcairn during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • A black man appears in Trumbull’s painting. According to the Yale University Art Gallery, he is the “unidentified servant of Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Connecticut Regiment, or possibly Peter Salem.” The Library of Congress identifies him as “Peter Salem.”
John Pitcairn, Peter Salem, Slave, Detail from Trumbull Painting
This detail from Trumbull’s 1786 painting shows the man who is believed to have shot Pitcairn. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title John Pitcairn
  • Date 1722–1775
  • Author
  • Keywords John Pitcairn, Battles of Lexington and Concord, Battle Bunker Hill
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 2, 2024

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