“Break and let the Marines through!” Cried a gruff Scotsman’s voice through the smoke and fog at the foot of the crimson-stained hill.
“If they won’t get out of the way we’ll bayonet the buggers!”
Pressing forward, a Major, bound for glory led his three hundred Royal Marines and advanced towards the rebel redoubt atop Breed’s Hill. Stepping over their comrades, some writhing and clawing at their scarlet coats, searching frantically to gauge the severity of their wounds while many others lay dead already, they pushed onward. Before them, another line of infantry was slowly pushed back and, upon waving his sword he ordered his brave boys to press on. And then, suddenly, without warning, he gasped and found himself stumbling back into the arms of a Lieutenant. His eyes, in horror darted around in his head, swift flashes of mud-encrusted leather shoes, bloodstained grass and a billowing surge of smoke that hovered o’er the scene played before his vision. His mouth became instantly dry, but in his confusion, he could not bring himself to ask for water. He knew he had been hit. The Lieutenant, distraught, let out a thundering moan.
“Dear God! He howled. I have lost my father!”
As he was carried back behind the lines, he could hear Colonel Nesbitt’s gallant men of the 47th forming up, their bayonets poised as they, with extreme haste, made their way headlong to the rebel position. The ferocity of their cheer as their voices boomed in unison was almost deafening over the ever louder crack of the fusillade that poured from the rebel lines, but it filled his veins with a joy that overcame his senses, fading as they were. He died but hours later, the .48 caliber ball still lodged in his breast. He was Major John Pitcairn of the First Royal Marine Battalion.
Hailing from the town of Dysart, in Fife, Scotland, Major John Pitcairn served with distinction in Canada during the Seven Years War and in the American Revolution. He was loved and deeply admired by both loyalists and rebels, and was known for his charm and profound sense of honour. Through the volatile atmosphere which cursed the American colonies, particularly in Boston, the hornet’s nest of rebel activities and sentiments, he remained ever devoted to King and Country and aspired to be instrumental in preventing an all-out rebellion.
Perhaps one of the best examples of his noted charisma were the frequent social gatherings he would host at the home of local tailor and Sons of Liberty sympathizer, Francis Shaw, with whom he was quartered with, which he held mainly for purposes of exchanging differences in opinion on the situation in Boston in a civilised manner. He quickly became known as a sort of mediator, a peacemaker between rival locals who were at each other’s throats. Whereas some within the army remained bitter and resentful of having been sent to the colonies to deal with the rebel upstarts, Pitcairn tried desperately to maintain close friendships with even the staunchest of rebel sympathizers, seeing it as mere differences of viewpoints between peoples of kindred blood and a shared, common history. He is even remembered as having prevented a grave duel between Shaw’s own son and a young Lieutenant.
Despite his efforts at keeping the peace, Pitcairn, with a heavy heart soon found himself landing his Marines at Charlestown that bleak afternoon on June 17th. He’d already witnessed the Battles of Lexington and Concord just two months before when his horse had been shot from under him on Lexington Common.
Much to the shock of General Thomas Gage’s forces, the rebels had constructed a redoubt in the middle of the night on the crest of Breed’s Hill. And it was there, on that hill where he caught the ball of a long rifle and tumbled back into the embrace of his son, William, joining the ranks of the other 225 red-coated souls who lost their lives on that summer day.
At the cost of 1,054 casualties, the British had taken the ground. General Sir William Howe would replace Gage, taking command of all British forces and capturing New York City, successfully driving General George Washington out.