We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part II: Pitcairn and Adair

We’ve mentioned a number of the British commanders and linked to some biographical information, but it may be useful to learn a bit more in-depth about the two Marine officers who played such significant roles in the Battle of Lexington.

Major John Pitcairn

Major Pitcairn was 52 years old at the time, so, no spring chicken. When Pitcairn had joined the Marines in 1746, they were still a part of the Army, though they did serve on Navy ships. He fought in the French and Indian Wars as a Captain, so he may have served between 8 and 17 years as a Lieutenant. Then he served at least 8 years as a Captain before his promotion to Major had come in 1771.

Unlike the British Army at the time, in which officers purchased their commissions, advancement in the Marines was purely by seniority. Since the Admiralty had determined that field grade commissions in the Marines had been largely honorary, no Marine officer was promoted to Colonel until 1771. This neatly coincides with Pitcairn’s promotion to Major, so his stalled advancement was greatly helped by that change.
When he arrived in Boston in 1774 to command the Marines, the situation was not exactly what we would imagine when we think of “Royal Marines”:

In Boston, he found that the marines he was to command were lacking adequate supplies, clothing and were an ill-disciplined lot. Drunkenness, fueled by the potent and cheap rum available in Boston, was so bad that Pitcairn took to living in the barracks with his men to keep them from drinking rum and wrote directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty describing the problem. He even blamed the rum for deaths in his regiment. Pitcairn enforced harsh discipline and marched his regiment hard and often on Boston Common. This toughening-up up proved invaluable to his marines on the long and bloody retreat from Concord.

— From Edward Witek‘s post on Pitcairn at Lexington

On the other hand, I might hear some arguments from those who have commanded Marines in garrison that, under poor leadership, that is exactly what a garrison can devolve to regardless of lineage.From the initial designation of Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot in 1664 until the disbanding of what had grown to 10 regiments of Marines in 1748, the size and organization of Marine units within the Army seems to have varied widely. While we always think of the elite Royal Marines today, they hadn’t been awarded that designation by King George III until 1802.

In 1755, the Marine Corps expanded to 50 permanent companies, each of which belonged to one of the Grand Divisions – Chatham, Portsmouth or Plymouth. Interestingly, the Marines companies in Boston were from all three Grand Divisions. My impression is that their nominal roots in a particular Grand Division had little affect on whether they were familiar with each other, as they would not often be formed into battalions anyway. Since that hadn’t occurred in the Americas since 1759 at Quebec, it is likely that few of the officers, NCOs and certainly none of the privates had ever “seen the elephant”.

Pitcairn would not survive the war, dying in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Lieutenant Jesse Adair

Adair is characterized in some of the passages that I’ve read as a young, impetuously aggressive officer. One would imagine that in a Marine Lieutenant from an Irish family with a strong military heritage. However, Adair was not a young officer. He was somewhere between 35 and 44 years of age at the time, though he certainly was aggressive. He may also have served in the French and Indian Wars with Pitcairn. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Adair would be noted , not only for his courage in surmounting the colonist’s defenses, but also as the “Eldest Lieutenant”. (That makes his promotion with the seniority system not indicative of any particular merit.)

There is also a story of Lieutenant Adair as not quite the sharpest officer during the 1776 evacuation of Boston as he was dispatched along Boston Neck to impede any pursuit.

Lieutenant Adair of the Marines, an acting engineer, was ordered to strew crow-feet in front of the lines to impeded the march of the enemy, as it was supposed they should attack our rear. Being an Irishman, he began scattering the crowfeet about from the gate towards the enemy, and, of course, had to walk over them on his return, which detained him so long that he was nearly taken prisoner.

Though it may simply have been an ethnic joke at the Irishman’s expense.

Adair did survive the war, rising to command of the 45th Company of Marines, “but was not the sort of officer who flourished in peace. In 1785, Captain Adair was ‘reduced’, and disappeared from the Marine List.” (Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, p282.)

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