At the onset of the American colonial rebellion in 1774, six hundred British marines, drawn from the Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth divisions, were dispatched to Boston to reinforce Major General Thomas Gage's (1721-87, commander of the British forces in North America 1763-75, governor of Massachusetts 1774-75) army. Major John Pitcairn was their commander - the correspondence of Major Pitcairn with his superiors before he sailed for America contains requests to be advanced to the rank of colonel before sailing, but it was not to be.
Pitcairn had to contend with a dispute between Admiral Graves and General Gage over landing his forces in Boston, and the fact that they had no proper winter clothing and equipment. He also wrote that the Admiralty should forbid the recruitment of men under 5' 6", since when he did get his Marines ashore, he was dismayed to see how poorly they compared when lined up next to the army.
The Plymouth Marines were particularly troublesome: "animals", in Pitcairn's words! They had been sent out with inadequate officers, who could not keep order. Men were selling their kit to buy the lethal local rum, which killed a number of them. Pitcairn spent some weeks living in barracks with them to keep them sober. It was only with regret and evident distaste that he resorted to flogging to enforce discipline.
Pitcairn drilled his Marines into a first class unit. Seven hundred additional Marines arrived in Boston in May of 1775, and were formed into a second battalion. Both battalions were organized along conventional guidelines, complete with grenadiers and light infantry companies.
While not a part of the British Army, the Marines served with the Army as infantrymen in North America. On shore, Marines were usually maintained at battalion strength with the grenadier and light infantry companies. Uniforms worn by the Marines were the standard madder red coat, with white facings containing no lace. Distinctive markings included their facing buttons which were arranged in pairs, along with the fouled anchor symbol utilized on their buttons and belt plate. They carried the standard British Army issue "Brown Bess" musket. The Admiralty forbade the standard army practice of purchasing commissions within Marine units. Instead, the merit promotion system was used to promote deserving officers.
Major Pitcairn was perhaps the one of the few British officer in Boston who commanded the trust and liking of the inhabitants. It is reported that whenever the townspeople had a dispute with the military, they would refer it to him, confident of obtaining just and considerate treatment. By his men he was beloved as a father, and among the last acts of his life was the drafting of a letter to Lord Sandwich in behalf of the worthy and unfortunate under his command. Ezra Stiles (later President of Yale), minister in Newport, and an ardent patriot, referred to Pitcairn as a man of integrity and honor and as a good man in a bad cause.
Major Pitcairn was billeted with Francis Shaw, a fiercely anti-British tailor and neighbour of Paul Revere. Shaw was particularly grateful to Pitcairn for preventing a duel between his teenaged son Sam and young Lieutenant Wragg, who was also billeted with the family. Wragg had made some provocative remarks about Americans, and Sam (later a diplomat!) had responded by throwing wine on him. Fortunately, Major Pitcairn was able to defuse the situation with his characteristic charm and wit. He was highly regarded for his integrity, honesty and sense of honour, and for dealing justly in disputes between the locals and the military. He attended Christ Church (now the Old North Church) every Sabbath but during the rest of the week was noted for his profane language. He hosted socials at Shaw's house, where British officers and locals, including Paul Revere, could meet and exchange views in a civilised fashion. There was family company around, also: his sons William and Thomas, also in the Marines, and his daughter Katharines' army officer husband, Charles Cochrane.