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Professor Donald Elder: Washington’s Generals—Heroes of the American Revolution

Oct 13, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Washington’s Generals—Heroes of the American Revolution

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today, I would like to ask you about General William Alexander, who also had the nickname Lord Stirling (although some history books have it as the Earl of Stirling).   What do we know about when and where he was born?

William Alexander was born on December 4, 1726, in New York City. His father James had moved to North America from Scotland 11 years earlier. While most immigrants came to North America seeking economic opportunity, James Alexander had actually left Scotland seeking sanctuary because of his involvement in a rebellion. In the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the English had ousted King James II and sent him into exile.

His son James in 1715 had attempted to regain the throne through what history calls the Jacobite Rebellion. James Alexander supported that cause, but when the English defeated the rebels at the Battle of Preston he realized that the chance to restore the son of James II to the throne had passed.

Accordingly, he booked passage to New Jersey. Fortunately for him, James Alexander had acquired computational skills through service in the British Navy, and he utilized that ability to become a surveyor. Soon, he became the surveyor general of New Jersey. This started James Alexander on a rapid rise to prosperity, aided significantly by his marriage to a well-to-do widow.

Thus, William Alexander would grow up in a family of wealth and privilege. Using his family connections, William went into business, and became a successful entrepreneur. Much like his father, William married a woman of means: the sister of the governor of New Jersey. By the start of the American Revolution, then, William Alexander had achieved a position of great prominence in the New York-New Jersey area.

2. How did he get involved in the American Revolution?

When news of the battles at Lexington and Concord reached New Jersey, the legislature immediately decided to support the rebellion. In one of their first actions, the body offered William Alexander an appointment as a colonel of the colony’s militia. Alexander quickly accepted, demonstrating that he had an immediate infinity for the Patriot cause.

Although we have no definitive proof, we think two factors helped to influence his decision. First, as previously mentioned, Alexander’s father had come to North America after participating in a rebellion against the English government. His father’s experience undoubtedly shaped the feelings of Alexander toward the monarchy, and in all likelihood helped guide him to the Patriot cause.

And second, his brother-in-law had sided with the Patriots, and this familial dynamic probably factored into his decision. Whatever his motivation, Alexander clearly threw his lot in with the rebels, and remained devoted to the cause throughout the Revolutionary War.

3. How long did he actually serve in the Revolutionary War?

As we will see, Alexander found himself in the thick of the fighting that George Washington did in the first three years of the Revolutionary War. From that point on, however, Alexander saw little actual combat. He commanded a raid on Staten Island in January of 1780 that had little effect, and when Washington led the bulk of his army to Virginia in 1781, he left Alexander in front of New York City as a diversion. After the British surrender at Yorktown in October of 1781, Washington returned with the majority of his army to the outskirts of New York City, and Alexander once again became his subordinate. For the next year, the British and American armies kept each other at bay in that region. Unfortunately for Alexander, rheumatism and gout began to take a heavy toll on him. Sadly, he died in January of 1783, a few months before news of the treaty ending the war reached North America.

4. Apparently, he was very involved in a number of battles in the New York, New Jersey area. Can you comment a bit about his role in each of the following battles?

  • Battle of Long Island
  • Battle of Trenton
  • Battle of Brandywine
  • Battle of Germantown
  • Battle of Monmouth

Once he became a colonel of the New Jersey militia, Alexander used his own fortune to equip a regiment of men. Showing great daring, he led his troops on an attack against a British transport ship. His capture of that vessel came to the attention of the Second Continental Congress, and they rewarded Alexander with an appointment as a brigadier general in the American Army in the summer of 1776.

After Congress gave Alexander his commission, he joined George Washington’s army in its encampment in and around New York City. Given command of a brigade (numbering 3,700 men and consisting of soldiers from Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania), Alexander positioned his force on Washington’s right flank on long Island. On August 27, a large British army attacked the Americans, and through a skillful maneuver they managed to outflank Washington’s position.

Most American soldiers fled in panic or surrendered, but Alexander chose to hold his ground. He ordered most of his soldiers to retreat, but kept four companies of the 1st Maryland Infantry in position. As the British approached the Marylanders, Alexander ordered his men to attack the enemy. This stopped the British advance, and forced them to regroup.

Eventually, the British did attempt to move forward, but once again Alexander’s men stopped them with an attack. This pattern repeated itself four more times, until Alexander realized the British had virtually surrounded him. Ordering his men to retreat, Alexander tried to flee from the British, but wound up having to surrender to a detachment of Hessians (soldiers from present-day Germany whose rulers had sent to America to fight with the British in return for money). Only 9 of his men escaped death or capture, but Alexander’s courageous stand allowed Washington to get his army to safety.

Alexander did not remain a prisoner for long. In the spring of 1776, American forces had launched a raid on Nassau in the Bahamas, and during that action they had captured the royal governor. The Americans offered to return him in exchange for Alexander, and this trade took place in the fall of 1776. Impressed with the tenacity and fighting spirit that Alexander had displayed at Long Island, Congress promoted him to major general upon his return. Alexander rejoined the army as it retreated from New York through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

During the retreat, Washington’s army had shrunk to only 3,000 men, and few gave the Patriot cause much chance of succeeding. Recognizing that he needed to boost morale, Washington decided to cross the Delaware River and attack a brigade of Hessians stationed at Trenton, New Jersey. Accordingly, on December 26, 1776, Washington launched a surprise assault at daybreak. Once again in command of his brigade, Alexander attacked the Hessians from the north, and soon succeed in routing the Hessians in front of him. In short order, and with minimal casualties, Washington succeeded in killing or capturing all the Hessians, giving the Americans an impressive victory.

In 1777, the British launched a campaign to capture Philadelphia, at the time the nation’s de facto capital. Washington moved his army into a defensive position outside of the city, deploying his forces along Brandywine Creek.

Unfortunately for Washington, the British employed the same strategy that they had used on Long Island the year before, and by the end of the day the Americans once again found themselves fleeing the battlefield. And just like at the Battle of Long Island, Alexander tried to stave off disaster by holding his position long enough for Washington to withdraw the rest of his army. Here again, Alexander succeeded in that task. After their victory, the British occupied Philadelphia, but Washington devised a strategy to try to regain the city.

Recognizing that the British had moved a portion of their army to the nearby community of Germantown, Washington decided to throw his entire army against that detachment. In the ensuing battle, Alexander’s division did not see action. Rather, Washington held them back as his reserve, planning to deploy them to exploit any breakthrough. Because no such opportunity presented itself to Washington, Alexander’s troops never went into battle.

After the defeat, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. When Washington learned in June of 1778 that the British had decided to abandon Philadelphia, he decided to attack the enemy as they marched back to New York City.

After examining the line of the British march, Washington selected the area around Monmouth Court House in New Jersey to focus his assault. Unfortunately for Washington, a subordinate did not execute the initial attack according to plan. Worse, that section of the American army began a precipitous withdrawal. Alerted to this fact, Washington brought up the rest of his force, and deployed Alexander’s division on his left flank.

Throughout the rest of the battle, Alexander and his men thwarted numerous British attacks, and by the end of the day they still held their initial position. That night the British chose to leave the battlefield, giving Washington a strategic victory, one aided in large measure by Alexander’s stalwart stand. As it turned out, the Battle of Monmouth Court House was the last major engagement that Alexander played any part in.

5. What was his major contribution to the American cause?

Actually, he gave invaluable aid to the American cause through an action far removed from the battlefield. After Washington had failed in his efforts to defend Philadelphia in 1777, a number of high-ranking American officers began to discuss a plan to take command of the army away from him. Led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway, this movement comes down through history known as the Conway Cabal. One of the letters that circulated among the dissatisfied officers came into Alexander’s possession. Immediately, he forwarded the letter to Washington. Armed with this information, Washington moved quickly and effectively to quash the insurrection, and no one ever challenged his authority again. Alexander’s decisive action regarding the Conway Cabal thus might have had an even greater impact on the outcome of the war than his courageous stand at the Battle of Long Island did.

6. Why is he often referred to as Lord Stirling?

A distant relative of Alexander’s had received the title of the Earl of Stirling from King Charles I in 1633. This title remained in effect until 1739, when the fifth Earl of Stirling passed away. That noble had no son to pass the title to, so in 1756 William Alexander claimed it. He presented his case, based on his distant relationship to the first Earl of Stirling, to a Scottish jury, and in 1759 the body ruled in his favor. From that point on, Alexander used the title of the Earl of Stirling or Lord Stirling.

The British House of Lords later reversed the ruling, thus negating his status of nobility, but William Alexander continued using the title anyway. He thus belongs in the group of individuals bearing titles of nobility from other nations that served the American cause.

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