J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Capt. Alexander McDonald Raises a Regiment

In November, Ed St. Germain added a nifty primary source to the resources available at AmericanRevolution.org: the letterbook of Alexander McDonald, a British army captain who had retired on Staten Island. He married Susannah Livingston of the important New York political family, and remained on the British army half-pay-pension list.

In October 1774, McDonald recognized that a rebellion was imminent in New England, and indeed had already started, so he set off to recruit a Loyalist regiment from among his fellow Scotsmen. In late 1775, McDonald sent letters to top army commanders reviewing his work. Those letters advanced his other purpose: to compete with rival officers in seniority.

Here’s some of McDonald’s 30 Nov 1775 missive to Gen. William Howe in Boston:

Last October was a year when I found the people of America were determind on Rebellion, I wrote to Major [John] Small desiring he would acquaint General [Thomas] Gage that I was ready to join the Army with a hundred as good men as any in America, the General was pleased to order the Major to write and return his Excellency’s thanks to me for my Loyalty and spirited offers of Service, but that he had not power at that time to grant Commissions or raise any troops; however the hint was impproved and A proposal was Sent home to Government to raise five Companies and I was in the mean time ordered to ingeage as many men as I possibly Could.

Accordingly I Left my own house on Staten Island this same day year and travelled through frost snow & Ice all the way to the Mohawk river, where there was two hundred Men of my own Name, who had fled from the Severity of their Landlords in the Highlands of Scotland, the Leading men of whom most Chearfully agreed to be ready at a Call, but the affair was obliged to be kept a profound Secret till it was Known whether the government approved of the Scheme and otherwise I could have inlisted five hundred men in a months time, from thence I proceeded straight to Boston to know for Certain what was done in the affair when General Gage asur'd me that he had recommended it to the Ministry and did not doubt of its Meeting with approbation.

I Left Boston and went home to my own house and was ingeaging as Many men as I Could of those that I thought I Could intrust but it was not possible to keep the thing Long a Secret when we had to make proposals to five hundred men; in the Mean time Coll McLean arrived with full power from Government to Collect all the Highlanders who had Emigrated to America Into one place and to give Every man two hundred Acres of Land and if need required to give Arms to as many men as were Capable of bearing them for His Majestys Service.

Coll [Allan] McLean and I Came from New York to Boston to know how Matters would be Settled by Genl Gage: it was then proposed and Agreed upon to raise twenty Companies or two Battalions Consisting of one Lt Colonl Commandant two Majors and Seventeen Captains, of which I was to be the first, or oldest Captain and was Confirmed by Coll McLean under his hand writeing in the beating order he gave me. I now See by a List that came here of ten Companies that Coll McLeans, Major Smalls and Wm Dunbars Commissions are dated the 13th June and all the rest of the Captains dated the 14th, I suppose to Settle their Ranks when they Come together by a throw of the dice and I may have the good Look to be the youngest in place of the oldest Captain in the Regt

Captn Dunbar Sold his Company Som’time agoe and of Course his rank of the Army the same time and I think it hard that he should be now put over my head after all my Services, and the trouble I have taken from first to Last about this Regiment. I am now going on to fifty Years of Age and if my Loyalty and Long Services are to be rewarded In this Manner I have but a poor Chance of dying a field officer. I am far from blaming Major Dunbar for accepting of the oldest Company I know he has merit to deserve Every promotion that Can be given him. without prejudice to others, there are few people I wish better than he but if it were my own brother I Could not help Complaining this time.
McDonald complained more directly to Gen. James Grant on 3 Dec 1775:
Besides my Long Services of about one & thirty years, I have taken more pains about the raising of this Chore than any other person Concernd in it. I have Sacrificed my wife & four Children & all I had in the world to Contribute all in my power for the Service of my King & Country.

I was promised to be the oldest Captain in this Regiment and now I find that Major Wm Dunbar is put over my head, a Gentleman who a few years agoe Sold his Company and of Course his Rank and I think it very hard and very unjust that he should take rank of me, notwithstanding I have a Sincere Reguard for him and think him worthy of every Step that can be given him without prejudice to others; this is the Grievance that I Complain of, and You’re the only officer of rank in the Army that I have the Least dependance upon I hope you’ll Use your Intrest to See me Redressed.
On 27 Jan 1776, McDonald hinted to Gen. Gage, “I am almost fifty years of Age and if Your Excellency thought proper its almost time I was A Major.” Of course, Gage was no longer in any position to help, having been superseded by Howe.

And Capt. McDonald wasn’t just looking out for himself. On 29 Dec 1775, he wrote to Maj. Small:
I gave you a hint before of my Eldest boy being twelve years of age and that I have seen Officers Children even bastards get Commissions at three years of age, witness Lt Colonel Alexander Campbell at the havannah and I think it would Not be adoeing a great deal of injustice either to the Regiment or the Army to give My Child an Ensigncy [the lowest officer rank].
McDonald’s 15 Jan 1776 letter to his wife Sukey implies that this boy had been at Princeton until a short time before: “Pray Let me know whether Mr Weatherspoon refuse to keep the boy in the College or whether it were your own Choice that he should remain at home...”

(As usual, I added a few paragraph breaks to these passages to make them easier to enjoy online. Please go to AmericanRevolution.org to check out more exact transcriptions. The thumbnail picture shows an officer of the 42nd Regiment of Foot in full dress uniform, courtesy of Parks Canada. This uniform resembles that of McDonald’s regiment, the Royal Highland Emigrants, after 1776. But the men may well have worn trousers or breeches while on the march.)

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