On 14 Apr 1776, almost a month after the British military had evacuated Boston, the Scottish veteran and Loyalist officer Alexander McDonald tried to cheer up his wife Susannah (or “Susey”) with a letter from Halifax. McDonald had left his wife and children on Staten Island in the fall of 1774 when he went to raise soldiers for the Crown. In this letter, the colonel assured Susey that the force which had left Boston was still in good fighting shape, and that more troops were on the way from Britain to restore order.
I dare Say you will hear a varst number of Militias & false Reports about our Armys Leaving boston, these falsehoods will be spread among the poor deluded, and unwary inhabitants of America, though the truth is that General [William] How with his army Left that place as well as the Admiral and the fleet under his Command, by a positive order from home, to be in readiness to join the Grand Army and Navy, now on their way to America, Consisting of 60000 troops 70 Sail of men of war small and great, when these are joined with what there is already in America planns will be formed for the opperations of the Ensuing Campaign, where attacks will be made is unknown, and even if it was Known to me I could not acquaint you of it, one thing is most certain, that its fully determined to Conquer America and the Longer they will Continue obstinate & hold out the worst will their terms be.(As usual, I’m adding a few more paragraph breaks into these documents to make them easier to enjoy online. Please go to AmericanRevolution.org to check out more exact transcriptions.)
No doubt it will be reported through the Country that the army was forced to Leave boston, if so it is a most Infamous falshood, the army embarked on board their transports with all their baggage stores and artillery and every thing that was worth the Carrying without the Least hindrance or Mollestation, or the Loss of one Single Man, and which is more rare not a single Soldier of any of the Regiments attempted to desert though hundred’s of them might Concealed themselves in Cellers and Empty houses about the town, and none of the Yankees durst venture into the town for twenty four hours after the army had Left it.
I have nothing more to add but that I am in perfect Good health and greatly at a Loss which way to advise You, tho’ there is nothing on Earth I wish for More than to have you and the Children along with me, yet the dread of the fatigues and dangers you must Undergo Strikes a damp upon me that I cannot run the risque of ordering you and the Children to be exposed to Such dangers, this, and the Uncertainty of my staying in this place and yet unknown where I am to go, puts it intirely out of my thoughts to give you any such orders. I will certainly write by every opportunity, and Let you know, my farther thoughts upon this affair.
Surely the people has not got so barberously mad as to Mollest or hurt a poor innocent woman and still more Innocent poor Children and Especialy till they know how Matters are to be Settled in America. Should you form a Resolution of Coming to me with the Children, I have given directions to the Commanding officer of His Majestys Ships in the harbor of New Yorke to Send you all the asistance In his power, and procure you a passage in any of his Majestys Ships that Should Come this way; it’s to be hoped you will be allowed to depart in peace and dispose of as much of your Effects as you dont chuse to Carry along with You. You may bring as much Corn, oats, wheat or flour, Gammons, & fowls, of all Sorts as you can possibly get aboard.
David & Donald & Gilbert if he chuses shall Come along with You, all this is only in Case you should Chuse to Come, but if you could Live happy and at peace where you are, I would Like it better as I think it was best for you, for a Little time ’til I am able to know how Matters are Like to go—Peggy is perfectly recovered, her daughter is to be Christened this afternoon by the Name of Susanah McDonald, all the Gentlemen of our Core are very well, those of your acquaintance desires their kind Love to you and the Children. James McDonald mounted his post Guard to day as Lieutenant and I asure you will make a fine brisk officer.
Col. McDonald recognized that the evacuation of Boston meant that there were no significant British troops left anywhere in the thirteen colonies that had formed the Continental Congress. He didn’t know what that would mean for his family. In this period American public opinion swung to favor independence from Britain, and on 2 July Congress voted for that split as well. But that same day, the British force that McDonald described was landing in Staten Island, poised to take over Long Island and then Manhattan Island.
In his letter, the colonel alluded to David, Donald, and Gilbert, his and Susey’s children. Donald had been studying at Princeton, but his father was angling to get him a British army commission; on 19 Feb 1776, he’d pointed out to Maj. John Small on 19 Feb 1776 that “Mr. Day [a recently commissioned ensign] is not much bigger or older than My Son Donald.” James McDonald was, I suspect, a nephew of the colonel, and Peggy perhaps his wife.
The most famous member of this family was Alexander’s sister-in-law Flora McDonald, who had helped Charles Stuart escape capture in 1746. She had emigrated to North Carolina in 1773 and returned to Britain six years later, suffering a wound during a sea battle on the way back. The picture of Flora McDonald above comes from FirstFoot.com, which offers a more decidedly iconoclastic view of “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”