Saturday, December 13, 2014

People: Leslie

Oft mentioned, Little Known

I have profiled a few of the "second tier" First Patriots, those who played important but less widely lauded roles in the American war for independence. This blog looks at one such person but from the British side. As I did my homework and research for some of the backdrop to the Yankee Doodle Spies, the name of one British officer appeared more regularly than others. The name  Alexander Leslie popped up in battles and campaigns from New York to the Carolinas. I began to wonder about this man who seemed to lead troops and be in the most interesting places but never seemed to be the guy, as was the case with say, a Simon Fraser or Banastre Tarleton.

Alexander Leslie

Before the outbreak of War

Alexander Leslie, son of the Earl of Leven and Melville, joined the army in 1753, as an ensign in the Third Foot Guards. In 1768, he was lieutenant-colonel of the 64th regiment, stationed in Boston. His quick rise in rank is an indicator of Britain's extensive military commitments during that period of warfare. Leslie served with the British garrison at Boston prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Before the American War of Independence broke out, he led troops on a mission to Salem, Massachusetts to find contraband weapons, including cannon, held by the Patriots. A confrontation (not physical) with rebels at a raised bridge disrupted the mission and delayed his advance. His force was eventually allowed to proceed into Salem, but found nothing of consequence and retreated. An early version of Lexington and Concord was narrowly averted. One wonders if a more hot blooded commander would have brought a different result. It is said a spy provided Leslie's commander Gage with faulty intelligence.

Leslie's Retreat near Salem Bridge

Mostly success in the North

Leslie's Light Infantry led the night movement
that cut off a large part of the rebel army on Long Island
By the New York campaign of 1776, he was a brigadier-general. He led troops on Long Island, at Kip's Bay, and at Harlem Heights. Leslie commanded a brigade of Light Infantry, elite soldiers more adept at fighting in the fields and forests of America. Men who could shoot, move and fight better than most. His brigade formed the advanced guard of General William Howe's strategic night envelopment of Washington's forces. The Light Infantry seized the strategic Jamaica pass at night and led an advance in the dark that cut off a large portion of the American troops. Leslie's command suffered 63 casualties for their efforts. This was a relatively small amount for such a critical and successful action but the numbers mirror those of the other brigades that fully engaged during that sultry day near Brooklyn. But when the British took New York, Leslie's British Light Infantry were  mauled by Colonel Thomas Knowlton's Rangers at the Battle of Harlem Heights.Unfortunately for the American cause, Knowlton was mortally wounded. Much of this is captured in book one of Yankee Doodle Spies, The Patriot Spy.

Battle of Harlem

When the British landed north of New York in October, 1776, Leslie's command was once more in the fray but  he suffered heavy losses at the Battle of White Plains.  The solid and steady Leslie missed a chance to earn glory came at Princeton in January of 1777. General Washington had escaped the onslaught of British under Lord Cornwallis by a night march around the British left  towards Princeton, which lay several miles to Cornwallis's rear. Leslie commanded the brigade garrisoning Maidenhead (today's Lawrenceville, NJ). Lord Cornwallis  ordered Leslie and Mawhood's brigades into action. But before Leslie could play a role, the vanguard of the Continentals smashed through Colonel Mawhood's brigade and took Princeton. The Continental Army escaped Cornwallis and found sanctuary behind the Watchung Mountains at Morristown. Leslie also participated in the siege of Charleston as commander of the combined brigade: four battalions of Light Infantry and elite Grenadiers, the cream of the British troops. When Charleston fell Leslie initially took command of the city. He remained there only a couple of weeks. Once he had organized the garrison General Henry Clinton ordered him back to the main British garrison in New York. He took command of the Light Infantry and Grenadiers quartered there.

Washington leading the attack at Princeton

Struggling in the South

In the autumn of 1780, Clinton sent Leslie to the Chesapeake Bay at the head of an expedition intended to divert American forces and then seize the stores of supplies the Americans had gathered for their defense. Leslie reached Virginia in October, but soon received orders from Cornwallis (he was now under his command) to continue on to Charleston. Leslie must have realized that Virginia would prove critical to the successful conclusion of the war because, before he continued south, he sought confirmation from Clinton. His correspondence suggests that he went south only reluctantly. Prior to leaving Virginia, he wrote Clinton that he hoped "you will be able to take up this ground; for it certainly is the key to the wealth of Virginia and Maryland." But south he went. Leslie arrived in Charleston in mid-December. There he received orders to march inland and rendezvous with Cornwallis's army. Cornwallis's decided to wait for Leslie's to reinforce him before proceeding to link up with BanastreTarleton. That decision proved a crucial mistake. Delayed by bad weather, Leslie's force reached the main army camp on January 18, one day after the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton had to face Daniel Morgan's division without support form Cornwallis, whose presence might have made it a British victory instead of a resounding defeat.

The Cowpens

 Leslie's command accompanied Cornwallis's forces in pursuit of General Nathaniel Greene's army . At Guilford Courthouse, he commanded the British right in a style which Cornwallis praised in his follow-up dispatch: "I have been particularly indebted to Major-General Leslie for his gallantry and exertion in the action, as well as his assistance in every other part of the service". Leslie took part in the tortuous march north from the Carolinas into Virginia, one of the amazing feats of the war. However, Leslie was not with Cornwallis at the siege and surrender of Yorktown. By the summer of 1781, his health deteriorated to a point where Cornwallis transferred him to Charleston, whence Clinton recalled him to New York.

But the stay in New York was short-lived. On August 31st, Clinton ordered him to sail once more to  Charleston and assume command. After Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Clinton placed Leslie in command of all British forces in the south. The weather and strain of command proved grueling on Leslie. He had a bad fall from his horse that debilitated him and complicated his other ailments. Recognizing his ill health, he asked to return to New York but Clinton could not spare him. He remained in command throughout the rest of the year despite numerous requests to be relieved due to deteriorating physical stamina and ability to handle stress . Leslie had toiled in America for years, his wife was dead and he had a sole daughter whom he wished to see and ensure a suitable marriage. He pointed out several suitable replacements but Clinton, although professing sympathy, delayed and stonewalled his requests.

After the British took Charleston it became the "Green Zone"
of the southern theater

Frustrating Finish

So Leslie soldiered on, supervising the demise of British interests in the south and after the treaty, organizing the consolidation and elimination of British garrisons while dealing with unrelenting rebels, disheartened troops, and complaining Loyalists, who watched in disbelief  their birthright and lives evaporated as the British withdrawal from Charleston approached. As it turned out, Leslie's command in Charleston outlasted Clinton's stay in New York, which the new British commander in chief General Guy Carleton would have the honor of evacuating. Gradually withdrawing the British inland garrisons from outposts, maintaining order, and fending off rebel incursions, was no easy task and offered little glory.The time in Charleston would have sapped the strength of a robust man. The southern rebels were among the most active throughout the war and bitter small scale fighting, theft of property (by both sides), and general mayhem hallmarked his command. As Loyalists in the thousands descended on the sanctuary of Charleston (another sort of "Green Zone" like New York) the sheer task of the care and feeding of civilians became daunting. Leslie's efforts to arrange a cease fire of sorts went unheeded by the Americans, who now smelled blood and always smelled a trap from the British. Leslie held command of the city itself until it was finally evacuated in December 1782.

Back (at last) to Britain

Leslie, who would remain a widower his life, returned to Scotland in 1783. On a happy note, he was able to witness the wedding of his daughter, Mary-Anne, in 1787.  By accounts Leslie was liked by his peers, considered genteel and mild mannered by most. His life after America is surprisingly obscure given the fact he was appointed deputy commander of the  forces in Britain. In 1794 he was near Glasgow, Scotland where he led troops to suppress a rebellion by the Breadalbane Regiment of Fencibles. Some accounts claim he was hit by a stone while marching some of the prisoners away and died shortly after. However, at least one eyewitness account disputes that and points to a Major Leslie as the victim. Regardless, the quiet and easy going Scot died in December of that year. His demise was, like his army career, without fanfare and little noted. Yet the stalwart Scot should not be dismissed lightly. He served honorably and through great hardship and unlike so many of his contemporaries, with little regard for his own glory.

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