The Character and Contributions of a Revolutionary Lord – Major General William Alexander

A Book Review

Nelson, Paul David. William Alexander, Lord Stirling. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1987.

Revolutionary war historians tend to focus on the most famous generals to the neglect of lessor known ones who also made valuable military contributions and who exhibited interesting personalities. Paul David Nelson rectifies this omission through his highly engaging biography “The Life of William Alexander, Lord Sterling”. Incongruously, this self-styled Scottish Lord became a Continental Army Major General and a loyal subordinate of George Washington. Over seven years, Lord Sterling played an important leadership role in numerous Continental Army campaigns and battles.

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William Alexander, Lord Sterling painted by Bass Otis (1784-1861)

One of the best attributes of Nelson’s book is his personal characterization of Lord Sterling. Following a non-combat career in the French & Indian War as a secretary to Governor William Shirley, Alexander became an aggressive and valuable Patriot military commander. Nelson opines, “For neither he (Alexander) nor anyone else could have predicted that this overweight, rheumatic, vain, pompous, gluttonous inebriate would have been so ardent in battle”.[i]   Even in revolutionary times when most people consumed copious amounts of alcohol, contemporaries noted Alexander for being a heavy drinker throughout his life,.

After the conclusion of the French & Indian War, Alexander traveled to Britain to seek confirmation of a faintly defined family title as Earl, Lord Sterling. While he received confirmation from the Scottish parliament, the important English confirmation never materialized. As a result British military officers and gentlemen derided Alexander as a pretender. However, close American friends such as Generals Anthony Wayne, George Washington and others affectionately called him “My Lord”, even though the Patriots were fighting for republican values.

In 1775, Lord Sterling fought valiantly in his first major military command at the battle of Brooklyn, New York. He led a regiment that faced the full brunt of a superior British force. Alexander rallied his troops in a heroic attack on the British to allow other American units to retreat to the safety of fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. The British overwhelmed Lord Sterling’s command. In the battle’s last moments when there was no hope for victory, a plucky Lord Sterling offered his sword to a Hessian officer rather than to surrender to a condescending British officer.

At first, the British treated the captive Lord Sterling with derision but soon tried to co-opt him to offer peace terms to the Continental Congress. However, Lord Sterling proved not to be a willing ambassador for the British peace initiative. Again Nelson offers a pithy character assessment. “As the campaign progressed, General Howe found Lord Sterling’s attendance at his headquarters to be less and less indispensable. It is entirely possible that he recognized in Sterling the prisoner a greater threat to his supply of vintage than Sterling the soldier would be to British operation”.[ii]

After being exchange for Montfort Brown, Governor of Providence Island (Bahamas), Lord Sterling resumed command responsibilities with the Continental Army.   He led brigades or regiments in most of the subsequent major battles that Washington commanded including Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. Lord Sterling provided to be an able battlefield commander with an effective combination of aggressiveness, courage, steadiness and solid decision-making.

After the Battle of Monmouth, the war in the north devolved into a military stalemate. During this period, Lord Sterling successfully led multiple skirmishes and raids in areas surrounding New York City. As a result, Washington exhibited a high degree of confidence in him and assigned Lord Sterling as the overall commander when Washington left the Army’s encampment to visit the Continental Congress. Near the end of the war, Lord Sterling received his only independent field of command. Posted to Albany, he was named Northern Department commander in 1781. During this assignment, he defended the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys from several British incursions from Canada. With his typical aggressiveness, he sought to go on the offensive and capture Canada, but could not secure either the material or political support for such an extensive offensive campaign.

In January 1783, after seven years of harsh living military campaign living and a lifetime of overeating and heavy drinking, Lord Sterling succumbed to illness and did not live to enjoy the benefits of peace and independence gained later in the year.   William Alexander died at the age of 57. Washington wrote to Congress, “The remarkable bravery, intelligence, and promptitude of his Lordship to perform his duty as an Officer, has endeared him to the whole Army; and now make his loss the more sincerely regretted.”[iii]

For someone characterized as a committed family man, Nelson provides little information on his wife and children. Unfortunately, this is consistent with most other Continental Army Major Generals. However, Nelson provides a discerning evaluation of Lord Sterling’s financial affairs. He aptly describes Lord Sterling’s financial affairs including charges of war profiteering during the French & Indian War, lavish spending beyond his means, and running through a large inheritance. In the end, Lord Sterling left his family almost penniless.

Nelson sums up Lord Sterling’s life as a “merchant, family man, landed aristocrat, monarchist, republican and soldier…. Although he made significant contributions to politics, commerce, and especially warfare, his overriding personality characteristic was an all-engrossing enthusiasm for whatever he set his mind to do.”[iv] Lord Sterling was a likeable, good-humored person who endeared himself to those he came into contact. Lastly, his optimism provided comfort and support for those around him during risky, troubled and uncertain times.  What sets Nelson’s biography of Lord Sterling apart from other major general biographies are these well researched and thoroughly described personal characteristics of an enigmatic and complex man. I mostly heartedly recommend this book to those who wish to understand more about the unsung leaders who helped Washington win the Revolutionary War.

 

[i] Page 88.

[ii] Page 90.

[iii] Page 174.

[iv] Page 175.

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