All over in 4 ½ minutes? The battle of Prestonpans, 21 September 1745

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles considers some of the Members of Parliament involved in the battle of Prestonpans along with some of the other personalities caught up in the first major action of the 1745 Rebellion.

Early in the morning of 21 September 1745 government forces commanded by General Sir John Cope, encamped about ten miles east of Edinburgh, spotted rebel Jacobite forces making their way towards their lines. Cope’s army had already been wheeled about several times in anticipation of attack and although the final manoeuvre was achieved with reasonable efficiency, the onset of the highlanders nevertheless prompted panic in the ranks of Cope’s soldiers. Many fled without firing a shot, leaving their officers to fend for themselves and by 5.30 am it was all over. One anonymous eyewitness to the rout declared it was even worse than that and that the troops had given up within just four and a half minutes of making contact with the enemy.

Prestonpans is well-known as one of the more inglorious defeats suffered by the British army and as the opening salvo in the campaign for Charles Edward Stuart to recapture the throne for his father James Edward. Nevertheless, some of the individual stories related to the battle warrant retelling.

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Unsurprisingly, contemporary accounts of the battle contained numerous predictable tropes. Brave gentlemen officers were let down by undisciplined, cowardly rank and file soldiers, while the rebels were characterized as brutish, savage and (above all else) foreign. One of the officers at the battle made free with both stereotypes, describing his opponents in one breath as ‘myrmidons’ before going on to criticize his own troops:

Who ingloriously left their brave officers a sacrifice to the merciless fury of these Tartars of the worse kind

Most might assume that this was a facing off between ‘professional’ government troops and amateur rebel soldiers, but there were some curious irregulars fighting for George II as well. One such was the astronomer and natural philosopher, Dr Stephen Charles Demainbray, the son of a Huguenot refugee, who had been lecturing in experimental philosophy at the University of Edinburgh when the rebellion broke out. He joined the army as a volunteer and soon afterwards found himself at Prestonpans. How he fared in the brief, but bloody battle is uncertain, but he went on to become better known for his work on the effect of electricity on growing vegetables and for his later role as Astronomer Royal at Richmond.

The majority of Cope’s forces were made up of rather more likely candidates: soldiers from a mixture of English and Scots foot and dragoon regiments, who had been transported half way up the country as far as Aberdeen in the hopes of overtaking the rebels, before being shipped back down to Dunbar and from thence marched to Prestonpans, having failed to occupy Edinburgh before the rebels got there.

In an age when many parliamentarians also had military careers, a small but significant selection of the officers were former, current and future MPs. Cope himself had previously been an MP, representing a succession of government boroughs: Queenborough, Liskeard and Orford. One of the senior officers who was to emerge with his reputation enhanced from the affair was Colonel Sir Peter Halkett (or Hackett), a former MP for Stirling Burghs, who took command of the (government) Highland regiments as they took up defensive positions in and around the churchyard at Prestonpans and then successfully negotiated their surrender so ‘no more blood was shed’. Halkett was himself taken prisoner and ultimately released on parole by Charles Edward, on condition that he laid down his arms for eighteen months. Two other sitting MPs, Hon Thomas Leslie, a son of the earl of Rothes and MP for Perth Burghs, and Hon John Stewart, a son of the earl of Moray and MP for Anstruther Easter Burghs, were also among the officers captured in the later stages of the battle.

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One of the most striking family sagas related to Prestonpans involved the Munros. Harry Munro, who was to be elected MP for Ross-shire in 1746, was one of a number of officers captured at Prestonpans. In many ways he was lucky as over the next few months the rebellion was to obliterate the senior members of his family. Harry’s father, Sir Robert Munro, had been MP for Tain (Northern) Burghs for thirty years and was a long-serving soldier. He seems not to have been at Prestonpans, but the following year found himself facing the rebel army at Falkirk. He had considerable experience of the highland method of fighting, having led Scottish troops himself on the continent, but he was cut down and mortally wounded. In the face of the enemy, his brother, a physician, attempted to get to Sir Robert to assist him but was given no mercy and was also hacked to death.

A few months later, the remaining Munro brother, Captain George Munro, was assassinated by the dispersed rebel forces, in retribution for what they perceived as his harsh suppression of the rebellious clans. The Munro family’s chronicler, the nonconformist author Philip Doddridge, argued otherwise. He admitted that Munro followed his orders in forcing the rebels into submission with ‘diligence and zeal’ but insisted that he had tempered this ‘with the greatest humanity’. For all Doddridge’s insistence that Munro had acted creditably, he was a marked man and, while undertaking a march near to Lochaber, was shot dead:

An event to the captain, no doubt, most happy; and a blessed kind of instantaneous translation to the regions of endless peace and triumphant joy

In the aftermath of the battle there was, inevitably, a good deal of mud-slinging and attempts to place and deflect blame. One particularly well-known spat took place very publicly between Colonel Peregrine Lascelles and Lieutenant-colonel Shugbrough Whitney, of Gardiner’s Regiment of Dragoons. Both appear to have done their best in trying circumstances: Lascelles tried to rally his troops and demonstrated courage in the face of the enemy; Whitney had an arm shattered by a musket ball, forcing him to cede command of his squadron to a lieutenant, who was then thrown by his panicking horse. Despite this, each accused the other of failing to stand their ground. Whitney countered Lascelles’s claims that he and his men had abandoned Colonel Gardiner to his fate by accusing Lascelles in turn of having been remarkably prompt off the battlefield. Within an hour of the army’s defeat, he pointed out, Lascelles was spotted eight miles off, so must have made good his escape long before many others had had the opportunity to do so.

With the exception of the gallant Colonel Gardiner, whose death in action was later commemorated with a monument, the most high-profile casualty of the engagement was Cope himself. He was lampooned for fleeing the field and although he was acquitted at a court martial his failure ended his long military career. More than anything else, Prestonpans was the first indication the government had that the rebel army was a well-trained body which needed to be taken seriously. With remarkable foresight, on the very day the battle was fought, the duke of Newcastle confided to the duke of Richmond ‘The Pretender has now got possession of Scotland’. It was to take a further seven months to assemble an army capable of bringing the rebellion to an end.

RDEE

 

Further reading:

Philip Doddridge, Works of Philip Doddridge DD, vol. 1 (5 vols, 1804)

Christopher Duffy, The 45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite rising (2003)

Audrey Howes, ‘An Account of Prestonpans, 1745’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 80 (2002)

Percy Sumner and Shugbrough Whitney, ‘The 13th Dragoons at Prestonpans, 1745’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 28 (1950)

 

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