British General James Grant

Vehemently Anti-American Officer of the Revolutionary War

British Major General James Grant, circa 1770
British Major General James Grant, circa 1770

Pompous, self-assured, dogmatic, obstinate, opinionated, these and more could adequately describe the obese Englishman who’s hatred and low opinion of the Americans’ ability to fight in the Revolutionary War probably did more to help the patriot cause than some of America’s generals. James Grant’s degrading, anti-American comments, while a member of parliament and prior to open hostilities between the colonies and their mother country, enraged the colonists. Many Americans who had been leaning towards neutrality, after learning of Grant’s statements, switched to the patriot cause. Throughout the colonies, Americans despised the portly, bombastic politician and hardened their anti-British stance. Militias trained harder and recruitment was up as colonists were determined to demonstrate their fighting merit and to prove the outspoken MP wrong.

As a Major General during the Revolutionary War, there is little doubt that his lax handling of the British and German outposts in New Jersey aided Washington’s successful attack on Trenton and Princeton. These American victories restored the Continental Army’s ability to fight in the eyes of the American populace and in Europe. Grant botched capturing American General Lafayette and his Continental forces at The Battle of Barren Hill, outside Philadelphia. Grant had flanked Lafayette’s forces and had he moved quickly, he would have captured the entire force. Instead, he delay in attacking allowed Lafayette to escape (who later proved to be a major force in the ultimate American victory). Lastly, after the British abandoned Philadelphia and during their retreat across New Jersey, Grant failed to obey written orders from Supreme Commander General Clinton to send troops back to meet the sudden threat to the British rear from advancing American forces. Grant allowed the American vanguard to advance unmolested far enough to make a protracted attack against the British rear guard. Though this failure of Grant did not turn out to be crucial, historians believe it helped bring on the Battle of Monmouth which tested the American Army’s new tactical training thereby giving them new confidence for ultimate victory. Many historians believe this last failure led to Grants removal to the Carribean on May 20, 1778.

Early Life and Military Experience

James Grant (1720 – 1806) was born with the proverbial ‘spoon in his mouth’ on a large estate in Ballindalloch Castle in Banffshire in the northeast of Scotland. He purchased a commission as captain of the First Battalion of Royal Scots on October 24, 1774 and fought during the Austrian Succession in the battle of Fontenoy (1745). He fought during the Jacobite Rising and on April 16, 1746, he participated in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s and the Scotish Army’s defeat at Culloden.

In February of 1757, he was appointed major of the 77th Regiment of Foot (Montgomery’s Highlanders) and soon after shipped off to America to fight in the French and Indian War. He served besides Andrew Lewis (Virginian and future brigadier general), Francis Marion (later “the Swamp Fox), Hugh Mercer (fellow Scotsman who fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden and later American general), and a young, 23 year old militia colonel named George Washington. Grant commanded an eight hundred man advance detachment of General Forbe’s expedition toward French held Fort Duquesne in 1758. He was ordered on a reconnaissance expedition but, which proved in future conflicts to be a habit of the pompous officer, thought the fort lightly defended and ignored orders by attacking the fort instead. He split his forces three-ways to draw the enemy into an ambuscade and was badly defeated on September 21, 1758. He was outmaneuvered and surrounded by a much larger than anticipated force of French and Natives as one third of his men were killed, wounded and missing while he and nineteen other officers were captured and taken to Montreal to await exchange.

It is believed that the seeds of his anti-American sentiments was an outgrowth of his humiliating defeat during the Forbes expedition. He refused to accept blame for the bungling of his mission and instead blamed his loss on the poorly-led colonial militia commanded by Major Lewis who had disregarded his orders at a critical stage during the fight. (Facts prove that Lewis’ force fiercely attacked the enemy in their attempt to come to Grant’s aid, but were held off by a well concealed and superior force). This may have been fresh in Grant’s mind when later, as MP in the English House of Commons, on February 2, 1775, just prior to the outbreak of hostilities in the Americas, he proclaimed that the American soldier as “Heathens… they drink, they whore, they swear”. He went on to say that the Americans “could not fight” and that he would “undertake to march from one end of the continent to the other with five thousand men.”

Despite his poor performance at Ft. Duquesne, the powers of money and influence played a hand and after exchange, was promoted to Lt. Colonel in 1760. Within a year, he commanded a successful campaign against a southern Indian Nation entitled the Cherokee Expedition. He was cruel and brutal, destroying homes and farms and driving over 5,000 natives, including women and children, into the woods to starve. Afterwards, the Creeks in Florida labeled him the ‘Cornpuller’.

After the Treaty of Paris (1763), Britain gained control of Florida from the Spanish. They divided the region into two colonies and in 1764, named Grant governor of East Florida. He moved to the capital at St. Augustine and is credited for single-handedly turning that territory into a prosperous colony.   He established Florida’s northern boundary with Georgia and began a thriving indigo, cotton, silk, logwood, and cochineal industry (the later used to make red dye for British officers uniforms). Grant enjoyed the prosperity that comes with success and purchased several large plantations. Historian Alden states, “he was sensible, able, industrious, relatively good-humored, and hospitable” in his civil capacity. In 1771, illness forced Grant to return to England. He appointed Dr. David Yeats, Secretary of the Colony, to manage his plantations in his absence.

American Revolutionary War

Back home in England, Grant was appointed to command the 40th Foot in Ireland in 1772 and in 1773, he was elected to Parliament in the House of Commons as an MP for Tain Burghs. All during his tenure in the House, he vehemently voiced his opposition to the ‘soft’ treatment of the American colonies, becoming among the most outspoken of the anti-American members, encouraging a strong hand in dealing with the developing crisis. He retained his commission in the army and was appointed colonel of the 55th Foot in December of 1775. Soon after making his famous speech degrading the American’s ability to fight, he shipped off to Boston and arrived with General Howe on July 30, 1775.   Early in 1776, Grant was made a Brigadier General.

No sooner having arrived in Boston, he declared a “worst situation imaginable” and strongly urged General Thomas Gage (Supreme Commander of British forces in America) to move the troops to New York. He also proposed burning not only Boston, but Portsmouth, Marblehead, and Philadelphia stating “Lenity has had every bad effect which can be imagined.” He believed that the only way to deal with the rebel insurrection was to launch several hard, decisive blows early in the conflict. He was convinced that the independence movement would have lost much of its momentum and war averted.

While in Boston and later at Halifax (where the British army deployed after abandoning Boston in March of 1776) Grant became a close friend and trusted military advisor to the newly-appointed Commander-in-Chief General William Howe. Grant is credited for helping to devise the plans for the battles of Brandywine and Long Island (however it is known that General Howe adapted General Clinton’s recommendation for a large force to flank the American left and attack from the rear).

At the Battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776, Grant led the British left in a strong feint against the American right. He held back his troops as planned until Howe came up on the American rear and attacked with the main British force. During this battle, Americans rejoiced with the news that James Grant, had been killed. This proved to be an error of mistaken identity. It was Lt. Colonel James Grant who was killed leading his regiment in a counter-attack against the exposed east flank of the American right.

Now Major General Grant, he succeeded General Cornwallis as commander of the outposts the British left in New Jersey. By December of 1776, Washington’s dwindling forces barely escaped over the Delaware River into Philadelphia. As 1776 drew to a close, Howe determined it was too late in the winter to pursue and decided to withdraw the bulk of his forces back to New York City. Grant, certain that the American forces had beed decimated to the point that they no longer proved a threat, wrote to the Hessian Commander of Trenton, Colonel Rall, who shared Grant’s contempt for the American soldier, stating that “You may be assured that the rebel army in Pennsylvania… has neither shoes or stockings, are in fact almost naked, dying of cold, without blankest and very ill supplied…” Five days later, Christmas morning, Rall’s forces were annihilated by the ‘decrepit rebel army’ and Washington followed it up with his victory at Princeton on Feb. 3, 1777. Grant, among all the British officers of high rank who was the most vindictive in his contempt for his foe, largely attributed to the American’s good fortune in these actions.

Grant was back in action at Brandywine and Germantown commanding the 1st and 2nd brigades. His next assignment proved to be the seeds of his undoing. Grant was unsuccessful in trapping Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette at the Battle of Barren Hill, on 20th May, 1778. The British were successful in capturing Philadelphia and turning back Washington’s attempt to drive them off in the Battle of Germantown. Washington remained in the area to protect his vital supply lines to York and keep the British army in check, wintering at Valley Forge. With spring, the two armies began to probe each other’s defenses. Washington sent Lafayette and a force of 2,200 men and five guns to reconnoiter and to determine whether the British intended to attack him at Valley Forge, or move on to New York. Howe sent a large detachment of approximately 12,,000 men to surround and capture the Americans. Grant was given 6,000 men and fifteen guns and ordered to circle wide to the right and come in behind Lafayette’s force, cutting off their retreat at Matson’s ford. Meanwhile Howe was to attack from the front. Grant positioned his men near the ford, however was slow in his assault, stopping twice, once to await an attack by the Americans and a second time, when he was fooled by a small contingent of Colonel Poor’s troops sent forward in a feint. This allowed Lafayette time to slip away with is entire force suffering only three casualties.

Grant’s decision to disobey direct orders from newly appointed Commander-in-Chief General Henry Clinton just prior to the Battle of Monmouth (June 28th, 1778) proved to be the last straw for British high command. By not sending additional forces to the British rear as ordered during their evacuation from Philadelphia to New York City, the Americans were able to organize and launch an attack which began the battle. Afterwards, Grant was given a smaller force of only 5,800 men to command and was finally shipped off to the West Indies later that fall.

Final Years

Ballindalloch Castle, Scotland
Ballindalloch Castle, Scotland

            While in the Caribbean, Grant led a successful expeditionary force to capture the French West Indian island of St. Lucia. A superior French garrison surrendered to him on the 28th of December of that year at the Battle of La Vigie. He embarked for England on August 1, 1779, but his troop and navel dispositions provided the basis for the British successes in the Caribbean during the final years of the war.

Grant remained in the service while re-entering politics. He was defeated in parliamentary elections in 1780. Later in 1782 he was appointed a Lieutenant General. In 1787, he was re-elected to Parliament, this time for Sutherland, a seat he held until 1802. He was appointed Governor of Stirling Castle and Commanding General of the army in Scotland in 1789. In 1791, he was transferred from the 55th Foot to the 11th Foot.   He retired from politics in 1802 and remained at his estate on the Avon and Spey rivers as the Laird of Ballindalioch. In 1805, he retired from the British Army after 61 years of service, one year before his death at age 86. His estate went to his grandnephew, George Macpherson.

 Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES:

Alden, John Richard. The South in the Revolution, 1763 – 1789. 1957: Louisiana University Press, Baton Rouge, LA.

Brumwell, Stephen. Redcoats. 2006: Cambridge University Press, Boston, MA.

Lossing, Benson J. Our Country, A History of the United States from the Discovery of America to the Present Time. 1895: Charles F. Johnson, 1905: Lossing History Company, New York, NY.

Nelson, Paul David. General James Grant, Scottish Soldier and Royal Governor of East Florida.1993: University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

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