Among the principal men of colonial days and of Revolutionary times, there were many whose social positions were much the same as the station of the ordinary European aristocrat. From their ancestors the colonists had inherited the disposition to recognize differences in rank; and men of wealth and high position in the colonial government were regarded to a certain extent as members of the nobility are regarded in England. Before the Declaration of Independence, it was not even assumed in this country that all men are born equal.
But, although there were native-born personages in the Colonies who might well be termed aristocrats, their titles were political or military; and an American lord was, as he would be now, something entirely out of the common.
But in those days there was an American lord; and a very good American he was, in spite of his being a lord. This was William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling. He was born in New York, of Scotch parents. When he was quite a young man, he went into military life, and served in the British colonial army in the French War. In the campaigns in which
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he served, he gained the military education which was afterwards of the greatest advantage, not only to him, but to the country.
There was no British heir to the earldom of Stirling, a Scotch peerage; and, as he believed that he was a direct descendant of the last Lord Stirling, the young man went to England, and laid claim to the estate and title. He was successful in proving his direct descent from the earls of Stirling; but the House of Lords, who gave the final decision in the case, would not allow his claim. Even if the law had permitted his claim, it is not likely that the British House of Lords would have been anxious to welcome into the peerage an American-born person.
But although he got nothing more, he really obtained his title, and he was known then, as he is known in history, as Lord Stirling. He was a man of wealth, and must have had a very good time in England, for he studied well the manners and customs of the nobility; and as his own habits and tastes were those which he observed in the great houses of England, he here received a social education which had a great effect upon his future career.
He was also the means of educating some of the inhabitants of Great Britain, and the way in which he did it is shown by a little incident which occurred when he was visiting Scotland. He was invited to dine at the house of a gentleman, who informed his wife that an American was coming to take dinner with them. It is to be presumed that this announcement had about the same effect upon her as would now be
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produced if an American gentleman should inform his family that a chief from Madagascar was to dine with them.
The Scotch lady, no doubt, expected to see a copper-colored brave, in war paint and feathers, with tomahawk, and bows and arrows, and perhaps a few scalps hanging from his belt. Probably she had busied herself devising a dinner which would suit a savage who was a native of that far-away land of America, and hoped she might give him something which would compensated him for the loss of a cannibal repast; but when she beheld the handsome young gentleman who came into the house with her husband, she could not repress her astonishment, and exclaimed, "Bless my soul! The animal is white." Ignorance of foreign countries was at that time not uncommon in Great Britain.
Although born in New York, Lord Stirling established himself in New Jersey, and it was in connection with this State that he was afterwards generally known. His father had owned a large tract of land at Basking Ridge, a beautifully situated town not far from Morristown; and here Lord Stirling built himself a stately mansion with fine gardens, and a great park in which were herds of deer. It was built in the fashion of the lordly country seats of England, around a courtyard paved with flagstones, and contained grand halls and stately apartments beautifully ornamented and furnished. The barns and outbuildings were grand, like the mansion itself, with cupolas and gilded vanes, and altogether the establishment was imposing and beautiful.
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This young man had brought with him from England servants, butlers, valets, hairdressers, and a great many fine horses, and carriages with arms emblazoned upon their panels. He lived in grand state, and his house was generally filled with guests; for the best people of the country were glad to visit this beautiful home, where the best of company and the freest hospitality were always to be found. The lord of the manor was an affable and courteous gentleman, and the writers of those days have given glowing accounts of the gracious Lady Stirling and her charming daughter, Lady Kitty.
But notwithstanding the fact that he felt as a lord and lived as a lord, this grand gentleman never forgot
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that he was not only a lord, but an American; and when the Colonies began to assert their claim to independence, Lord Stirling promptly showed his colors on the patriotic side. He commanded the first body of troops raised in New Jersey in the colonial days; and he very soon became one of the most prominent officers in the Revolutionary army.
After he was made general, he distinguished himself at the battle of Long Island, where he performed some daring feats. The odds were greatly against the Americans on that occasion, and, in order to secure the retreat of the main part of his command, Lord Stirling took four hundred men, and made a bold attack upon a house that was occupied by the British general, Cornwallis. During the desperate fight which followed, in which his little force was far outnumbered by the enemy, his command made a successful retreat, but he himself was captured, and afterwards imprisoned on a war ship.
But he did not stay there long. Washington could not do without the services of this man, who was not only a most earnest patriot, but an educated and efficient soldier; and, as the Americans held several English officers as prisoners of war, one of them was exchanged, with the least possible delay, for Lord Stirling.
One of the earliest and most daring exploits of this brave soldier was the capture, by an infantry force, of an armed British ship which was on its way to Boston with stores and supplies for the English army there.
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This vessel, which was called the "Blue Mountain Valley," had met with rough weather, and, having been badly damaged, was lying off Sandy Hook, waiting for assistance from two British men-of-war then in New York Harbor.
But Lord Stirling, who was stationed not far from the coast, and to whom the situation of the vessel became known, determined that, if possible, he would get to this valuable storeship before the enemy's men-of-war could reach her. So, with a number of the regular soldiers under his command, and some volunteers from the neighborhood, he put out to sea in some small craft, one of them a pilot boat. The English vessel had for her defense six guns, and was what is called an armed transport, but Stirling's men carried only ordinary muskets. However, they boldly attacked the vessel, and bearing down upon her as if she had been a column of infantry, in spite of the cannon and guns of the crew, captured her.
As soon as this victory had been won, Lord Stirling had all sails set; and the "Blue Mountain Valley" waited no longer for the men-of-war to come to her assistance, but sailed away for Perth Amboy, which was in possession of the Americans. Here she was found to be a most valuable prize, although Lord Stirling was sorry, as he afterwards stated when he made his report to Congress, that her cargo was not arms, instead of coal and provisions.
Lord Stirling fought well in the battles of New Jersey. At Monmouth he especially distinguished himself by the way in which he managed the artillery
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which was under his command; and it is said that the enemy were amazed to find batteries so splendidly handled in the ranks of the Americans, who were not supposed by most British officers to be possessed of great military ability, although the erroneousness of this supposition was gradually impressed upon their minds as the war went on.
Our nobleman, however, had given another proof of his ability to adapt himself to military circumstances. When Washington and his army were wintered at Morristown, there was an evident desire among the British commanders to attack him at that place, and there was constant danger of an advance from the forces about New York. Lord Stirling was with the troops under General Greene, defending the principal approaches to Morristown on the east, and he very often had fights and skirmishes with British detachments sent out to reconnoiter the country, or to break into the American lines.
At one time a very large force, led by Clinton, advanced towards Morristown; and this was believed to be a serious and determined attempt to attack Washington, whose army was in a pretty bad plight, and not at all prepared to fight large bodies of well-appointed troops. Lord Stirling, with the other officers of the regular army, aided by forces of militiamen greatly excited by atrocities which had been committed by the British troops in the neighborhood, made a determined stand in the region of the "Short Hills," and a battle was fought near Springfield. Although the American forces were not able to defeat the
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British, they so harassed them, placing themselves in all the passes through which it was necessary to advance, that at last the Redcoats gave up the attempt to reach Morristown, and retired to Elizabeth.
Throughout the war, this gentleman with the grand house, the park, the deer, the splendid carriages, the butlers, and the hairdressers, fought as earnestly and as patriotically as if he had been a sturdy farmer who had left his cornfield for the battlefield, with an old blunderbuss over his shoulder. Not only was he a good soldier, but he was a trustworthy friend to the cause of the Colonies and to General Washington; and it is said that it was through his means that the conspiracy among some of the officers of the army against General Washington, of whom they were jealous, was discovered and broken up.
Officers of the army were frequently quartered at his house at Basking Ridge, where they found most delightful company; and in every way our American lord did what he could for the cause and the people who were defending it. His title was generally recognized; and Washington, who was very particular in regard to matters of rank and social propriety, always called him "my lord." He was said to be a fine-looking man; in fact, he and Washington were of more imposing and dignified appearance than any other officers of the American army.
Of course, as he was a very notable person among the Continental officers, the British were very anxious to capture him. In 1781, when he was in command of the Northern Department at Albany, this design
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of the enemy came very near being carried out, but was frustrated by the faithful services of one of those good women who were continually turning up in colonial history. A servant girl in the family of a house near Albany, where Lord Stirling was staying, had been visiting her parents during the day, and had there heard a plot of the Tories of the neighborhood to capture Lord Stirling. Being of a patriotic disposition, she told her mistress of the plot as soon as she got home; and when in the night a large body of the enemy came to the house, they were met with a surprise.
Lord Stirling had not gone out of town without taking with him a guard of dragoons; and these men, instead of being quartered at a distance, as the Tories evidently supposed they would be, had all been brought into the house; and when the attack was made in the night, the bullets and pistol balls which whizzed and whistled from that ordinarily peaceful mansion astonished the Tories, who fled.
But although Lord Stirling did so much for American independence, he did not live to enjoy the fruits of it, for he died in Albany, while still in command of the Northern Department. After his death, the estate at Basking Ridge was sold, and payment for it was made in Continental money, which afterwards became of almost no value; so that for this fine property, it might be said, his family received nothing but a pile of badly printed paper. The mansion and the deer park and the emblazoned carriages are gone and forgotten; but the brave soldier, who gave up all the pleasures of a lordly position for his country, will live in history.