American Revolution: Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling

Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Career

Born in 1726 in New York City, William Alexander was the son of James and Mary Alexander.  From a well-to-do family, Alexander proved a good student with an aptitude for astronomy and mathematics.  Completing his schooling, he partnered with his mother in a provisioning business and proved a gifted trader.  In 1747, Alexander married Sarah Livingston who was the daughter of the wealthy New York merchant Philip Livingston.  With the beginning of the French & Indian War in 1754, he commenced service as a provisioning agent for the British Army.  In this role, Alexander cultivated close ties to the Governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley.  

When Shirley ascended to the post of commander-in-chief of British forces in North America following the death of Major General Edward Braddock at the Battle of the Monongahela in July 1755, he selected Alexander as one of his aide de camps.  In this role, he met and befriended many of the elites in colonial society including George Washington.  Following Shirley's relief in late 1756, Alexander traveled to Britain to lobby on his former commander's behalf.  While abroad, he learned that the seat of the Earl of Stirling lay vacant.  Possessing family ties to the area, Alexander began pursuing a claim to the earldom and commenced styling himself Lord Stirling.  Though Parliament later declined his claim in 1767, he continued to use the title.

Returning Home to the Colonies

Returning to the colonies, Stirling resumed his business activities and began building an estate in Basking Ridge, NJ.  Though he received a large inheritance from his father, his desire to live and entertain like nobility often put him into debt.  In addition to business, Stirling pursued mining and various forms of agriculture.  His efforts at the latter saw him win a gold medal from the Royal Society of Art in 1767 for his attempts to commence winemaking in New Jersey.  As the 1760s passed, Stirling became increasingly displeased with British policy towards the colonies.  This change in politics moved him firmly into the Patriot camp when the American Revolution began in 1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

The Fighting Begins

Quickly appointed a colonel in the New Jersey militia, Stirling frequently used his own fortune to equip and outfit his men.  On January 22, 1776, he gained notoriety when he led a volunteer force in capturing the British transport Blue Mountain Valley which had grounded off Sandy Hook.  Ordered to New York City by Major General Charles Lee shortly thereafter, he aided constructing defenses in the area and received a promotion to brigadier general in the Continental Army on March 1.  With the successful end of the Siege of Boston later that month, Washington, now leading American forces, began moving his troops south to New York.  As the army grew and reorganized through the summer, Stirling assumed command of a brigade in Major General John Sullivan's division which included troops from Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

The Battle of Long Island

In July, British forces led by General Sir William Howe and his brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe, began arriving off New York.  Late the following month, the British commenced landing on Long Island.  To block this movement, Washington deployed part of his army along the Guan Heights which ran east-west through the middle of the island.  This saw Stirling's men form the right flank of the army as they held the westernmost part of the heights.  Having thoroughly scouted the area, Howe discovered a gap in the heights to east at Jamaica Pass which was lightly defended.  On August 27, he directed Major General James Grant to make a diversionary attack against the American right while the bulk of the army moved through Jamaica Pass and into the enemy's rear.

As the Battle of Long Island commenced, Stirling's men repeatedly turned back British and Hessian assaults on their position.  Holding for four hours, his troops believed they were winning the engagement as they were unaware that Howe's flanking force had begun rolling up the American left.  Around 11:00 AM, Stirling was compelled to begin falling back and was shocked to see British forces advancing to his left and rear.  Ordering the bulk of his command to withdraw over Gowanus Creek to the final defensive line on Brooklyn Heights, Stirling and Major Mordecai Gist led a force of 260–270 Marylanders in a desperate rearguard action to cover the retreat.  Twice attacking a force of over 2,000 men, this group succeeded delaying the enemy.  In the fighting, all but a few were killed and Stirling was captured.

Return to Command at the Battle of Trenton

Praised by both sides for his audacity and bravery, Stirling was paroled in New York City and later exchanged for Governor Montfort Browne who had been captured during the Battle of Nassau.  Returning to the army later that year, Stirling led a brigade in Major General Nathanael Greene's division during the American victory at the Battle of Trenton on December 26.  Moving into northern New Jersey, the army wintered at Morristown before assuming a position in the Watchung Mountains.  In recognition of his performance the previous year, Stirling received a promotion to major general on February 19, 1777.  That summer, Howe unsuccessfully attempted to bring Washington to battle in the area and engaged Stirling at the Battle of Short Hills on June 26.  Overwhelmed, he was forced to fall back. 

Later in the season, the British commenced moving against Philadelphia via the Chesapeake Bay.  Marching south with the army, Stirling's division deployed behind Brandywine Creek as Washington attempted to block the road to Philadelphia.  On September 11 at the Battle of Brandywine, Howe reprised his maneuver from Long Island by sending a force Hessians against the Americans' front while moving the majority of his command around Washington's right flank.  Taken by surprise, Stirling, Sullivan, and Major General Adam Stephen attempted to shift their troops north to meet the new threat.  Though somewhat successful, they were overwhelmed and the army forced to retreat.

The defeat ultimately led to the loss of Philadelphia on September 26.  In an attempt to dislodge the British, Washington planned an attack at Germantown for October 4.  Employing a complex plan, American forces advanced in multiple columns while Stirling was tasked with commanding the army's reserve.  As the Battle of Germantown developed, his troops entered fray and were unsuccessful in their attempts to storm a mansion known as Cliveden.  Narrowly defeated in the fighting, the Americans withdrew before later moving into winter quarters at Valley Forge.  While there, Stirling played a key role in disrupting attempts to unseat Washington during the Conway Cabal. 

Later Career

In June 1778, the newly-appointed British commander, General Sir Henry Clinton, commenced evacuating Philadelphia and moving his army north to New York.  Pursued by Washington, the Americans brought the British to battle at Monmouth on the 28th.  Active in the fighting, Stirling and his division repulsed attacks by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis before counterattacking and driving the enemy back.  Following the battle, Stirling and the rest of the army assumed positions around New York City.  From this area, he supported Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee's raid on Paulus Hook in August 1779.  In January 1780, Stirling led an ineffective raid against British forces on Staten Island.  Later that year, he sat on the board of senior officers that tried and convicted British spy Major John Andre.

In the late summer of 1781, Washington departed New York with the bulk of the army with the goal of trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown.  Rather than accompany this movement, Stirling was selected to command those forces remaining in the region and maintain operations against Clinton.  That October, he assumed command of the Northern Department with his headquarters at Albany.  Long known for overindulging in food and drink, by this time he had come to suffer from severe gout and rheumatism.  After spending much of his time developing plans to block a potential invasion from Canada, Stirling died on January 15, 1783 only months before the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war.  His remains were returned to New York City and interred in the Churchyard of Trinity Church.   


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).