James Henry Craig: The Pocket Hercules

James Henry Craig, 1809. (Library and Archives Canada)

James Henry Craig, an officer in the British army, fought in the Revolutionary War from the beginning to the end. He was at Bunker Hill, battled the Americans in Canada, assisted in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, and negotiated the British surrender at Saratoga. In 1779, Craig took part in the British occupation of Penobscot Bay and in 1781, led a British force to occupy Wilmington, extending the civil war in North Carolina. After leaving America in 1782, Craig unstintingly served his king on other continents. What Craig lacked in family connections, education and cash he made up with ability and dedication, carrying him up the chain of British military command without purchase. He was overshadowed by his illustrious contemporaries, Charles Cornwallis, George Washington, Horatio Nelson, Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) and Napoleon Bonaparte. He deserves to be rescued from his present position as a footnote on the pages of history.[1]

James Henry Craig was born in 1748 on Gibraltar, the British fortress guarding the passage to the Mediterranean Sea. He was the son of Scottish-born Hew Craig, who served as the civil and military judge on the Rock. James began his education in Gibraltar until his father sent him to the military academy at Modena, Italy. On his return to Gibraltar at age fifteen years he joined the British army as an ensign in the 30th Regiment of Foot. By 1773, he was a twenty-five-year-old captain in the 47th Foot when that regiment deployed to New Jersey. In October 1774, Craig and the 47th were transferred to Boston to quell the rising tensions in that city. On April 19, 1775, Craig and the 47th marched to Lexington to relieve the British column that was retreating from Concord. In June, the regiment was engaged in the Battle of Bunker Hill; some later sources claim that he was wounded there, but no contemporary source makes mention of it.[2]

The British army evacuated Boston in March 1776 and regrouped in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, the 47th Regiment was transferred from the army under Gen. William Howe to that of Gen. Guy Carleton headquartered in Quebec, making Craig one of only a handful of British officers who had served in Boston to go to Canada.[3] He also took command of the regiment’s light infantry company, a post that would put him in the thick of the fighting to come. After relieving the besieged city of Quebec, forces including the 47th met troops of the Continental Army at Trois-Rivieres on June 8, 1776. The Americans were forced into a disorderly retreat towards Lake Champlain, weakened by smallpox, famine and desertions.

On June 21 a party of thirty men under Capt. James Armstrong Wilson of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment was sent to Ile aux Noix, on the Richelieu River eight miles north of Lake Champlain, to check on the British movements. The Americans “fell in with a party of the enemy’s light infantry and a number of Indians under the command of captain James H. Craig of the Forty-seventh Regiment.” After a brief fight, with two killed on each side, the American scouting party surrendered to Craig.[4]

On July 23, 1776 Maj. John Bigelow left Fort Ticonderoga carrying a message from the Continental Congress to the British high command, calling for an exchange of prisoners and protesting the murder by Indians of an American officer after he had surrendered. Carrying a flag of truce, Bigelow made his way by boat to British-occupied Ile aux Noix, where he was blindfolded and taken to meet Capt. James Henry Craig, now commanding the post. “Craig questioned me concerning my business,” wrote Bigelow, “which I told him.” Craig “desired I would give him the letter,” to send to General Carleton. Bigelow was “civilly treated” while waiting for Carleton’s response, and asked Craig “whether there were British officers with these savages who in cool blood murdered our officers?” When Craig “answered in the affirmative, I could not help replying that our army would scarcely believe that such barbarities should have been suffered to be perpetuated where Britons had command.” Craig replied that the British “could not always govern the savages who, he said ‘will fight in their own way.’”

Bigelow used his eyes and ears to spy on the British. He determined that Craig tried to frighten him by “exhibiting to me all the show of Indians they could.” The British paraded on Ile aux Noix “in an ostentatious manner with the manifest intent to lead me into the belief of their being very numerous, but I do not think I saw above forty of them the whole time. They talked much of Hessians and Hanoverians but I saw none.”

General Carleton sent his reply to the Continental Congress, dated August 7th from Chambly, to Ile aux Noix; on August 9, Craig released Captain Bigelow to carry it to its destination.[5] General Carleton’s letter was delivered to Gen. George Washington, who read that Carleton accused Congress and the Continental Army of being “traitors in arms against their king.” The British “must distinguish themselves not less by their humanity than their valour—it belongs to the King’s troops to save the blood of his deluded subjects [and] rescue them from oppression and restore liberty to the once happy, free & loyal people of this continent.” Carlton agreed to release from Canada “all prisoners from the rebellious provinces” and send them to prison “to their respective provinces.” Writing to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, Washington noted Carleton’s intent to send the prisoners of war “to their own provinces there to remain as prisoners.”[6] Captain Craig probably didn’t read any of this correspondence, and even if he did, he could not have known that, the following year, he would play an important role in prisoner of war negotiations.

Although successful in driving the American forces as far south as Fort Ticonderoga, General Carleton determined that it was too late in the year to continue his campaign. Returning to Ile aux Noix in October “he resolved to proceed no further but to withdraw his army to winter quarters.”[7] The pause in the fighting allowed the remnants of the northern American army to regroup at Fort Ticonderoga. “Our misfortunes in Canada,” wrote John Adams from Philadelphia on June 26, 1776, “are enough to melt a heart of stone.”[8]

The following year the British army began a new campaign to secure Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. On June 13, 1777 with an army of 7000 British and German troops, Gen. John Burgoyne set out from Canada to capture Fort Ticonderoga and then Albany. They quickly got as far as Fort Ticonderoga, where a siege was anticipated. On July 4, Gen. Simon Fraser, commander of the British light infantry battalion, dispatched Captain Craig with forty light troops and a number of Indians to reconnoiter Sugar Loaf Hill (the Americans called it Mount Defiance.) After Craig reported that the peak was within cannon range of the fort, the British hauled two 12-pound cannon to the summit. The following day, the Americans abandoned the fort to the British.[9] Fraser led the light infantry and grenadier battalions, a force of just over one thousand men, across the Hudson River in hot pursuit of the retreating Americans. On July 7 Fraser’s force ran into an American rearguard, and the fierce Battle of Hubbardton ensured; 41 Americans were killed, 96 wounded and 234 captured. There were 50 British dead and 148 wounded, among them Captain Craig, who had taken a bullet in his arm.[10]

With his wound leaving him unable to fight, Craig was appointed judge advocate of his army. This officer would normally preside over general court martial proceedings, but for those held in August other officers fulfilled the role, “Captain Craig being sick.”[11]

By October, Burgoyne army was trapped at Saratoga, depleted by casualties, short of rations, and beleaguered by mud, rain, and sickness. On October 8, Burgoyne asked for “a cessation of arms.” He selected Capt. James Henry Craig to negotiate the terms of the British surrender, promising that he and his officers, if released on parole “on our word of honor, and in the faith of gentlemen” would not return to the fight. The rank and file soldiers would be marched east, “to be quartered in, near, or as convenient as possible, to Boston” while awaiting transport to Great Britain.

The terms of surrender were concluded on October 13, but Craig asked to correct “a very small error . . . our zeal to complete it expeditiously has led us into the admission of a term in the title very different from his [Burgoyne’s] meaning. We have unguardedly called that a Treaty of Capitulation.” Craig skillfully asked the naïve Americans to change the wording to a face-saving Treaty of Convention, implying that the British had primarily agreed to stop fighting to avoid further bloodshed. The defeated Burgoyne signed the Treaty of Convention on October 16 “in a broken and tremulous hand.” Burgoyne chose Craig to carry the dispatches of the battle and the defeat to the government in London.[12] In a postscript to his letter to Lord Germain, Burgoyne wrote, “Capt. Craigg … is an officer of Great Merit, and is particularly worthy of Notice for having Served with unabated Zeal and Activity thro’ this labourious Campaign notwithstanding a wound thro’ his Arm which he received at Hubbarton.”[13]

The news that “the provincials had taken Burgoyne and his whole army” reached London on December 2, 1777. Burgoyne’s defeat was a serious blow to Britain’s efforts to regain power over its renegade American colonies. When the first rumors of the debacle reached him, the king “fell into agonies on hearing this account, but the next morning . . . to disguise his concern, affected to laugh and be so indecently merry that [prime minister] Lord North endeavoured to stop him.” On December 15, Captain Craig arrived “with the confirmation of the surrender of Burgoyne and the army, after a great slaughter and desertion of the Germans.”[14]

After delivering the dispatches to London, James Henry Craig was promoted to major of the newly formed 82nd Regiment of Foot, raised in Scotland by the 8th Duke of Hamilton as “a service to the country.” The regiment was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in May 1779, a fleet of eight ships-of-war sailed from there under the command of colonel Francis McLean, carrying 640 troops, including major Craig and 200 men of the 82nd Foot. Their mission was to establish the province of New Ireland at Penobscot Bay (then part of Massachusetts, now in Maine). With many loyalists already settled in the town of Castine, the British faced little opposition in swearing the inhabitants to allegiance and fidelity to George III. Major Craig set out for New York to report to Sir Henry Clinton that the occupation of Penobscot succeeded “without any accident;” he thus was not present to witness the failed American siege of Penobscot later that year.[15]

James Henry Craig returned to Halifax, where on March 4, 1780, he presided over a general court martial, and was a member of another that sat from March 27 until April 18.[16] In the meantime, British strategy in the war had shifted to the South, with the British expecting large numbers of loyalists in Georgia and the Carolinas to join them. Charleston fell to the British on May 12, 1780, and the remainder of the year saw British attempts to consolidate and expand their holdings in the Carolinas. Early the following year, part of the 82nd Regiment was sent to the region.

In January 1781, a British fleet of eighteen ships arrived in Charleston from Halifax, carrying supplies and munitions for the British army, as well as uniforms and arms to equip the loyalist militia in the South. Escorting the fleet to Charleston were major James Henry Craig and 400-men of the 82nd Regiment of Foot. Cornwallis ordered Craig and his men on three ships to sail northeast to occupy Wilmington, North Carolina, where they received “a ready welcome” from the loyalists who were “pretty numerous and influential.”[17] Craig was determined to create a “state of disorder” in North Carolina.[18] Pursuing British goals, he showed “initiative and resourcefulness to unusual degree.”[19] Craig, “an active officer, at once set about capturing the most famous Whigs in the community and bringing them to Wilmington” where he had erected a prison.[20] He strengthened the defenses around the town and raided the countryside for salt, sugar, grains and other necessities to supply General Cornwallis’s army. He attacked American supply ships. On March 15, Cornwallis fought the Americans under Nathanael Greene in the short but bloody Battle of Guilford Courthouse. On April 9, the general led his battered army to Wilmington to resupply and leave the sick and wounded under the protection of Major Craig. Cornwallis departed Wilmington April 25 to move north and keep his appointment with destiny at Yorktown.

According to the British military historian John William Fortescue, Major Craig “showed very great ability in his difficult post at Wilmington.”[21] “The accuracy of his intelligence, the fertility of his resources and the clearness of his military judgment” were commended by his superiors.[22] The American historian James Sprunt claimed that Craig displayed “tyrannical conduct that was needlessly cruel to the people of Wilmington.”[23] “How one fared in Wilmington depended upon one’s loyalty to the Crown.”[24] “The moderate and conservative policy of Cornwallis . . . was no longer enforced.” In the place of conciliation, Craig used “fire and sword.”[25] Craig hounded leading patriots such as Cornelius Harnett, John Ashe, William Hooper and Alfred Moore, burning their homes and confiscating their property. Hooper’s wife and other patriotic ladies were expelled from their homes with nothing but their clothes. Craig appointed John Slingsby, Duncan Ray, Hector McNeill, Archibald McDugald, Archibald McKay, and the notorious David Fanning to the rank of colonel in the loyalist militia. Supplying money, uniforms and arms, Craig authorized these loyalist leaders “to assemble militia and lead them against any party of rebels or others, the King’s enemies, as often as necessary to compel all persons whatsoever to join you; to seize and disarm, and when necessary to detain in confinement all rebels and others acting against his majesty’s government.[26] Craig demanded that all residents declare their allegiance to the British king “on pain of being treated as rebels.”[27]

In August, Craig and his British soldiers, backed by loyalist militia, set out for New Bern, destroying “every Whig plantation on route.” In the town itself he burnt Whig homes and confiscated their goods, leaving the people destitute. On his return to Wilmington, the Whigs retaliated by destroying the plantations of their Tory neighbors. After patriots executed a number of loyalists, Craig threatened to execute prisoners he was holding. He vigorously assisted the loyalist militia of North Carolina in their battle against the Patriots. In September, He authorized the capture and imprisonment of Gov. Thomas Burke. “Nothing shall be wanting in my power,” wrote Craig to Col. David Fanning, “to assist you with greater care than at present.”[28] Craig’s aggressive policies added fuel to a civil war in North Carolina with revenge killings and destruction of property, ravaging the economy of the state.[29]

The surrender of Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 ended British hopes of regaining control of her thirteen former colonies. On receiving orders to depart, Craig expressed “his regret at leaving the disturbed loyalists in the neighborhood of Wilmington and his hopes for a considerable insurrection in the lower part of North Carolina, where the enemy has no force.”[30] With the American army under Gen. Nathanael Greene ready to enter the town, on November 18, Craig and his men of the 82nd Regiment abandoned Wilmington “with all the loyalists who wished to accompany them.” Many of the loyalists who remained lost their property “and not a few were executed.”[31] Charleston was crowded with British and Hessian troops, Loyalist militia units and frightened Loyalist civilians, many with their slaves. Major Craig and his men were given the task of guarding John’s Island with its herds of cattle and grazing for the horses. Early in December 1782, an evacuation fleet of 150 ships arrived in Charleston harbor, and on the 14th Craig and the 82nd Foot were among the thousands who embarked to depart from Charleston, ending British efforts to restore sovereignty over Georgia and the Carolinas.

Back in London, William and Richard Howe, John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton and Thomas Gage together with Lord North and Lord Germain faced the wrath of Parliament for the British defeat in North America. Only Lord Cornwallis, among the senior officers serving in America, was spared humiliation and instead was offered the high position of governor of British India. He was determined not “again to run the risk of being beaten by some Nabob and disgraced to all eternity.”[32] Robert Abercromby, John Graves Simcoe, Alured Clark, Francis Rawdon-Hastings and James Henry Craig –who had all served under Cornwallis in America—shared his dedication to duty and determination to expand the British Empire. “The loss of the American Revolution,” wrote John H. Plumb, “certainly helped to make India the fulcrum of the Empire.”[33]

After leaving America, Craig was stationed in Ireland as lieutenant colonel and commander of the 16th Regiment of Foot. In 1790 he was promoted to colonel and in 1792 traveled to Prussia to study its military training. The following year, he was on the staff of the duke of York during the disastrous Flanders Campaign against the superior armies of Revolutionary France. In 1795, Craig together with Alured Clark and George Keith Elphinstone led a British army to capture the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, and ensure safe passage of British ships to and from India. During his three years as governor of the Cape Colony, Craig elevated the British to the rulers of a slave-based society. For his services to his country he was made a Knight of the Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath. From the tip of Africa, Sir James Henry Craig was sent to India, to serve briefly as commander-in-chief and to do his part in the British conquest of the sub-continent. In 1805, Craig led a combined British-Russian force in a failed attempt to attack Napoleon from Italy.

The British military historian Henry Bunbury characterized Craig as “very short, broad and muscular, a pocket Hercules, with sharp, neat features, as if chiseled in ivory. Not popular for he was hot, peremptory and pompous; yet extremely beloved by those whom he allowed to live in intimacy with him; clever, generous to a fault, and a warm and unflinching friend to those he liked.” Bunbury remembered Craig as “one of the kindest men I have ever had to transact business with.”[34] Although kind to his friends, he was steadfastly harsh to those he saw as enemies of his sovereign. In Africa and India, as he had done in Wilmington, Craig demanded the unconditional surrender of Britain’s adversaries and their sworn allegiance to the king; the alternative was imprisonment, confiscation of property, or death. He not only followed the policies of the British army, he was unflinching in backing words with action. Towards the close of his days he grandly presented himself as the gentleman warrior, with a large cellar of choice wines, fine art collection and a splendid carriage attended by uniformed footmen.

Despite failing health James Henry Craig was appointed in 1807 by George III as governor of Canada to deal with “the threatening appearance of hostilities with the united American states.”[35] The attack on June 22, 1807 of HMS Leopard on USS Chesapeake added urgency to Craig’s appointment. Skilled in warfare but lacking diplomatic tact and willingness to compromise, Craig soon alienated the French-speaking community of Quebec. Still hostile to the United States, he hired the opportunist John Henry to spy on the New England states, hoping to draw them away from the Union and “negotiate for the friendship of Great Britain.” At the cost of $50,000, copies of the Henry-Craig correspondence fell into the hands of President James Madison, giving him “a trump card from heaven” to accuse the New England Federalists of disloyalty.[36] The British government denied involvement in the John Henry affair, leaving Craig to bear the responsibility. The John Henry letters were a factor in precipitating the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States of America.[37] The disgraced Craig, now terminally ill, resigned as governor of Canada and left for London. On January 1, 1812, Sir James Henry Craig was promoted to the long-coveted rank of general in the British Army, only to die a few days later.

 

[1] Chaim M. Rosenberg, Losing America, Conquering India: Lord Cornwallis and the Remaking of the British Empire (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2017).

[2] “Biographical Memoir of the Late General Sir James Henry Craig K.B.,” The Royal Military Chronicle (London: Davis, April 1812), 400-402, reports that Craig was “severely wounded” at Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), “again severely wounded” at Hubbardton (July 7, 1777), and sustained a third wound at Freeman’s Farm (September 19, 1777). Craig’s obituary in the Scots Magazine for 1813 repeats this list of war wounds. Scots Magazine, Volume LXXV, 1813, 165-167. This claim of Craig’s injuries has been repeated in many accounts over the years, but the only wound reported by a contemporary source was at Hubbardton.

[3] Carleton was colonel of the 47th Regiment and also commander in chief of British forces in Canada.

[4] Charles Henry Jones, History of the Campaign for the Conquest of Canada in 1776 (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1882), 74-102.

[5] An abstract from the journal of Maj. John Bigelow of Hartford, Connecticut is contained in the Revolutionary Correspondence of Governor Nicholas Cooke (American Antiquarian Society, October 1929), 335-343. Nicholas Cooke served as governor of Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War.

[6] George Washington to John Hancock, New York, August 20, 1776.

[7] William Digby, The British Invasion from the North (Albany, NY: Munsell’s Sons, 1887), 13.

[8] John Adams and Charles Francis Adams, ed., Letters of John Adams Addressed to his Wife (Boston: Little Brown, 1841), 121.

[9] Bruce H. Venter, The Battle of Hubbardton: The Rear Guard Action that Saved America (Charleston, NC: History Press, 2013), 19.

[10] James Murray Hadden, Hadden’s Journal and Orderly Books: A Journal Kept in Canada and upon Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1776-1777 (Albany, NY: Munsell’s Sons, 1884), 88.

[11] Orderly Book, Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1777 (Fort Edward, NY: The Honeywood Press, 1932), orders for August 10 and 24, 1777.

[12] Hadden, Hadden’s Journal, 557-558.

[13] Burgoyne to Germain, October 20, 1777, in Douglas R. Cubbison, Burgoyne and the Saratoga Campaign: His Papers (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2012), 332.

[14] Horace Walpole, Journal of the Reign of King George The Third, Volume 2 (London: Bentley, 1859), 174.

[15] The British remained in the province of New Ireland until 1783 when barges carried the residents of Penobscot Bay and their goods to establish the loyalist town of St. Andrews in New Brunswick. During the War of 1812, the British returned briefly to Penobscot Bay in an effort to restore their province of New Ireland.

[16] Judge Advocate Papers, WO 71/91, 260-282 and 307-390, British National Archives. Serving as president of a general court martial was not the same as being the judge advocate, the role Craig had while serving under Burgoyne.

[17] Alan D. Watson, Wilmington, North Carolina, to 1861 (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2003), 90.

[18] Robert M. Dunkerly, Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southwestern North Carolina (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012).

[19] Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 5 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 206.

[20] Robert O. DeMond, The Loyalists of North Carolina during the Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1940), 138.

[21] John William Fortescue, A History of the British Army, Volume III (1763-1793) (London: Macmillan, 1906).

[22] “Biographical Memoir,” 401.

[23] James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916 (Raleigh, North Carolina: Edwards & Broughton, 1916), 137.

[24] Watson, Wilmington, 90.

[25] Samuel A’Court Ashe, History of North Carolina from 1584 to 1783, Volume 1 (Greensboro, NC: Van Noppen, 1908), 686.

[26] DeMond, The Loyalists of North Carolina, 142.

[27] Ibid., 139.

[28] David Fanning, Narrative of David Fanning, A.W. Savary, ed. (Toronto: The Canadian Magazine, 1908), 25.

[29] Ashe, History of North Carolina, 689.

[30] Benjamin Franklin Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia, 1781: an exact reprint of six rare pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy (London: Stevens, 1888), 38.

[31] DeMond, The Loyalists of North Carolina, 136.

[32] Norman Macleod, ed., Good Words (London: Strahan, 1865), 544.

[33] John H. Plumb, “The Impact of the American Revolution on Great Britain,” The Impact of the American Revolution Abroad (Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2000), 71-75.

[34] Desmond Gregory, No Ordinary General: Lt. General Sir Henry Bunbury (1778-1860), The Best Soldier Historian (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1999), 33.

[35] James Mitchell, The Scotsman’s Library; Being a Collection of Anecdotes and Facts Illustrative of Scotland and Scotsmen (Edinburgh: Anderson, 1825), 278-379.

[36] Beckles Wilson, (Friendly Relations: A Narrative of Britain’s Ministers and Ambassadors to America (1791-1930) (Boston: Little Brown, 1934), 87.

[37] Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Henry-Crillon Affair,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, Volume 69 (1947-1950), 207-231; Claude Mark Davis, The John Henry Affair of 1812: A Chapter in the Prologue of the War of 1812 (Sackville, NB: Mount Allison University, 1975).

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1 Comment

  • Interesting bio! Another reminder that highly committed, brave and capable leaders fought on both sides of the Revolution. Also the British relied on a small pool of highly talented officers to fight its battles throughout the world.

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