More ardour than discretion: The tragic death of Major Charles Cochrane

Battery Fire by Bryant White, White Historic Art, whitehistoricart.com

Though grey autumnal rain soaked his uniform, and the monotonous, deadly shriek of enemy mortar fire filled the air, Charles Cochrane was the only British officer with a spring in his step that dreary October morning. Promoted on arrival at Yorktown to “acting Aide de camp” to Gen. Charles Earl Cornwallis, his service, bravery and tenacity had finally reaped their just rewards. A man in a hurry, the major had long coveted a position as influential and conspicuous as this. Although the British situation here seemed untenable to all, as right-hand man to the army commander further preferment and advancement must now assuredly follow.

Although it was only days since George Washington had symbolically signalled the opening salvo, the intensity of the Allied barrage had already incapacitated much of the offensive capacity of the British guns. To man them meant almost certain injury or death to artillerist and marine alike. Banastre Tarleton later remembered that “Every hour of the day and night was an hour of watching and danger to the officers and men, where every gun was dismounted as soon shown.” [1] Morale amongst the gunners was close to outright mutiny. Yet Cornwallis and Cochrane were officers known to share the tribulations of their men. Brazenly ignoring the dull thud of the cannon balls pounding the “hornwork” embankments they determined to review the last few batteries not yet disabled by the relentless fire.

Whether it was an act of bravado or, more generously, a display of the audacity he had shown throughout his career, Cochrane suddenly decided he should fire a field piece at the enemy works en ricochet. Even for a trained artillerist under perfect conditions, this was a dangerous exercise. For an Infantry officer in an exposed works under fire, it was suicidal. As his cannonball skipped towards the enemy works, the major could not refrain from peering over the parapet to see the effect of his shot. It was destined to be his last courageous act. Suddenly a solid ball from the Continental lines hit him squarely in the head, decapitating him instantly and leaving Cornwallis just feet away gaping at the ghastly tableaux in horror.[2][3]

It cannot be known whether the violent death of Cochrane, the only British field officer to perish during the siege, had a profound psychological effect on Cornwallis, but two days later he surrendered his entire army and with it the American colonies. Cochrane’s burial site was lost in the confusion of the surrender and never subsequently identified. The only memorial to him, carved almost as an afterthought one hundred and fifty years later, sits on a monument in Louisbourg, Canda, erected to his cousin the Earl of Dundonald.[4]

If all this seemed a tragic end to a man who deserved much better, it regrettably proved a fitting epilogue to his life. For Cochrane’s was a career of disappointed expectations and misfortune, making him arguably one of the most ill-fated officers to serve in the entire war.

The Cochranes were one of the Crowns most loyal Scottish clans. During the Jacobite rebellion, they remained firm supporters of the Hanoverian succession, and together with other lowland clans provided a sizable portion of the men and officers employed by the British army. By the time of the Revolution, they had earned the nickname “the fighting Cochranes.” Charles was the younger brother of the clan chief the Earl of Dundonald, and as was custom joined the army at a tender age. His connections to a loyal aristocrat were burnished further by him marrying Catherina, the daughter of Major Pitcairn, a senior British officer then based with his Marine battalion in Boston. This association must have helped Cochrane enormously, as by twenty-four he was the youngest captain in the veteran 4th “Kings Own” Regiment of Foot.[5]

Cochrane and the 4th Regiment arrived in Boston in the summer of 1774, part of the military force intended to quell the increasingly antagonistic population of Massachusetts. On the night of April 19, 1775, he was among the officers sent out to patrol the hostile countryside; one such patrol captured Paul Revere near Lincoln on the road to Concord. Though he was absent from the battle of Bunker Hill, the dreadful news of the death of his father-in-law Major Pitcairn, the first major British casualty of the war, was received by him in a fishing boat outside Boston Harbour. It was to be the first in a line of personal tragedies that beset him during his remaining years in America. The death of his father in law was followed quickly by that of his own father and two of his infant children.[6]

Despite being the youngest regimental captain on arrival in Boston, the death of Pitcairn and the resignation of his mentor Lord Percy appears to have stymied his career. By 1778, though he had taken part in most of the major battles of the war, Cochrane’s frustration at his lack of advancement was beginning to show. Billeted in Philadelphia, he took the unusual step of “memorialising” the commander-in-chief, General Lord Howe. In effect, this was a self-serving plea for promotion and advancement. Cochrane noted that he had been “six years an ensign, six years a lieutenant and near five a captain.”[7] He had seen younger and less experienced officers elevated above him and had moved from commanding light companies to grenadiers in a futile effort to advance his career. Despite illustrating his already exceptional service his memorial, which ended with a plea to be promoted to command of the 4th Regiment, was dismissed. [8]

It is not clear why his appeal for advancement was snubbed, but two causes are probable. Lord Howe was a bitter rival of Cochrane’s former mentor Lord Percy, and the senior ranks of the British army were a hotbed of political intrigue and nepotism. It also seems apparent that though Cochrane’s bravery was never questioned, his impetuosity and “glory hunting” was. During the battle of Long Island, he led his company of grenadiers into a suicidal charge “with more ardour than discretion” against “three thousand rebels and cannon.” The regiment’s senior captain, Glanville Evelyn, commented: “this obliged us to support our people and brought on a skirmish in which we had nine or ten killed, a few officers and ninety men wounded and answered no other end than to prove our superiority … as the ground we gained we did not want.”[9]

Whatever the reason, whether pique or professional desperation, his failed memorial saw him resign his light infantry captaincy to take up the junior rank of foot guards lieutenant, while concurrently obtaining a commission as a brevet major in a new Provincial corps, the British Legion. Though he was now the senior officer to every foot soldier in Banastre Tarleton’s command, his resignation from the “Kings Own” left Cochrane seemingly bitter at not just being “passed over” but also at the expense these transfers had cost him.[10]

Although commanding a Provincial corps did not afford Cochrane the same social or military esteem as that of the “Kings Own,” it did at least provide him with his first longed-for independent command. He made full use of the opportunity. To Cochrane should be credited the far-reaching step of converting his troops into mounted light infantry. The effectiveness of this strategy was undoubtedly one of the major reasons Tarleton’s Legion became so successful and feared during the southern campaign. The dragoons and infantry henceforth moved together in mutual support, with Cochrane’s infantry providing the “muscle” to follow on from the “shock” of Tarleton’s cavalry.

This conversion was not without its hardships or sacrifice. Cavalry accoutrements were notoriously difficult for the British to obtain in Carolina where military saddles, in particular, were beyond the competence of ordinary harness makers. Cochrane noted, “zealous for the honour of the Corps and to promote the service, the infantry have often rode over eighty miles in twenty-four hours without either bridle or saddle, and only a blanket and a piece of rope substituted … to surprise and beat the enemy”.[11]

Though much “praise” has been bestowed upon Tarleton for the effectiveness of the Legion, it seems clear that it was Cochrane’s introduction of mounted infantry into the corps that gave it much of its tactical dexterity. Continental Gen. Nathanael Greene recognised the effectiveness of this approach in a despairing letter to General Steuben. “Cornwallis movements are so rapid that few militia join us … he is organised to move with the same facility as a light infantry corps … should he push us we must finally be ruined without reinforcements.” [12]

While in command his heady mix of bravery and impulsiveness continued to show itself. Leading Legion infantry he attacked an “enemy” camp at MacPherson’s plantation South Carolina in March 1780. Rather than reconnoitring the camp he implemented a dangerous and risky night attack. The “enemy” turned out to be Loyalists under the leadership of Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson himself was bayoneted in the arm and put out of action for several weeks. He was only saved from death after Cochrane recognised his voice. In typically fashion, Ferguson rewarded the Legionnaire who wounded him after commending his alacrity.[13]

Tarleton himself pays little credit or tribute to Cochrane in his biography of the southern campaigns, but it is probably not coincidental that the disastrous battle of Cowpens occurred while Cochrane was absent on leave in England.

Cochrane was granted permission to return to England during the summer of 1780, tasked by Gen. Sir Henry Clinton with the vital assignment of procuring arms and equipment for the Loyalists he expected would join him in the Carolinas. [14] Astonishingly, on the trip over his schooner was attacked by rebel privateers. Undaunted, Cochrane captured the Rebels who boarded the ship and sank their boats. Returning to New York with the prisoners he set off again only to have his ship dashed by New England privateers, where after a three-hour fight he “swam to the shore to save his dispatches leaving every other thing.” [15]

These “boys own” adventures continued on his return from England, when Sir Henry Clinton entrusted him with important orders to be delivered to Cornwallis, then besieged at Yorktown. His frigate got no further than the Virginia Capes where he discovered a French fleet blocking further passage. Most men at this stage would have turned back. Cochrane, however, was undaunted and set sail aboard a small open whale-boat that, despite being under fire, managed to pick its way through the French fleet. [16]

And the reward for all these acts of service and heroism? “In testimony of his approbation of intrepid conduct (Cornwallis) appoints major Cochrane to act as one of (his) aide de camps,” and two days later the deadly kiss of a Rebel cannonball.[17]

Cochrane has been almost entirely forgotten to history. If he appears at all, it is usually in a sardonic footnote concerning the nature of his death. Even detailed studies of the southern campaign routinely ignore him. Lawrence E. Babbits’ otherwise excellent review of Cowpens, for example, credits Tarlton’s crony Maj. George Hanger with command and training of the Legion infantry, when in fact he was the second officer to the cavalry troops and lacked the temperament for infantry command. Cochrane is not mentioned at all. [18]

Cochrane’s personality was probably best summed up in a letter he wrote to his colleague Col. Charles Stuart. For Cochrane war was about honour and duty. Too often in America, he had seen lesser men promoted through what he believed was corruption or patronage. He wrote bitterly “The profession of a soldier [in America] has long been, and is so still, absorbed in the powerful pursuits of fortune, contracts and dissipation that if anyone has any wish of serving honour ,,, he will meet so many obstacles thrown in [his] way by great Officers and people whose interest ‘tis to continue things in the same way.” [19] It is easy to see in these lines the frustration that fed his casual attitude to danger and eventual tragic death.

Wretchedly forgotten, somewhere in an unmarked grave in Virginia lies a brave, inventive, and frequently heroic soldier who perhaps, even now, deserves some small mark of recognition.

 

1 Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns in the Southern Provinces of North America (Dublin: Colles, 1787), 379.

2 Captain Mure of Caldwell to Andrew Stuart MP, Yorktown, October 21, 1781, in Selections from the family papers preserved at Caldwell (Glasgow, 1854), 345, https://archive.org/stream/selectionsfromfa19131914mure#page/344/mode/2up.

3 Samuel Graham, Memoir of General Graham with notices of the campaigns in which he was engaged 1779 -1801 (Edinburgh: R Clarke, 1862), 60.

4 http://www.cbrl.ca/LouisbourgDiaries/HD%201932.pdf, entry for August 11, 1932.

5 Mellen Chamberlain, Memorial of Captain Charles Cochrane a British officer of the Revolutionary War (Cambridge: J Wilson, 1891), 4.

6 For a fascinating account of the lives of Cochrane’s wife and sister in law see Joanne Major, An Infamous Mistress (London. Pen and Sword 2016).

7 Chamberlain, Memorial, 5.

8 Ibid., 8.

[9] G D Scull, Memoir and letters of captain W G Evelyn 4th Kings Own regiment 1774-1776 (Oxford:.J. Parker, 1894), 195.

[10] Chamberlain, Memorial, 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] Lyman Copeland Draper, “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire of Fergusons Corp.,” King’s Mountain and its Heros (Cincinnati: P. G. Thompson, 1881), 486.

[14] Arthur Bowler, Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 153.

[15] Chamberlain, Memorial, 9.

[16] Caldwell,. Letters.

[17] Chamberlain, Memorial, 12.

[18] Lawrence E Babits A Devil of a Whipping (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 94.

[19] Bowler, Logistics, 204.

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