For the past two years I have had the good fortune to be heading up a project to gather, for eventual publication, the correspondence of one of the more colorful officers on the British side, Francis Lord Rawdon. Rawdon was an Irishman, one of a handful of young officers who catapulted to command ahead of older officers by taking advantage of opportunities to lead Loyalist troops on the Provincial Establishment. Like fellow officers Banastre Tarleton and John Graves Simcoe, Rawdon commanded a regiment while still in his mid-twenties.
Born in December 1754 at Moira, County Down, west of Belfast in what is now Northern Ireland, Rawdon entered the British military at the age of sixteen as an ensign in the 15th Regiment of Foot. Through the influence (and especially the money) of his family, including his very influential uncle and member of the House of Lords, the Earl of Huntingdon, Rawdon began his climb in rank through the British purchase system. With the 5th Regiment of Foot, in which he was then a lieutenant, Rawdon embarked in 1774 for America, where he would spend much of the next seven years.
As an officer of grenadiers, Rawdon was heavily involved in the opening actions of the American Revolution, especially at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where his actions were noted by several senior officers, particularly Generals John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton. Rawdon departed Boston with Clinton in January 1776, a staff officer on Clinton’s expedition to the Carolinas, where they met up with the force under Lord Cornwallis in the ill-fated attempt to take Charleston. Rawdon continued with Clinton in the New York City Campaign in 1776, culminating in the British occupation of Newport, Rhode Island. The young Irish captain (promoted to that rank in the 63rd Regiment of Foot in July 1775) accompanied Clinton to London on that general’s brief return home in January 1777. Returning to America that summer, Rawdon stayed with Clinton at New York City while the main army under Sir William Howe fought in Pennsylvania. Howe’s return to England in early 1778 proved fortuitous for Rawdon, as Clinton succeeded to command of the Army in America. The new British commander-in-chief appointed Rawdon adjutant general of the Army in America, just in time for the evacuation of Philadelphia and the march across New Jersey. Not only did Rawdon hold the top staff position in the army, he did so as a brevet British lieutenant colonel and a full colonel on the Provincial Establishment as commander of a regiment.
In May 1778, it was thought expedient to try and raise a corps of Irishmen in America, as an enticement to those Loyalist emigrants of that kingdom and especially to lure Washington’s Irish soldiers, of whom there were many, to the British side. Clinton named Rawdon colonel of this new regiment, the Volunteers of Ireland. Rawdon quickly lavished money on the corps, supporting its officers and personally paying for distinctive uniforms and accoutrements for the soldiers. These expenses were well above his pay grade, necessitating a near-constant chain of monetary requests to his parents.
As others found while working among Sir Henry Clinton’s inner circle, the British commander could prove a thorny boss. Rawdon, who initially thought very highly of Clinton as a person and officer, grew frustrated and confounded by his superior’s arrogance and picayune behavior. In the first days of September 1779 this culminated in concerning comments over a diner discussing the drafting of another Provincial unit, Emmerick’s Chasseurs. Rawdon resigned the office of adjutant general the next day, although quickly writing to London to solicit the retention of brevet rank in the Army, having arranged for his brother George to succeed him as captain in the 63rd Regiment. Another brother, the Honorable John Rawdon, lost a leg as captain in 4th (or King’s Own) Regiment of Foot in 1777 during the Pennsylvania campaign. In both cases, Lord Rawdon showed great attention to looking after the well-being of his uniformed siblings.
Now solely focused on his regiment, the Volunteers of Ireland, Rawdon led his corps in April 1780 as part of the reinforcement for the Siege of Charleston, then underway in South Carolina. After the surrender of that city to Clinton the following month, Rawdon and the Volunteers remained behind as part of the southern army commanded by Lord Cornwallis. Sent into the interior of the province, Rawdon established headquarters at Camden and commanded all the outlying posts in that neighborhood. He commanded the left wing of the army, composed of three Provincial regiments, at the battle fought near Camden there on August 16, 1780, earning praise from Cornwallis. While appreciating the acknowledgement, Rawdon felt slighted that his efforts were not sufficiently commended, thus creating some ill feelings towards Cornwallis.
Rawdon continued in command at Camden and eventually was involved with Cornwallis’s army in late autumn. When Cornwallis shifted the army’s march to North Carolina that winter, Rawdon returned to Camden with his regiment, where he again assumed command, this time of the entire province. Despite defeating Nathanael Greene’s army at Hobkirk’s Hill on April 25, 1781 and masterfully relieving the Siege of Ninety-Six later that spring, the state of the army and his own declining health forced an evacuation of the interior of the province. Clinton, still showing some attachment to his former protégée, promoted Rawdon to brigadier general of Provincial forces and granted him leave to return home now that more senior British officers had arrived in the province. Weeks before embarking on his journey, Rawdon, along with Charleston commandant Nisbet Balfour, presided over the execution of rebel Col. Isaac Hayne, who had been taken prisoner while under arms and in battle while, as the British claimed, under a parole not to do so. It was a turbulent end to his career in America.
The journey home, on a packet (mail) ship was cut abruptly short when the vessel was captured by the French fleet. Sent to France as a prisoner, he was quickly paroled to Paris and from thence home to London and then Ireland, having to defend his action regarding Hayne along the way. Exchanged in 1782, Rawdon raised a new regiment in Ireland, the 105th Regiment of Foot, formed around the cadre of commissioned and noncommissioned officers of the Volunteers of Ireland, sent from America in October of that year. This new corps saw no service outside of Ireland and was disbanded shortly after the end of the war.
Rawdon continued on in various military and government roles, most notably as governor general of India. He passed away in 1826 at the age of seventy-one, while serving as governor of the island of Malta, where he is buried still. Below are some classic passages from Rawdon’s writings, primarily to his family, where his candor, openness and humor were typically on display.
1. Rawdon to his uncle in London on June 20, 1775, concerning the Battle of Bunker Hill and the shattered remains of his grenadier company: “Only eleven of our Grenadier Company are left; other Grenadier Companys have suffered even more. I received no hurt of any kind; but a ball passed thro’ a close cap which I had made in imitation of the foreign travelling caps & wore for convenience sake, for we no longer think of appearances at present. I was every where in the thickest of the fire & flatter myself that I behaved as you could wish.”
2. Rawdon to his uncle, from “the heights of Charlestown” on October 5, 1775, where he had been on duty for months: “It is very bleak at present upon these Heights, & the duty of the Officers is severe. At our lines, neither officer or man have the smallest shelter against the inclemency of the weather, but stand to the works all night. Indeed in point of alertness & regularity, our Officers have great merit. I have not seen either drinking or gaming in this camp. If any thing, there is too little society among us: In general every man goes to his own tent very soon after sunset, where those who can amuse themselves in that manner, read; & the others probably sleep. I usually have a Red herring, some Onions, & some Porter about eight o’Clock, of which three or four grave sedate people partake; we chat about different topics, & retire to our beds about nine.”
3. Rawdon to his uncle while embarked on board the ship Mercuryfrom New York, en route to the 1776 southern campaign, relating what he heard concerning the repulse of the attack on Quebec on New Year’s Eve in 1775: “This loss has so dispirited the Yankies that we hear they cannot prevail on the men to march for Canada; altho’ Governor Trumbull has assured them, that ‘after mature consideration he can promise them success, for the Righteous God loveth righteousness, & of consequence they must succeed.’ Such are the arts with which they delude the ignorant bigots of this country. Mr. Trumbull’s opinion of these people, & mine, differ widely.”
4. Rawdon to his uncle dated from Horn’s Hook on Manhattan, September 23, 1776, about a week after the capture New York City, wherein he described the scene of one of the few opposed amphibious landings of the war: “On the 15th, General Clinton embarked early in the morning (in some flat bottomed boats which had been brought past the town in the night) with the Light Infantry, the British, & the Hessian Grenadiers; making between three & four thousand men. Commodore Hotham had the Command of the Boats; Genl. Clinton & I were in his barge with him. We embarked in Newtown Creek, & as soon as we got into the East River, formed the Line, & pushed directly for Kipps’s Bay. As we approached, we saw the breastworks filled with men; & two or three large Columns marching down in great parade to support them. The Hessians who were not used to this water business, & who conceived that it must be exceedingly uncomfortable to be shot at whilst they were quite defenceless & jammed together so close, began to sing hymns immediately. Our men expressed their feelings as strongly, tho’ in a different manner, by damning themselves & the enemy indiscriminately with wonderful fervency. The Ships had not as yet fired a shot, but upon a signal from us they began the most tremendous peal I ever heard. The breastwork was blown to pieces in a few minutes, & those who were to have defended it were happy to escape as quick as possible thro’ the neighbouring ravines. The Columns broke instantly, & betook themselves to the nearest woods for shelter. We pressed to shore, landed, & formed without losing a single man.”
5. From White Plains, New York on November 3, 1776, Rawdon described to his uncle the fighting at that place a few days previous, as well as this anecdote of his brother John, then a lieutenant in the 15th Regiment of Foot: “Two days ago, the Rebels having carried off the part of their baggage, & burnt the rest, abandoned their works & retired thro’ the mountains. We endeavored to follow them but in vain. We had some Cannonading with their rear guard, by which my brother John (who is an excellent Soldier in every respect) was very near killed. Two men who stood close to him were killed by a Twelve pounder, & a Splinter of one of their sculls stuck in his thigh; but did not hurt him much. This Campaign has been of infinite service to him. He is every thing I could wish him.”
6. Lord Rawdon’s father perhaps had a laugh from this letter dated at New York, September 22, 1778 wherein Rawdon alludes that the corps he raised in America, the Volunteers of Ireland, consisted, at least in great part, of deserters from Washington’s army: “My Regiment at present consists of above 400 Men, & is really a fine one. I fancy there are few men in it who have not at one time or other had a shot at their Colonel. They are this day gone into Jersey, as part of a Corps of 6000 Men under Ld. Cornwallis.”
7. On September 22, 1779 Rawdon attempted to express to his father the reasons for his resigning as adjutant general, and what Sir Henry Clinton had become: “It is sufficient to say that disappointments of various kinds, have so affected Sir Henry’s temper, that it would have been unbecoming both my rank, & character to have remained with him. His rudeness, & want of decency to me as a Gentleman, has been so frequent, that altho’ he used to be sensible of it & make apologies for it afterwards, I could not bear the idea of being perpetually subject to such caprice. There is a certain respect invariably due from one man to another.”
8. In a letter dated from Camden, South Carolina on Christmas Eve 1780, Rawdon braced his mother to expect reading negative press on him in the papers, alluding to a captured order of his to the inhabitants in the area to bring in or behead deserters from his corps, or risk severe punishment. Rawdon explained the threats were simply that, in the hopes of stopping desertion: “You must expect to hear me talked of as a monster of cruelty: For the Rebels who have in this Country been guilty of the most atrocious barbarities, never fail to raise the most violent outcries when we punish the treachery of their partisans with the severity due to it. I esteem it highly dishonest to let the fear of vulgar obloquy intimidate one from the performance of what one knows to be one’s duty: Therefore, under any circumstances that require stepping beyond the line of precedent, I must always be very liable to incur misrepresentation. Washington, with a view of sowing dissention, sent to Sir H. Clinton a letter of mine which was intercepted by Gates; with a grievous complaint against it’s severity; It was a Lettre Fulminante, calculated to terrify our pretended friends in the Country, from enticing the troops to desert; & it will give a mighty pretty idea of my character, if it appears in a London news-paper.”
9. The stress and fatigue of his South Carolina command is evident in a letter from Rawdon to his father dated from Camden, March 16, 1781: “The business of my present situation is wearisome to the greatest degree. To military cares, is added all such civil administration as can now take place: and the management of a people who have no sense of Honor, who appear to want every principle of humanity, & who feel no obligation in the most solemn oath, is as ungrateful a task as can be well imagined.”
10. Rawdon had no sooner returned to Ireland from France when he was informed by his uncle that the Duke of Richmond, no fan of the war in America, sought to question Rawdon’s conduct in the affair of Colonel Hayne. Rawdon rushed to London, where, at noon on February 21, 1782, he fired off this challenge to the Duke: “The expressions, with which you, My Lord, introduced the motion, were as unnecessary to the business, as they are little reconcileable to the dignity of a Senator, the public spirit of a Citizen, or the Candor of a Gentleman: of course, I feel them fit objects for my resentment. I do therefore require, that you, My Lord, shall make a public excuse, in such manner, and in such terms as I shall dictate, for the scandalous imputation which you have thrown on my Humanity; a quality which ought to be as dear in a Soldier’s estimation as valor itself. If your Grace had rather abet your malignity with your Sword, I shall rejoice in bringing the matter to that issue.”