It is almost impossible today to call anyone an “American original” without sounding hackneyed. To use that same appellation for William Alexander of New Jersey (1726-1783) would be a perfect description. The 18th and 19th centuries saw thousands of American originals bloom.
In New York, young and socially-prominent William Alexander discovered that he might be sole male heir to the vacant Scots Earldom of Stirling. In London as a British officer during the Seven Years War, Alexander conducted further research, consulted top drawer solicitors, and finally took his case before Parliament. Although not granted all rights and privileges, he was allowed a vote to elect Scots peers to Parliament. The Scottish peerage, however, fully recognized the title claims.
He returned to America addressed, at least in courtesy, as Lord Stirling. He and his wife, Sarah, moved to a grand estate, where he built an elaborate mansion, Basking Ridge. Sarah, Countess of Stirling, was sister to William Livingston, first patriot Governor of New Jersey. Lord Stirling enlarged his circle of influential friends to include George Washington, whom he met in Philadelphia.
By roughly 1774 “… Lord Stirling … [developed, purchased and operated] … extensive iron works ….” Once the Revolution began, iron foundries and the armaments they produced were critical to the rebels.
“On May 20, 1775 … the manager of [Stirling’s] Hibernia Works wrote that “the furnace is making 20 tons weekly.” Previous colonial policy had so restricted the production of gun powder to keep colonists at a disadvantage. By “… September … 1775, the … manager wrote Stirling that he had so little powder that he might have to …” cease operations.
As a British-commissioned officer during the French and Indian War, Lord Stirling, along with Washington and others learned two critical types of warfare. When the revolution caught flame, newly-minted militia Colonel William, Lord Stirling raised and provisioned his own regiment of New Jersey militia. “General Washington … was delighted at the way Lord Stirling was developing as a general officer, and was already turning over … the possibility of making the Earl a divisional commander in …” the Continental Army.
Continental Army General
Experienced officers were in short supply. Washington insisted that congress make general officers of men such as Stirling, Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, artillery maven Henry Knox, and Daniel Morgan. With Lord Stirling, Washington got a leader who was a tenacious fighter, a loyal friend, and a polished aristocrat of two continents who was an ideal go-between with European officers.
At the Battle of Long Island (1776), Stirling rallied his troops to hold out far longer than many, and to punish General Howe’s forces. Attacked by Hessians and the British, Lord Stirling let most of his men escape, keeping only 250 Maryland Continentals with whom to fight. Surrounded, Stirling surrendered his sword to Hessian officers rather than the British.
He was back in uniform following a prisoner exchange. By gaining more time for Washington to plan the whole army’s escape to New Jersey, Stirling turned certain annihilation into just another defeat that enabled the cause to survive. Lord Stirling also fought with distinction at Brandywine Creek and the Battle of Monmouth.
Basking Ridge No More
In 1781, Washington marched quickly and secretly from New York with Continental and French troops to Yorktown, VA and the army of Charles, Lord Cornwallis. He selected Lord Stirling, among others, to command troops throughout New York, to keep General Sir Henry Clinton tied down.
Washington gave Stirling the Albany command, still a vital post because of British Canada. Following Yorktown, he kept much of the Continental Army intact until the peace treaty was signed and British troops left territories of the new United States. Stirling retained his northern command.
Unfortunately, William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, would not be discharged in Albany to return to the peace and luxuries of Basking Hill. Seriously ill with gout and rheumatism, he died in 1783, only three months before the Treaty of Paris was signed.