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Alexander Leslie
(1731 - 1794)

By Gainsborough

The Honourable Alexander Leslie, son of the Earl of Leven and Melville, was the British general who took command of the southern theater after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.1

Leslie joined the army in 1753, as an ensign in the Third Foot Guards. In 1768, he was lieutenant-colonel of the 64th regiment, stationed in Boston. By the New York campaign of 1776, he was a brigadier-general, and he fought at Long Island, Kip's Bay, and Harlem Heights. His command suffered heavy losses at White Plains (October, 1776), and inexplicably failed to stop Washington's advance towards Princeton (January, 1777).2

He participated in the siege of Charleston, and initially took command of the city after it capitulated. He held the post for only a couple of weeks, just long enough to organize its administration. After that, he returned to New York, where he assumed command of the light infantry and grenadiers.3

In the autumn of 1780, Sir Henry Clinton sent him to the Chesapeake on an expedition intended to make "a powerful diversion in [Earl Cornwallis's] favor by striking at the magazines then collecting by the enemy... for supplying the army they were assemblying to oppose him." The detachment reached Virginia in October, but Leslie soon received orders from Cornwallis (under whose command Clinton had placed him) to continue on to Charleston. His correspondence suggests that he did so only reluctantly, having confirmed with Clinton that he was to follow Cornwallis's mandate rather than his original instructions. (This series of decisions became pivotal in the Clinton-Cornwallis controversy after the war.) Prior to leaving Virginia, he wrote Clinton that he hoped "you will be able to take up this ground; for it certainly is the key to the wealth of Virginia and Maryland."4

Reaching Charleston in mid-December, he found orders awaiting him to lead his troops inland to rendezvous with Cornwallis's army. Unfortunately, the Earl chose to wait for them to reach him before proceeding to link up with Tarleton -- who was then in pursuit of Daniel Morgan -- as had originally been planned. (This was to be one of Tarleton's bones of contention, when he and Cornwallis fell out after the war.) Delayed by bad weather, Leslie's force reached the main army camp on January 18, one day after the battle of Cowpens had rendered the proposed rendezvous academic.

Leslie's men stayed with Cornwallis's army as it set off in pursuit of Greene. At Guilford Courthouse, he commanded the British right in a style which Cornwallis praised in his follow-up dispatch: "I have been particularly indebted to Major-general Leslie for his gallantry and exertion in the action, as well as his assistance in every other part of the service".5

Although he took part in the long slog north from the Carolinas, Leslie managed to miss the siege and surrender of Yorktown. In the summer of 1781, his health deteriorated to a point where Cornwallis transferred him to Charleston, whence Clinton recalled him to New York.

On Aug. 27, 1781, Clinton wrote Cornwallis that he was "much concerned to find [Leslie] in so bad a state of health on his arrival, but it is now much altered for the better; he embarks to-morrow... on his way to Charles-town." He didn't quite make it out "tomorrow", but on Aug. 31, Clinton issued him with orders to "proceed in the Blonde to Charles Town and assume command." After Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, his mandate expanded to include the whole Southern Theater.6

It turned out to be a gruelling experience. In January, 1782, he mentioned in a report to Clinton that he had had a fall from his horse, and reminded his commander of "his promise that his stay here should not be for a long time." In March, Clinton replied that he regretted Leslie's desire to go home, but would "not withhold his consent when the service permits his absence."7

That time was not to arrive for many months. Throughout the rest of the year, Leslie sent escalating and increasingly miserable requests to be relieved from a task which was beyond both his deteriorating physical stamina and his ability to handle stress. On March 27, he poured out his troubles in another letter to Clinton:

You know, Sir, that my constitution is much impaired from having serv'd the whole war; besides that, the perplexity of civil matters here; independent of military ones, is so much beyond my abilities to arrange, that I declare myself unequal to the task, nor have I constitution to stand it, from morning to night I have memorials and petitions full of distress, &c., &c., before me.

Independent of my public situation, and even state of health, I have an aged mother (82 yrs.) going into her grave, and only wishing to see me.

And I have an only daughter, who I have scarce ever seen from being constantly with my regiment, her happiness now depends on my return to Europe. She may form a very good alliance, but is under promise to me to remain single until I see her.

Excuse my troubling you with these family matters, it is to convince you I don't go away because his Majesty has been pleased to provide for me in giving me an old regiment.

Dr. Hayes will inform your Excellency from sickness and accidents, by falls, dislocations, &c., my health is unfit to stand the summer."8

A few weeks later, Clinton replied, again expressing his concern that Leslie's " health will not permit him to remain much longer in command of the Southern district." He added that he hoped "to find shortly some General to succeed him."9

Leslie, however, was of the opinion that transfer of command would not be a problem. On April 17, he wrote:

I am sorry your Excellency don't yet agree to my going to Europe. I assure you, independent of my bad state of health, and ten years constant service, family matters require it more and more by every letter from home. I refer your Excellency to Genl. Robertson on this head.

There's in this Province one Lt. Genl., two M. Genls., and two Brigadiers, besides myself; if it's necessary I will return as soon as ever I get my private concerns settled; and be assured I am uncapable to manage the strange perplexed situations of things in these Provinces at this present time.10

Unfortunately for him, his command in Charleston was to outlast Clinton's stay in New York. Gradually withdrawing the British inland garrisons, he held the city itself until it was finally evacuated in December 1782.

Leslie has no entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was promoted to Major-General of the Army in 1782. Beyond that, there seems to be a dearth of information on the rest of his life and career, except for the incident surrounding his death, which was written up in Kay's Portraits and Caricatures:

In 1794, while second in command of the forces in Scotland, in consequence of a mutiny in the Breadalbane Regiment of Fencibles, then stationed at Glasgow, General Leslie, Colonel Montgomerie (afterwards Earl of Eglinton), and Sir James Stewart, left Edinburgh to take charge of the troops collected for the purpose of compelling the mutineers to surrender. By the judicious management, however, of Lord Adam Gordon, then Commander-in-Chief, an appeal to force was avoided by the voluntary surrender of four of the ring-leaders, who were marched to Edinburgh Castle as prisoners, under a strong guard of their own regiment. General Leslie and Adjutant M'Lean of the Fencibles, having accompanied the party a short way out of town, they were assailed on their return by a number of riotous people, who accused them of being active in sending away the prisoners. The mob rapidly increased, stones and other missiles were thrown, by one of which General Leslie was knocked down, and he and the Adjutant were compelled to take shelter in a house, from which they were at last rescued by the Lord Provost, with a posse of peaceofficers and a company of the Fencibles. On his way back to Edinburgh, the General was seized with a dangerous illness, and died at Beechwood House, about three miles west of the city, on the 27th December 1794.11

According to a contemporary newspaper account, it was not General Leslie but rather a Major Leslie under his command who was attacked by the mob and forced into shelter. The account does confirm Leslie's arrival with the intention of quelling the riots, but unfortunately it says nothing about his sudden illness and death.12

Leslie married Mary Tullidelph in 1760, but she died in childbirth a year later, leaving him with a daughter. He never remarried.

[Thanks to Doc M for filling in some gaps and sending the Kay extract, and to Don Glickstein for providing a color copy of the portrait (which remains in family hands). Also to Don Glickstein for sending the Times article.]

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1 General information for this article comes from Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994). Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion. Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-82, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven: Yale University Press; 1954) and Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1787). [ back ]

2 Kay, John, A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings, by the Late John Kay, Miniature Painter, Edinburgh; With Biographical Sketches and Illustrative Anecdotes, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Hugh Paton, Carver and Gilder, 1838), sketch CXCVII. [ back ]

3 John Peebles, The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, ed. Ira D. Gruber (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), p340, p379, p390. Clinton to Germain, 13 May 1780, in Tarleton, p38-44. [ back ]

4 Clinton, American Rebellion, p210. Alexander Leslie to Sir Henry Clinton, 19 Nov 1780, in Sir Henry Clinton, Observations on Some Parts of the Answer of Earl Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative (London: J. Debrett, 1783), p34. (Note that the document is misnumbered. This refers to the third "page 34" in it.) [ back ]

5 Clinton, p354. Earl Cornwallis to Lord George Germain, 17 Mar 1781, in Tarleton, p308. [ back ]

6 Sir Henry Clinton to Earl Cornwallis, 27 Aug 1781, in Charles, Earl Cornwallis, An Answer to that Part of the Narrative of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, K.B. (London: Printed for J. Debrett, 1783), p251. Sir Henry Clinton to Alexander Leslie, 31 Aug 1781, in Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institute of Great Britain, 4 vols. (London: Printed for His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1901-9), 2:326. Alexander Leslie to Lord George Germain, 13 Nov 1781, ibid., 2:348. [ back ]

7 Alexander Leslie to Sir Henry Clinton, 29 Jan 1782, in Report on Amer. MS., 2:388. Sir Henry Clinton to Alexander Leslie, 26 Mar 1782, Ibid., 2:431-2. [ back ]

8 Alexander Leslie to Sir Henry Clinton, 27 Mar 1782, in Report on Amer. MS., 2:434. [ back ]

9 Sir Henry Clinton to Alexander Leslie, 14 Apr 1782, in Report on Amer. MS., 2:450. [ back ]

10 Alexander Leslie to Sir Henry Clinton, 17 Apr 1782, in Report on Amer. MS., 2:457. Given the dates of these two letters, Leslie's cannot be a reply to Clinton's of April 14, but must be a response to early messages. [ back ]

11 Kay, CXCVII. [ back ]

12 The Times, 22 Dec 1794. [ back ]

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