Perhaps we Americans have a natural disdain for keeping track of our former British adversaries from the colonial era, or maybe there is less interest today in the United Kingdom in preserving the memory of those old defeats. I am otherwise at a loss as to why it is so difficult to find accurate information about a soldier of long service (1747-1801) who fought during the French and Indian War as a Captain in the Black Watch, was severely wounded at the head of his brigade during the American War of Independence, and left the British Army a full general. He doesn't rate a mention in Boatner's (1966) Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, and unless I decide to create an entry you won't find him in Wikipedia.
My interest in General Thomas Stirling came about during my research into two battles that took place in New Jersey in June of 1780. He was wounded at the very outset of this campaign - what is often referred to as Knyphausen's Springfield Raid - but there was evidently very little awareness of his ultimate fate on the part of contemporary Americans and subsequent historians. Some sources said the wound was mortal. Others that he died from complications a year later. Given that the Dictionary of National Biography. 63 vols. London, 1885-1901. Vol. LIV, pp. 383-384 declares that Sterling lived another 28 years after his injury, it seems high time that someone set the record straight.
Thomas Stirling (1733-1808) was the younger brother of Sir William Stirling, Fourth Knight Baronet of Ardoch, and succeeded to his brother's title as the Fifth (and last) Knight Baronet in 1799. Most available sources agree he was born in 1733. His most complete service record available on line states that Thomas Stirling began his military career with a commission from the Prince or Orange dated October 11, 1747 and spent the next decade with the Scottish Brigade in the service of the Dutch, participating in the final stages of the War of Austrian Succession.
On March 24, 1757 (another source says July 24th) he was commissioned a Captain in the 42nd Highland Regiment. One of Stirling's biographical references claims in 1755 he was a captain and lieutenant in the 48th Regiment of Foot and wounded with Braddock at Monongahela, which conflicts with his Dutch service and is not borne out by other available records, including a list of the officers of the 48th. He appears to have been at the Battle of Carillon under Abercrombie and the capture of Ticonderoga the following year with Amherst. He was at the surrender of Montreal in 1760, and wrote to his brother at home that he was "heartily tired of this country, as was every officer in it" and expressing his hope that "Long may Peace reign here...as surely god never intended any war should be carried on by any other besides the natives." It would be a very long time indeed before he would return to his home in Scotland.
It gets tricky to follow his movements during this period, as the 42nd had two battalions and the 2nd of these was sent to Martinique in 1759. Captain Stirling and the 42nd (now Royal) Highland regiment was actually sent to the Caribbean in 1762, and he was wounded at Martinique during this campaign and not in 1759 as others assume.
The two battalions were combined after the fall of Havana and remained in New York as part of the force selected to protect the colonies. Captain Stirling took part in the relief of Fort Pitt in the summer of 1763 during Pontiac's Rebellion and served against the Ohio Indians in 1764. He is specifically credited with leading a 100 man detachment down the Ohio to take possession of Fort Chartres in southern Illinois. It was an odyssey worthy of the likes of Robert Rogers or Benedict Arnold and I'd love to someday read the journals of the expedition, which reportedly describe such encounters as a "prodigious number" of pelicans that were initially mistaken for a regiment of the white-uniformed French, a personal battle that Captain Stirling had with a "monstrous" bear, and makeshift sails made from the regimental plaids. After overwintering at the Fort, they traveled downriver to New Orleans and sailed via Pensacola to New York and then marched to rejoin their regiment in Philadelphia.
Thomas Stirling remained with the 42nd Highlanders after they were posted to the Irish garrison, rising to Major and Lt. Colonel, which in the British army at that time served as the tactical commander of the regiment, with the Colonelcy going to a General officer. In 1776, he lead the 42nd back to America, arriving in August before New York. The battalion companies of the 42nd and two other highland regiments were organized into two temporary battalions under the overall command of Lt. Col. Stirling, who set about preparing his men for the realities of an American campaign and training them to fight in open order as light infantry, as this 1825 history recounts:
"From the moment of their landing, Colonel Stirling was indefatigable in drilling the men to the manner of fighting practiced in the former war with the Indians and French bushmen, which is so well calculated for a close, woody country. Colonel Stirling was well versed in this mode of warfare, and imparted it to the troops, first by training the non-commissioned officers himself, and then superintending the instruction of the soldiers. The highlanders made rapid progress n this discipline, being, in general, excellent marksmen, and requiring only to have their natural impetuosity restrained, which often lead them to disdain fighting in ambush."
Thomas Stirling lead his men at Long Island. Coincidentally, the American General William Alexander (1726-1786) of New Jersey, who also happened to be a claimant for the earldom of Stirling, was captured during this battle. Alexander was known to American contemporaries as Lord Stirling even though he was unable to secure the title and should not be confused with the subject of this essay.
Lt. Col. Thomas Stirling also took part in the attack and capture of Fort Washington later that fall and served in New Jersey that winter. The battalion companies of the 42nd were in reserve during the Battle of Brandywine and Stirling later led the 42nd and a detachment of the 10th to drive the enemy from Billingspoint ,and so was not present at the Battle of Germantown. He was often sent on foraging expeditions and raids with more than just his regiment under his command. In February 1779 he led a raid from Staten Island to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and reoccupied Stoney Point when it was abandoned by Anthony Wayne.
Clearly, this was a highly competent officer, well suited to service in America. In February of 1779 he was appointed aide-de-camp to the King and. In June, 1780, now a Brigadier General, he lead the first brigade in Knyphausen's invading force that crossed once again from Staten Island to Elizabethtown. At the very outset, it was his misfortune to be shot from his horse in the single volley fired at the British vanguard by a picket of twelve men under Ensign Moses Ogden of Spenser's New Jersey regiment, who had been posted in Elizabethtown by my ancestor Colonel Elias Dayton. Stirling's injury was considered severe and Knyphausen himself took command of the vanguard.
But how severe? Thayer's As We Were; The Story of Old Elizabethtown published by the New Jersey Historical Society in 1964 mistakenly states that the wound was mortal. Hatfield's History of Elizabeth, New Jersey (1868) to which Thayer's work owes a substantial debt, reports that the General was unhorsed, and his thigh fractured by the shot, and erroniously claims "he died of his wound, a year later". His injury, while serious, did not prevent him from seeing further service, however. One source states he was at Yorktown with Cornwallis, though it should be pointed out that this source also claims he was with Clinton during his 1780 Charleston, S.C. campaign, which was contemporaneous with his wounding in New Jersey. His old regiment the 42nd Highlanders did go south with Clinton, however. In May of 1782 he was made "colonel" of the 71st Highlanders, succeeded the deceased General Frasier. In 1801 he was a full general.
Here then, was the commander of a famous regiment, who saw hard service in the American War of Independence and left North America a Major General, and yet his story is little known and much remains to be clarified. It may be that his loss at the beginning of the 1780 invasion of New Jersey had significant implications for the way that the campaign would develop, and it is a shame his record is not better understood or documented. I was unable to find even a portrait of Thomas Stirling to use in this piece.