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The Battles of Prestonpans and Culloden

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Royalty, Scotland on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about the Battles of Prestonpans and Culloden originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1049 published on 17 April 1982.

Culloden, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Culloden, the last full-scale combat fought on British soil, where the Jacobite cause died forever, by Pat Nicolle

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland in July, 1745, but, unfortunately for the Jacobite cause, he came without an army. The Prince was also largely unwanted, even by those Highlanders who had traditionally supported the Stuart dynasty. Only Bonnie Prince Charlie’s own personality managed to light the flame of rebellion and even then he drew no more than nine thousand warriors to his banner. The Highland clans’ estimated fighting strength was well over 30,000.

Such risings need constant success to survive and Prince Charles Edward was, in fact, lucky in his first foes. The Hanoverian General, John Cope, was not as bad as some have said, but he did lead an army of raw recruits. For a start Cope failed to stop the Jacobites as they marched out of the Highlands to seize Edinburgh. So he shipped his rag-tag army from Aberdeen to Dunbar, where he could block the road south. There he found what he thought was the ideal battleground, just east of Prestonpans. The Hanoverians would have the sea to the north, high walls around private estates to the west and a broad marsh to the south. So an enemy could only attack from the east, and that way lay England.

Then, on 20th September, General Cope saw that the Jacobites had marched out of Edinburgh and were now streaming past him along Fawside Hill to the south. In this way they were exposing their left flank, which went against every rule in the military book. General Cope feared a trap, and swung his own forces around to face them.

The Jacobite leaders were already squabbling, a habit that was one day to destroy them, but this time their arguments only led to ill-feeling rather than to defeat. Cope’s position was still defended by that marsh, although to be on the safe side he swung his regiments round once again so that they were facing east. In the Jacobite army was a native of this area, named Robert Anderson, and he knew every track in the marshes. So the following night, hidden by heavy mist, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops wound their way across the swamp and formed up on firm ground east of General Cope’s men.

As soon as they learned what was happening, the naval gun crews who were in charge of Cope’s artillery abandoned their guns and fled. Then, as dawn rose on 21st September, 1745, the Jacobites charged with a great yell. The mist was still thick but a few English officers did manage to fire the abandoned cannon. Unfortunately they could not reload them. For a moment the Highlanders of the Cameron and Stuart clans wavered, but then they charged again. A single burst of gunfire sent Cope’s cavalry galloping for safety. So now the outnumbered English infantry had to face the enemy’s stabbing dirks, slashing broadswords and crushing Lochaber axes on their own. Panic soon spread and whole ranks turned to flee. General Cope himself hurried to Berwick with the news of his own defeat. The victory at Prestonpans encouraged many men to join the Jacobites.

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s next move, his march into England, was an even bigger fiasco than the 1715 Jacobite invasion. This second version did not even end in battle. Instead the Prince’s advisors recognised that they had almost no support south of the border and so dragged their Prince north again. The Hanoverian English and anti-Jacobite Scots now decided to crush Prince Charles Edward. Their forces retook Edinburgh, while the Jacobites were based at Stirling. The two armies met in a confused battle near Falkirk, but the result was a victory for neither.

Their next meeting, later in 1746, was very different. The Hanoverians were led by the warlike Duke of Cumberland and he controlled the fertile Lowlands of Scotland while the Jacobites held the poverty-stricken Highlands. Even in this rugged region the Hanoverian net was, however, gradually closing around Bonnie Prince Charlie. A large English force, supported by men from the fiercely anti-Jacobite Campbell clan, mustered near Nairn only 20 kilometres from the enemy’s headquarters at Culloden. Bonnie Prince Charlie was determined to face the Duke of Cumberland on open ground, so he gathered his clans and tried to catch the Hanoverians by surprise after a night march on 15th April, This daring move failed, although the attacking army was able to return to its base in safety. The Jacobites were, of course, now exhausted, but Cumberland was not to allow them any sleep.

On the following day, 16th April, 1746, the Hanoverian army advanced, and by midday the Duke’s troops were formed up opposite the Prince’s weary Highlanders. Cumberland laid his plans carefully. As usual his cavalry was on the flanks, but the Duke also had plenty of artillery, which he spaced out between his infantry units. He also placed the 8th Regiment of Foot against a stone wall on the left flank. This was commanded by Colonel Wolfe, who would one day win fame outside Quebec. From here Wolfe’s troops could fire into the flanks of the enemy.

Attack is just what Prince Charles Edward’s warriors wanted to do, but instead he held them back while they were cut down in hundreds by Cumberland’s cannon. Eventually the Highlanders could wait no longer and they surged forward. The English gunners now switched to grape-shot, which tore great gaps in the advancing line. Nevertheless, the Jacobite right wing, whose attack had been squeezed into a narrow space by stone walls and some boggy ground, bit deep into the English infantry. The Campbell militia were stationed on this side and now they pulled down some of the stone walls to allow the Hanovarian cavalry to slice into the Jacobites.

The Campbell’s ancient enemies, the Camerons, were on this wing of the Jacobite army and the clans were able to continue their traditional blood feud in the middle of the battle.

On the far side of the field the Highlanders had further to charge and, in fact, they never reached their enemies. Instead they were caught in the back by some regiments of English cavalry. The survivors of the Jacobite centre and right were already falling back.

Once again a retreat became a rout, but at Culloden this was made worse by Cumberland’s order that no prisoners be taken; Wounded Jacobites were massacred and at least a thousand Scots were slain, compared to the Hanoverian losses of three hundred and sixty-four killed and wounded. Prince Charles Edward Stuart fled, knowing that the Jacobite cause was lost for ever.

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