William Alexander was born on December 25, 1726 in the city of New York to well-known lawyer James Alexander and his wife Mary. Mary and James had emigrated from Scotland in 1716. When they married, Mary was already a widow with six children and she and James had seven more. William was the second son of Mary and James, but when his older brother died in 1731, William became the male heir to the Alexander clan.
William studied law under his father’s guidance and in 1748 married Sarah Livingston, daughter of Philip Livingston, who lived in downtown Albany and later signed the Declaration of Independence. They had two daughters.
William formed a partnership with Henry Livingston and they purchased two ships and began importing goods from England and selling them in the Hudson Valley.
William also served as a captain of a local militia company and routinely drilled with his recruits. He was a member of the Whig political faction in England and in June, 1754, he attended the Albany Congress on behalf of his father who was unable to attend due to illness. At the Congress, Benjamin Franklin presented the Albany Plan of Union, the first plan for the unification of the colonies and formation of a national government.
The Congress also met with representatives of the Haudenosaune (nations of the Iroquois Confederacy) to renew the “Covenant Chain,” the bond of friendship between the two. One of the issues of contention was a disagreement over lands purchased by the Livingston family from the Iroquois. Alexander offered to give up claims to lands that might accrue to him as part of the estate of his father-in-law, Philip Livingston, to try to settle the disagreement. Alexander also represented the Penn family in trying to buy more land in Pennsylvania from Indigenous People.
Following the Albany Congress, Alexander was asked to become an aide to Massachusetts governor William Shirley. Shirley was an aggressive military leader and supported an attack against the French to try to drive them out of North America. Alexander was asked to assist with the planning of an attack on Fort Niagara near present day Buffalo.
Alexander’s assignment was to purchase provisions at Albany and arrange transportation to get them to Oswego where they would sail west on Lake Ontario and be ready for the attack on Fort Niagara. Alexander contracted with Walter Quackenbush of Albany to build 500 bateau at Quackenbush’s shipyard in Albany.
Conflict arose when Colonel William Johnson began to plan a second attack staged from Albany and aimed at the French forts on Lake George. William Johnson and William Alexander began competing for the same supplies, boats and soldiers.
Neither Johnson’s nor Shirley’s military efforts were successful and Lord Loudoun replaced Shirley as military commander-in-chief of North America. On August 14, Oswego fell to the French and both Loudoun and Shirley blamed each other.
In 1756, Alexander’s father James died in Albany and William inherited a substantial portion of his father’s estate. He was subsequently appointed Surveyor General of the Province of New Jersey and a member of both the New York and New Jersey Governor’s Councils. He was also appointed a trustee of King’s College (now Columbia University).
Following the fall of Oswego, William Shirley was recalled to England and charged with neglect of duty. Alexander accompanied Shirley to England to testify on his behalf and wound-up spending five years there. While in England he learned more about an expired Scottish Earldom that had been held by another William Alexander. He hired an attorney to research and pursue the title on his behalf.
King Charles I awarded the earlier William Alexander the title of Earl of Stirling. Along with the title went large tracts of land in North America including large sections of Nantucket, Long Island, New Brunswick, Martha’s Vineyard, Nova Scotia and a large portion of what is now Maine. The Duke of York bought back Long Island from the estate of Lord Stirling for 7,000 British pounds but the sum had never been paid since the line of Alexanders had apparently died out.
Alexander’s attorney researched a family tree that showed William’s direct ancestor was an uncle to the original Lord Stirling, but he was not in the direct line of inheritance. A jury was impaneled in Scotland that found in his favor and awarded him the title, but British law mandated that the House of Lords confirm the award. Alexander petitioned the House of Lords on May 20, 1760 but after much delay, the House of Lords decided on March 3, 1762 that he should be “considered as having no right to said title.”
Over the next eight to ten years Alexander entered into many business dealings. Some of the ventures turned out to be very poorly considered and others were adversely affected by growing hostilities between Great Britain and the American colonies following the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townsend Acts (1767 and 1768). His investments suffered.
By 1775, Alexander joined with the colonists sympathetic to the American cause and was serving on the New Jersey Council of Safety, a quasi-legal group acting parallel to the King’s appointed governor, judges and other public officials in New Jersey. As a result of his siding with the colonists, Alexander was expelled from the New York and New Jersey Royal Militias.
When the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, the New Jersey Council of Safety formed two regiments of troops with Alexander appointed colonel and placed in charge of the Eastern Regiment. When the Continental Congress met, they predated his appointment, in effect making him the senior colonel of all New Jersey forces. His appointment referred to him as Colonel Lord Stirling.
In March 1776, the Continental Congress ordered General Charles Lee to Charleston, South Carolina and assigned Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, the additional responsibility of overseeing the defense of the city of New York. Since Schuyler maintained his headquarters in Albany, this temporarily put Stirling in charge of the New York area.
On the recommendation of General Lee and the Continental Congress, Stirling was promoted to Brigadier General. One of his first actions was to notify Philip Schuyler that he would need 6,000 troops to defend all of the military fortifications constructed. He currently had only about 1,800 men.
When the British began evacuating Boston Harbor, George Washington warned Stirling to prepare for an attack on New York. Stirling did his best to requisition needed supplies and militia from Connecticut and New Jersey but was only successful in raising about 4,000 troops.
On April 13, 1776, Washington arrived the Continental Army and took personal charge of organizing the defense of New York. The army was divided into four brigades with Stirling in charge of one brigade.
On July 1, thousands of British regulars under British General William Howe began landing on the lightly defended Staten Island. By early August, Howe had 32,000 men and 500 warships commanded by his brother Admiral Richard Howe in New York Harbor. Washington commanded about 20,000 soldiers, mostly volunteers.
Washington’s strategy for defending New York was to hold the high ground at Brooklyn Heights that dominated the city. Washington deployed about 8,000 of his troops about a mile and a half forward of the Heights and the balance in defenses constructed on the Heights.
On the forward line, Lord Stirling commanded the right and the reserves while General John Sullivan commanded the center and left. General Israel Putnam commanded the defenses at Brooklyn Heights. The extreme left of the forward line was weakly defended.
The British attack began with British Major General James Grant attacking the right side of the American line near the Red Lion Inn directly at Stirling and his men. Stirling positioned his men on advantageous ground and held his position. The British and Americans fought at a distance of about 150 yards but when no further British advance developed, Stirling began to suspect that this was not the main attack.
Howe next had part of his forces attack Sullivan in the center and sent a third contingent around the weakly guarded American left and Sullivan suddenly came under withering attack from two sides and his center line crumbled. Stirling was now also under heavy attack. Stirling showed unusual courage, holding his lines for far longer than anyone expected, but he was eventually overwhelmed. He “fought like a wolf,” the British said.
While many of Stirling and Sullivan’s men were able to reach the main rear defenses and hold off the British, Stirling and Sullivan were both captured at what is now known as the Battle of Brooklyn, or the Battle of Long Island. According to George Washington’s report, the Americans had lost about 700 to 1,000 men while the British lost 66 killed and 268 wounded.
The British leaders treated Stirling and Sullivan humanely, even inviting them to dine on the Admiral’s flagship, Eagle. The Howe brothers tried to convince the American generals that the war should end and said that they had the authority to negotiate a settlement.
The Howes reminded Stirling and Sullivan of their close ties to the Americans. They brought up the fact that their older brother, George Augustus, Lord Howe, had been killed in a battle fighting on the side of the colonists at Crown Point during the French and Indian War. His body had been returned to Albany escorted by Philip Schuyler and interred in the Schuyler family crypt (it was later moved to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Albany).
Sullivan agreed to go to Philadelphia to request that an unofficial delegation be sent to meet with the Howes with an eye toward negotiating a peace settlement.
Due to the setback, Washington abandoned Brooklyn Heights and retreated to Manhattan. On October 6th, Stirling and Sullivan were exchanged for British officers captured by the colonials. It was jokingly said that the British were glad to be rid of Stirling since he had successfully consumed most of their good wine.
Washington decided to evacuate Manhattan and placed Stirling in charge of an advance group of troops sent to secure White Plains. Washington joined Stirling but when the British attacked White Plains, they pushed the colonists back to North Castle.
Due to Stirling’s demonstrated courage under fire, Washington placed him in charge of the right side of the American line and assigned seven regiments to him, the largest brigade in the army with 2,863 men. When the British unexpectedly turned south toward New Jersey, Washington was forced to divide his army into three contingents and he and Stirling headed south following Howe. Washington and Stirling eventually wound up across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.
On Christmas Eve, Washington moved his troops back across the Delaware in a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. In a snowstorm, the Continental Army surprised the Hessians and without the loss of a single man they defeated a contingent of about 2,000 and took most of three regiments captive.
After his success, Washington re-crossed the Delaware River for protection. The effect of the victory was tremendous for American morale. Washington re-crossed the Delaware again on January 30 and, after the Battle at Princeton, went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey ending the campaign of 1776.
Due to British inaction in the spring of 1777, Washington was able to regroup his army into 9,000 men in five divisions led by Generals Nathaniel Greene, Stirling, Sullivan, Ebenezer Stevens and Benjamin Lincoln. On June 22, General Howe’s British Army moved against Philadelphia.
On June 26th General Charles Cornwallis attacked Stirling’s defensive line. Stirling, outnumbered 12 to 1 withdrew losing 63 dead and about 200 wounded. Although Stirling withdrew, he showed Washington once again that he was an aggressive fighter and did not withdraw quickly or easily. Washington was impressed with Stirling’s aggressive attitude and willingness to stand up to a far superior force.
Washington was forced to wait, not sure if Howe was moving against Philadelphia or was feigning an attack westward and would actually move up the Hudson River against Albany. When Washington heard from General Philip Schuyler that Fort Ticonderoga had fallen to the British, Washington became convinced that Howe would move up the Hudson against Albany and he moved the army under his command to block Howe’s progress northward.
As he moved north of the city of New York however, Washington received intelligence that Howe had loaded his troops on ships and was sailing toward Philadelphia. This caused a quick march to Chadds Ford west of New York where General Sullivan’s forces were driven back by Howe’s. A second battle erupted just west of Chadds Ford at Brandywine Creek where both armies fought all day.
In mid-September, Howe tricked Washington by moving on Reading, Pennsylvania, the location of major Continental Army storehouses. When Washington moved to attack him at Reading, Howe doubled back behind Washington and took Philadelphia.
On October 4th , Washington attacked the British force at Germantown but was forced to fall back when British reinforcements arrived from Philadelphia. Howe settled down for the winter in Philadelphia while Washington’s Continental Army went to Valley Forge.
In early October, Washington received the news that the Northern Division of the Colonial Army had won a large battle against British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga. Washington had received the news from General Philip Schuyler and some of his other generals at Saratoga. The commanding officer, General Horatio Gates, had not bothered to notify him, and instead had sent notice to Boston representative Samuel Adams at the Continental Congress.
In January, 1778, Stirling wrote to every member of Congress supporting General George Washington when he learned of plans to try to replace Washington with Horatio Gates. Gates’ Congressional supporters from the New England States had created a new War Board Committee with the authority to oversee Washington’s actions. Gates was appointed chairman of the War Board, technically making him Washington’s superior but his actions to supersede Washington as field commander were successfully blocked.
One of Stirling’s main confidants during the winter of 1778 was a young officer under his command named James Monroe. During the Valley Forge encampment (December 19, 1777 – June 19, 1778), Monroe was a Major and Aide-De-Camp to Stirling, quartered in the same house. Years later when Monroe was a prominent politician and running for office, Aaron Burr criticized Monroe saying that Monroe’s main job during the war was refilling Stirling’s tankard and listening to Stirling’s stories about himself.
Early in the spring, the British, now under Sir Henry Clinton, abandoned Philadelphia and returned to New York. Washington suspected that Clinton’s withdrawal was to try to force Washington to attack him. Washington did attack Clinton’s rearguard with General Lee and his two division commanders, General Anthony “Mad Anthony” Wayne and the Marquis de Lafayette. The attack took place at Monmouth Court House. The Americans were forced to fall back, as the 1,500-man rearguard turned out to be 6,000 veteran troops. As Washington suspected, Clinton had set them up.
Washington regrouped, with Stirling on his left wing, Wayne in the center, Greene on his right and Lafayette directly behind in reserve. The British attacked, with the largest force hitting Stirling’s men. Stirling held. Near nightfall Clinton’s force withdrew toward New York having lost 217 dead and over 1,000 wounded. James Monroe and Alexander Hamilton, an aide to Washington, both praised Stirling’s actions in reports to Congress.
When the British abandoned New Jersey, Stirling made his headquarters in Elizabethtown and when Washington was ordered to meet with Congress to discuss military plans for 1779, he placed Stirling in charge of the entire army in his absence.
The year 1779 was a relatively quiet one for Stirling, who was stationed near Suffern. Stirling was sick with rheumatism and gout and had to petition Washington for permission to return home. He was feeling better by October and Stirling, General Nathaniel Greene and Alexander Hamilton took a short sojourn to Philadelphia before returning to his command. During the dead of winter Stirling conducted an attack on British storehouses at Staten Island and captured nine boats and a quantity of blankets and other supplies.
By spring of 1780, Stirling’s health was deteriorating. The Continental Army was down to 7,000 men while the British force was about 11,000 men. Stirling was sent to New Jersey to work with his brother-in-law Governor William Livingston to try to raise more troops. Stirling also attacked and harassed a British force at DeHart’s Point.
Stirling was shocked when he heard in September that Benedict Arnold had defected and attempted to turn West Point over to the British. Stirling was one of the judges, together with Generals Greene, Lafayette, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Arthur St. Clair and others, who sat as a jury in the trial of British Major John Andre, who had acted as a go-between with Arnold and British General Clinton. They found Andre guilty of spying and sentenced him to be hung.
After spending the winter of 1780-81 in New Jersey, Stirling reported to Washington in June, 1781. When Washington received reports that British General St. Leger was moving south on Lake Champlain and may attack Albany, he sent Stirling north to Albany to take charge of the Northern Department replacing the Marquis de Lafayette.
Stirling found that British General Barry St. Leger and about 2,000 troops were at Bull’s Bay on Lake Champlain. They were moving south and eventually occupied Fort Ticonderoga. Stirling ordered Colonel Benjamin Tupper and his New Hampshire regiment and Colonel Robert Van Rensselaer and General Peter Gansevoort to recall their Albany militia units and prepare to go to Fort Ticonderoga.
A second group of British troops under Major John Ross was moving east on the Mohawk River toward Schenectady. Stirling ordered Colonel Marinus Willett and his troops to meet and stop Ross. Willett defeated Ross and drove him back up the Mohawk capturing his supplies and rations. This freed Stirling to concentrate on Barry St. Leger.
On October 30th, Stirling and General Philip Schuyler rode to Saratoga to take personal command of the forces about to meet St. Leger. Stirling began constructing defenses when he heard that St. Leger was moving down Lake George.
On November 1, Stirling announced to his forces that British General Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown. St. Leger was so shaken by the defeat of Cornwallis that he immediately began to withdraw back north on Lake Champlain and after a while Stirling and Schuyler returned to Albany. Stirling set up his command in Albany but his reoccurring bouts of gout and rheumatism were getting worse. Fortunately, both his wife and daughter, who had married William Duer, lived in Albany.
By November, 1782, Stirling’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. He was losing the use of his hands. In late December he was forced to his bed when his temperature soared. His wife and daughter cared for him in Albany. On January 15, 1783, William Alexander, Lord Stirling, died in Albany. He was 56.
George Washington sent a very complimentary letter of condolence to Lady Stirling (Sarah Livingston) at Albany. Washington sent a separate letter to the Continental Congress praising Stirling. Congress passed a resolution praising Stirling and recognizing his contributions to the American cause.
Albany records indicate that all the remains from the vaults under the Dutch Church in downtown Albany were moved to crypts under the Hudson Avenue Dutch Church and then to Albany Rural Cemetery, but a marker for Lord Sterling’s grave lies at Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan.
Illustrations, from above: Detail showing Lord Stirling’s last stand around the Old Courtelyou House (now known as Old Stone House in Park Slope) during the Battle of Brooklyn; replica bateaux in Buffalo Harbor 2013 built based on the remains of 1756-era bateaux recovered from Lake George in 1960 (photo by Lloyd Kitzmiller); the residence of Lord Stirling (in the mid-1850s this was 67 & 69 Broad Street in NYC); colonial troops under Stirling retreat across Gowanus Creek at the Battle of Brooklyn; Major General William Alexander, Lord Sterling painted by Bass Otis (1784-1861); the quarters of Lord Stirling and James Monroe during the Valley Forge encampment of 1777-1778 (photo by Keith Smith); the cover of a letter from Lord Stirling to Major Quackenbush Deputy Quartermaster General at Albany; and Lord Sterling’s grave marker at Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan.