02 February 2012

Captain William Leslie's Grave

There is a small white church located on a U.S. highway nearly at the intersection of two Interstate highways in northern New Jersey.  There, a small Scottish flag flies over an easily missed gravestone in a small churchyard.  This stone was erected by an American Founding Father over the burial plot of an officer in the British Army during the Revolution.

William Leslie was born in 1751, the son of David Leslie, the sixth earl of Leven and the fifth earl of Melville in Scotland.  He arrived in Britain’s North American colonies as a lieutenant in the 17th Regiment of Foot in time to witness the British and Hessian attack on Fort Washington in New York. He joined General Charles Cornwallis on 27 November 1776 on his march across New Jersey in pursuit of Washington’s retreating army.  Leslie went into winter quarters with the rest of his regiment expecting a quiet winter.

George Washington, fearing the dissolution of his army and the end of the revolution, made a desperate attempt to turn the tides of war.  On the night of 25 December 1776, his army crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey and marched to Trenton – in the dark and in a sometimes violent snowstorm.  The result was an astounding surprise victory over the Hessian soldiers stationed in the small town.  Though Washington quickly took his prisoners and escaped back over the Delaware to Pennsylvania, he received reports that Trenton had not been reoccupied, and so he re-crossed the river with his army and occupied the town.  On 2 January 1777 General Cornwallis took the bulk of his army from Princeton and marched to meet Washington at Trenton.  Those left behind included the British 17th, 40th and 55th Regiments. 

After a day of skirmishing and a tense defense of the bridge over the Assunpink in Trenton, Cornwallis was unable to enter the town.  He ordered Colonel Charles Mawhood, commanding the forces left behind, to bring up 800 of his men to Trenton in the morning, when he planned to resume his attack on Trenton.  Washington had other plans, however, and secretly marched away at night, sending his army towards Princeton. 

As morning broke, General Hugh Mercer’s column and Colonel Mawhood’s detachment of the 17th and 55th (the 40th was left behind to guard Princeton) were surprised to see each other near the Stony Brook Bridge.  Nearly simultaneously, about 120 Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen of Mercer’s force with another 200 just to their rear and the men of the 17th – with Capt. John McPherson commanding the left, Capt. Francis Tew the center, and Captain Leslie the right – charged toward an orchard on the Clark property.[1] 

The British fired first once they reached a fence about fifty yards from the American position.  Mercer quickly returned fire and the right flank of the British suffered the most from it.  Mawhood quickly ordered a bayonet charge and the Americans scattered, but not before General Mercer was struck from his horse and mortally wounded.  Gen. John Cadwalader, with one thousand Pennsylvania militiamen, quickly moved up to fill the void left by Mercer’s men, but they were also repulsed.  As the British began to gain the advantage, Washington himself rode up to reorganize and encourage his men. 

It was then Mawhood’s turn to retreat.  The Americans surrounded and captured a number of British soldiers, though others fled to New Brunswick or to meet Cornwallis on the road to Trenton.  Knowing Cornwallis was en route, Washington quickly surveyed the field of battle with his aides.  Viewing some British soldiers supporting an officer, the Americans approached to find Captain Leslie.

Though reports of his death are conflicting, Leslie was wounded near the beginning of the engagement.  Three men of his regiment, Lieutenant William Armstrong, Surgeon Andrew Wardrop and Peter McDonald reported that Leslie died immediately from two gunshot wounds – “one in the Heart, and the other on the same side, lower down.”[2]  Doctor Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was with Washington’s army at this time, was acquainted with Leslie and his family.  The two men had been classmates at the University of Edinburg when Rush was gaining his medical education and has visited the family’s estate.[3]  Rush asked, and Washington granted, Rush’s request to watch over the young man, hoping to “return, in however small degree, a part of the obligation, I owe to his worthy family for the many kindnesses received at their hands while a student at Edinburgh.”[4]

Washington’s tired army began a march to the protection of the heights of Morristown as Cornwallis neared Princeton.  On their march to winter quarters, the American army halted at the small village of Pluckemin (a part of Bedminster Township today) on 5 January.  About midday, Captain Thomas Rodney of Delaware and about forty men from his regiment attended the funeral of Leslie in the churchyard of a small Lutheran church in order to bury Leslie with the honors of war, requested of Washington by Doctor Rush.  Along with Rodney and Rush, American Generals Thomas Mifflin, John Sullivan Henry Knox and George Washington himself attended.  Washington also permitted the captured British officers to be present at the funeral.[5] 

After the war, Doctor Benjamin Rush had a brown headstone erected, much to the happiness of the family of the brave young Captain William Leslie.  Though the original stone has been replaced, it bears the same epitaph.  The stone reads:

In Memory of the
Hon.ble Capt.n WILL.M LESLIE
Of the 17th British Regiment
Son of the Earl of Leven
in Scotland.
He fell Jan.y 3.d 1777 Aged
26 Year at the battle of
His friend Benj.n Rush M.D. of
hath caused this Stone
to be erected as a mark
of his esteem for his WORTH
and of his respect
for his noble family

This is how a small Scottish flag came to fly over an overlooked gravestone in a small churchyard on a U.S. highway nearly at the intersection of two Interstate highways in a small northern New Jersey town.

[1] Sheldon S. Cohen, “Captain William Leslie’s ‘Paths of Glory,’”  New Jersey History, v. 108, no. 1-2, spring/summer 1990; page 71.
[2] This was from MacDonald’s report.  Wardop reported that Leslie “no sooner received the shots than he instantly expired without a groan” while Armstrong only reported that Leslie “fell in the first fire.”  All reports are from ibid, 74.
[3] Doctor Samuel D. Grass, Lives of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons of the Nineteenth Century, Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakistan, 1861; page 26. 
John Witherspoon, another signer of the Declaration of Independence and the President of Princeton University, also knew Leslie’s parents.  Before coming to the colonies he was a preacher in the small Scottish town of Paisley near their estate.
[4] Abraham Messler, Centennial History of Somerset County, Somerville, NJ: C.M. Jameson, 1878; page 78.
[5] Andrew D. Mellick, Jr., The Story of an Old Farm, Somerville, NJ: The Unionist Gazette, 1889; pages 385-6.

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