Clan Donald Magazine No 12 (1991) Online
Further Notes on the Career of
Colonel Duncan Macdonald of the 57th Regiment by CMH Millar
A detailed account of
the tragic life and death of Colonel Duncan Macdonald in the last
year of the Peninsular War has already been given in the
Clan Donald Magazine No.10. It may be of
interest to fill out the picture of his career in the Army and to
attempt, from such evidence as we have, to assess the character and
achievements of the man, as he seems to have been held in high
regard, not only as a soldier but also for his humane qualities.
In Oct. 1777 General
Burgoyne capitulated at Saratoga to the Americans. The news of this
disaster stimulated both England and Scotland into a drive to raise
fresh troops, and one result was the formation of Macdonald's
Highlanders, the 76th Regiment. Duncan Macdonald joined them as a
Commissioned Ensign in April 1779. They sailed from Burntisland for
America in May, but did not reach New York until August, being held
up by an alarm of a French attack on the Channel Islands, and then
by contrary winds. The 76th served in various parts of Canada and
America, but was unfortunately part of the force under Cornwallis
which surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. During the siege a shot from
the enemy's artillery crashed into the room of a building where some
officers of the 76th were dining. It did considerable damage
wounding several and killing one; luckily Macdonald was unharmed.
After the surrender, the men and junior officers were marched off to
spend what remained of the war in prison camps in Virginia and
Maryland. The senior officers were paroled. When peace came in 1783,
the Regiment returned to Scotland and was disbanded at Stirling
Castle. Duncan Macdonald was then placed on half-pay, with the Army
rank of Lieutenant, May 1783.
In 1786 he was
appointed Lieutenant in the 15th Regiment of Foot; with it he served
in the West Indies 1790-96, after five years on duty in Dublin. In
the West Indies the 15th saw a considerable amount of service,
especially at the capture of Martinique and Guadeloupe, where it won
notable praise from the Force's Commander, Gen. Sir Charles Grey,
who said 'he could not find words... to express the high sense he
entertained of the extraordinary merit evinced by the officers and
soldiers in this service.'
The whole West Indies
campaign was incredibly costly from fighting and yellow fever. When
the Regiment landed back in Portsmouth in 1796, it numbered only 53
men. Duncan Macdonald had become a Captain in 1791 and was a Major
in 1799. In 1798-99 i he 15th was stationed at Inverness, where he
was involved in a notorious incident - a duel fought between Col.
Alasdair Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (the well-known portrait
by Kaeburn), and Lt. Norman Macleod of the 42nd Regiment. The
details of their quarrel need not be mentioned here, but both men
were very touchy, and Glengarry arrogant as well, and it required
all Duncan Macdonald's firmness, judgment, and tact (he was
Glengarry's second) to persuade both parties to be even moderately
reasonable. In spite of his efforts to bring about an amicable
settlement, both laid down a condition before making an apology, and
the duel went on. Macleod was wounded but tried to insist on a
second exchange of shots, whereupon Macdonald said "Gentlemen, I did
not come here to see you commit murder. If you offer to fire another
shot, I'm off." This produced an offer of apologies from both sides.
Macleod died a month later from his wound, and Glengarry was brought
to trial for his murder. He pleaded Not Guilty, and was unexpectedly
acquitted. The Chancellor of the Jury stated that he was desired by
them to explain to the court that the sole ground for their verdict
was 'the anxious desire latterly shown by the pannel and his friend
Major Macdonald amicably to settle the matter and prevent proceeding
to extremities by making an apology, as the Jury highly disapproved
of the pannel's conduct at the beginning of the unhappy dispute.'
With the Treaty of
Amiens, Macdonald was placed on half-pay again, his rank now being
Lieutenant-Colonel. When war broke out again in 1803, he was
appointed to the 2nd Battalion of the 57th, which he commanded in
Jersey from 1804 till 1811. The battle of Albuera in May 1811
brought very heavy casualties, especially to the 57th Regiment;
fresh drafts were sent out from the 2nd Battalion, and Colonel
Macdonald also came out and took over command of I he Regiment in
During the next two
years the 57th saw service in the 2nd Division under General Hill.
It was frequently on the move, mainly in a defensive role; but it
took part in the ghastly retreat from Salamanca in Dec. 1812, when
weather and commissariat broke down. In June 1813 it fought well in
the battle of Vittoria, and also in the Pyrenees actions in July and
August, particularly at Elizondo where it drove the French in flight
and captured a large convoy of provisions.
On the night of 9th
November 1813 it crossed into France, and next day fought in the
battle of the Nivelle, the battle which Wellington considered his
finest achievement. While leading his men in an attack on a French
redoubt up a hill, Macdonald was severely wounded and was mentioned
in Despatches. It is not certain whether he was invalided home; he
may only have been taken to a base hospital or been billeted in the
back area. In any case, his journey to the rear, probably in a cart
with squeaking wooden wheels over rough roads (there are such
accounts by wounded men) must have been agony. Meantime the command
of the 57th was taken over by Captain Joseph Marke, as Major Burrows
had also been wounded. Macdonald was of course not present at the
battle of St. Pierre in December, after which the 57th was in winter
quarters until mid-February 1814.
Capt. Marke, now a
Brevet-Major, was still in charge at the beginning of March 1814.
Just then there was a serious case of robbery by the 57th at a
village called Grenade, for which compensation was ordered to be
paid. This was reported by Marke, not by any senior officer. It is
natural to suppose that Macdonald was still absent, but it seems
that by March 1814 he had probably rejoined the Regiment; the
Regimental History by Lieut. Gen. Warre says 'he rejoined before his
health was quite re-established.' We may therefore conclude that, as
Marke made the report. Col. Macdonald, if indeed he had rejoined,
was not fit enough at the time to resume command.
This sort of
situation is always liable to cause trouble and a blurring of the
lines of responsibility. Wellington of course was well aware of
this, as a letter from him to Marshal Beresford on 5th Oct. 1813
makes clear. He refers there to an officer who had been ill and was
trying to rejoin his Division:
'Before he had
arrived I had heard that he was still very unwell, and when he
came I found him to be worse even than I had heard he was. (Dr.)
MacGrigor is positively of opinion that he is quite unfit for
his duty... I have taken the opportunity of telling him my own
and MacGrigor's opinion of his health, and that if not well he
ought to refrain from attempting to exercise a command to which
he is not equal.'
In another letter to
Beresford in the following month about the same officer, he says
'I think it
proper again to draw your attention to the state of health of -.
I have had every reason to be satisfied with his gallantry upon
every occasion ... but I cannot conceal from myself that his
health has long been in a state to render him very unfit to
exercise the command which he fills in the allied army, and both
my own observation, and the reports which I have received from
others, convince me that it is expedient that you should employ
him in some situation at a distance from the active army, in
which he may have leisure to re-establish his health, and the
service may not suffer from his want of it.'
The sequence of
events in the 57th Regiment at this stage is not quite clear, but it
seems probable that the account given by Donald Campbell, and
already quoted in the Clan Donald Magazine No. 10 article, is
broadly true. It need not be repeated here; but it is right to
emphasise that Campbell had been an Ensign in the 57th at the time
and very likely knew well what he was talking about. His account at
any rate seems to fit in with such evidence as there is.
On 8th March
Wellington wrote one of his furious letters to Col. Torrens. the
Military Secretary in London. It begins with a complaint about
Colonel Macdonald of the 57th and Colonel Peacocke of the 71st
(already a notorious coward, who was cashiered in April for a second
piece of misconduct), and ends with 'my request that Col. Macdonald
and Col. Peacocke may be removed from the command of their Regiments
to some other situation in which their want of fitness will not be
so detrimental to the service.'
The Duke of York.
Commander-in-Chief. replied to this on 23rd March, referring back to
his letter of 22nd July 1813. which had promised that 'in all cases
which you may consider particularly flagrant... I shall feel it a
duty incumbent upon me to recomend to the Prince Regent their
immediate dismissal from His Majesty's Service, without further
Gen. Stewart and Gen.
Byng, both friends of Macdonald and his Division and Brigade
Commanders, were no doubt aware of the unease of the present
situation and Marke's reaction to it as told by Campbell, and had
probably already persuaded Macdonald to return home to recover his
health (Warre says he was 'invalided again'). So the announcement in
the London Gazette of 29th March that he had been 'removed from the
Service' must have come as an overwhelming shock to Macdonald and
the family at 42 Castle Street, Edinburgh. The rest of his sad story
has been told already in the Clan Donald Magazine.
A great deal seems to
hinge on the meaning of the word 'removed' used by Wellington, as
well as 'to a situation ...' etc.. as compared with the words of the
Duke of York's letter of 22nd July, which refers lo 'immediate
dismissal'. In a letter of 8th Feb. 1814 to Beresford about another
case, Wellington uses the words 'dismissed or removed' as two
different things, and underlines both words. There is. moreover, an
important Book, "General Regulations and Orders", issued 12th August
1811, which was approved by the Prince Regent; the Duke of York
ordered all officers to buy a copy and observe the Regulations
In it the word
'removed' occurs frequently, and in some cases seems to have a
direct bearing on Wellington's use of it in the letter of 5th March
about Col. Macdonald. Here briefly are some examples from The
applications regarding Regimental Appointments. Promotions,
Exchanges, or Removals ... are to be transmitted to the I
ommander-in-Chiefs Military Secretary, through the Colonel or
the Officer Commanding the Regiment, if the Regiment is at Home;
or if the Regiment is Abroad, through the General Officer (
ommanding at the Station.
2. Officers who
exchange, or are removed from one Regiment to another... are
directed to have recourse to the readiest means of joining the
Regiments to which they are removed or promoted.
to be observed in the Posting of Officers of Regiments having
more than one Battalion; and in their Removal from one Battalion
to another of the same Regiment.
serving with the Battalion Abroad, who, in consequence of
Promotion, may be removed to the Battalion at Home___
5. Officers, on
their Removal from one Battalion to the other, will be allowed
their Travelling Expenses provided such Removal does not take
place at their own Request.
From all these
examples it seems clear that Wellington in his letter to Col.
Torrens, the Military Secretary, was merely following the drill laid
down in Regulations; he means what he says, but no more than that.
Whatever impression he may leave when writing in the white heat of
his anger (and certainly some letters are over-strongly worded, as
Oman remarked), his use of the English language never failed to be
accurate and precise. He was surely asking that Macdonald should be
removed from his command and found a less demanding post where he
could do less damage. This argues that he was taking Capt. Marke's
self-justifying and wretched explanation at its face value without
further investigation. And yet -
6. A final
paragraph from the Regulations states that General or other
Officers Commanding on Foreign Stations are restricted from
sending home Officers with Articles of Accusation pending
against them (except in cases of the most urgent necessity), it
being essential towards the due Administration of Justice that
when charges are preferred against an Officer they should be
thoroughly investigated on the spot.
The Duke of York, on
the other hand, who was always desperately anxious to support
Wellington, on this occasion seems to have gone 'over the top' as we
say nowadays; there was no case for dismissing Col. Macdonald
without either an inquiry or possibly a Court Martial, which would
no doubt have acquitted him.
A summary of the
known facts leaves a rather bewildering impression: Macdonald was
officially dismissed from the Army, by the Duke of York's letter of
23rd March 1814. He was cited as "removed from the Service' in the
London Gazette of 29th March. He was awarded a Gold Medal for
Vittoria in the London Gazette of 19th April. He was awarded two
Clasps for the Pyrenees and the Nivelle in the Gazette of 1st June.
He also had two decorations which may be Portuguese or Spanish, but
have not been identified. An offer of compensation in the form of
the regulated value of his Commission (the sum would be £3,500) was
made by Torrens in a letter of 24th March to Wellington. The
compensation arrived too late for Macdonald, and was paid to his
brother Coll Macdonald, WS. Colonel Macdonald died by his own hand
on 27th Nov. 1814.
The fact that he had
received his Gold Medal and Clasps after his dismissal indicates
that Wellington's view of the case, rather than the Duke of York's,
was prevailing. Wellington himself signed the Return of Officers
entitled to a Medal or other Badge of Honour, in commemoration of
the Battle of the Nivelle, a list which included Col. Macdonald; the
Return was one of a packet of papers sent to Earl Bathurst,
Secretary for War. dated Jan. lst - March 31st 1814 - well after
both 8th and 23rd March. Any serious disciplinary offence by
Macdonald would have resulted in his awards being cancelled.
Such was the story of
a man who had served in the Army for more than thirty years, several
of them under great hardship, who was opposed to the barbarity of
flogging which was supported by Wellington; who is described in the
Regimental History by Woolright as "extremely popular in the
Regiment, and his loss was much regretted by all'; whom Campbell
described as a most spirited and brave officer, 'one of the most
humane in the Peninsular Army'; when over fifty years old he had
been severely wounded but refused to quit - only to find himself
dismissed from the service in implied disgrace, 'unjustly, as many
thought' in the words of Oman, without apparently being given the
chance in any way to state his side of the case.
I am deeply indebted
to Maj. Gen. GH Mills CB for bringing the 'General Regulations and
Orders' Book to my notice, and for many other helpful suggestions.
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