- Paul David Nelson
Alexander, William (25 December 1726–15 January 1783), soldier and claimant to the title of Lord Stirling, was born in New York City, the son of James Alexander, a prominent lawyer, and Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander, a merchant. He grew up in privileged circumstances, receiving an education from his father and private tutors. Although overshadowed by his rich and assertive parents, he loved them and fell into an easy working relationship with his mother in her mercantile business. In 1748 he married Sarah Livingston, daughter of Philip Livingston, and thus became connected with the rich and powerful Livingston family. The couple had two children. With such influences behind him during the Seven Years’ War, it was no wonder that he became secretary to Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts. It was also no wonder that he and some business partners were hired by the governor as army contractors during the Niagara campaign of 1755–1756. But this service proved disadvantageous. When Shirley was unsuccessful in the campaign and was criticized by political enemies for supposed failings, Alexander and his partners were accused of profiteering and their bills delayed of payment. In order to defend his mentor and to secure the sums due the Niagara contractors, Alexander accompanied Shirley to England when the governor was summoned home to account for himself.
From 1757 to 1761 Alexander lived in Britain, reveling in the friendship of the landed aristocracy and imbibing the elegant style of living evinced by his new acquaintances. While rubbing elbows with the upper classes, he fought successfully for payment of his monetary claims—although, as he noted bitterly, he had actually lost money from the deal in the long run. Less successful was his defense of Shirley from calumniators, for despite his best efforts his old friend was removed from the governorship of Massachusetts. Meantime he spent a fortune pursuing the lapsed Scots earldom of Stirling, and although the Scottish lords accepted his right to the title, their English counterparts refused his petition. Undeterred that his “peers” had so rudely spurned him, he insisted that he was the sixth earl of Stirling and was so addressed by friends in Britain and America. When he returned home he abandoned his previous occupation of merchant and lived in emulation of the English country gentry. Spending money wildly in the next two decades, he squandered a fortune of more than £100,000, dabbling among other things in iron mining and land speculation. According to some of his detractors, he began drinking to excess.
Withal, he was a prominent and respected citizen, serving on the councils of New York and New Jersey and the Board of Proprietors of East Jersey, and supporting numerous organizations such as King’s College. As tensions between the American provinces and Britain rose in the 1760s and 1770s, Alexander evinced pro-British attitudes, even lecturing the Board of Trade on how it might tighten enforcement of colonial mercantile and tax laws.
When the revolutionary war erupted in 1775, however, Alexander quickly asserted his support for his rebellious friends and neighbors, and he never wavered from that position. He was immediately removed from all his Royalist employments and welcomed by the rebels into the extralegal New Jersey Council of Safety and by the New Jersey militia as a colonel. Late in 1775, when Congress adopted the New Jersey forces, Alexander became senior colonel of his state’s Continental line. For the next few months he commanded in his home state, and his seizure of an armed British transport on 25 January 1776 led to his promotion in March to brigadier general. Meantime he worked feverishly to put New York City into a state of defense against a threatened British assault and was happy in April to welcome General George Washington from Boston to assume this unenviable task. Finding in the proud Virginian a congenial spirit, he commenced a long and intimate association with the man.
In his first big test of battlefield leadership, at Long Island on 27 August 1776, Alexander was ordered to defend the American right wing. Through no fault of his own his brigade was seriously mauled and he was taken captive. Exchanged on 6 October, he took charge of another brigade, which fought during Washington’s retreat from Manhattan in the battle of White Plains on 28 August and in the withdrawal across New Jersey. He had the pleasure on 26 December of fighting at Trenton, where Colonel Johann Räll was killed and a Hessian garrison forced to surrender; two months later he was promoted major general. On 26 June 1777, at Metuchen, he was laggard in pulling back before a superior enemy force and received a stinging check before extricating himself. Nevertheless he retained Washington’s confidence and was given important roles in the battles of Brandywine on 11 September and Germantown on 4 October before going into winter encampment at Valley Forge. He accompanied Washington in June 1778 as the Continental army shadowed British forces across New Jersey, and he played a crucial role in the battle of Monmouth on 28 June. After that contest, he chaired General Charles Lee’s (1731–1782) court-martial, then played a part in Major Henry Lee’s (1756–1818) raid on Paulus Hook. In early 1780 he led an inconsequential raid on Staten Island and in June assisted Nathanael Greene in repulsing an enemy attack at Springfield. A year later Alexander was ordered to Albany to take charge of the Northern Department, supposedly to repel an enemy invasion of upstate New York. No such danger existed, as he soon discovered, and so his duty for the next few months was not onerous. It was just as well, for he was suffering from a fatal case of gout.
Alexander died in Albany and was mourned by his family, Washington, and a host of other Americans who felt his loss keenly. Although he was not among the best generals of the revolutionary war, he was a trustworthy and reliable soldier, and he got along well with his colleagues. He was also extraordinarily brave.
Collections of Alexander papers are in the New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library, National Archives, and Morristown National Historical Park. The fullest assessment of Alexander’s life and character is Paul David Nelson, William Alexander, Lord Stirling (1987). Another useful but limited biography is William Alexander Duer, The Life of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling … (1847). George H. Danforth, “The Rebel Earl” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia Univ., 1955), gives information on his nonmilitary activities. Less successful attempts to limn his life are Ludwig Schumacher, Major-General the Earl of Stirling: An Essay in Biography (1897); Charles A. Ditmas, Life and Service of Major-General William Alexander (1920); and Alan Valentine, Lord Stirling (1969). Thomas M. Doerflinger, “Hibernia Furnace during the Revolution,” New Jersey History 90 (1972): 97–114, describes some of Alexander’s activities in the New Jersey iron industry, and Theodore Thayer, “The Army Contractors for the Niagara Campaign, 1755–1756,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 14 (1957): 31–46, lucidly analyzes that vexing subject.
- Alexander, James (1691-1756), political leader
- Alexander, Mary Spratt Provoost (1693-1760), merchant
- Livingston, Philip (1716-1778), merchant and political leader
- Shirley, William (1694-1771), colonial governor of Massachusetts
- Washington, George (1732-1799), first president of the United States
- Lee, Charles (1731-1782), revolutionary war general
- Lee, Henry (1756-1818), cavalry officer in the American Revolution
- Greene, Nathanael (1742-1786), general in the American Revolution