Bloomington, Idaho, 21 Aug 1999 - George Washington & Major-General Stirling - The Facts!
George Washington, the father of the United States of America did indeed have a General Sterling who served under him during the War of Independence. There are many family myths and mysteries regarding this person, here are the facts!
I first heard of this story while reading some papers that had been sent to me by a distant relative who mentioned in an email message that "one of George Washington's Generals is a Stirling." This person even claimed to be a descendant of this general.
However, this general was not a Stirling at all, but William Alexander, of the Alexander Clan, who at the time of the revolutionary war claimed an Earldom in Scotland. He was called Lord Stirling by President Washington out of courtesy. In fact the Alexander Clan had quite a battle trying to keep their claims to the Earldom in Scotland, and the title Lord Stirling.
In the 1917 book "Washington and his Generals", by J T. Headley we find the following information:
"William Alexander was his proper name, but being considered by many rightfully entitled to an earldom in Scotland, which he vainly endeavored to obtain, he was by courtesy called Lord Stirling. Born in New York in 1726, he received an excellent mathematical education, and was distinguished as a man of science. In the French and Indian war, he acted as commissary, aide-de-camp, and finally secretary to General Shirly. At its close he accompanied the later to England, to prosecute his Scotch claims, and in this fruitless effort expended a great deal of money, which impaired his fortune." (Page 442)
Alexander lost his battle to claim the Earldom in the British courts.
William went on to fight in the war for independence, starting in New York where after being promoted to Brigadier he commanded a brigade in the opening of the battle of Long Island. There were a great number of Stirling's in this battle, including James Sterling of Cornwall, CT, who fought there. On the other side of the battleline was Thomas Sterling, who fought on the British side of the war.
Alexander was captured at the battle of Long Island, and was eventually exchanged for the Governor of Florida in a prisoner exchange. In 1777 he was with George Washington at Brandywine, and fought with Sullivan and Lafayette in that battle. He commanded a reserve unit at Germantown, then led one of Washington's divisions at the Battle of Monmouth.
In 1780 he made an attack on Staten Island with a force of 2,500 men. The British were aware of his plans, so he didn't accomplish much before having to withdraw. In 1781 he went to Albany to command the Northern Army.
He died in 1783, age fifty-seven after suffering quite some time from gout.
In closing Mr. Headley has the following to say about William Alexander - Lord Stirling:
"Stirling was a fine-appearing man, and distinguished for great intrepidity. His bravery amounted to rashness; and there were some faults in his character which rendered it safer to have him under the immediate eye of the commander-in-chief. Still he was a good officer and staunch patriot. It was through him the Conway cabal was discovered by Washington. There was no low intrigue or trickery in his character; and the moment that Wilkinson disclosed the contemptible and nefarious designs of Gates, he exploded them, and adhered throughout to the fortunes of his commander." (Page 444)
Another item of distinction for General Stirling is that James Monroe who later became President of the United States was his aide-de-camp in 1777.
So Lord Stirling, Major-General in service under George Washington, is really an Alexander who tried for years to make a claim to the Earldom of Stirling. While not a member of Clan Stirling, he fought for many of the same ideals and hopes of members of the Stirling Clan.
William Alexander's papers are at the The New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York, 10024-5194. Tele (212) 873-3400,
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