Sunday, April 21, 2024

ARP308 McDougall Court Martial

Last week we covered the events in Philadelphia after Yorktown.  While everyone was celebrating the victory, there was still a war to be fought.  The army desperately needed food and supplies.  With the public no longer in fear of a British attack, politicians were even less inclined to impose the taxes necessary to support the army.

Alexander Mcdougall

Washington spent about four months in Philadelphia, meeting and lobbying members of Congress to support the army.  Many, I think including Washington, had hoped that Yorktown would have convinced the British to give up and go home. There are some indications in late 1781 that Washington expressed privately a hope that he would be back home by the spring of 1782.

By February, however, word arrived from London that the King had addressed Parliament after receiving news of Yorktown.  The king called on Parliament to continue the war and not allow the loss at Yorktown to be a reason to give up on North America.  That speech let Americans know that Britain would not simply walk away, and that fighting would likely continue.

In March of 1782, Washington left Philadelphia, not home to Mount Vernon as he had hoped, but rather to rejoin the army in New York.

Clinton’s Reputation Impeached

In New York City, General Henry Clinton became even more isolated after the British surrender at Yorktown.  The British general was always paranoid about his reputation.  General Cornwallis had sailed to New York in November, after the surrender, then left for London in December.  Clinton knew that Cornwallis would spend the next few months blaming Clinton for everything.  This was not just conjecture, Clinton had forwarded on letters from Cornwallis to London which essentially blamed the loss at Yorktown on Cornwallis obligation to follow Clinton’s orders.

Gen. Henry Clinton

Clinton had other problems too.  Earlier Clinton had deployed Captain Thomas Baddeley to Charleston, South Carolina. There, the captain had fallen ill and died.  Nothing terribly unusual about that.  However, Captain Baddeley’s wife, Mary Baddeley was Clinton’s mistress.  Clinton and Mrs. Baddeley had met in Boston early in the war.  Ironically, she came to the general’s attention after her husband had been stripped of his rank after he had refused to allow another officer to have sex with his wife.  Clinton  ended up employing her as his housekeeper.

Supposedly nothing untoward happened at that time.  Clinton left Boston and Mrs. Baddeley when he moved to New York.  As it turned out Baddeley ended up in New York as well, with her son and destitute.  Clinton once again employed her as a housekeeper.  The two grew close, although they deny having a sexual affair until Mrs. Baddeley found her husband sleeping with another woman.  At that point, she separated and began a relationship with Clinton.

Although there is no way that Clinton knew that sending Captain Baddeley to Charleston would result in his death rumors around New York painted a conspiracy to get the husband out of the way.

Clinton also faced an attack on a financial front.  There had been accusations for several years that the army under Clinton was wasting far too much money.  Expenses under Clinton were far higher than under General Howe, even though Clinton had a smaller army.  While rumors persisted, the North Administration did not investigate. They did not want to push a winning general into resigning over complaints of a few pounds.  A financial scandal would also only feed the opposition.

In 1781, Colonel Duncan Drummond, a former aide de camp of General Clinton, began a financial investigation into expenses.  Clinton had approved the investigation to look into problems.  However, Colonel Drummond soon opened up a much larger investigation into corruption and waste in the army that the revelation was going to reflect very poorly on Clinton as the commander-in-chief in America.

Drummond’s zeal in his investigations was, at first, an annoyance for Clinton.  But opening a financial scandal on top of the military loss at Yorktown would be a one-two punch against the commander and would irreparably damage his reputation.

Clinton had requested to resign several times over the course of the war, and had been denied each time.  He had no great passion to remain in command in America, but neither did he want to be tossed out as a failure.

Clinton also has a growing feud with General James Robertson.  The general was also the Royal Governor of New York.  Clinton suspected that Robertson had pushed Drummond to take the corruption investigation further as part of a larger effort to get Clinton recalled so that Robertson could take command of the British Army in America for himself.  Robertson had sent letters to General Jeffery Amherst in London complaining about the corruption.  Robertson told Amherst that he could run the Army in America for about half of what it cost under General Clinton.

Clinton had considered resigning and returning to Britain.  The main thing keeping him from doing so was that he would have to leave Robertson in command.

A Prince in New York

New York had another VIP during this period.  While the fighting at Yorktown was still raging, Admiral Digby had arrived in New York from Britain with three ships of the line.  With the admiral was a 16 year old midshipman named William Henry.  What made this junior naval officer’s arrival so exciting, was that he was the son of King George III.  This was the first time a member of the royal family had come to America.

Prince William Henry
William was the third son of George III.  With two older brothers, it was never thought that he would inherit the crown. At age thirteen, in 1778, he received a commission in the navy.  He had been present at several battles and by all accounts was a cheerful and friendly young man.  The prince had instant celebrity status in New York. He took a walk down Wall Street, with loyalists turning to get a glimpse of the young prince.  Within a few days of his arrival General Clinton held a banquet for Admiral Digby and the prince.  Following the dinner, Digby send William back to his ship for the night.  Digby warned Clinton and the other officers that raising the profile of the prince would put him in danger.

That advice came too late.  The arrival of the prince had already caught the attention of Colonel Matthias Ogden. The colonel from New Jersey was a highly experienced officer.  He had been a part of colonial protests since the Stamp Act, and had joined the army at its outset in 1775, participating in the Quebec Campaign.  The famous painting of the Death of General Montgomery at Quebec depicts the general dying in the arms of then Major Ogden.  Later promoted to colonel, Ogden had fought in the Philadelphia Campaign, wintered at Valley Forge, and took part in the Sullivan Campaign in New York.  In 1779, he was court martialed, but acquitted of all the serious charges, being found guilty only of “gaming” that is playing cards or dice.  He received a reprimand and continued in service.  In 1780, he had been captured and taken to New York as a prisoner of war for six months before being exchanged.  

Shortly after the prince’s arrival in New York, Ogden became aware of that fact, through intelligence sources that he had cultivated inside the city.  He learned that the prince not only strolled through the city streets with little protection, he also often slept in town along with Admiral Digby, in a lightly guarded house in the city.  

Prince Wm in Uniform

Ogden put together a plan where he and about forty men would slip across the Hudson River at night, take the house where Digby and Prince William were sleeping and bring them back to American lines before the British could react.  It was a daring and risky plan.  George Washington reviewed Ogden’s plan and approved it.

Unfortunately for the Americans, British intelligence was on the ball. Britain Captain George Beckwith received intelligence that the Americans were planning some sort of kidnapping plot in New York.  After being informed, General Clinton doubled the guards around his own house as well as that of Admiral Digby.  He put the army on alert for such a raid.  When word got back to the Americans that the British were on alert for the raid, they ended up calling off their plans.

A short time later, Admiral Digby and Prince William sailed for the West Indies.  There would not be another opportunity to launch the raid.

Heath - McDougall Conflict

Washington always had other matters to occupy his attention.  It was around this same time that a dispute between two of his top generals came to a head.

General William Heath was among the first generals appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775.  He had been a leading officer in Massachusetts during the Siege of Boston.  You may recall that I talked about how Heath lived right by Dorchester Heights and had asked General Putnam to take the Heights.  Heath also had a book that explained how to take the Heights but did not want to let Putnam read it because he didn’t like to lend out his books.

William Heath

Heath received promotion to major general in August of 1776, when Congress promoted all the original brigadiers who had not yet received promotion.  Washington did not seem particularly impressed with Heath.  In 1777, he gave Heath a chance to lead an attack on Fort Independence in New York.  Something I discussed in Episode 128. The attack was a mess, and seems to have affirmed Washington’s view that Heath was not a competent commander.  

For the rest of the war, Washington refused to give Heath any position of importance.  Instead, the general held a string of administrative positions.  Even so, based on seniority, Heath rose to the top of the army.  By 1781, only General Horatio Gates was senior to Heath. At this time, Gates was on leave from the army following the debacle at Camden.  So Heath was the top ranking officer in the army after Washington himself.

As I said though, Washington kept Heath from any important positions.  When Washington took his army to Yorktown, he left Heath behind.  Washington took General Benjamin Lincoln with him as his second in command.  Given Heath’s rank, he had to do something.  Washington left him in command of the forces around New York, where there would be no expected actions.

Another lackluster major general left behind during the Yorktown Campaign was General Alexander McDougall.  You may recall McDougall was an active leader in the Sons of Liberty in New York City before the war.  When the war broke out, he took a commission as a colonel.  He was promoted to brigadier at the same time that Heath was promoted to major general.  A little over a year later, McDougall also became a major general.  The promotion probably had more to do with McDougall being one of the more senior brigadiers by that time and the decision by Congress that New York deserved to have a second major general in the army.  Washington also did not seem particularly impressed with McDougall’s leadership skills and never gave him much of anything important to do.  McDougall spent most of the war in the New York Highlands for most of the war, where there was little action. 

McDougall had been elected to the Continental Congress in 1780.  He was there for only about a month. McDougall insisted on collecting his pay as a major general as well as payment for his service in Congress.  He wore his uniform to congressional sessions, which seemed to annoy many delegates.  They insisted on referring to him as Mr. McDougall rather than General McDougall, much to his annoyance.

His fellow New York Delegate Alexander Hamilton, nominated McDougall to become the new Secretary of Marine, essentially the civilian head of the navy.  McDougall had worked as a merchant captain before the war.  McDougall wanted to serve in that capacity, but did not want to give up his commission as a major general in the army. Congress eventually voted that he could not maintain both.  The final motion praised McDougall for wanting to continue to serve his country in the army, but that if he really wanted to do that, he needed to resign as Secretary of Marine.  

McDougall eventually did that and returned to active duty in the Continental Army in New York.  As I mentioned last week, Congress never chose a replacement for Secretary of Marine, and Robert Morris took over those responsibilities himself, while also serving as Secretary of the Treasury.  When McDougall returned to the army, Washington put him back into an administrative position.  When the army left for Yorktown, McDougall remained behind at West Point.

Heath and McDougall never really got along.  Part of this may have been the natural dislike that New Englanders and New Yorkers had for each other.  It could have been that Heath was from an old established family, while McDougall was a recent Scottish immigrant.  Maybe it was just that both officers were prickly and rather insecure about their abilities.

Whatever the cause, Heath and McDougall did not seem to like each other from almost the beginning of the war.  Heath had been one of the few Continental leaders who recommended against the Continental Army abandoning New York City in 1776.  If Heath’s recommendation had held, the army almost certainly would have been completely destroyed by the British in Manhattan.  McDougall was particularly critical of Heath’s judgment on that decision.

A relatively minor incident arose shortly after Heath took command of the army in New York.  McDougall’s wife had ordered something from a merchant in New York City.  The item took forever to be delivered.  Between the time McDougall had purchased the item and the time it was delivered, Washington had issued an order cutting off the purchase of anything from British-occupied New York City.  To avoid any problems, McDougall asked Heath to approve that he could claim the items already purchased.  Heath refused.  He said only Washington or Governor Clinton could give such approval.  McDougall went to Clinton, who gave approval, but Heath’s prickly decision to refuse an accommodation greatly annoyed McDougall.

Heath began issuing orders regarding the distribution of supplies that McDougall regarded as absurd and illegal. The officers and men under his command were being denied adequate food and supplies while surrounding units received whatever they needed.  McDougall wrote to Heath saying 

Whatever orders you shall please to give, whether they are clearly or doubtfully in the line of service, shall by implicitly executed….but permit me at the same time to inform you that it is my determination for the future to disobey every unmilitary and absurd order which may be given by any of your executive officers, and to put them in arrest…  

Heath took this as a direct challenge to his command. 

A short time later, McDougall was sitting around a table drinking with some of his subordinate officers.  A discussion of the 1776 evacuation of New York came up.  McDougall called Heath a “knave” for his call to remain in the city.  McDougall claimed that Heath knew remaining was militarily foolish, but argued for it anyway because he knew that would increase his political popularity back in New England.  McDougall went on to accuse Heath of bypassing him and illegally requisitioning supplies in such a way that was weakening the military defenses at West Point.

Heath got word of McDougall’s diatribe and immediately drew up a list of seven charges against the general.  These included mismanagement of supplies and “tending to lessen confidence in the commanding general”.  He put McDougall under house arrest and transferred command of West Point to Brigadier General James Paterson. McDougall wrote to General Washington protesting his arrest.

Washington, in Philadelphia by this time, wrote to both men.  His response was more formal that what I’m about to say but he was essentially saying: guys, you are supposed to be the two grownups I left in charge of the army.  If you had a dispute, we could have solved it quietly amongst ourselves.  Now, by bringing charges, you are airing the army’s dirty laundry in front of everyone.  This is not helping you, the army, or the cause.  At this point though, we have no choice but to go through the official process.

Washington convened a court martial against General McDougall and ordered General Stirling to preside.  McDougall brought counter charges against Heath and also objected to Stirling and several other officers on the court martial as biased against him.  This and other objections led to several delays before the court finally began hearing the case in April, 1782.  Delays caused by further objections and demands for evidence meant that the court did not complete its work until August.

McDougall’s main argument against the charge that he brought disrespect on General Heath was that he only stated facts that everyone already knew about the general. He sought to show objectively that Heath was a knave and that calling him that did not diminish him any more than his actions already had.  In the end, the court acquitted McDougall on six of the seven charges.  It found him guilty of denouncing his commanding officer and ordered Washington to issue a reprimand.  Washington, compelled by court to do so, issued a reprimand, but said he did so “with extreme reluctance.” In the same letter he wrote of McDougall’s “generally acknowledge merit” and ordered him back to duty.

Lord Stirling
McDougall agreed to drop his counter-charges against Heath. It seems he took to heart Washington’s admonitions that these court charges were only hurting the army.  And he just wanted to put the matter behind him.  

Unfortunately, another general did not feel the same way.  Soon after the court marital rendered its verdict, McDougall received a letter from General Stirling complaining that McDougall had insulted him in his accusations to remove him as head of the court martial.  Stirling at least implied that he wanted a duel to protect his honor.  McDougall refused to apologize, but also replied that he had said nothing in his objections to question Stirling’s character, honor, or integrity.

Stirling did not back down.  He wrote again saying that even if McDougall did not use explicit words, he had insinuated that Stirling’s reputation was not, well, sterling.  

An exasperated McDougall wrote back “the trial is now finished and the sentence published.  Does your lordship wish to have me tried again by a court martial where you are to preside? If not, it is immaterial to you, and to me, whether my exceptions to you were legal or illegal.”  Stirling did not appear to press the matter any further, but the exchange resulted in two more Continental major generals who were no longer on speaking terms.

Without an enemy to distract them, the Continental Army seemed to be turning on itself.

Next week, we head to England to see how officials there reacted to news of the loss at Yorktown.

- - -

Next Episode 309 North Government Falls 

Previous Episode 307 Congress After Yorktown

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Further Reading


William IV of the United Kingdom

Court Martial of Matthias Ogden

“Matthias Ogden’s Plan for Capturing British Officers in New York, March 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Matthias Ogden, 28 March 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Matthias Ogden, 2 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Matthias Ogden, 27 May 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Bowler, R. A. “THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND BRITISH ARMY ADMINISTRATIVE REFORM.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 58, no. 234, 1980, pp. 66–77. JSTOR,

Alexander McDougall:

“To George Washington from William Heath, 18 January 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives [charges against Gen. McDougall],

“To George Washington from Alexander McDougall, 27 January 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Alexander McDougall, 3 February 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Alexander McDougall, 8 February 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 7 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 28 August 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives [findings of court martial],

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Fitzgerald, Percy H. The Life and Times of William IV. Including a View of Social Life and Manners During his Reign, London: Tinsley Brothers, 1884. 

Heath, William Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, New York: William Abbatt, 1901.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Fowler, William H. Jr. American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783, Walker & Co. 2011. 

Glickstein, Don After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence, Westholme Publishing, 2015. 

MacDougall, William American Revolutionary: A Biography of General Alexander McDougall, Praeger, 1977. 

Somerset, Anne The Life and Times of William IV, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981 (borrow on

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964 (borrow on .

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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