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  • James Houser

April 16, 1746 - The '45 & the Battle of Culloden

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 16, 1746. The British Royal Army and the Scottish Highlanders square up at Culloden for the epic clash that will decide the fate of British history. The climax of the last great Jacobite Rebellion, forever known as the ’45, is imminent. The Highlanders, with kilt, bagpipe and sword, prepare to assault the Redcoats in their last great charge.

The struggle was for the throne. In 1688, the “Glorious Revolution” in Britain had swept James II of the Stuart Dynasty out of power and replaced him with his daughter Mary and her husband William, the Dutch Republic’s foremost statesman. The main reason for this change was James’s Catholicism, but James also undermined his own position by beginning the signs of persecuting Protestants and re-instituting Catholicism in England. His daughter Mary was a Protestant, and therefore acceptable. James tried to take his crown back through a campaign in Ireland, but was defeated in 1690 at the Boyne and had to flee to France.

France was happy to take the exiled Stuart Dynasty. The Catholicism of the Stuart Kings had come with a pro-French policy that was at least as abhorrent to their British subjects as their religion, and the Stuarts had been allied with France during much of their reign. The French took the Stuarts and kept them comfortable, ready to unleash them on England if they ever had an opportunity. It became one of France’s favorite tricks throughout the next 70 years that, whenever they went to war with England, dropping a Stuart or two off on Great Britain stood a decent chance of kick-starting a civil war and distracting their arch-rival.

William and Mary, upon taking the throne in 1688, immediately re-instituted the Test Act. The Test Act, passed by Parliament, forbade anyone from ascending to the British throne who was not a Protestant. William and Mary’s ascension also meant the final rise and supremacy of Parliament in Britain as opposed to absolute monarchy; the Parliament had kicked one king out and hired another, and they could do it again if they wanted. With Parliament in charge, the monarchy became less powerful but still remained an important institution. That could still change, though. The Stuarts were still out there in exile, waiting for their opportunity.

William had never been popular in largely Catholic Ireland or the Scottish Highlands, and James still had secret supporters all across England. The Stuarts and the French believed that any well-supported landing in Scotland would start a successful rebellion. In 1701, James II died in France, and his son (also James) was proclaimed King James III of England in absentia. The French tried multiple times to make a successful landing in support of the Jacobites, but failed. (The Jacobites were the popular name for the Jameses, “Jacob” was the Latinized version of “James”)

In 1715, the Earl of Mar, a supporter of James, raised the standard of rebellion in Scotland for what became known as the “Fifteen.” (’15) This well-planned rebellion was ill-timed, since France and England were not at war and France could not help. The Scots were beaten and James was forced to pick back up and head for France again.

After this invasion, the English set up garrisons all across the Highlands to subdue the population and prevent another uprising. These troops made themselves very unpopular due to poor discipline and morale, and mistreated the population. The King of England, now George II, was sitting on a ticking time bomb up north, and in 1743 France and England were in a major war again. After a long period of quiet in Scotland, the King felt comfortable withdrawing most of his regular troops from Scotland and sending them to Europe to support his ally Austria. His army was under his youngest son, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.

By 1745, the French were ready to dust off the Stuarts and give them another shot. With British naval power stronger than ever, the French needed a distraction that could turn Britain away from French designs in Europe. This meant rolling the Jacobite cause back out as a shiny object to distract the rotten English. This time their man was not James himself, who was older and less capable than he had been, but James’s son Charles Edward, the grandson of James II – who would go down in history as “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

Many supporters tried to dissuade Charles from landing without significant French help – the French weren’t able to gain control of the sea long enough to cross a major army, and they tried – but Charles jumped the gun. He sailed for Scotland on two French frigates, one of which did run afoul of the Royal Navy, but landed on July 16, 1745 with seven supporters and a small number of guns. The final Jacobite Rebellion, therefore, would be forever known as the Forty-Five. (’45, from now on).

The Scottish Highlanders quickly rallied to Bonnie Prince Charlie. They still only numbered 1300 men, with few firearms, against the 3,000 British troops stationed in Scotland. The British commander’s men were scattered, though, and Charles quickly made short work of any group he ran across. On September 21, Charles’ Jacobite forces had 2500 men and they smashed the smaller British force at Prestonpans. This victory shocked England; by November, Charlie’s troops were marching south with all speed, making for London.

George II quickly called 10,000 troops back from the European continent under his son Cumberland. Charlie’s force was coming fast – attracting fewer volunteers than the young prince wanted, true, but coming all the same. The core of his force remained the Scottish Highlanders. With names like Cameron, Stewart, Macpherson, and Macdonald, the clans had turned out en masse to support Charlie in his quest for the throne. The clan leaders were bold, boisterous men, and their forces were ill-disciplined. When attacking, their favorite method was to charge, musket in hand, bonnets, shields, and plaid kilts flying, fire a ragged volley into the face of their Redcoat foe, then drop their gun and lay at him with broadsword, knife and pistol butt. It was shocking, but it was hardly something a commander could keep control of in a pitched battle.

By December, Charlie had penetrated deep into England and even taken Derby, several days’ march from London. He still only had 5,000 men, though, and William’s force was bearing down. Local militias were popping up all over the place to throw back the Catholic Pretender, and other British armies were moving in. Charles had come far, but he was sticking his head into a noose the farther he came. He had no choice but to retreat.

Back in Scotland in January, Charles was able to gather his strength, and reinforcements arrived in a trickle from France including Irish and French regular troops. On January 17, Charles confronted the main British army at Falkirk. Cumberland was back in London preparing for a possible French invasion, so he was not in command when Jacobite musket fire shattered the Government cavalry. The Highlanders charged with their swords, screaming like devils, and the British infantry only got off one volley before the Scots were on them, hacking and slashing. The British left fled, but their officers led an orderly retreat after that and drew the army off. Charlie had won, but at great cost.

Cumberland returned on February 27 to rejoin his army at Aberdeen. England was still in turmoil from the fright of Charles’ invasion, and the veteran British forces had so far lost every battle against the Highland Clans. Cumberland set about restoring morale. A charismatic leader in battle and devoted to his men, King George’s youngest son was no great military mind but he was what the British needed. He expressed his disappointment in their failure but did not criticize them, and the soldiers vowed they would not run from the Northerners again. Among the regiments was the 1st Foot, the Royal Scots – Scots would be on both sides of the coming fight.

Charlie, based at Inverness, needed a decisive victory. He was running out of supplies and money, and many followers had deserted him after his failed invasion of England. Despite winning battles, he had lost the war and was now faced by Cumberland’s revitalized army. He had beat it once; could he do it again?

Two 25-year old princes, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the man soon to be known as “Butcher Cumberland,” would meet in a final battle to decide which of their fathers would wear the British Crown.

On April 16, the two armies met on the field of Culloden, midway between their two bases. The Highlanders formed the first line of the 7,000-man Jacobite army. The 8,000 British formed their own double line to the east and marched forward slowly and silently in their disciplined red ranks. Charlie’s clans booed and taunted them, but received only silence in return. The cannons on both sides started to boom as the British closed the gap.

At 1pm, Charlie gave the order for his Scots to charge. Bellowing over the sound of their bagpipes, they crossed the field and immediately ran into heavy artillery fire, and soon enough the blaze of musketry. As the clans closed the gap, muskets tore through their ranks, but they still hit the redcoats with a nearly audible crunch. The Highlanders, true to form, dropped their muskets and began to lay away with their broadswords, fighting the bayonet-wielding British blade to blade.

It was here that the British revealed a tactical innovation. Normal bayonet drill called for every infantryman in the ranks to thrust straight forward, presenting an unstoppable line of steel points, but the Highlanders had broken through this formation at Falkirk. The reason was the Scottish targe, a small shield that almost all of them carried on their left arm. Instead, Cumberland ordered that every soldier angle his bayonet 45 degrees to their right, bypassing the targe of the man in front of them and skewering the other.

The new tactic worked. The Scots tore into the British ranks and inflicted heavy casualties, but were thrown back everywhere. The British second line moved out and around the Jacobite flanks, pouring disciplined drumroll musket fire into the tartan mob. The Scots finally broke, fleeing for their lives. Discipline had defeated valor, and the British came after them. As Charlie’s army shattered, the British pursuit turned horrid. The order was “no quarter” – no Highland prisoners taken. The last regiment remaining on the field were the French regulars, who held off the British for a few moments. Though Charlie tried to lead a final charge to the death, yelling “They won’t take me alive!” he was quickly bundled off by his supporters. The Battle of Culloden was over, and those Highlanders who didn’t run were slaughtered.

Charlie’s campaign had collapsed, and while he managed to escape to the Isles his forces were hunted down. The Scottish clans began to lay down their arms after several more hopeless fights. By September, Charlie had to catch a ship to France to ask for more troops and money. He would never return to Scotland, and the Stuart dynasty never again posed a threat.

Cumberland became a hero in England for defeating the ’45, but to the Highlanders he would become “Butcher Cumberland.” His men took no prisoners at Culloden, and for the next several months criss-crossed the Highlands in pursuit of Charlie and the missing clan leaders. The infantry killed any rebels they found, with arms or not, and took prisoner any who voiced support. Hundreds of Scots were “transported” to the Thirteen Colonies to be sold as indentured servants, including my distant ancestor James Collie. New Acts of Parliament banned the wearing of Highland dress and the playing of bagpipes, and the power of Highland lords was completely broken. The harrying of the North had reduced the Scottish way of life, which would only reemerge with severe restriction much later in the century.

This last gasp of Scotland was not a whole-Scotland affair. Most of the Lowland Scots remained loyal – areas like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen stuck to the crown, and many Scots fought in the British Army. The Scots weren’t fighting for independence, but to replace the current king with one they liked better. Nevertheless, the glory days of the Highlanders were over. Never again would they rise against the crown. When the kilt and bagpipes reemerged, they would be in British ranks such as the 42nd Foot (the Black Watch) and the 93rd (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders). Scotland’s days of military glory from now on would be for the British rather than against them.

Thus ended the last battle fought between armies on British soil, and the last charge of the Highlanders.

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