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 August.

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 inquiry.’

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 strictly.

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 Regulations:

1. All 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.

3.  Regulations  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.

4.  Officers 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.