Reflections on the Battle of Savannah by James A. McDonald

On a fog shrouded October morning in 1779 Major Alexander MacDonald, Commander of the 2nd Bn. Fraser’s Highlanders, climbed to the top of the Great Redoubt, peered into the mist, and immediately called for two pipers to come to him and play for all their worth.

Out in the swamps, Charles MacDonald, an officer in Dillon’s French regiment, along with his fellow Scots and Irish companions, heard and knew exactly the kind of fight which was to take place.

Down the line, Sgt. Alexander MacDonald, in a South Carolina regiment, also heard. He too understood.

Somewhere near the South Carolina Regulars was a body of up-country militia which included John McDaniel and James McConnell. If they heard, there may have been some ancestral remembrance, but more than likely, the years that separated them from their Islay, Kintyre and Antrim ancestors was too much to overcome.

Thus began the Battle of Savannah.

At the end of the slaughter a truce was called in order to give succour to the wounded and to carry off the dead.

Maj. Alexander MacDonald of Kinloch-Moidart advanced from the British lines, spotted a familiar figure, ran, and embraced his brother, Charles MacDonald of Dillon’s. It is not known whether Sgt. Alexander MacDonald ever saw his cousins. It would be very surprising if McDaniel or McConnell would have recognised these first three as their distant cousins.

So, in these five men is tied up all the tragedy and triumph of the Scot, the Gael, and the Celt.

To study their genealogy alone will not suffice. This leads only to dry lists of “Begats” which by themselves are mere academic exercises. It is the WHY a particular person was born to a particular mother and father in a particular place, and at a particular time that adds flesh and meaning to the study.

History and genealogy are inseparable. This is certainly so with the Scots; I would suspect it is so with all other national groups.

By 1729 some Highlanders were located in the Cape Fear Valley of North Carolina. These first few became a flood until on the eve of the Revolution there were as many Gaels in the Carolinas as there were in the Hebrides. By 1770 the tacksmen (or primary land renters) of the Hebrides along with their sub-tenants, faced with ever increasing rentals imposed by their continually in-debt clan chiefs, were coming over in mass. Before leaving Scotland they were forced to swear a renewed oath of allegiance to the British Crown. This caused many of them to support the Crown when the revolution started. By the end of the conflict many had gone to Canada, several more back to Scotland, but luckily for America, the majority stayed, they and their descendants playing a major role in the development of the Carolinas and the whole South.

In 1735 James Oglethorpe, looking for a barrier against Spanish Florida, recruited several hundred Highlanders to kill Spaniards and by 1742 they finished the job by eliminating the Spanish advance at Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island. The survivors got on their ships and sailed back to Havana. Though insignificant in numbers, it was one of America’s most decisive battles. Spain’s prior (and legal) claim to our eastern seaboard was gone forever. Today the descendants of these Scottish warriors, in their thousands, are spread throughout the South; hundreds of them here in Savannah.

In 1738 Capt. Lauchlan Campbell brought the first of three shiploads of Highlanders from Islay to New York to settle the 100,000 acre Argyll patent above Albany. Though the royal governor of New York absconded with their land payment, they stuck it out and by the 1760s finally got their land, successfully fighting for it with a gang of New England outlaws, led by one Ethan Allen. This colony split during the Revolution, the Tories ending up in Canada. Today descendants of these people are found all over North America.

During the protracted French and Indian wars, the great commoner, William Pitt, saw a vast, unused, pool of fighting men in the Highlands, appealed to their martial ardour, and recruited them for the glory of Empire. The 42nd – the Black Watch, 78th Fraser’s, and the 77th Montgomery’s, were sent to America. They were the shock troops of the British Army, suffering enormous casualties (it is not for nothing, the old cry – “England will fight to its last Scotsman”), but leading Britain to the conquest of French Canada and the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. Upon termination of the conflict, the surviving Highland veterans were offered land in America. Most of them stayed. They had split loyalties during the Revolution, most of the officers rejoining the British Army but many of the private soldiers fighting for America. The thousands of descendants of these men are also found today all over North America.

The last major Highland settlement before the Revolution was in 1773 when Sir William Johnson brought over a large group of Highlanders from the Inverness area to settle his lands in the Mohawk Valley west of Albany, NY. As Sir William and his family were the leading New York Tories, these men naturally joined with him in fighting the Colonists. Upon termination of the war they went in mass to Canada, most of them to Glengarry Co. in Ontario where in 1786 they were joined by a whole regiment of Scottish Glengarry militia for whom their chaplain had got land and led to Canada. The Ontario counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry became the center of Highland culture in Canada. Along with Nova Scotia, it still is today. Their descendants have carried our magnificent history and culture all over North America.

On the eve of the Revolution there was estimated to be over half a million Scots and Scots-Irish in America. By 1783 many of them, their descendants now proud to call themselves United Empire Loyalists, were in Canada. But enough were left to today give the United States approximately 25 million of Scots ancestry.

One more migration was to come, and it the saddest of all. It is the Time of the Sheep.

1785 saw the first clearances on Glengarry land and in 1790, the great Cheviot sheep was brought to Ross and Caithness. It now all went with a rush as from 1782 till 1854 Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Assynt, Strathnaver, Glenelg, North Uist, Strathconon, South Uist, Barra, Skye, and Knoydart, along with wide areas of other Highland districts, lost a substantial part of their native population.

Those Highlanders who didn’t end up in the slums of Glasgow, migrated to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, many thousands of their descendants now living in America.

At the beginning of the Crimean War, officers in Whitehall turned instinctively to the Highlands for recruits. From 1793 to 1837 the Isle of Skye alone had furnished over 10,000 men to the British Army. A Captain Otter now went there as recruiting officer.

He got only one Skyeman to enlist.

“Send your deer, your roes, your rams to fight.”

From John Prebble: “At Culloden, and during the military occupation of the glens, the British government first defeated a tribal uprising and then destroyed the society that had made it possible. The exploitation of the country during the next hundred years was within the same pattern of colonial development – new economies introduced for the greater wealth of the few, and the unproductive obstacle of a native population removed or reduced. In the beginning the men who imposed the change were of the same blood, tongue and family as the people. They used the advantages given them by the old society to profit from the new, but in the end they were gone with their clans. The Lowlander has inherited the hills, and the tartan is a shroud.” From the Canadian Boat Song:

“From the lone shieling on the misty island. Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas, But still the blood is strong, the heart is highland, And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.”

“From the green saucer of Glenaladale, dipping down to Loch Shiel, Alexander Macdonald had taken one hundred and fifty men to serve in Clanranald’s regiment. Within a century there was nothing there but the lone shieling of the song.”

Oh yes, I almost forgot our five MacDonalds who have been waiting all this time in the mud and the blood down on West Broad.

John McDaniel lived to sire a very large family whose name has alternated over the years from McDaniel to McDonald and back. John’s grandfather Daniel, was out in 1715 supporting the exiled James Stewart. He was captured at Preston and transported from Liverpool to Antigua on the Scipio, 30 March 1716. But by mistake the Scipio put into Charleston and Daniel escaped.

James McConnell (the spelling being the same as the Gaelic pronunciation of McDonald) was a descendant of Islay refugees to Galloway who later moved to the Ulster plantations, then came with the great Scots-Irish migration to Pennsylvania, and finally to the Carolinas where the McConnells in their thousands thrive today.

Sgt. Alexander MacDonald lived to become Francis Marion’s chief scout, his exploits are legend. He was killed at the American siege of Ft. Motte, SC, right at the end of the Revolution. He left no known descendants. Alexander’s father was Gen. Donald MacDonald, commander of the Tory forces at the Battle of Moore’s Creek, NC in 1776. Gen. Donald came over from Skye in 1773, bringing many of his tenants. He was 5th and last of the line of the MacDonalds of Totamurich and Knock who had descended from Roderick, 5th son of Sir James-MacDonald of Sleat, chief of Clan Donald North.

Major Alexander MacDonald and his brother Charles were sons of Donald MacDonald, 4th of Kinlochmoidart, a descendant of John, younger son of Allan, 9th of Clanranald. Donald was the first to join Prince Charles on his landing at Borrodale in July 1745. Donald was captured in Nov 1745 while carrying dispatches. On 18 Oct 1746 he was executed at Carlisle by the English method of hanging, drawing and quartering which they used on people they considered traitors. His head was stuck over the Scottish gate there, where it remained for many years.

Donald’s young sons Alexander and Charles escaped to France where they were educated in the Scots College in Paris.

Charles joined the French Army, became a general and was made a Count. Loyal to the French Kings who had given him sanctuary after Culloden, Charles was guillotined early in the French Revolution. He died unmarried.

Alexander, his family eventually receiving amnesty, went back to Scotland, raised a company for Fraser’s Highlanders, and became Lt. Col. He was invalided home in 1780. His large family have carried on the traditions of the Gael.

In 1984 we met David MacDonald, 15th of Kinloch-Moidart and G-G-G-G grandson of Maj. Alex.

David is the owner of the Clanranald pipes which were played by a Maclntyre – hereditary pipers to the Clanranalds at Culloden. This Maclntyre escaped the field with the pipes and years later, upon his immigration to Canada, gave them to the then Kinlochmoidart, our Maj. Alex. Though not confirmed, these pipes may have been played at the Battle of Savannah.

In May of 1984, a descendant of that old piper, Archie Maclntyre, played the Culloden pipes at the Clanranald Castle Tioram and at Armadale on Skye, the World Centre of Clan Donald, before a gathering of over 1200 clansmen and women from all over the world – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia; United States, Canada and Mexico; Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Finland; England, Ireland and Scotland.

It had come full circle, the children had come home.