The Dismissal of Colonel Duncan Macdonald of the 57th Regiment by CMH Millar

The problem of Colonel Macdonald’s removal from the Service in 1814 led the present writer, in the course of research into his family history, to investigate the reasons for it. [1] In doing so, he was until quite recently unaware that Mr Michael Glover had encountered the same problem, and had posed the question in the Journal (Vol.55, 1977, p. 186) “What was Macdonald’s offence?”

At the start of the search, all there was to go on was a family letter written in 1905, which told how Col. Macdonald of the 57th had been wounded in battle, after which the regiment had got out of hand and looted. He was later invalided home, only to find he had been dismissed the Service; he had been deprived of his commission through the machinations of Mrs Clarke, but the Duke of Wellington had later written in his favour. Before his commission and medal with clasps could be restored, however, he had committed suicide by shooting himself.

This letter had several errors of fact and impossibilities, which cast doubt upon the whole story; but the words “removed from the Service, 1814” which appeared in the details of Macdonald’s army career given in Warre’s Historical Records of the 57th revived belief in the broad outlines of the story, whatever the truth of the details.

The next stage was the discovery, in Anthony Brett-James’ book Wellington at War, of Wellington’s angry letter of 8 March 1814 to Col. Torrens, [2] complaining of two colonels whose names were no longer the exasperating blanks so widely used in the edited Despatches and Supplementary Despatches, but given as Macdonald of the 57th and Peacocke of the 71st. (These and other relevant names were subsequently verified at the British Library.) A footnote added that Peacocke was cashiered in April for cowardice at St. Pierre, while Macdonald was dismissed the Service because his regiment arrived a day late for the Battle of Orthez, having been sent to St. Jean-de-Luz to receive new clothing.

It now became necessary to examine more fully the history of the period, especially to see how it affected Macdonald’s fortunes. Wounded severely at the Nivelle, 10 November 1813, where he was mentioned in Despatches, he was naturally absent from St. Pierre in December. At that battle both Peacocke and Col. Bunbury of the Buffs behaved disgracefully. Both of tbem had already none too good a record, and this was the end of the road for Bunbury, who preferred to resign his commission rather than stand a court martial. [3] Peacocke, amazingly enough, remained with the 71st at least till the Combat of Aire, 2 March 1814, when according to one account, Sgt. Robertson’s Journal, published in 1842, he held back his regiment from the pursuit, for which he was dismissed the Service. This second offence, mentioned nowhere else, would fit in well with the letter of 8 March.

There still remained the problem of what Macdonald had done to merit Wellington’s fateful complaint. The possible causes seemed to be two: either some misconduct over the new clothing for the 57th (assuming that Macdonald had by now rejoined the regiment), or the late arrival at Orthez. Oman [4] suggested a third:

“These punishments came late – it was only after Orthez that the two colonels (Peacocke and Bunbury) disappeared, reference to the War Office having been necessary. There was a third colonel removed at that time – unjustly linked in disgrace with the others, as many thought – an officer whose battalion was a day late for Orthez, owing, as was generally held, to a mere stupid misinterpretation of orders given him.”

As regards the first of these causes, there had indeed been a muddle over the new clothing, but it was in England. The clothing was delivered late at St. Jean-de-Luz, and the 57th were by then in tatters. But there was no evidence to show any misconduct by Macdonald, either in jumping the queue before, or in culpable delay afterwards.

Nor in fact did the regiment arrive “a day late for Orthez,” to judge at least from the regimental history. They arrived late, but the battle was still going on and they were able to join in the pursuit. The curious thing is that there is no mention, apart from the history, in any authority, Wellington’s despatch included, of the absence of the 57th from the battle. For that matter, five other battalions were also absent from the battle, collecting new clothing, as Napier reports.

What the “stupid misinterpretation of orders” might be remained a mystery; there were doubtless several possible occasions for it – if it ever took place.

The weakness of these proposed solutions was undoubtedly the lapse of time between re-clothing (20 February) or Orthez (27 February) and Wellington’s furious letter of 8 March. Moreover at the Combat of Aire, Wellington had been well satisfied with the conduct of the troops. Something fatal to Macdonald, it seemed, must have occurred between 2 and 8 March.

If one thing was more certain than another to cause an explosion of Wellington’s wrath, it was looting. Could any evidence be found preferably of looting by the 57th, which might provoke Wellington to complain of Macdonald? There had been an unfortunate incident when, after a soldier had been wounded while plundering on 25 February, Wellington ordered him to be hanged as an example. The man belonged to the 2/3lst Regiment, so the 57th, though in the same brigade, were exonerated. But in his account Napier adds that Wellington “also forced an English colonel to quit the army for suffering his soldiers to destroy the municipal archives of a small town.” It is not necessary to suppose that both the incidents took place on the same date.

There was also further evidence, more precise, in two letters of the Adjutant-General, Pakenham: first, to Lt.-Col. Bouverie, [5] 9 March 1814: “I have the honour to enclose a letter from Brevet-Major Marke of the 57th Regiment, to Lt. Col. Sir Lowry Cole, respecting some damage done at Grenade by men of that regiment.” The second was to Lt. Col. Thomson, [6] Orthez, 2 April:

“Sir, In the beginning of last month, the 57th Regiment committed considerable damage to the village of Grenade … particularly in robbing the house of a widow-lady named Lacroix … The enclosed draft for £53 11s 9d. being the estimated value of the property stolen, is made payable to you, with a view to your transmitting the amount to the person injured at Grenade.”

There follows in the letter a long and detailed instruction intended to make the repayment a sort of public ceremony. Wellington was taking it all very seriously.

Brevet-Major Marke, who wrote the report of the damage, had ultimately been in command of the 57th at the Nivelle, when his two superiors, Col. Macdonald and Brevet-Major Burrowes, had both been wounded. He was also in command at St. Pierre, and won his Majority on 26 December 1813 for his part in that battle; in the regiment he never rose higher than captain. When he wrote his report, he was presumably in command of the company of men who did the damage. If so, where was Macdonald at the time? And why did he not forward his report? It seemed possible that the answer might lie in the words of two passages in Warre’s book: “Col. Macdonald, who had rejoined before his health was quite re-established from the wounds he had received …” and later, in the list of Contents of his book, he says that Col. Arbuthnot “took over command vice Macdonald again invalided”, in April 1814. So, to the possible explanation of looting was added that of Macdonald’s ill-health.

At this point a strange chain of events in the search led to a book with a title which seemed highly unlikely to be of any help: A Treatise on the Language, Poetry, and Music of the Highland Clans, by Donald Campbell, Edinburgh, 1862. Nevertheless, it contained the almost complete story of Col.  Duncan Macdonald of the 57th Regiment. The reasons for it being included in this wildly improbable source are first, that the author had been a Lieutenant in the 57th himself, and secondly that he was a devotee of old Highland airs, among which he gave as an example ‘The March of the Die-hards.’ This, he said, was an old Caledonian march, a great favourite of Col. Macdonald. He made it so much the march of that regiment as to be the sure sign of its presence or signal of its approach, whenever it was heard in the Peninsula or the South of France. Although Campbell’s story is a fairly long one, it seems best to give it with as few omissions as possible:

“A more spirited or a braver officer than Colonel Duncan Macdonald never drew his sword in the service of his country; yet his end was very melancholy – He was severely wounded in the battle of the Nivelle, but having, like his intimate friends Sir Thomas Picton and the Hon. Sir William Stewart, a passion for battles, he could not be prevailed on to remain in the rear. He followed the regiment in its daily march, keeping sufficiently close to make sure of seeing or of joining it in every battle; but, from his state of health, he never found himself in a condition to resume the command. One of the companies of the 57th and its captain, who temporarily commanded the regiment, being quartered in a deserted chateau at Aire on the night after the brilliant affair of the Second Division at that place, some of the men discovered the plate-room and carried away the more portable parts of it in their knapsacks on the following day. An old and faithful servant, who had been left to watch over the chateau, wisely kept sight of these men until they fell into ranks, when she reported the circumstance to the general. The captain of the company was called before the Duke of Wellington, and finding himself in a serious scrape threw the whole blame on the colonel; stating that by keeping continually in the vicinity of the regiment, and lodging always in the same place with them at night, without either taking the command himself or leaving it effectually to him, the discipline had become relaxed and the regiment demoralized.”

Campbell went on to say that Colonel Macdonald regarded flogging as not only barbarous and inhuman, but as destructive of the pride and dignity of a soldier. He did all he could by kindness, encouragement, and praise; in extreme cases he gave severe rebukes and fatigue duties, but avoided using the lash. This made him unpopular with the floggers, who took care that a mere delinquency by a private of the 57th was made more of than a crime in regiments where flogging was common.

“The Colonel’s abhorrence of the lash being known to the great but, in questions of discipline, too inflexible Duke, he the more readily believed in the demoralized condition of the regiment; for the cunning captain studiously concealed from him the fact that the whole regiment, excepting a few men of his own company, were innocent. Macdonald was dismissed the Service, without having been allowed the benefit of a court of inquiry or a court martial! His friends the Hon. Sir William Stewart, General Byng, and others, prevailed on Col. Macdonald to return to England to recover his health, before he knew that he was regarded by the Duke otherwise than as one of his most distinguished officers; but on his return home, seeing his name in the Gazette along with that of another officer of the same rank dismissed for cowardice, his reason was upset. He flung himself out of the window and was killed on the spot. The Duke discovered that the report on which he unfortunately proceeded in this case was substantially false; and the colonel’s surviving brother was conciliated and compensated by the price of Colonel Macdonald’s commission.”

Just how far is it possible to assess the truth of this account? The story, true in a number of facts and convincing in much of its psychology, is nevertheless not in general susceptible of proof. Details such as the interview with Wellington, and the effect of Col. Macdonald’s attitude to punishment upon the Duke’s judgement, are not such as to be included in the Historical Records of the regiment.

Some comments however may usefully be made. To start with it is important that the writer had himself been in the 57th and moreover at the period when these events took place. The Army Lists show that he joined the regiment as an Ensign in September 1813 and reached the regimental rank of Lieutenant in December 1814. From his own remarks in the book it is evident that he was in the Pyrenees and the actions in the South of France.

The officer, some of whose company plundered the plate-room, was of course Captain and Brevet-Major Marke. It is of interest that Macdonald had been a Major in the 15th Foot in 1799 when Marke joined the same regiment as an Ensign; but nothing further can be deduced as to the relationship between the two in their army careers.

Next, there is the question of Macdonald’s attitude to flogging and discipline. During the early part of the war, the 57th were known as the “Steelbacks”, partly from the amount of flogging given to the rougher characters, and partly from their endurance under the ordeal. After Albuera in May 1811, Colonel Inglis’ well-known words caused the change in the nickname to “Die Hards”. Macdonald succeeded to the command in August 1811, and it may not be too fanciful to suggest that the new name owed something to his influence. Again, in Woollright’s History of the 57th there is a brief notice of the service of each of the Lieutenant Colonels who commanded from 1756 to 1880. Macdonald’s notice ends: “Colonel Macdonald was extremely popular in the regiment and his loss was much regretted by all.” This may, of course, be “whitewash”, but it is the only notice of all the twenty-four which contains anything like this sentence.

The Duke of York’s letter of 23 March announcing the dismissal of two colonels, Macdonald and Peacocke, was published as a General Order on 16 April l814. [7] It followed inevitably from the undertaking given by him on 22 July 1813 [8] that if any officer was reported by Wellington unfavourably, he would recommend him to the Prince Regent for immediate dismissal without further inquiry. It was not long before some mitigation of the sentence was proposed: on the next day, 24 March, Torrens wrote to Wellington that “although these officers are succeeded without purchase, yet some arrangement will be made to give them the regulated value of their commissions.” [9]

Two days after the publication of the General Order, Peacocke apparently wrote to the Adjutant-General, Pakenham, no doubt in protest or injured innocence. Pakenham’s reply, rejecting his case, is dated 20 April. [10] From this it is obvious that Peacocke was still in France. An interesting note has been added in a different hand to the copy of this letter in Pakenham’s letter-book at the British Library: “Duplicate given, April 21st 1814.” It is impossible to say for whom the duplicate was intended, but if it was meant for Macdonald, it might indicate that by that date he had left for home. There are indeed strong grounds for thinking that his departure must have taken place very soon after, or even before, the looting incident. If he had been able to put his case to Wellington, it is hardly conceivable that dismissal would have followed, particularly in the way it did. He was a soldier with a distinguished record, having a gold medal for Vitoria with two clasps for the Pyrenees and Nivelle. These had not yet appeared in the Gazette, but the recommendations must have been already made in lists sent in and signed by Wellington himself.

The fact that the letter of 8 March was couched in the terms it was seems to show that Marke’s version of the affair was for the time accepted, and therefore that Macdonald’s case was unheard. The reports of Stewart and Byng were enclosures in Wellington’s letter; if we knew their contents, things might be much clearer, but unfortunately the enclosures were no longer to be found with the actual letter at the British Library. There is a further question raised by this letter. The final paragraph requests “that Lieutenant Colonel Macdonald and Colonel 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.” Could Wellington have meant exactly that and no more? Did he not expect the two colonels to be dismissed? In that case, had he forgotten the Duke of York’s letter of 22 July 1813?  It must be admitted that Macdonald’s behaviour in hovering around the regiment was stupid and tactless. But stupidity and tactlessness hardly merited summary dismissal, unless they amounted to some definite act of misconduct. The allegation of misconduct would surely depend upon the degree of interference of which Macdonald was guilty – and here there was room for divergent views between the two parties, Capt. Marke and Col. Macdonald, as Campbell’s story implies. Again, if Napier’s colonel “forced to quit the army” really was Macdonald, an element of doubt may be read into the words “for suffering his soldiers”, etc. Was he physically in command of the regiment at the time, or was he merely held responsible? Finally, one is reminded of Oman’s remarks about the general opinion held at the time of Macdonald’s removal.  It seems extraordinary that neither Byng nor Stewart should have taken the affair firmly in hand before it was too late. Even if there was what amounted to misconduct by Macdonald, which they were in a position to check, surely he was entitled to a hearing? And yet it is clear that his case was unheard. Campbell’s narrative relates how Col. Macdonald, “on his return home, seeing his name in the Gazette, along with that of another officer of the same rank dismissed for cowardice,” committed suicide. The London Gazette of 29 March, No.16875, names the two colonels as “removed from the Service”, and adds the names of their promoted successors in the 57th and 71st Regiments. Admittedly it is not said that Peacocke was dismissed for cowardice; but very few officers in the forces would not by now know the scandal of his behaviour. These two apparent injustices to be condemned unheard, and to feel that an officer of distinguished service should have his name (as Oman puts it)”linked in disgrace” with that of a notorious coward – are enough to account for Macdonald’s tragic end. The manner of his suicide was wrongly given by Campbell. The      family letter gives the authentic version. But at this point Campbell’s account has ceased to be first-hand. The rest of what he tells is significantly vague, both as to fact and as to time. But if we take his story as a whole, with the supporting documents and contemporary facts, it bears the stamp of truth.

Macdonald died at his brother’s house in Castle Street, Edinburgh, on 27 November 1814, as the Edinburgh Evening Courant reports: The long interval between April and November was probably taken up with correspondence about the proposed compensation; whatever form it took, it appears to have arrived too late. Unfortunately all the papers to do with this tragic affair were destroyed when a drunken apprentice set fire to the brother’s office.

The story continues in CDM No. 12.


[1] I would like to thank Mr Wm Boag, of the Scottish United Services Museum, for his help and guidance.

[2] Suppl. Desp. viii 626.

[3] Suppl. Desp. xi. 415.

[4] A History of the Peninsular War, vii. 281.

[5] Suppl. Desp.  xiv 410.

[6] Suppl. Desp. xiv 490.

[7] Wellington’s General Orders ed. Gurwood (1832), p. 59.

[8] Suppl. Desp. vii. 106.

[9] Letters to Wellington. British Library.

[10] Suppl. Desp. xiv. 505.