Saturday, 4 January 2014

Prestonpans: The forgotten battle

While the Battle of Culloden is remembered as the last great battle fought on British soil and which marked the final defeat of the decades-long Jacobite cause, the first battle of the '45 Rebellion seem to been largely overlooked by many people.
Bonnie Prince Charlie
The battle was fought near the village of Prestonpans a few miles to the east of Edinburgh. The Jacobite army loyal to the exiled King James Francis Edward Stuart and led by his son Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) defeated the British army loyal to the Hanoverian George II led by Sir John Cope.

On 20 September Cope’s forces, as they advanced towards Edinburgh, encountered Charles’ advance guard in the countryside a few miles to the east of the city. Cope decided to stand his ground and engage the Jacobite army. He drew up his army facing south with a marshy ditch to their front, and the park walls around Preston House protecting their right flank. He mounted his cannon behind the low embankment of the Tranent colliery waggonway, which crossed the battlefield.

Although the Jacobite army had secured the high ground to the south of Cope’s army about the village of Tranent, they were dismayed by the natural advantages of Cope’s position. A frontal highland charge would flounder in the marshy ground in front of the British army’s centre and be shot to pieces by musket and cannon fire. Although there was much argument among the senior Jacobite officers, Lord George Murray was convinced that only an attack against the open left flank of Cope’s army stood any chance of success. Lieutenant Anderson who was a local farmer’s son and who knew the area well convinced Murray that he knew an excellent route through the marshlands. Following his advice, Murray began to move the entire Jacobite force at 4 am, walking three abreast along the Riggonhead Defile far to the east of Cope’s position.

The night march to outflank the British Army
Cope meanwhile had observed some eastward movement of the Jacobite army as it grew dark, though this move was the result of confusion in the Jacobite ranks and had actually been abandoned. He feared an attack against both his flanks, and realigned his army on a north-south front, in the position in which they would fight on the next day. Three companies of Loudon’s Highlanders were detailed to guard the baggage park in Cockenzie. Some 100 volunteers, mainly university students from Edinburgh, were dismissed and ordered to report again the next morning. As events transpired these young gallants would miss the ensuing battle. Cope also made a last-minute attempt to get some artillerymen from Edinburgh Castle. Some half-dozen gunners left the Castle disguised as tradesmen but their guide became lost and they, like the students, would miss the whole affair.

To prevent a surprise attack during the night, Cope kept fires burning in front of his position and posted no less than 200 dragoons and 300 infantry as pickets. 

At the crack of dawn however, at 6 am on 21 September 1745, Cope’s dragoons beheld the spectacle of 1,400 Highlanders charging through the early mist making “wild Highland war cries and with the bloodcurdling skirl of the pipes...”. 
the Highland Charge
Cope’s army wheeled to its left by platoons to face the Highlanders, who were charging in from the east following their night march. Cope managed to scramble some cannon up onto his right flank. Although most of his artillerymen (most of whom were aged or “invalids”) fled; the two officers in charge of them opened fire as soon as the Highlanders were in range. Undaunted by the light, inaccurate guns, the Highlander army continued its charge; however, the centre became bogged down in marshy terrain, and as they continued forward their different speeds of advance caused them to form into a inverted “V”. The wings on either side met the inexperienced dragoons on either side of the British centre, and the dragoons immediately fled the field.
Order of battle
(Right click to open in new tab for larger image)

This left the British centre, containing the only experienced infantry regiments, facing the centre of the “V” on their front, and the two unopposed wings on either side. The effect of this unplanned flanking manoeuvre meant that the royal foot soldiers were effectively sandwiched. They suffered heavy casualties and swiftly gave way.

The battle was over in less than 10 minutes with hundreds of government troops killed or wounded and 1,500 taken prisoner. Cope’s baggage train at Cockenzie was captured with only a single shot fired. It contained £5,000 in English currency (a Scots pound was valued at 1/12 of its English equivalent), many muskets and ammunition. The Jacobite Army suffered fewer than 100 troops killed or wounded. The wounded and prisoners were given the best care possible at Prince Charlie's insistence. Long wagon trains carried the wounded to the Royal Infirmary and various churches in Edinburgh throughout the coming days. This was not a gesture returned by the Hanoverian forces at later battles where wounded Jacobites were more likely to be bayoneted to death than see a doctor!
welcome to Edinburgh
Cope tried to rally his men, but could only lead about 200 stragglers up a side lane (Johnnie Cope’s Road) to reorganize in an adjacent field, where they refused further engagement. Cope and his aide-de-camp had no choice but to travel southwards to Lauder and Coldstream and then on to the safety of Berwick-upon-Tweed, 50 miles away, the following day, causing scandal by arriving ahead of the troops. Out of the 2,300 men in the royal army, only 170 troops managed to escape.

Sir John, loudly decried for supposedly fleeing from the field and abandoning his men, was tried by court martial but exonerated of all charges laid against him. In truth he had done the best he could with the troops available to him and had tried to cater for every eventuality. He could not have known that his men would, in the main, simply run as soon as they faced the fury of the Highland Charge. 

John Cope's withdrawal was recorded for posterity in the mocking folk song 'Hey Johnnie Cope'.

Hey, Johnnie Cope

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Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

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  1. Fabulous article Stuart. I am aware of this battle, but the detail is awful.

  2. Interesting to read as there is a description of this battle in Walter Scott's Waverley. Now I can really imagine it. Actually when going through Waverley for thesis work I stumbled on discussions as to why Scott used this battle in his book rather than the more famous Culloden. It worked better in the context of the novel.

  3. Very timely! I received a copy of Christopher Duffy's "The '45" for Christmas, and have been reading it over the past few days - it opens with Prestonpans. As it happens, I think your description is a lot easier to make sense of!

  4. You'd think that virtually living on the battlefields of Pinkie and Prestonpans we'd get all this history at school but we didn't. So thanks for such a succinct summary.

  5. Really interesting post. The Stuart era interests me very much and it is great to here more about it

  6. Really interesting article, Stuart. Well done to you for doing your bit to keep our history alive.