Major General James Grant

Major James Grant (1720-1806), was appointed Colonel of the 55th Regiment of Foot in December of 1775 and held that position until 1791. Grant has been dismissed as something of a buffoon by modern historians, but in fact he was quite possibly one of the most capable officers the British had at the time. If Grant had been placed in charge of the British Army in America, the war may have had a very different outcome.

Grant was an excellent soldier and hardened veteran, having received his first commission (Captain of the First Battalion of Royal Scots) on October 24, 1744. Grant had fought at the battle of Fontenoy and was in the colonies during the American phase of the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War) as Major of the 77th or Montgomery's Highlanders. During the Forbes Expedition, Grant served alongside the likes of Andrew Lewis, Lieutenant Francis (later "the Swamp Fox") Marion, Hugh Mercer, and a young, 23 year-old militia Colonel named George Washington.

In addition to being an experienced soldier, Grant was also a shrewd politician. In 1764, he was appointed Governor of East Florida and has been credited with single-handedly turning that territory into a prosperous colony. He helped to establish Florida's northern boundary and started thriving indigo, cotton, silk, logwood and cochineal industries -- the latter used to make red dye for British officers' uniforms. Grant enjoyed the prosperity that comes with success while in Florida, but was forced to return to England until 1771 due to a recurring illness.

By 1772, Grant had recovered and had entered Parliament where his anti-American attitudes first began to be known. He had suffered a humiliating defeat at Fort Duquesne on September 21, 1758, during the Forbes expedition -- largely because the poorly-led Colonial Militia disregarded his orders. This bitter memory was apparently still fresh in his mind when Grant stood up in the English House of Commons on February 2, 1775 and proclaimed that the Americans "could not fight" and that he would "undertake to march from one end of the continent to the other with five thousand men."

Despite the braggadocios undertones, Grant was probably right. In early 1775 the Continental Congress had not yet approved a standing army, and the local militias were not capable (or willing) of engaging in a large-scale military action. When Grant made this now-infamous statement, there were about 12 British regiments in America -- most of them holed-up in Boston. If these troops (close to the 5,000 mentioned in Grant's speech) had been equally distributed among the major trade centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the British could have easily put a stranglehold on all of New England -- especially if coupled with a naval blockade as Grant also suggested. This situation would have made it very difficult for the supporters of the Continental Congress to carry out their rebellious activities and prevented them from consolidating their power. It would also have demonstrated that the British meant business, and would probably have had the colonists longing for the good old days when all they had to worry about was the tea tax.

Of course, it was easy to criticize from 2,000 miles away across an ocean, but Grant would soon have firsthand experience with the rebellious colonies.

Upon his arrival in Boston on July 30, 1775, Grant, declared that it was "worst situation imaginable" and strongly urged General Thomas Gage to move the troops to New York, where the British could conduct military operations with some elbow room. If this would have been done when Grant suggested it, the battle of Breed's Hill would have been averted, and the Rebel Army would not have had the satisfaction of forcing the British to retire to Halifax in March of 1776. In fact, when the decision finally WAS made to evacuate, Grant proposed burning not only Boston, but Portsmouth, Marblehead, and Philadelphia as well. In defense of this hard-line approach, Grant said "Lenity has had every bad Effect which can be imagined." He strongly felt that if the rebels had been dealt a few decisive blows early in the conflict, the independence movement would have lost much of its momentum and war averted. Grant's tyrannical attitude would have probably only served to further agitate the colonists, but what could they have done with no standing army, their major cities occupied or laid waste, and all trade and commerce halted? It would not been long before the will of the people would have been broken, giving the factions loyal to the King a better chance to organize and gain power.

While in Boston and later at Halifax, Grant became a close friend and trusted military advisor to the newly-appointed Commander-in-Chief General William Howe. Grant urged Howe to adopt his plan of burning the major cities, but Howe refused. As the Army sailed towards Staten Island in June of 1776, Grant again grumbled that they should burn all the coastal cities along the way, but Howe was afraid of "losing time" and declined his friend's urgings.

Grant has been credited with devising the master-plan for the battle of Long Island. Ironically, he has been blamed in part for the failure of that battle to bring the Continental's to their knees. Grant commanded the British left, and it has been said that the battle of Long Island would have sealed the fate of Washington's Army for good if Grant had pressed forward as Washington's lines gave way. In fact, Grant's orders were to do nothing more than create a diversion, and by the time his troops had received fresh ammunition, the opportunity to push forward had been lost. If anyone is to blame for allowing a decisive victory to slip away, it would be General Sir William Howe (Howe was knighted for his action at Long Island and only later fell under criticism).

A few months later, Grant quick-marched his battalion to White Plains, hoping to be a part of a final victory there. Unfortunately, once again, his friend General Howe had let the enemy slip away -- this time across the Hudson. In 1777, Grant devised the battle plans for Brandywine creek -- essentially an identical plan to that employed at Long Island. Again, the enemy slipped away.

Finally, Grant was shipped off to the West Indies -- some say because of his bungling at defeating the Continental forces under Lafayette at Barren Hill on 20 May, 1778. Grant did very well in the Caribbean, and must be credited with successfully defending the British possessions there.

Would Grant's more aggressive, hard-line approach have quelled the rebellion? If someone like Grant had been in command would we all be singing "God Save the Queen" before baseball games? Probably not. In view of subsequent British failures to retain her other colonies, I think an American rebellion was bound to happen sooner or later. Even Major-General Grant himself acknowledged that "They may from Compulsion become dutiful subjects for a time, but they will never be Cordial & affectionate."


SOURCES: Boatner, Mark Mayo, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Stackpole Books, 1994

Colonial Office Papers, series five, State Historical Society of Wisconsin Library microfilm

Draper Manuscript Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin Library

Nelson, Paul David, General James Grant, Scottish Soldier and Royal Governor of East Florida, University Press of Florida, 1993

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