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Men of the Revolution: 15. Frederick Mackenzie

June 2024
10min read

Of the British officers who served in America during the Revolution, the names Howe and Clinton, Burgoyne and Cornwallis, are the ones that echo across the years. There is some irony to this, since none of those captains—with the possible exception of Cornwallis—had any notable claim to posterity’s attention for their accomplishments on this side of the Atlantic. Yet just as they had in their day the perquisites of rank, so they were accorded the privilege of fame.

The system of which they were a part virtually ensured that high-ranking officers would be aristocrats and men of considerable wealth—the sons of peers, the relatives, friends, and protégés of the rich and powerful. In the British army there were two routes to the top: one was influence, and the other was money. In fact, the route to the top began at the top, with His Majesty George in. The king, as captain general, might or might not appoint a commander in chief of the armed forces, and George— who took considerable pride in exercising his military prerogative—chose not to appoint one. As commander in chief he controlled the price of officers’ commissions, and commissions came dear. An ensign, for instance—the lowest rank in a regiment of foot—was obliged to pay £400 for his commission at a time when it was possible to maintain a family and two servants on £40 a year. Promotion was available as vacancies occurred—either in a man’s own regiment or in another—but all officers had to serve in grade for a period of time before they were entitled to advancement. Then, when opportunity was finally within reach, came the rub. Unless an officer possessed independent means, there was no way to purchase the next higher rank, since it was impossible to save money on the niggardly pay he received.

All of which meant that advancement went to the wealthy. A lieutenant colonelcy in the infantry went for £3,500, and for the same rank in the elite foot guards £6,700 was the going rate—a sum nearly equivalent to the combined salaries of the first lords of the Admiralty and the Treasury. As a result wealthy officers advanced fastest. Lord Cornwallis, for example, who had money, was a lieutenant colonel at the age of twenty-three and a lieutenant general at thirty-eight.

In that army, to be sure, there was another type of officer altogether. Unsung, given only a paltry reward for his services, he made up the backbone of what was for a time the finest fighting force in the world. He knew his limitations in terms of rank and accepted them as best he could, hoping for the one rare exception to the ironbound rule of purchased commissions—an opportunity to draw his superiors’ attention by distinguishing himself in battle.


The best of these officers were trained not only as soldiers but as observers. A man of this stripe had learned from experience the meaning and value of terrain and usually could draw a creditable map or sketch. Years of proximity to the men in the ranks gave him an insight into their capabilities under fire, their limits of endurance, their capacity for improvisation. He knew, or tried to know, his enemy; he discovered quickly enough the shortcomings and weaknesses of his superiors.

Happily for our knowledge of the Revolution, the eighteenth century was a time of abundant letter-writing and journal-keeping, and the historian may be grateful that some of these competent professional officers kept a record of their service in the American colonies. To them, as much as to anyone, we are indebted for insights into the minds of the Howes and Clintons and for our knowledge about the British conduct of the war.

A superb example of the breed is Frederick Mackenzie, who began writing his observations and thoughts in a diary in 1748 and kept at it faithfully until 1791. Alas, only eight volumes of that record survive—many, including all those antedating 1775, having been lost—but what remains is a remarkable account of some of the critical battles of the Revolution, as well as an astute, revealing commentary on eighteenth-century military life, on Mackenzie’s fellow officers and the rebels who opposed them. Spiced with philosophical asides, it is engaging, readable, and highly informative. Written with soldierly precision, his notes are clear, direct, knowledgeable, and consistently fair, for among his other qualities Mackenzie seems to have held no rancor toward the Americans. He related the facts impersonally, giving considerable thought to the problems confronting both his own army and that of the enemy.

The son of a Dublin merchant and his Huguenot wife, Mackenzie first appears in view about 1745, when he received a commission in the 23rd Regiment—the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Promoted to captain thirty years later in Boston, he became a major in 1780 and in 1787 transferred from his old regiment to become lieutenant colonel of the 37th Foot. (It would be interesting to know how he came into the wealth to purchase that commission. Did an unforeseen inheritance fall into his hands after all the lean years?) Sometime later he went on half pay and surfaces again in 1794, with England poised for the expected invasion by Napoleon’s troops, when Mackenzie raised and commanded the ist Exeter Volunteers. Subsequently he was Assistant Barrack-Master General at army headquarters and Secretary of the Royal Military College, and in 1824 he died. His birth date is not known, but if he was only fifteen years old at the time he received his first commission, he was an old, old man at his death—well into his nineties. We do not even know when his portrait was painted, but he was evidently a man of some years, and since the artist shows him in civilian clothes, the picture must have been done after his retirement from the army. Even so, this is still a face to make a subordinate leap to attention for fear of what those penetrating eyes might discern or of what that steel trap of a mouth might utter.

Mackenzie was obviously a fellow of considerable intelligence, with an orderly mind and a keen eye for details. He had the happy facility of reporting events candidly (probably because he intended the record only for himself and his family), and he set down what he had actually seen, sprinkling the account with personal observations, speculating on matters that concerned him as a soldier.

In addition to the diaries, a surviving letter to his father-suggests the range and detail of his interests. It is as full an account of the rigors of an Atlantic crossing by troopship as a parent or a historian could desire, filled with descriptive passages of the nightmarish seven-week voyage. Writing from New York on June 29, i773, Mackenzie tells his father that at least two children died during the voyage; that the ship sprang her mainmast; that they had only one day of fair winds between April 25 and June 9. Mackenzie’s wife and two daughters were obliged to share a cabin measuring 7x7x7 feet with two other women and another child. One of the women was seasick for the entire seven weeks; she exacted her vengeance on her maid, “a little, dirty, Scotch girl” who also shared the cabin, by throwing things at her and scolding her constantly, and on her husband by berating him every time he showed up to comfort her. Her child, who swung in a hammock eighteen inches above her head, cried violently every morning at four. The cabin had a single window one foot square, opening onto a stairway, and Mackenzie feared lest the occupants suffocate for lack of air.

Describing his impressions of New York, Mackenzie tells of the extraordinary number of blacks he saw (“I believe one fourth of the Inhabitants are Negros, and Mullatoes”); he comments on the currency (all of it Spanish) and the price of lodging; then he lists in detail the meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and fresh fruit available—complete with prices and comments on the quality (“Veal, 3d. some very fine as ever I saw … Ducks, is. a couple … Lobsters in surprizing quantities, for 1½d. per pound … Pine apples as large as a quart Mug, for 6d. each … Raspberries about 4d. a quart … Milk ud. a quart. No cream.”).

He was “pretty certain of remaining here two or three years,” Mackenzie observed, “unless something extraordinary happens; our future destination is quite uncertain.” The “something extraordinary” occurred long before the several years were out; in August of 1774 the Royal Welch Fusiliers were summoned to Boston by General Thomas Gage, who was increasingly alarmed by the activities of the rebels in that town.

Although Mackenzie was personally involved in numerous engagements during the war, his significance lies more in what he can tell us than in what he did. As an eyewitness to the tumultuous scenes in Boston he provided, for example, the most complete and detailed account of Dr. Joseph Warren’s inflammatory oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, delivered in the Old South Church in 1775. As adjutant of the aSrd Regiment he saw action on the opening day of the Revolution and gave us the only narrative by a participant in the embarkation of the Concord expedition. On the night of April 18, 1775, Mackenzie led several of his companies to their appointed rendezvous with Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, who was to command the march on Concord. Smith was notoriously slow and incompetent; he and the other troops were late; and Mackenzie, a stickler for promptitude, was dismayed by the laggardly start of the expedition and by the lack of an embarkation officer to take charge of loading troops aboard the boats assigned them. He loaded his two companies; troops from other regiments followed his lead; and then the men floated idly about in the tidal basin of the Charles River until Lieutenant Colonel Smith made his appearance.

The next day word reached headquarters that Smith was in trouble, and Mackenzie went out with a relief force under Lord Percy. It was probably no accident that the able Mackenzie was given the most dangerous assignment of the afternoon—command of the rear guard in the long, galling retreat—and it was characteristic of the man that even after that gruelling, anxious day he should return to quarters and record his observations of the harried flight from Lexington and Concord while events were still fresh in his mind. It had been a costly, humiliating defeat, yet Mackenzie was not one to carp or blame; he noted simply that Gage had been the victim of faulty information and stated his conviction that “an Officer of more activity than Col o Smith, should have been selected for the Command of the troops destined for this service.” To supplement his relation of the events the indefatigable Mackenzie copied a map drawn by a fellow officer, showing the positions of the armies at Concord, and pasfed this into his diary.

After the British evacuated Boston, Mackenzie served as Major of Brigade under General William Howe in Halifax, returning to New York in August of 1776, where he was appointed deputy adjutant-general of the army. Here, again, he was to shed some light on events while participating in several of the great British victories of the war. After Howe landed troops at Kip’s Bay on Manhattan Island, threatening to trap the rebels still remaining in the city of New York, the general was delayed—the tale goes—by Mrs. Robert Murray, who invited Howe for luncheon at her house on Murray Hill. While the British general and his army were detained by this accomplished hostess Israel Putnam marched four thousand Americans up the west side of the island to safety. Or so legend has it. But Mackenzie tells a different story. After the Kip’s Bay landing the troops formed, according to Mackenzie, and “advanced to Murray’s hill (or Ingleberg) an advantageous piece of ground,” where they waited until the second division “were landed at Kipp’s Bay about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. General Howe [then] made a movement with the greatest part of the army towards Haerlem.” As he so often did, Howe took his own good time, waiting until all of his troops were ready; but the delay was his idea, not that of an attractive rebel sympathizer.

By the fall of 1776 Howe had chased Washington’s army into Westchester, and the only rebel foothold on Manhattan Island was Fort Washington, where vast amounts of irreplaceable cannon, ammunition, food, and other supplies were stored, watched over by a garrison of several thousand soldiers. One night a rebel deserter named William Demont slipped through the British lines and was brought to Captain Mackenzie for an interview. As Mackenzie tells it, Demont described the “great dissensions in the Rebel Army, everybody finding fault with the mode of proceeding, and the inferior officers, even Ensigns, insisting that, in such a cause, every man has a right to assist in Council, and to give his opinion. … The people from the Southern Colonies declare that they will not go into New-England, and the others that they will not march to the southward.” Demont’s estimate of the situation was all too true, and after talking to the deserter Mackenzie concluded that the rebels “must soon go to pieces.” This was undoubtedly the burden of his report to Howe—a report that probably triggered the general’s decision to move against the fort at once.

On November 16 the Fort Washington garrison surrendered after a heroic but unequal fight, and as the beaten rebels marched out they were stripped of their clothes by Hessians. Mackenzie, watching this scene, was ashamed of Britain’s allies. The rebels had no right to expect mild treatment, he realized, but he liked to think that “it is right to treat our Enemies as if they might one day become our friends.” He was a plain-speaking, honorable man who regarded magnanimity in victory as a distinguishing characteristic of British troops.

Late that fall Mackenzie boarded ship along with some six thousand British under the command of Henry Clinton and set sail for Newport, Rhode Island, which they took without opposition. For three years this force remained there—surely a frustrating experience to a man like Mackenzie. As the English historian George Trevelyan described the operation, “For any effect which they produced upon the general result of the war, they might have been as usefully, and much more agreeably, billeted in the town of the same name in the Isle of Wight.” Even so, Mackenzie’s record of that time and place is of considerable interest; everything he saw is described in remarkable detail, and his is one of the few existing personal narratives written from a British perspective, including maps, drawings of landmarks, and a full account of the rebels’ capture of the British general Richard Prescott—who was to be exchanged for General Charles Lee.

In 1781 Mackenzie was back in New York—still removed from the scenes of climactic action but dutifully recording the news of headquarters and the tidings from Virginia, where Lord Cornwallis found himself abandoned in the sleepy village of Yorktown.

As military history is customarily reckoned, Frederick Mackenzie was not a figure of much significance in the American Revolution. Yet he deserves a higher place in those annals for the understanding of the conflict he bequeathed to succeeding generations. Even on those rare occasions when his lines betray a trace of chauvinism, Mackenzie is invariably interesting. At a time when the rebel cause was at low ebb, during the demoralizing retreat across New Jersey, Mackenzie was preoccupied with the dilemma of the American command, a command that might soon have no men left in the ranks. Fascinated by the problem, he came to the rather unusual conclusion that the only sure, reliable troops Washington could count on were the former Europeans—Irishmen in particular. These fellows, he believed, were “much better able to go through the fatigues of a Campaign, and live in the manner they at present do, than the Americans.” Mackenzie knew his Irishmen, and he judged their tenacity and fighting spirit as far superior to those of the average American. They would, he said, fight “for the sake of a present subsistence, Clothing, & plunder; and the prospect of acquiring some property, and becoming men of some consequence, in case they are successful.” All things considered, it is not a bad description of rank-and-file revolutionists, then and now.


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