Charles Edward Stuart was on the march in Britain. His Jacobite Army, predominantly made up of Scottish Highlanders with a mix of Irish volunteers from the Irish Brigade of France, was moving southwards, invading the north of England with the aim of overthrowing the Hanoverian regime and putting the Stuarts back into power. A panic was engulfing parts of England after initial Jacobite successes, and Europe was holding its breath on the possibility of serious regime change in the British Isles, change that would have a dramatic impact on the larger geo-political situation.
Charles and the Jacobites had entered England on the 8th of November, with a force somewhere in the region of 15’000 men. The first target was the city of Carlisle, which surrendered to the Jacobites after a few days of siege, not having the requisite number of defenders to resist properly. The government was already moving its own military forces into play, but not fast enough to save Carlisle, the capture of which only increased the state of panic in the rest of the Kingdom.
Next to fall later in November was Manchester, followed closely by Preston. “Cheering crowds” are said to have greeted Charles as he rode in to these places at the head of his men, but more likely these crowds were made up of elements of his own army: the Jacobites, in truth, received nowhere near the expected level of support in these northern areas, save for a few bands of militia troops that agreed to follow the Stuart banner. One of these, raised from Manchester, consisted mostly on unemployed men.
Into December, the Jacobites kept advancing, without meeting any resistance. On the 4th they arrived at Derby, maybe four days good marching from London, and it was there that Charles was forced to contemplate the reality of the situation he found himself in. His army had advanced far and taken many areas of importance, but many of his subordinates were fearful of what was to come. Supplies were low, and the terrible winter weather had prompted many Highlanders to give up the cause and desert. Government armies were converging on their location, one led by the Duke of Cumberland and consisting of his European veterans, men who had fought at Fontenoy. In conjunction with other forces (some real, some imagined), there were fears that the Jacobites would, in their southwards march, walk into a trap, encircled by superior forces and destroyed.
Charles was warned that even if he was able to gain a battlefield victory over the rapidly approaching Cumberland, the losses the Jacobites would sustain would render them unable to continue the advance, while a defeat would mean that any retreat back north to Scotland would be a harried and gruelling affair. Charles was annoyed with such fears, insistent on advancing, feeling strongly that it would not take much more for the Hanoverians to collapse. He may not have been very far off the mark really, and there is something to be said for the possibility of a major shift in political allegiances should London have changed hands. He clung onto hopes that more and more English would join his side, that reinforcements would come down from the north, and that French invasion forces would land on the English coast.
Charles got support from some, including his chief Irish officer John O’Sullivan, but many others were extremely apprehensive of any continued attempt to march on London, disbelieving that the Jacobites were strong enough to take it, or hold it in the event of its capture. With no serious proof that English Jacobites would rise in force, or that the French would commit significant forces, they felt that a continued offensive would probably mean eventual doom for the Stuart cause at that moment.
With (false) intelligence claiming that a new army of 9’000 men had sprung up between the Jacobites and London, Charles was eventually convinced to consider retreat when nearly his entire council of war urged this course. It was a bitter outcome for an invasion that had achieved so much success up to that point.
Slowly, the Jacobite army turned back northward, gradually abandoning most of what they had gained up to that point, including the cities of Derby, Manchester and Preston. Charles attempted to hold Carlisle with a regiment of militia, hopeful of retaining a foothold in England, but a short siege in the final days of the year by Cumberland resulted in its fall, with many of the Jacobite prisoners executed in the aftermath: a bloody hinting at what was to come in Scotland. The retreat severely dented Jacobite morale, with the rank and file annoyed at having to turn back having not actually been defeated in the field.
While all this was going on, some fighting continued in Scotland, where so called “Independent Highland Companies” formed to support the Hanoverians, engaging in low-intensity guerrilla warfare against pro-Jacobite Highland clans, taking Fort Augustus from them in December and then fighting and losing a skirmish at Inverurie that same month.
Into the New Year, the fighting continued. Charles returned to a Scotland that was neither safely in support of him nor secure, and the Jacobites were soon besieging Stirling Castle and its government garrison. Irish troops took a leading role in this action, more experienced with siege work than the Highlanders, but suffered heavy losses for their actions. In conditions of terrible wind and rain, the Jacobites were soon brought to battle at nearby Falkirk Muir, by a British army under Sir Henry Hawley. The Jacobites, commanded by George Murray, withstood government assaults and then counter-attacked, scattering most of their enemy. A late attempt was made by governments forces to hit the Jacobite flanks, but this was stopped dead in its tracks by the oncoming Irish units. The Irish, as they had been for most of the fighting thus far, had been held in reserve, and dealt with this last-ditch attempt to avoid defeat easily enough.
Despite the victory, things were rapidly turning against the Jacobites throughout Scotland. Small scale skirmishes and sieges abounded, and despite a few privateers breaking Royal Navy blockades to land some French-based reinforcements, including a troop of Fitzjames’ horse from the Irish Brigade, Charles no longer had a firm handle on things, with an apparent drinking problem becoming ever more acute as time went on. Cumberland’s forces had meet up with others, and were pushing northwards with over 10’000 men. The siege at Stirling had to be abandoned in the face of this, and Charles soon had additional troubles as many Highlanders simply started going home for the winter months, unwilling to remain as a force in being, some satisfied with the plunder they had won in England. A larger split between the Scottish and Irish officers becomes more evident at this point, with Charles favouring the Irish more and more, still disappointed at the refusal to continue the march south. Many Scots resented this influence, viewing Irish officers like O’Sullivan as French careerists, who faced a different peril to that faced by the Scots: the Highlanders would likely hang if defeated and captured, while the Irish would, in all probability, end up being released back to France.
Unable to hold what they had previously won, many Jacobite forts were destroyed and guns spiked rather than they be surrendered to the advancing enemy, as the bulk of Charles’ remaining military reorganised to the north. France remained unwilling to risk a large-scale invasion of England, in support of a rebellion that now seemed to be floundering. Charles would get little help that way
Cumberland was patient, spending time at Aberdeen training up his army, which he had supplied from the sea, while receiving additional Hessian reinforcements, before beginning a further march up the west coast, seeking now to engage and destroy what was left of the Jacobite military in a single encounter. This was now commanded once more by Charles, who was determined to fight a defensive action against the oncoming Cumberland. The Irish would be with him when he did.
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