As the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, neared its conclusion, General Washington knew all was lost. The British routed the Patriots, most of whom lacked experience and training. As he prepared to retreat, he watched the well-drilled 1st Maryland Regiment repeatedly and valiantly charge Cortelyou House, as the Maryland Line warded off the British advance to allow the rest to escape. Washington then turned to General Israel Putnam and said, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.”
But they could only delay, not halt the British. The 1st Maryland's commander, General William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling, became a prisoner of war. Make no mistake, saving Washington saved the Continental Army and made victory in the war possible. Washington rightly called it an "hour more precious to American liberty than any other." One New York newspaper called Lord Stirling "the bravest man in America."
Born in New York City sometime in 1726, Alexander was the son of James Alexander a lawyer who fled Scotland in 1716 as a political refugee after a failed uprising. The father continued to battle authority, making an enemy of Royal Governor William Cosby. The father started an anti-Cosby newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, with Peter Zenger as publisher. Cosby charged Zenger with criminal libel over an editorial. Alexander was one of Zenger's original lawyers, but the judge found James Alexander in contempt and the governor had him disbarred. Zenger's second set of lawyers, Andrew Hamilton and William Smith Sr., made legal history by successfully using the truth as a defense in a criminal libel case.
During the French and Indian War, the son worked as a provisioning agent for the British. It was in this capacity that he first met George Washington, as both men rose through colonial society.
When William Alexander's father died on April 2, 1756, the son sought the title Earl of Stirling, which became dormant with the death of his grandfather. The title carried with it claims to valuable land along the coast of New England. He moved to England to pursue this title and wound up with the lesser, but still prestigious title of Lord Stirling.
Using his inheritance from his father, he lived like a Scottish lord in New Jersey, dabbling in wine-making. In 1767, the Royal Society of Arts awarded Lord Stirling a gold medal for his pioneering work in the cultivation of vineyards on his New Jersey estate.
Lord Stirling was a Patriot. When the Revolutionary War began, he raised and funded a regiment, acquiring the title colonel. His finest hour came at Long Island, when his brigade held the British back just long enough, despite being outnumbered 25 to 1. Protecting Washington saved the revolution. Indeed, the 1st Maryland's exemplary performance is why in Maryland's nickname: is the Old Line State.
But Lord Stirling wound up a prisoner of war. Fortunately, a brash American naval officer, John Paul Jones, had invaded Nassau earlier that year and captured Montfort Browne, the royal governor of that colony. Upon his return in a subsequent prisoner exchange, Lord Stirling received a promotion to major general, and he became a trusted aide of George Washington.
He may have saved Washington a second time by uncovering a possible conspiracy by General Horatio Gates and others to have Gates replace Washington as commander-in-chief. What a disaster that would have been. While Gates took credit for the Battle of Saratoga, in New York, where British General John Burgoyne surrendered his entire army, the real heroes were Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan. The incident was a large reason Arnold became a turncoat. Gates would prove himself unworthy during his disastrous leadership in the Southern campaign in 1780.
Lord Stirling, however, like many a vintner, became too fond of the grape. As Washington's army advanced on Yorktown, the general left Lord Stirling in New York with a lesser command. Alcoholism killed him on January 15, 1783, in Albany, which is a shame because when the nation needed him most, Lord Stirling had shined. Now he is largely forgotten.
They do remember him at Columbia. He was a founder and the first governor of Kings College, which later became Columbia University. And each October, the Somerset County Park Commission in New Jersey holds the Lord Stirling 1770s Festival at the site of his stately manor in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Included are tours of his wine cellar.