General James Grant: Scottish Soldier and Royal Governor of East Florida.
Best known to Americans because of his 1775 boast to Parliament that he could march from one end of America to the other with only 5,000 British regulars, James Grant was a weightier figure than this speech would suggest. He had a long, generally successful military career, and his term as the first British governor of East Florida proved him to be an able, if controversial, administrator. Until now he has been the subject of no full-scale scholarly biography. Professor Nelson, of Berea College--a prolific author of several biographies of military figures on both sides of the Revolutionary conflict--fills the gap with this succinct and clearly written study.
Born in Scotland in 1720, Grant came from a prominent family, though as a second son he was not immediately in line to inherit the family estates. He therefore studied law but tired of it and purchased a commission in the Royal Scots regiment. As a junior officer, he served garrison duty in Ireland and saw combat in Europe during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Becoming an aide to his commanding general, he accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to Vienna in 1748. There, perhaps, Grant acquired the tastes that would make him a corpulent gourmet. He also appears to have impressed his superior, for his next assignment was as a traveling tutor to the general's grand-nephew who became the Earl of Sutherland. Such influential connections aided Grant throughout his career, but his military future nearly collapsed during the French and Indian War. Sent with about 1,000 men to reconnoiter the French position at Fort Duquesne in Western Pennsylvania, he incautiously encountered a superior enemy force, lost many of his troops, and was captured. A year in Canada as a prisoner of war followed before he was exchanged. Grant then participated in successive campaigns (1760-1761) against the Cherokee Indians, the second of which he commanded. Local criticism of his military operations and friction with the senior provincial officer led to a bloodless duel that colored his opinion of Americans.
Nevertheless, Grant developed close ties with several South Carolinians. Some of them, in fact, would serve on his council after he became governor of East Florida, which Britain acquired from Spain in 1763. For the next eight years, Grant was an ardent supporter of the area. Soldiers should be stationed there, he argued, because, "without troops this Province can never become a Country, their money circulates, brings vessels with Supplies, & gives Spur to Industry all over the Province" (p. 50). Although he was only moderately successful in stimulating local development, he established a successful indigo plantation of his own (which he had to sell as a result of the American Revolution) and became a devotee of slavery. He deemed most indentured servants "useless" and, while governor, forcibly suppressed a revolt by a number of them, two of whom were later executed. Though authorized to establish a local assembly when the population became large enough to warrant it, he governed without one. The failure of Floridans to join other colonists in protesting against the Stamp Act and other British policies, he would have maintained, vindicated his policies. Inheriting Ballindalloch Castle and the family properties upon the death of his brother and nephew, Grant returned to Scotland in 1771 and obtained election to Parliament.
Grant's speech to the House of Commons disparaging American military prowess, Nelson effectively argues, reflected the enthusiasm of the moment rather than his considered judgment. After his arrival in America as part of the military force sent to suppress the rebellion, Grant came to regard the colonists as frustratingly tenacious enemies. American militiamen, he lamented, "pop at every Man they see upon the Road--They don't assemble in large body's never stay two Nights in a place & 'tis impossible to catch them" (p. 113). At the outbreak of the war, he believed that Britain should rely upon its navy to blockade the American coast and the resulting economic pressure would bring the colonists to terms. Once undertaken, he argued, military measures should not be half-hearted. Mercy was "out of the Question or ought to be for depend upon it, this continent is lost to Great Britain, if it is not crushed and conquer'd . . ." (p. 91). French entry into the war and the resulting evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778 convinced Grant that Britain could not win. The proper course, he believed, was for Britain to withdraw from America and let the new nation self-destruct. Events proved him to be a better soldier than a prophet, and he made a creditable record for himself as a battlefield commander in the middle colonies and the West Indies before he returned to England in 1779. Serving again in Parliament, where he voted against an attempt to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, he continued in active military service until 1796. Still very much in character shortly before his death ten years later, he requested a marble coffin so that he might have "clean sheets for the journey" (p. 157).
As this bit of whimsey suggests, Grant was a colorful Scotsman, and this is a readable biography. Nelson's research is wide-ranging; equally important, he is one of the first scholars to make extensive use of the Grant papers preserved at Ballindalloch Castle. The resulting heavy reliance on Grant's correspondence is a weakness as well as a strength of this volume, for it contributes to the author's tendency to see things from his subject's point of view. There is evidence, for example, to suggest that opposition to Grant's authoritarian style in Florida was more widespread than Nelson concedes. The author also gives short shrift to criticism of Grant's campaign in South Carolina during the Cherokee War. Although Nelson's overall assessment of the situation is doubtless correct, his failure to analyze local polemics more thoroughly leads him to omit significant detail. He also appears not to have-consulted the extant journals of two of Grant's subordinates on these expeditions (Christopher French and Alexander Moneypenny). Greater use of the Papers of Henry Laurens, (Laurens accompanied Grant on the second expedition and later coached him on indigo planting in Florida) would have provided additional material on the economics of plantation management in the Lower South. These, however, are relatively minor criticisms; on balance, the author deserves congratulations for having written a sound and useful study about a worthwhile subject.
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|Author:||Weir, Robert M.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1995|
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