Tragedy of Captain William Leslie & Dr. Benjamin Rush.
The grave of Captain the Hon. William Leslie, second son of David, 6th
Earl of Leven, is in a picturesque country churchyard. From time to
time, despite the passing of two centuries, the young soldier still
receives tributes of flowers and flags. But Willie is not at home in
Fife -- in Monimail or Markinch, among his family: the church beside him
is white clapboard, typically American. He lies in Pluckemin, New
Jersey, where he was buried with full military honours on 5 January
1777, by the Rebels who had killed him two days previously, in the
Battle of Princeton.
The story of Willie Leslie and his burial is a touching one, taking us
from the cultivated society of Enlightenment Edinburgh to the
battlefields of the Revolutionary War. Much of it can be pieced together
from his letters in the Leven & Melville Papers quoted here by kind
permission of the present Earl of Leven and Melville, and from the
published letters and memoirs of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
David Leslie, 6th Earl of Leven and 5th of Melville, and his Countess,
Wilhelmina Nisbet, divided their time between their country home,
Melville House, in Fife, and a new town house at the north-west corner
of Nicolson Square, Edinburgh. The Leslies played a full part in the
city's cultural life. Among their friends was Benjamin Rush
(1745/6-1813), a medical student from Philadelphia, who was studying in
Edinburgh in 1767-8.
Ben had been befriended by the Leslies' eldest son, Alexander,
Lord Balgonie, known as Bal, who was three years his junior. He was
often invited to the house on Nicolson Square, and to Melville House. He
grew fond of all the family. When he heard Lady Jean, the eldest
daughter, sing Mallet's poignant The Birks of Endermay (or Invermay
-- a property of their friends the Belsches family) in the drawing room
at Nicolson Square, he lost his heart. Jeany Leslie (1753-1829) was
scarce fifteen: their innocent romance was played out in letters between
Edwin and Angelina. (1) It petered out after Ben had to return to
America, but he retained fond memories -- and a lock of Jeany's
hair. Bal gave him a parting gift, too: a ring, with the Lord's
Prayer on the bezel, and the date on which he had left Melville House
inside the band. The young doctor continued to correspond with the
family, including Bal and Willie.
Willie, a sweet, sprightly, kind-hearted boy, was born on 8 August
1751. In 1770, he joined the 42nd Regiment, the Black Watch, as an
Ensign. His early concerns included keeping Jean out of his room at
Melville House! As he wrote to "Dear Bal" from Perth in an
undated letter: "tell Jeany not to go to my room with a candle as
there is a good deal of scattered powder on the floor". (2)
The regiment was stationed in Ireland. By 16 February 1771 Willie had
settled into life in Belfast, occupying himself off-duty with dances and
hunting. He missed Scotland: "Was at Carrick Fergus on Monday saw
Scotland from the top of the tower & my heart leapt for joy".
(3) He messed with the regimental chaplain, James MacLagan (1728-1805)
-- "a good honest man, not the best best Preacher in the
world". Indeed, MacLagan, more noted as a Gaelic scholar,
"...is to learn me Earse", i.e. Gaelic -- a useful skill for
an officer in a Highland regiment, but not one widely held in the 1770s.
The local situation was tense: the `Hearts of Steel', poor
Protestant tenant farmers, protested violently against evictions and
economic hardship. Willie asked Bal to protect their mother from
The Hearts Steell are all come back to the Country, it is thought they
will kick up a Dust again, but don't speak of that as it will make
mama worry; they fired 4 days ago at a sergeant of ours & a
constable walking together & wounded the constable. (5)
However, other `dangers' faced Willie. As an Earl's second
son, he was fought over by the Belfast ladies:
I was very near being genteelly humbugg'd, last night I had been
invited to drink tea with a young lady; after I was d[ressed?] &
ready to sally, recd
. a card from the [lady] with an excuse
that she could not see me that night, I sat down to write a letter, a
very short time after, a gentleman who had promised to shew me the house
called for me, & I shewed him the card, he said it was certainly a
hum, for he had seen the Lady just before & she said nothing about
it, so away we went & got Miss Hambleton with six or seven more
young ladies just beginning to tea, having recd
. a card in my
name that it was not in my power to wait on her; Found out next day that
it was some of the rest of the Belfast ladies who envied her the
happiness of having me to drink tea with her... (6)
But he escaped capture!
Willie was compassionate and caring by nature: as a comrade wrote
after his death, "A more amiable young man never existed". (7)
Writing to Bal from Galway on 24 November 1772, he described how he had
helped tend Captain Mackay, when he was dying of a fever:
...I am in very low spirits at which you won't be surprised when
you hear the reason; In a letter I wrote my Mother some Posts ago I
mentioned being much with Capt
Mackay who was not very well,
little did I think then how near he was to his end; how uncertain is the
fate of us poor Mortals: On tuesday last he went out in a Chair for
Exercise in order to promote sleep of which he had none for some nights,
I sat with him till nine o
Clock, about twelve he was taken
very ill with a raging fever, obliged to be held down by four Men. I
went in to him about 10 on Wednesday forenoon, he was then a little
calmer, he said, Son (he always called me his son) take the key of my
scritoire & give it to my Wife; after that he never was sensible,
raved without intermission; I stay'd with him mostly, till three
next morning; it was equally affecting to see him & his wife; I came
to him again at ten, he had been worse; staid with him most of the day,
and till seven saturday morning when he expired. He has left a widow
without anything, luckily, no Children... I have lost my friend &
companion, one who realy behaved as a parent to me. How affecting it is
to see a man hurried out of the world without a moments warning, and how
much more so to see one for whom you havea real esteem, it is an awefull
lesson to those left behind. he was buried yesterday. Pardon this letter
I can write of nothing else while I think of it -... (8)
He speculated as to how Mackay's death would affect promotion
within his company, and whether he would be able to buy a Lieutenancy.
He was disappointed. When a commission fell vacant in the 17th Regiment
in June 1773, he seized it:
I hope my Dear Father will not be displeased at my accepting a
Lieutenancy in the 17th
., without first
consulting him, as there was not time granted for writing &
receiving an Answer, the Regt
. does not go abroad for a long
time, it has the name of being a very good Corps & I know a number
of the Officers, all which considered I hope will plead my Excuse... (9)
He regretted leaving the Black Watch. His worries about the weakening
of the Watch's Scottish character suggest he was no `North
I am very sorry to leave the Highlanders, don't expect to be ever
in so good a Corps of Officers again; I fear it won't be long a
national Corps unless a war happens, for now they put in English &
Irish without Distinction... (10)
But his belief that his new regiment "would not go abroad for
many years" was wrong. Only two years later, rebellion broke out in
North America. The 17th Regiment sailed from Cork on 3 October 1775. The
voyage took even longer than usual because of the harshness of that
winter, and they did not arrive in Boston until New Year. "Willie
is at last arrived after being 14 Weeks at Sea, he looks thin, but we
must fatten him with Salt Pork and Pease, for he must have starved on
board," (11) his uncle Alexander wrote to his father a week later.
Willie purchased his company in February, shortly before the 17th was
ordered to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to await the bulk of the British forces
now being shipped across the Atlantic. The army encamped on Staten
Island in July, to prepare to confront the Rebel forces around New York.
On 22 August, a fleet of "Flat Boats" landed Willie, his
regiment, and the rest of the army on Long Island. He first saw action
there five days later, and for the first time, had to face his own
friends being killed around him. One of them was Captain Sir Alexander
Hepburn-Murray -- an only son, not yet twenty-two:
I never was so shock'd in my Life, but at that time was too much
engaged to give way to it After the Action when I saw the Corps of my
beloved Friend lying on the Ground tore by a Cannon Ball, it is
impossible to describe my own anguish or the melancholy appearances of
the whole Regt
. ...The joy of a complete Victory did not
throw off the Gloom & I feel a Blank which will take a long time to
fill up; excuse this melancholy Subject, but imparting what ones heart
is full of, whether Grief or Joy, to a friend who I am sure will
sympathise certainly eases the mind of some part of its Burthen; what
will his poor Mother & Sisters feel! (12)
Willie's circumstances now could not have been more different
from his boyhood at Melville House and Nicolson Square. But he coped
well with life in the open:
we are now encamped on, near the Village of Bedford; It is now a
fortnight we have lain on the Ground wrapt in our Blankets, and thank
God who supports us when we stand most in need, I never enjoyed better
health in my Life, My whole Stock consists of 2 Shirts 2 p. of Shoes, 2
Handcurchefs, half of which I use, the other half I carry in my Blanket,
like a Pedlars Pack. (13)
He kept his parents informed of his uncle Alexander's well-being
and the activities of his own old regiment, the Black Watch. He
described the fire of New York:
To shew what an infamous set the Rebels are, they set fire last night
to the Town of New York in a number of places at once, as it must have
been [a] concerted Plan; several People were seen with lighted Torches,
the Soldiers threw one man into the Fire; the most elegant Part of the
Town was quite consumed, in all about one third. (14)
and the battles at White Plains and Fort Washington. He also said he
had written to "Mother Jane" (15) -- Jeany, now the wife of
John Wishart Belsches (later Sir John Wishart Belsches Stuart, Bt., of
Fettercairn), who was expecting her first baby. (16)
But adverse weather conditions set in as the campaigning season drew
to its close. As Willie wrote, "...it rained excessive hard the
whole night so that we who lay in the open air had most of our amunition
spoil'd & ourselves driping wet". (17) The army was
ordered to New Jersey, there to pass the winter:
We March tomorrow Morning at 7 o
Clock for the Jerseys, I
suppose to remain there for Winter Quarters -- I must finish very
abruptly in case the Packet sails tomorrow & I must mount Picket
instantly & unexpectedly -
Kindest Love to all
your most affecte
But he would remain in the Jerseys far longer than "for Winter
Quarters". On Christmas Day, he wrote to his mother what was to be
his last letter. He gave her news of their old friend Ben Rush. The
doctor had become a member of the Continental Congress, and signed the
Declaration of Independence; he was now serving as a surgeon with the
Rebel army. In Willie's words:
I'm afraid Rush has not only joined the American Cause, but
likewise denied Allegiance to his King -- Mr. Witherspoon who was
President of the College at Princetown is obliged to fly for the same
Crime -- That famous College is now turned into a Barrack, In short my
Dear Mother the Desolation that this unhappy Country has suffered must
distress every feeling heart, altho the Inhabitants deserve it as much
as any sort of people who ever rebelled against their Sovereign; they
lived in plenty even to Luxury, every man was equal to his neighbour
& not one beggar in the whole country; but now too late they feel
[page torn] the ravages of war, every day pres[ents] objects of
Distress; Protection is offered [by] Lord & Genl
. Howe to
every individual in Amemerica [sic] who comes in, in a certain time;
Great Numbers are come in...
Thank God I have escaped sickness during a severe Campaign &
trusts in his goodness that you are all in perfect Health, my best
wishes attend you all, praying you a happy new Year & many many of
Ever my Dearest Mother
with the sincerest affection
. Leslie (19)
The young redcoat kept in his pocket a letter he had received from Dr.
in which I had requested if the fortune of war should throw him into
the hands of the American army, to show that letter to General
Washington or General Lee, either of whom would, I expected, indulge him
in a parole to visit Philadelphia, where I begged he would make my house
his home. (20)
On Boxing Day, General Washington, having crossed the Delaware, made
his surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. On 3 January
1777, the 17th and 55th Regiments, under the 17th's Lieutenant
Colonel Charles Mawhood, collided with the bulk of the Rebel army near
Clark's Orchard, outside Princeton. In the winter morning fog,
Mawhood initially took the approaching enemy for Hessain allies, or
retreating stragglers. Rebel commander Gen. Hugh Mercer, an old
Aberdonian Jacobite, was mortally wounded, but the British were
hopelessly outnumbered. The 55th fell back, but, at great cost, the 17th
cut their way out in a famous bayonet charge which won them the title,
`The Heroes of Princetown'.
The regiment's right, commanded by Captain William Leslie, bore
the heaviest losses. Willie himself was hit twice in the first volley,
with musket-balls through his left breast and side. (21) He fell on his
back, his right arm extended as his sword slipped from his grasp. (22)
He was still conscious when his servant, Peter Mc
reached him. Unable to speak, he gestured to Mc
Donald to take
his pocket-watch. He died in his arms some minutes later. (23) He was
Donald laid the torn body in a baggage cart, and stayed
with it until the Rebels drew too close for his own safety. Later, he
told Willie's uncle, General Leslie, of his nephew's death,
and probably then gave him his watch and some papers. (24) Alexander
could not bring himself to write directly to his brother, and so passed
on the information via a friend, Captain John Webster, to whom he
confided: "Poor young man I cant get it out my head, when we parted
the day before, he little thought of what was to happen." (25)
Ben Rush only reached Princeton on 5 January, and found the
snow-covered battlefield "still red in many places with human
blood". (26) He helped tend the wounded of both sides. From
prisoners he learned of Willie's death: Captain John
Pherson, who had commanded the left of the 17th, and whom
he was trating for a lung wound, said, "Oh! Sir, he loved you like
a brother," (27) and "that he had heard his friend Leslie say
a thousand times that he forgot in me the political enemy in the
personal friend." (28) "I wept, for the first time, for a
victory gained over British troops", the doctor wrote in a letter
on 7 January. (29) The romantic legend that he had arrived in time to
tend his friend's wounds is derived from John Trumbull's later
painting (Yale University Art Collection), which telescopes time and
space to depict Ben Rush and George Washington galloping on to the scene
just as Willie Leslie collapses at the right side of the canvas. The
truth is, if anything, more affecting.
The baggage cart containing Willie's corpse had been captured by
the victorious Rebels, and taken with them on their march towards winter
quarters in Morristown. Only the day after the battle did anyone look in
the back -- and find the dead boy. His pockets were searched for
identification, and Ben Rush's letter was found. The next morning,
5 January, with Gen. Washington's approval and at his expense, Gen.
Thomas Mifflin buried Willie Leslie with full military honours in
Pluckemin churchyard. Prisoners from his company wept. (30)
As soon as he learned what had happened, Ben Rush did all he could to
return any of his friend's personal effects to his uncle, under a
flag of truce. In the summer, he visited the grave, and plucked a blade
of grass from it as a keepsake. He also promised to erect a headstone on
his grave as soon as was feasible under wartime conditions.
The Leslies suffered, waiting for news. Over a period of several
weeks, Lord Leven compiled a page of diary notes, titled Progress of the
Accounts of My Son's Death. It begins:
Friday, Febr. 20th
about 7 in the Evening, Sr
Ad[olphus] Oughton in the most tender manner gave me reason to believe
that my son had fallen in the Jerseys. Saturdays post brought a
Confirmation of it in the Gazette. No letters from my Brother for 10
days. In the greatest Anxiety for the particulars of His Death.... (31)
It was 10 March before he knew the full story. He wrote a letter of
thanks to Dr. Rush. A rough draft of it is preserved in the Leven &
Melville Papers. It is worth quoting in full, its alterations and
mistakes an indication of the Earl's emotions:
My Brother Gl. Leslie having
transmitted to me your letter
To Dr. Rush, March 1777 -
You will Be so good as to accept of the very gratefull
acknowledgements of two persons, who you have laid under the greatest
obligations The parents of -- of the 17th
. by The friendly
and generous attention you have been pleased to show to The memory of
their Dear Son. In the midst of our deep afliction, it has been a matter
of great consolation that you wer in a part of the Country where you had
an opportunity of giving so strong a prooff of your Friendship to this
Family. Lady L. & every Individual Branch of it join in assuring you
of the Continuance of The great Regard they always had for you & I
. Gratitude & much Esteem
. Most obliged humble Servt
In 1778, Ben Rush was already planning an epitaph for Willie's
gravestone, and sent a draft of it in a letter to General Leslie:
Hon.ble William Leslie Esqr
Second Son of the Right Hon.ble
The Earl of Leven
He fell January 3rd
1777 in the 26th
year of his age
at the Battle of Princetown
Forbear, traveller, to insult his Ashes
Although his country and his profession
made him the enemy of America,
Yet his education, and disposition
made him the
Friend of Virtue
His political enemy, but personal friend
Benjamin Rush M. D. of Philadelphia
hath caused this Stone to be erected as
of his esteem for his worth
and Affection for his
But the erection of the stone was delayed until peacetime, lest the
churchyard suffer any disturbance. The headstone was finally raised in
1784. With the end of hostilities, Rush had modified the text a little.
There was now no mention of enmity; only their friendship is
In Memory of the Honble
of the 17th
Son of the Earl of Leven
He fell Jany. 3d
. 1777 Aged
26 Years at the battle of
His friend Benjn
. Rush M. D. of
hath Caused this Stone
to be erected as a mark
of his esteem for his WORTH
and of his respect for his noble family.
To his Angelina, Lady Jean, Ben Rush -- like her, now married to
another -- sent a more personal memorial of her beloved brother. In the
back of a miniature portrait of his wife, Julia, he had set a picture in
hairwork, depicting himself showing Willie's grave to Jeany, beside
a symbolic weeping willow. The figure of the doctor was made from his
own hair, and that of the lady from the lock of her hair which he had
kept for seventeen years since he had left Scotland. (34) It is unknown
whether or not this picture survives.
Far from home, Willie Leslie rests in the earth of Pluckemin
churchyard. Above his head still stands Benjamin Rush's testament
to their friendship, more enduring than the war which so tragically
destroyed his life. And among the Leven & Melville Papers is a map
of the campaign in which he died: An Accurate Plan of the Country
between New York and Philadelphia; With the Disposition of the Forces:
Extracted from the Gazette of Tuesday, Feby.
(35) On it, someone identified only as S. M. has written a rhyming
couplet, which sums up the whole story:
Here Leslie fell, the gentle & the brave;
And Rush, the generous Foe, wept o'er
(1) . Benjamin Rush to Lady Jane (sic) Wishart Belsches (nee Leslie),
Philadelphia, 21 April 1784, in Rush, Benjamin, ed. Butterfield, Lyman
Henry, Letters of Benjamin Rush, Princeton University Press, 1951, vol.
I: 1761-1792, p. 328. Hereafter cited as "Rush, Letters".
Their nicknames were taken from Goldsmith's poem, The Hermit, in
which Angelina describes her lover:
"In humble, simplest habits clad,
No wealth or power had he;
Wisdom and worth were all he had,
But these were all to me."
See Select Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1901,
(2) . William Leslie to Alexander, Lord Balgonie, Perth, n.d., Leven
& Melville Papers, Scottish Records Office, Edinburgh, GD
26/9/513/2. Hereafter cited as "Leven & Melville"
(3) . William Leslie to Alexander, Lord Balgonie, Belfast, 16 February
1771, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/24.
(4) . Ibid., loc. cit.. James MacLagan, a St. Andrews graduate and
later minister of Blair Atholl, helped translate the Scriptures into
Gaelic for the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, in
which Lord Leven was involved.
(5) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(6) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(7) . Lieut. William Armstrong, 17th Regiment, Leven & Melville,
(8) . William Leslie to Alexander, Lord Balgonie, Galway, 24 November
1772, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/22.
(9) . William Leslie to Lord Leven, Dublin, 8 June 1773, Leven &
Melville, GD 26/9/513/21.
(10) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(11) . Gen. Alexander Leslie to Lord Leven, Castle William, Ma., 7
January 1776, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/512/8.
(12) . William Leslie to Lord Leven, Bedford, Long Island, 2 September
1776, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/16-17. Sir Alexander
Hepburn-Murray (1754-76), was the last Baronet of Balmanno and
Blackcastle, Perthshire. His father had died when he was a baby, and his
mother had remarried. He had two sisters, Mary and Anne. The former
married Col. John Belsches of Invermay, and through their heirs the
properties of Balmanno and Invermay (with its birks) devolved upon Sir
John Stuart Forbes of Pitsligo -- a descendant of Jeany Leslie.
(13) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(14) . William Leslie to Lord Leven, York Island, 25 September 1776,
Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/15.
(15) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(16) . Her only child, Wilhelmina, or Williamina (1776-1810), who
later married Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo.
(17) . William Leslie to Lord Leven, King's Bridge, 22 November
1776, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/12-14.
(18) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(19) . William Leslie to Lady Leven, Hillsborough, New Jersey, 25
December 1776, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/11.
(20) . Rush, Benjamin, ed. Corner, George W., The Autobiography of
Benhamin Rush, Princeton University Press, 1948, p. 129. Hereafter cited
as "Rush, Autobiography".
(21) . Gen. Alexander Leslie, quoting Peter McDonald, to Lord Leven,
Staten Island, 7 July 1777, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/7.
(22) . Rush, quoting eyewitness from the militia, to Lady Jane Wishart
Belsches, Philadelphia, 21 April 1784, in Rush, Letters, vol. I, p. 326.
(23) . Leven & Melville: account of Andrew Wardrop, surgeon to the
17th Regiment, as reported in letter by (John Wishart?) Belsches to Lord
Leven, Edinburgh, 21 May 1777, GD 26/9/513/8; Gen. Alexander Leslie to
Lord Leven, Staten Island, 7 July 1777, GD 26/9/513/7; David, Earl of
Leven, "Progress of the Accounts of My Sons Death", GD
(24) . Gen. Alexander Leslie to Lord Leven, Brunswick, New Jersey, 18
March 1777, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/9, and Gen. Alexander
Leslie to Lord Leven, Staten Island, 7 July 1777, GD 26/9/513/7.
(25) . Gen. Alexander Leslie to Captain John Webster, 4th Regiment,
Brunswick, 7 January 1777, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/10.
(26) . Rush, Autobiography, p. 128.
(27) . Ibid., p. 129.
(28) . Benjamin Rush to Richard Henry Lee, Princeton, 7 January 1777,
in Rush, Letters, vol. I, p. 126.
(29) . Ibid., loc. cit..
(30) . Butterfield, Lyman Henry, "Love and Valor; or, Benjamin
Rush and the Leslies of Edinburgh", The Princeton University
Library Chronicle, vol. IX, November 1947, no. 1, p. 6, and Cohen,
Sheldon S., "Captain William Leslie's `Paths of Glory'
", New Jersey History, vol. 108, 1990, p. 75.
(31) . David, Earl of Leven, "Progress of the Accounts of My Sons
Death", Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/6.
(32) . David, Earl of Leven, draft of letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush,
March 1777, Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/513/4.
(33) . Benjamin Rush to Gen. Alexander Leslie, Philadelphia, 20 August
1778, Leven & Melville, GD 26/13/678.
(34) . Benjamin Rush to Lady Jane Wishart Belsches, Philadelphia, 4
July 1785, Rush, Letters, vol. I, pp. 357-8.
(35) . Leven & Melville, GD 26/9/515