History Lesson: The Battle of Culloden

Rooster dives into the Battle of Culloden on this edition of History Lesson.

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This Saturday marks the 277th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. Because there are so many politics concerning the Jacobite Rising of 1745, for brevity’s sake I will focus on the end of the Rising and the Battle of Culloden. It is a heavily romanticized time for Scotland, but this battle was born from romantic and rebellious fervor. It is akin to the romanticization of the American Revolution. The bare bones of the matter is that Scotland and England shared a king starting in the early 1600s but they remained separate and distinct, until the political union a century later.

Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, tried to overthrow the House of Hanover and restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. This would result in the Second Jacobite Rising and the most famous of them. The House of Hanover was a royal German dynasty that succeeded the Stuarts and ruled until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.

Bonnie Prince Charlie of House Stuart was a descendant of James VII (of Scotland) and II (of England), the last Roman Catholic king to rule over Scotland, England, and Ireland. But he was dethroned by Protestants. Then in 1707, England and Scotland united politically and formed the new “Kingdom of Great Britain”. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s followers, the Jacobites, were mostly the Catholic and Episcopalian Highlander clansmen who were opposed to the unionization and wanted to reclaim the throne for the Stuarts.

The Jacobites did not stand much of a chance from the beginning. They were up against the best army in the world and they were very outnumbered and very poor in comparison. During this time, the Red Coats took to harassing the Scottish Highlands and killed anyone believed to be a Jacobite supporter; Clan chiefs could offer some protection but the tenant farmers who lived far from the castles were vulnerable to the Red Coats. Some of Prince Charlie’s funds came from these impoverished and harassed clansmen who often times did not have the money to spare. But to them, it was a cause worth fighting for.

Meanwhile, England was involved in the War of the Austrian Succession at the time so a majority of their army was away on the European continent. Due to this, the Jacobites had an easy victory against inexperienced Hanoverian troops at the Battle of Prestonpans which boosted their morale to dangerous and reckless levels. After the Battle of Prestonpans, the British recalled forces stationed in France in order to more effectively deal with the Young Pretender and his untrained Highlander army.

Bonnie Prince Charlie overestimated his support. He believed that English Jacobites would stage an uprising while at the same time France would launch a naval invasion against England for his cause, which would not be the case. Instead, on the day of battle, his army consisted of clan gentlemen who were armed with firelocks, targe (small round shield), and broadswords in the front ranks; impoverished tenant farmers armed with pitchforks, lochaber axes, scythes, and maybe a few swords if they were lucky; cavalry and artillery; and some units of French and Irish who had joined the campaign by the time of Culloden – in total the army was approximately 6,000 people strong and those were mostly the poor farmers. The British Army had aristocratic officers from England and Scotland with mainly agricultural workers in the rank and file; cavalry with pistol, carbine, and sword; an additional 5,000 Hessian troops; and Royal Artillery, which until the Battle of Culloden had a terrible performance record – approximately 9,000 strong, better equipped, and more professional.

Both armies would meet on the open marshy terrain at Drummosie Moor on April 15th, the British Army was led by the Duke of Cumberland and Charles Stuart commanded the Jacobite Army that day. That night the British celebrated the Duke’s 25th birthday and each regiment was issued two gallons of brandy and would make a prime target for the Jacobites to launch a midnight attack. However, the march was too hindered by the dark moor and the plan was aborted only an hour before dawn. As some of the Jacobites turned around they missed two-thirds of the other night attack forces who continued on in ignorance until some even made contact with the British. By the time most of the Jacobites made it back to Culloden and began to spread out to find food and rest, they received word that the Duke of Cumberland was advancing. Instead of destroying their enemies’ morale as planned, the Jacobites were now confused, dispersed, and exhausted.

The morning of April 16th, 1746, was cold and wet. The two armies were in sight of each other by 11am with about two miles of Scottish marshland between them. For the first twenty minutes of battle the Jacobites just stood under British artillery fire. Prince Charlie stupidly waited for Cumberland to make a move, all the while leaving his army to the mercy of the cannons. Clan leaders were impatient and furious at this stand-still defensive arrangement. They had wanted to fight with guerrilla warfare tactics from the start but instead they were now standing in a line waiting to die. So disregarding the officers and Prince Charlie’s lack of orders, the clansmen began their own Highland Charge. This would be the last Highland Charge in history and during the last pitched battle on United Kingdom soil.

The charge requires a lot of courage and commitment but speed is also crucial. The ground needs to be firm but unfortunately, they ran across a boggy moor that day. The strategy of a charge usually has them running downhill and in small groups of about a dozen in a larger wedge formation. They were supposed to fire muskets once in range and use the gun-smoke as cover. Once they neared the enemy, they would drop their firearms and draw their swords while screaming Gaelic phrases, usually their clans’ war-cry. Then, using their targe to block any sword or bayonet, the Highlanders would lunge into an upward thrust with their blades to pierce the torso. Typically, the tactic worked well solely on a psychological level since the sight of a screaming Highlander would cause weak lines to break rank before they even made contact. At Culloden, they were so unprepared, exhausted, and desperate that many charged with no weapons or targes at all into cannon fire. The marsh made progress slow, but some did manage to reach the British lines and break through to fight with their bare hands if they had nothing else. Shortly after the whole Jacobite army was in a confused and disorderly retreat. The battle lasted only one hour. Cumberland’s forces continued to ruthlessly hunt down the Jacobites who ran. About 2,000 Jacobites were killed while only 50 British forces died and 259 wounded.

Bonnie Prince Charlie fled from Scotland to hide in France before he was exiled there as well. The leaders of the Jacobite cause were all branded traitors. Laws were passed that forbade all aspects of clan tradition including wearing tartans, speaking Gaelic, and bearing arms. Highlanders were forced from their lands as the British sold it off, many had no choice but to move to the American colonies. The Jacobite Rising of 1745 was over and with it the Highlander way of life.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

Check out the SoBros Shop. Become a Patron. Give us money for no reason. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter @SoBrosNetwork. Watch on YouTube. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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