Not One Step Back:
The Jacobite Last Stand at Derby, 1745
By Chris Oakley
Had a wiser man than Prince Charles Edward Stuart been in command of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion against Britain’s King George II, it’s possible that the uprising might have succeeded in its goal of ousting George II from the British throne. It definitely would have held out out against the Duke of Cumberland’s army much longer than it actually did. But from the moment "Bonnie Prince Charlie" ordered his ragtag insurgent forces to stand and fight against Cumberland’s troops at the town of Derby, the Jacobite cause was effectively doomed. It didn’t help the rebel war effort any that Stuart and his most senior field commander, Lord George Murray, were barely on speaking terms by the time the Jacobite army reached Derby. Murray had a great deal more military experience than Charles, and deeply resented the fact that the Jacobite rebel chieftain kept overruling him on so many critical matters-- not the least of which was Murray’s heartfelt belief that the Jacobite army should continue its march on London, if only to keep Cumberland’s regiments off balance.
Some of Stuart’s admirers have compared the Jacobites’ do-or-die stand at Derby with the heroic siege of 180 Texans at the Alamo in 1836. However, a more accurate analogy would be the German 6th Army’s hopeless resistance at Stalingrad during World War II; just as Hitler refused to heed his generals’ pleas to let the 6th Army break out of the city, Stuart rejected Lord Murray’s recommendation to withdraw from Derby while the roads were still open. "Bonnie Prince Charlie"’s stubbornness would cost the Jacobites a great many lives-- including Stuart’s own.
To understand Lord Murray’s urgent efforts to talk Stuart out of making a stand at Derby, one should keep this fact in mind: European winters in general, and British winters specifically, tend to be quite harsh. Murray was highly concerned that if it snowed long enough and hard enough, it would soon be very difficult if not impossible for the Jacobite army to move anywhere in any direction. Murray’s battlefield foe, British Army commander Duke William Augustus of Cumberland1, also saw this predicament and was prepared to take full advantage of it if and when the opportunity arose. Cumberland had two options: either he could line up his armies in a siege formation and wait the Jacobites out, or he could attack right away and catch the rebels asleep at the switch as it were. Either way, he had the advantage. While he operated with a unified command staff and a well-equipped professional fighting force, Stuart was burdened with a sharply divided officer corps and an army whose weapons were in some cases so ancient they might have seen action in the days of Oliver Cromwell.
As if that weren’t trouble enough for Stuart to face, many of his fellow Scots-- mostly lowlanders who hated and feared the Highland clans siding with the Jacobites -- actually supported Cumberland’s bid to smash the Jacobite revolt. As the narrator puts it succinctly in radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins’ 1964 docudrama Derby, Stuart would have "more Scotsmen fighting against him than for him." Even some of the Highlanders detested the prince; two of the British Army regiments which fought at Derby included Highland Scots among their ranks. Stuart and the Jacobites, meanwhile, were being supported by France’s King Louis XV and by a contingent of Irish exiles under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Walter Stapleton. These exiles would in the end turn out to be braver than some of Stuart’s own brother Scots, continuing to stand and fight long after many of the Highlanders had deserted the Jacobite army.
From the minute that the advance pickets of the Jacobite forces entered Derby on December 3rd, 1745 Stuart’s military advisors were at odds with one another about how to handle the British Army regiments being sent to oppose them. The quarrels were especially bitter between Lord Murray and the Jacobite quartermaster general, John William O’Sullivan; O’Sullivan wholeheartedly supported Stuart’s intention to stand at Derby against Cumberland and mocked Murray as being much too cautious. Murray in turn blasted O’Sullivan as an obtuse and reckless idiot and predicted the Jacobite army would in effect be committing mass suicide if they fought a pitched battle against Cumberland’s men in Derby’s streets.
Sir Thomas Sheridan, the prince’s former tutor and chief military secretary,2 sided with O’Sullivan against Murray and in so doing helped sentence most of Stuart’s troops to death at the hands of the British Army. Sheridan’s advice carried enormous weight with Stuart, and when the Jacobites held their council of war on December 4th to decide once and for all what their next move should be it was partly on his advice that Stuart made the fatal choice to stake everything on a do-or-die showdown against Cumberland’s regiments rather than continue to march on London or withdraw back to his army’s original base of operations in the Scottish Highlands.
As the Jacobites were holding their war council, the Duke of Cumberland’s command staff was itself in the midst of a conference to make the final decision about whether to attack or to wait the rebels out. Though Cumberland’s field commanders had their share of disputes about how Stuart’s forces should be handled, their meeting was much less contentious than the Stuart war council-- in fact, the biggest disagreement among Cumberland’s officers was whether Stuart should be hanged or shot once he’d been captured. One captain in particular, Caroline Frederick Scott, openly bragged he would blast the prince’s head off the first chance he got.
While Captain Scott never got that chance, he would most certainly be in the front lines of Cumberland’s attack on the Jacobites when the order to commence said attack was issued at sunrise on the morning of December 6th, 1745. Catching Stuart’s men when their alertness was at its lowest, the assault tore massive gaps in the Jacobite battle lines and might have shattered the rebel army right then and there had not Stuart, in a rare moment of sound judgment, ordered Stapleton’s Irish pickets to set up a crossfire near one of the Jacobite strongpoints being targeted by Cumberland’s assault. That crossfire forced the Duke of Cumberland’s advance infantry pickets into a temporary retreat and gave the Jacobites breathing space that, had the Prince taken the best possible advantage of it, might have enabled the rebels to commence a fighting withdrawal or marshal their troops for a counteroffensive.
But as they had so many times before the battle started and would so many other times before it was over, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s tactical instincts failed him. He ordered all his troops to hold their positions and prepare to repulse Cumberland’s next assault; Lieutenant Colonel Stapleton, who rightly feared another attack by Cumberland might smash the Jacobite army to pieces, protested Stuart’s decision but to no avail. Consequently, the prince in effect threw away what may have been his best chance to escape the grim fate that now awaited him at the hands of Cumberland’s regiments...
By noon on December 6th the British Army had started to tighten the noose around the neck of the Jacobite force. Most of the possible avenues for retreat or attack had been closed off, and many of those that were left had been targeted by Cumberland’s men for a fresh wave of assaults. Still, Charles Edward Stuart would not countenance any talk of withdrawing his men from the positions they held; such a move, he railed, would spell disaster for the Stuart cause. He seemed not to notice that his army was facing disaster anyway.
One of those who perished in the heat of Cumberland’s next attack was Walter Stapleton, who had correctly prophesied that Charles Edward Stuart’s "not one step back"(to borrow Stalin’s famous phrase) order would spell doom for the Jacobites; in the opening minutes of the Duke of Cumberland’s second assault a musket ball hit the Irishman square in the forehead and literally blew his brains out. The men Stapleton had been commanding fought as valiantly as they could to avenge their fallen leader, but the rifle fire from Cumberland’s infantry proved too much for the Irish pickets to contend with, and just after 3:30 PM their battle lines broke in panic and disorder as they tried to flee to safety.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to cut down an enemy if he could help it, Cumberland immediately authorized his cavalry to give chase to the retreating Irishmen. Chase they did, and before long the Irish pickets had been run to ground and carved up like turkeys. What Cumberland’s cavalry did to those men rivals any atrocity committed by the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge; indeed, the incident earned the Duke of Cumberland the harsh sobriquets "Stinking Billy" and "Cumberland the Butcher" from the Scottish Highlanders. Even some of Cumberland’s own officers found these actions appalling: a lieutenant attached to Cumberland’s headquarters staff confided to his private journal that "I feel a great Unease about how our descendants shall judge the way the Irishmen were treated....it was a slaughter of the Worst variety."
At least three Irish corpses were decapitated by Cumberland’s men and shipped back to Glasgow to be hung in the city’s main square as a dire warning to anyone who thought of aiding or directly taking part in any future insurrections against the Hanoverian dynasty.
At sunset on December 6th Cumberland’s regiments were in control of most of the Derby area and were making a determined effort to take the rest; they were aided in their campaign by the citizens of Derby itself, who resented the Scottish Highlanders of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s army not only for trying to usurp their king’s crown but also for disrupting the peace and quiet of their town.
Yet in spite of the increasingly dire straits in which he and his army now found themselves, Stuart still refused to countenance any talk of retreat. He threatened to shoot or jail any of his officers who uttered the slightest suggestion of pulling out of Derby, and at one point actually did order court-martial proceedings convened to try Lord George Murray for insubordination when Murray had the temerity to recommend a swift and orderly evacuation of the Jacobites’ remaining forces from the city before they were cut off completely from any hope of escape.
Stuart appointed Sir Thomas Sheridan chairman of the board of inquiry for this hastily convened and ill-advised court-martial, and inevitably the strain proved to be too much for Sheridan to handle: he died of heart failure in the early morning hours of December 7th, 1745. Even John William O’Sullivan, who had backed the prince wholeheartedly in all other matters, was highly critical of Stuart’s decision to hold a court-martial while the Jacobite army was under siege; it was only O’Sullivan’s long-standing record of unswerving loyalty to the prince that kept Stuart from also having the Jacobite quartermaster general court-martialled as well.
While the Jacobite high command was figuratively eating its own, Cumberland’s senior officers were marshalling their forces for the final blow. As would happen on another December 7th nearly 200 years later, the British Army infantry and cavalry troops under the duke’s command were to hit the Jacobites full force with a lightning- swift surprise attack; the main blow was to be directed against the right flank of the Jacobite battle lines, which by now were correctly judged by Cumberland’s scouts to be the weakest part of Stuart’s defenses. That attack would be supplemented by diversionary strikes at the Jacobite center and the rear of the Jacobite left flank; the aim was to destroy what was left of the cohesion of Stuart’s front. Charles Edward Stuart, unaware of the blow that was about to land on his disintegrating insurgent force, ordered his troops to stand firm even though his surviving senior officers, Lord Murray, and common sense all argued that Stuart should pull his remaining forces out of Derby before the steadily narrowing window of opportunity for escape slammed shut altogether.
Sure enough, when Cumberland’s forces struck the Jacobites at 7:00 AM on the morning of December 7th, the rebel army’s battle lines broke apart within minutes. It was at this point that Prince Charles Edward Stuart made his most crucial, and fatal, mistake: in hope of inspiring his men to victory, Stuart decided that he would personally lead the Jacobite counterattack. He mounted his most prized horse, rode out to the thick of the fighting-- and right into the line of fire of one of his cousin’s best snipers.
What happened next has been immortalized in story, folk song, and Peter Watkins’ film Derby. Two shots rang out from the sniper’s rifle, both hitting the prince squarely in the heart; he was dead in just a matter of seconds. When the Duke of Cumberland saw his cousin and foe topple to the ground, he was exhilarated and shouted to his troops to "chase the damned rebels into the sea!", to quote his now-legendary rallying cry in the Battle of Derby’s final minutes.
They heeded his cry with speed and relish, chasing after what was left of the Jacobite army like hounds after the fox. John William O’Sullivan was trampled under the hooves of the duke’s cavalry; many of the clan chiefs who’d marched with Stuart to Derby were cut down by swords, musket fire, or cannonades from Cumberland’s artillery. Lord George Murray barely escaped with his life and would spend several months as a fugitive before fleeing to France in the spring of 1746.
At 10:00 AM Cumberland ordered a general cease-fire; by 3:30 PM on the afternoon of December 7th a dispatch rider had reached King George II in London with the news of Cumberland’s victory over the Jacobites.
The last serious attempt to topple the British government by force had ended.
When Charles Edward Stuart died at Derby, the Jacobite cause effectively died with him; in the months after the British victory at Derby, the pitiful fragments of the once-massive Stuart army were tracked down and eliminated one by one, with the last ragtag band of insurgents being wiped out by the British Army at Culloden Moor in Scotland on April 13th, 1746. For his triumph at the Battle of Derby, the Duke of Cumberland was rewarded by his father King George II with a Ł25,000 raise in salary and a choral music piece composed in his honor by Georg Frederick Handel; the British people dubbed a flower "sweet William" after him.
In the century after the Battle of Derby the British government, through parliamentary legislation and other means, systematically dismantled the Scottish clan system which had produced the Jacobite rebellion. Thousands of Scottish Highlanders followed Lord Murray’s lead and went into exile, many of them settling in Canada, Australia, and the United States.
When the American Independence War broke out in 1774, the armies on both sides of that conflict included a fair share of veterans of the Battle of Derby in their ranks; one of the American Independence War’s major New England engagements, the Battle of Cambridge, would be fought between rebel militias and British army regiments both under the command of men who’d fought at Derby. In his planning for the air strike on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into World War II, Japanese naval strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto cited the Duke of Cumberland’s final assault on the Jacobite lines at Derby as an inspiration and model for his own strategy in attacking the US Pacific Fleet.
Some of the Scottish Highlanders who fought on Charles Edward Stuart’s side at Derby did so in the hope that once he gained the throne of England he might grant Scotland its independence; since the days of William Wallace many Scotsmen have sought to cut Scotland’s ties with England, and for them the Battle of Derby represented a lost opportunity to fulfill their dream. For modern-day Scottish independence advocates seeking to achieve by political means what Wallace or the Jacobites couldn’t accomplish by military ones, the prevailing attitude regarding the events at Derby can be best summed up by a quote from a leftist Glasgow newspaper’s 1995 editorial marking the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Derby: "While the war between the Jacobites and the Hanover dynasty may have ended in 1745, the struggle between Scotland and England won’t be over until the British government does the honorable thing and grants Scotland her freedom."
But regardless of where one stands on the question of Scottish independence, one thing is indisputably clear: the Battle of Derby had an impact on British history that still reverberates today and will no doubt continue to echo for centuries to come. If anything, in this post-9/11 era when ideological clashes are often intertwined with ethnic conflict, the lessons of Derby may be more relevant than ever.
1Ironically, the Duke of Cumberland was Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s cousin.
2The specific parameters of Sir Thomas’ post as military secretary were a bit unclear, but in general terms his responsibilities would have roughly been similar to those of the President’s national security advisor in the present-day US cabinet.
3Quoted from the diaries of British army lieutenant James Ward, who later fought in New England during the American Independence War.