The Battle of Prestonpans

In the early morning hours of September 21, 1745, the first significant conflict of the Jacobite rising of 1745 was fought at Prestonpans, East Lothian, Scotland. The Battle of Prestonpans proved that the Jacobite army loyal to James Stuart (son of the deposed King James II) meant business and were fully capable of kicking the ass of the Hanovarian army on George II’s side.

1745 was either a great time or a terrible time to have an uprising in Britain, depending which side you were on. The War of the Austrian Succession was raging on the Continent, and George II had sent most of the British army over to battle it out with the French. Only 6,000 troops remained in England, and after the army on the Continent was whupped at the Battle of Fontenoy, Charles Edward Stuart, son of James Stuart, saw an opportunity to take back his father’s throne. He and his followers raised an army of more than 2,000 men and marched to Glenfinnan and Edinburgh.

Sir John Cope, the general in charge of government forces in Scotland, had only 4,000 men at his disposal, and most of them were inexperienced.  His senior cavalry officer was sick, and he lacked gunners to man the artillery. Nonetheless, he marched the infantry and artillery toward Fort Augustus in the central Highlands, planning to nip this little rebellion in the bud. Along the way, he tried to gather the support of many of the clans, but they all seemed to find excuses not to fight for his army.  While he was busy in the Highlands, Charles and his officers marched into the Lowlands, which were almost entirely undefended. They reached Perth on September 4 and were joined by the Duke of Perth and Lord George Murray. On September 11 they resumed their march south, and the regiment of dragoons that was supposed to oppose them scattered and retreated to Edinburgh. On September 16, Prince Charles’s army captured the city with little or no fighting.

Cope finally pulled it together and his forces encountered Charles’s advance guard on September 20. Cope dug in and waited for the Jacobites to come to him. At 4 a.m. on September 21, the Jacobite army, led by a local farmer’s son familiar with the area, began to march against the weak left flank of Cope’s army. Although Cope took precautions—posting hundreds of pickets, keeping bonfires lit all night, and realigning his army—at 6 a.m. his dragoons were faced with the fearsome sight of 1,400 Highlanders charging through the mist, Braveheart style. Cope’s army freaked out and the flanks disintegrated. The battle was over in less than 10 minutes and left hundreds of government troops dead or wounded and 1500 taken prisoner. Fewer than 100 Highlanders were killed or wounded.

As you can imagine, the battle boosted Jacobite morale, and more recruits flocked to the cause. The army made it as far as Derby by December, but then retreated after being led to believe a massive Hanovarian army stood between them and London. They won another victory at Falkirk but were then crushed at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746.

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