Alexander, William (1726-1783) (DNB00)

ALEXANDER, WILLIAM (1726–1783), an American general, who claimed to be the sixth earl of Stirling, was born at New York in 1726. His father, James Alexander, had been an officer of engineers in the army of the Pretender, and after the failure of the Scottish rebellion had taken refuge in America, where in 1720 he was appointed surveyor-general in New York and New Jersey, and subsequently acquired a leading position at the bar. At New York he married the widow of David Provoost, who, on account of the fortune he had made by smuggling, was called ‘ready-money Provoost.’ After the death of her first husband the lady began a provision business of a lawful kind, which she continued to carry on after her marriage to Surveyor Alexander. William, their only son, became clerk with his mother, and subsequently a copartner. Obtaining a contract for supplying the king's troops, he was led to join the commissariat of the army, shortly after which he attracted the notice of General Shirley, the commander-in-chief, who made him his aide-de-camp and private secretary. Having gone to England in 1756 to give evidence in behalf of Shirley, who had been charged with neglecting his duty, he was persuaded to assert a claim to the earldom of Stirling. Chiefly on the evidence of two old men, who affirmed his descent from John Alexander, uncle of the first earl, a jury at Edinburgh served him heir-male of Henry, fifth earl of Stirling, but in March 1762 the Lords' committee on privileges decided against his claims. Previously to this he had returned to America, where he continued to make use of the title to the close of his life. He succeeded his father as surveyor-general, was subsequently chosen a member of the provincial council, and also became the first governor of Columbia College, which he had taken an active part in promoting. In the dispute which led to the revolt of the American colonies he was strenuously opposed to the policy of Great Britain, and when the rupture took place he was chosen to command the first regiment of militia raised by authority of the provincial congress. At the very beginning of the war he distinguished himself by the brilliant capture of a British armed transport of 300 tons. For this he received the special thanks of congress and was made a brigadier-general for the middle department. Shortly afterwards he assumed the chief command at New York, and began the work of fortifying the city and harbour. For a short time he went to New Jersey to put the eastern province in a posture of defence, but he again returned and held command of the city till the arrival of General Washington. At the battle of Long Island he was taken prisoner, but he was soon exchanged, and in February 1777 was promoted major-general. Though his subsequent achievements in the war were not of a strikingly brilliant character, they were of solid and substantial importance, his system of careful organisation and his unfailing watchfulness enabling him to present a front of resistance to the enemy, which was of immense service to the American cause. At the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, which resulted in favour of the British, he conducted himself with great discretion; at the battle of Monmouth he so placed the batteries of his division that they played with great effect on the advancing British troops, and he also repulsed with heavy loss an attempt that was made to turn his flank. While in command in New Jersey in 1779, he surprised with great boldness a detachment of British troops at Powles' Hook. In 1781 he was appointed to the command in Albany, and on 1 Nov. had drawn out an order of battle in expectation of on attempt of the enemy at Saratoga, when news of the surrender of the southern army to General Washington induced them to change their plans. During the remainder of the war his command was not connected with any incident of importance. He died at Albany of a violent attack of gout, brought on by fatigue of body and mind, on 15 Jan. 1783, five days before an agreement was entered into between the two countries for a cessation of hostilities. Alexander was the author of ‘The Conduct of Major-General Shirley briefly stated,’ and ‘An Account of the Comet of June and July 1770.’

[Life of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, by his grandson, William Alexander Duer, LL.D., forming vol. ii. of Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society (1847); Charles Rogers's House of Alexander, i. 282–5 (1877).]

T. F. H.