Book Review

Champagne, Roger J. Alexander McDougall and the American Revolution in New York. Schenectady, NY: Union College Press, 1975.

In the Revolutionary era, wealthy, aristocratic families dominated New York society and political institutions.  Even familiar today, the family names include Delancey, Clinton, Livingston, Reed and Smith. During the lead up to the revolutionary hostilities, these families divided their allegiences between Tory and those who supported independence from Britain.  Remarkably, Alexander McDougall, a hard-bitten, little educated sailor rose in prominence among the scions of these families before and during the Revolutionary War.  First under McDougall’s political leadership, then his service as a Major General in the Continental Army, he became a leading force within New York for achieving independence.

Engraved portrait by H.B. Hall, 19th century

However, after the war, McDougall stature largely diminished and history has largely neglected his  contributions.  Rober Champagne’s biography is the best source to properly understand McDougall and to gauge his contributions.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of hostilities, McDougall actively agitated for rebellion as a leading member of the New York Sons of Liberty.  Attempting to stiffle his political influence, New York authorities restricted McDougall’s political activities and even placed him in jail.  As popular support for rebellion increased, McDougall rose in public esteem, especially notable for his “working class” background.

When the shooting war came to New York City, McDougall joined the Continental Army and assisted in the campaigns in and around the city.  Most successfully, McDougall served as “beach master” in organizing Washington’s masterful retreat from Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan.  Further, McDougall provided critical local knowledge to aid Washington in conducting subsequent defensive activities around Manhatten and New York harbor.

Remarkabe for someone without prior combat experience, McDougall aquitted himself well on the battlefield. McDougall ably commanded Continental brigades at the Battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains.  Gaining the confidence of Washington and fellow officers, the Continental Congress promoted McDougall to Brigadier General and then to Major General.  For much of the rest of the war, McDougall served as the theater commander of the Hudson Highlands and West Point.  Given the strategic imperative of maintaining Patriot control of the Hudson River, this assignment reflected considerable confidence in McDougall’s leadership and abilities to work with the New York State poltical authorities.

One stain on McDougall’s record was a tiff with Maj. Gen. William Heath of Massachusetts over command prerogatives at West Point.  The personal acrimony got out of control with Heath, the senior officer, bringing seven formal charges againt McDougall.  After considerable delay, a lenghty court martial ensued with a  verdict against McDougall on one charge and dismissing the other six charges. McDougall received a formal, written reprimand.

Even with this unseemly squabble, a strong bond developed between Washington and McDougall.  Washington exuded considerable confidence in McDougall both politically and as a military leader.  In fact, Washington asked McDougall to lead the right wing of the Continental Army at Yorktown, but he declined as his health was not sufficient to withstand the rigors of a 450 miles march and arduous campaigning.

In the last years of the war, McDougall actively advocated for back pay and promised benefits for the general officers. He became their spokesperson and traveled to Philadelphia to press the case for Congressional recognition of compensation due to the generals. McDougall’s activities were well known and tacitly supported by Washington.  There are no hints that McDougall joined with any of the Newburgh conspirators aiming to forceably extract compensation from the Continental Congress.  McDougall unfailingly supported Washington.

After the war, McDougall returned to New York City to live well below his pre-war standard of living.  The Revolutioanry War depleted his financial assets which were generated long ago from being a successful privateer during the French and Indian War.  Even facing the need for money, McDougall returned to political office. However, his health, while always shaky during the arduous campaign years of the war, failed.  In 1786, he passed leaving only a small estate for his heirs.

Champagne does an excellent job of recounting the contributions of this lessor known, underappreciated Revolutionary leader.  He reminds us that not all patriots were wealthy, highly educated and socially prominent.  In the end, New Yorkers did memorialize McDougall’s contributions by naming a street in Greenwich Village after him.  Today McDougall Street is a lively, vibrant desination for both prominent and working class residents and tourists, a scene reflecting McDougall’s life experiences and one that would have made him happy and a bit proud.

To research Alexander McDougall, click on this link for additional source materials.