Serving in both the northern and southern theaters of the American War of Independence, Maj. James Weymss (1748-1833, pronounced “Weems”) has recently been labeled as the second most hated British officer during the war. Arriving in Boston just after the Battle of Bunker Hill in summer 1775, Weymss participated in the massive and controversial Battle of Brooklyn during which he witnessed Lt. Gen. William Howe’s crucial decision to stop the British attack on the verge of overrunning of the Rebel battlements on Brooklyn Heights. This controversial decision provided Washington an opportunity to escape. Wemyss also participated on the raid of Danbury, CT, and the Battle of Brandywine, receiving wounds in both engagements. However, it was in the southern campaigns that Wemyss garnered his reputation for waging total war on the enemy including indiscriminately destroying civilian property. In the South Carolina countryside, local inhabitants and later historians accuse him of stealing horses, burning churches and hanging Rebels. However, much of Wemyss’s reputation comes from early 19th century American historians who sought to burnish the reputations of the equally brutal Rebels and to demonize the British. Probably, Wemyss’s behaviors were no different than Rebel commanders during this period of intense neighbor on neighbor civil war.
After several skirmishes and battles throughout the Carolinas, Rebel forces surprised Wemyss’s British regulars and Loyalist militia at Fishdam Ford, South Carolina. In the encounter’s early moments, the Rebels severely wounded Wemyss, and his command disintegrated and left him on the battlefield. After a long period of convalescence, Wemyss was paroled and sent back to New York City. However, after being exchanged, the wounds did not permit him to return to active campaigning. He could only serve in staff roles.
Despite local lore and historian allegations of brutal atrocities, Wemyss emigrated after the war from Scotland to live on Long Island, New York the remaining thirty years of his life. During this period, he penned a document revealing his blunt and condemnatory assessments of the performance of the British General Officers who served in North America during the war. Wemyss is highly critical of the 3 Commanders-in-chief (Thomas Gage, William Howe, and Henry Clinton), twenty-one Major Generals as well as numerous other subordinate officers. Not mincing words, he described many generals as “without abilities,” “vain,” “Ill-tempered” and “useless.” Even officers he thought were “well-meaning” were deemed unfit for their commands.
Wemyss is particularly critical of British North America Commander-in-Chief Sir William Howe’s efforts to quell the rebellion. He accuses Howe of making terrible military decisions which allowed George Washington and the Continental Army to escape New York City, regroup and attack and defeat the British forces widely distributed in New Jersey. In a bit of 18th century “Monday morning quarterbacking,” Wemyss recounts a discussion among British officers debating which general – Howe or Washington made the worst military decisions.
While Wemyss’s criticisms are acerbic and blunt, he saves his most disparaging assessments for the officers that led supply and provisioning commands. Most damning, he accused these officers of committing “every species of fraud, plunder, and rapacity and described them as “carrying a successful war on the Treasury of their country.”
Several factors led to Wemyss’s harsh criticisms. First, it is natural for the losing side to blame poor leadership rather than the righteousness of their cause or strength and veracity of their opponents. Secondly, British leadership bypassed Wemyss in the selection for independent commands including be replaced as commander of the Queens Rangers by the more famous John Graves Simcoe and named the infamous Banastre Tarleton to head an independent legion that Wemyss thought should have been given to him.
While many later historians have cited Wemyss’s characterizations of British generals, I am cautious in doing so given that he had a substantial “ax to grind.”¹ However, Wemyss’s allegations of fraud and abuse by supply and commissary officers are highly likely and deserve more attention from investigatory historians.
To judge for yourself, there are two easy ways to read Wemys’s views and form your own conclusion on his veracity. Jared Sparks, historian and former President of Harvard University copied several of Wemyss’s papers which can be found in the Harvard Libary² and online. I transcribed Spark’s copy into text which can be found on this site. Enjoy reading and respond with your thoughts on Wemyss’s characterizations of the British generals!
¹For example John Shy quotes Weymss’s description of Thomas Gage without describing his potential bias and motives. George Athan Billias, ed., George Washington’s Generals and Opponents: Their Exploits and Leadership, 1st Da Capo Press ed (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 32. More appropriately, Nick Bunker posits that Weymss’ provided his assessment of Gage with the benefit of hindsight. Nick Bunker, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, First edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 288.
²Sparks, Jared, 1789-1866, collector. Gates Selected papers; papers from the Public Offices in Massachusetts; Major Wemy paper; diary of Lieut. Obadiah Gore. MS Sparks 22. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.