John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun, has a bad reputation. Seen by historians as incompetent and ineffective in command, he also raised regiments of Highlanders to help suppress the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/6. He participated in some of the more brutal suppression methods employed by the British Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cumberland.
In 1756, he was appointed to command in North America during the early stages of the French and Indian War. The army he commanded was unfit for purpose, relations between British and colonial soldiers were appalling, and attempts to win friends among the Native Americans were abject failures. After two years in command, and following a string of defeats, Loudoun was relieved of his command. He was blamed for all of these failures.
Poor Loudoun. No sooner was he relieved, than the British started to achieve startling successes. In 1758, Fort Pitt – the location of modern-day Pittsburgh – and Louisbourg were captured. In 1759, Fort Ticonderoga, and the capital of New France, Quebec, fell into British hands. In 1760, French control of Canada came to an end was Montreal was captured when three separate British forces converged on the city.
The papers of this either incompetent or unlucky general are held at The Huntington Library in California. Set in the midst of 120 acres of stunningly gorgeous botanical gardens, The Huntington is possibly the most beautiful locations to do historical research on the planet. I was lucky enough to win a two month fellowship there in January 2014, the purpose of which was to research the Loudoun Papers.
Those familiar with my research elsewhere will know that I am a revisionist historian – with a small ‘r’. Historical myths grow around individuals and are exaggerated across time. The Duke of Wellington is widely eulogised as a military genius, but in Wellington’s Wars, I show that this was a hard won reputation, the product of many mistakes and failings. Wellington was a human being, and it is far better to understand how he overcame very human flaws in order to achieve such startling successes.
It was with a similar eye that I approached Loudoun. I suspected history had exaggerated his flaws, his incompetence magnified by failures in contrast to outstanding successes once his tenure in command came to an end.
Although Loudoun was undoubtedly aloof, and viewed the colonial soldiers and Native Americans under his command with disdain, he was not alone in holding such a view. His predecessors and successors were similarly judgmental. Moreover, Loudoun was a reformer. The army he inherited was corrupt, poorly commanded and lacked training. It was ill-equipped and ill-acclimated to warfare in dense terrain in the forests of North America. When he assumed command, even senior colonial generals were subordinate to green-behind-the-ears British subalterns.
He began the slow and tedious process of reforming the British Army in North America. After much wrangling, he convinced London to authorise a change to army policy and account for the seniority of colonial officers. From 1757 onwards, colonial officers would only be subordinate to British majors. Although not far enough, this was progress in the right direction.
More generally, Loudoun improved the logistical facilities in America and ensured that his forces were correctly equipped to fight in the forests and woods. He began the process of repairing relations with Native American tribes, and gradually won over important new allies to the British cause. Most importantly, he authorised the formation of the first institutionalised Light Infantry Regiment, by Thomas Gage. This was the first time the British had adopted an entire battalion of Light Infantry as part of the regular order of battle. In so doing, Loudoun set in motion a learning curve that would produce new and original thinking within the British Army.
Meanwhile, Robert Rogers formed a battalion of Rangers, used for scouting, skirmishing and in an ambush role. Loudoun sought Rogers’ advice on how British forces could best adapt to the irregular terrain and enemy. The advice he received was familiar – he had employed similar methods in Scotland in 1745/6.
Loudoun enacted all of these reforms, in the face of local, regional and political opposition. He did so diligently and effectively, although his demeanour regularly put noses out of joint. Under his command, the British Army in North America was transformed from a thoroughly ineffective fighting force into one capable of adapting and innovating in the terrain it found itself in, and to the enemy it fought.
And then he was sacked. His immediate successor, James Abercromby, was not much more effective, and barely lasted and year, despite some outstanding successes in 1758. When Jeffrey Amherst was appointed in 1759, he took command of any army that was fighting-fit. Unsurprisingly it achieved immediate success at Ticonderoga and Quebec.
You can read more about my research at The Huntington and my arguments on Lord Loudoun here.
Image: John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun. Allan Ramsay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons