In the New Year of 1746, the Jacobite army consisted of around 8,000 – 9,000 men. It was the greatest strength the Jacobite army would ever achieve and with this much power behind them, the obvious course of action was to consolidate power in Scotland. So on the 4th of January 1746, the Jacobite army set off from Glasgow to assist in the siege of Stirling Castle.
Enter Lieutenant General Henry “Hangman” Hawley.
Remember that commander we mentioned in A Very Jacobite Christmas? The one who’s own men thought him incompetent? This is the guy.
If the nickname wasn’t enough of a clue, Hawley was something of a disciplinarian. Despite being hated by his own men, he had replaced Johnny Cope as “Commander-in-Chief in Scotland” a few days after the battle of Clifton Moor. He was tasked with taking the fight to the Jacobites. And on the 15th of January 1746, he found himself encamped at Falkirk with some 7000 men, intent on relieving Stirling castle.
And what did Hawley do?
Prince Charlie, Lord Murray and a third key lieutenant, O’Sullivan were expecting Hawley to attack on the 16th but he delayed. It was agreed that the Jacobites should go on the offensive the following day.
No one was to know it at the time but the scene was now set for the last significant Jacobite victory of the ‘45.
How did it all go down?
It started with a Jacobite demonstration. A show of force, performed before Stirling to distract government scouts and allow the Jacobite army to move undetected to the ridge south of Falkirk overlooking Hawley’s camp. At noon on the 17th of January, Hawley’s men were alerted to the presence of the Jacobite army and they stood to.
For reasons lost to the mists of time, Hawley was apparently not bothered by an enemy army a mile from his camp and only decided to deploy for battle two and a half hours later. By that time the sky was darkening, snow was falling, and a westerly wind had picked up - blowing directly into the faces of his men.
There followed what might be one of the poorest deployments of troops in British military history.
The government army set off to the west in column; dragoons in the vanguard, at the front, the infantry behind and the guns taking up the rear. The problem here was that Hawley apparently failed to account for the fact that horses were heavier than people. The dragoons churned up the route of march, making life difficult for the infantry and impossible for the artillery. The government army sought to gain the ridge south of Falkirk but things had already started to fall apart.
The gunners, who so far had been struggling through the mud to get their pieces into action, became stuck as the gradient of the slope became too much for them. The dragoons and infantry pressed on without them and deployed across the ridge facing west.
The government forces were arranged with all of the dragoons in the front line on the left flank, the infantry in two lines occupying the centre-left to the extreme right.
The Jacobites were deployed almost exactly opposite, their Highland regiments in the front line with lowlanders and others in reserve.
It was at this moment that Hawley lost the battle.
Hawley was 60 years old. He’d been at Sheriffmuir with the dragoons 30 years previously during the first Jacobite rising and had formed the opinion that Highlanders were no match for them.
However in doing so, he underestimated the current Jacobites and was dutifully ignoring the Jacobite success at Presonpans. It is clear that once again, the dragoons were in far from optimal conditions with the mud, the darkness and the bad weather, just like at Clifton Moor. Only this time it was worse as their guns hadn't made it to the line.
Still, 60 year old men sticking resolutely to opinions they formed half a lifetime ago in spite of evidence to the contrary is not a phenomenon confined to the 21st century and Hawley was convinced the Highlanders would not stand against his dragoons.
At 4pm, the government dragoons attacked the clansmen opposite.
Neither the ground nor their training permitted them to charge but nevertheless, they advanced into the dark and the driving snow.
Lord George Murray had taken personal command of the Highland regiments on the left and, with a steadiness and resolve that would typify later British infantry, waited until the dragoons were “within pistol shot” then gave the command to fire. A single volley scattered three regiments of dragoons who promptly turned and fled. The clansmen, in typical fashion, threw down their guns, drew their swords, and charged.
The government infantry behind the dragoons took that as their cue and fled as well. Within minutes, the only government troops left standing were those on the right flank behind the ravine. The ground immediately in front of the Jacobite army was not conducive to a highland charge so the fighting there became an exchange of musketry which the better trained government troops had the better of.
However, they quickly realised that their left flank had collapsed and that Jacobite clansmen were milling about in the blizzard ready to fall on them at any moment and they realised they were in far too precarious a position. With that, they too fled.
Despite a retreat from England, the Jacobite army was far from spent and the martial spirit of the Highland clansmen made them a far more formidable opponent than simple numbers or circumstance may suggest. This was one hard learned lesson that Lieutenant General Henry “Hangman” Hawley would not soon forget.