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Men Of The Revolution: 15. Frederick Mackenzie
Much of our knowledge about the British conduct of the war comes from Mackenzie’s eight volumes of diaries and drawings, including accounts of some of the critical early battles of the Revolution.
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
The son of a Dublin merchant and his Huguenot wife, Mackenzie first appears in view about 1745, when he received a commission in the 23rd Regiment—the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Promoted to captain thirty years later in Boston, he became a major in 1780 and in 1787 transferred from his old regiment to become lieutenant colonel of the 37th Foot. (It would be interesting to know how he came into the wealth to purchase that commission. Did an unforeseen inheritance fall into his hands after all the lean years?) Sometime later he went on half pay and surfaces again in 1794, with England poised for the expected invasion by Napoleon’s troops, when Mackenzie raised and commanded the ist Exeter Volunteers. Subsequently he was Assistant Barrack-Master General at army headquarters and Secretary of the Royal Military College, and in 1824 he died. His birth date is not known, but if he was only fifteen years old at the time he received his first commission, he was an old, old man at his death—well into his nineties. We do not even know when his portrait was painted, but he was evidently a man of some years, and since the artist shows him in civilian clothes, the picture must have been done after his retirement from the army. Even so, this is still a face to make a subordinate leap to attention for fear of what those penetrating eyes might discern or of what that steel trap of a mouth might utter.
Mackenzie was obviously a fellow of considerable intelligence, with an orderly mind and a keen eye for details. He had the happy facility of reporting events candidly (probably because he intended the record only for himself and his family), and he set down what he had actually seen, sprinkling the account with personal observations, speculating on matters that concerned him as a soldier.
In addition to the diaries, a surviving letter to his father-suggests the range and detail of his interests. It is as full an account of the rigors of an Atlantic crossing by troopship as a parent or a historian could desire, filled with descriptive passages of the nightmarish seven-week voyage. Writing from New York on June 29, i773, Mackenzie tells his father that at least two children died during the voyage; that the ship sprang her mainmast; that they had only one day of fair winds between April 25 and June 9. Mackenzie’s wife and two daughters were obliged to share a cabin measuring 7x7x7 feet with two other women and another child. One of the women was seasick for the entire seven weeks; she exacted her vengeance on her maid, “a little, dirty, Scotch girl” who also shared the cabin, by throwing things at her and scolding her constantly, and on her husband by berating him every time he showed up to comfort her. Her child, who swung in a hammock eighteen inches above her head, cried violently every morning at four. The cabin had a single window one foot square, opening onto a stairway, and Mackenzie feared lest the occupants suffocate for lack of air.
Describing his impressions of New York, Mackenzie tells of the extraordinary number of blacks he saw (“I believe one fourth of the Inhabitants are Negros, and Mullatoes”); he comments on the currency (all of it Spanish) and the price of lodging; then he lists in detail the meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and fresh fruit available—complete with prices and comments on the quality (“Veal, 3d. some very fine as ever I saw … Ducks, is. a couple … Lobsters in surprizing quantities, for 1½d. per pound … Pine apples as large as a quart Mug, for 6d. each … Raspberries about 4d. a quart … Milk ud. a quart. No cream.”).
He was “pretty certain of remaining here two or three years,” Mackenzie observed, “unless something extraordinary happens; our future destination is quite uncertain.” The “something extraordinary” occurred long before the several years were out; in August of 1774 the Royal Welch Fusiliers were summoned to Boston by General Thomas Gage, who was increasingly alarmed by the activities of the rebels in that town.
Although Mackenzie was personally involved in numerous engagements during the war, his significance lies more in what he can tell us than in what he did. As an eyewitness to the tumultuous scenes in Boston he provided, for example, the most complete and detailed account of Dr. Joseph Warren’s inflammatory oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, delivered in the Old South Church in 1775. As adjutant of the aSrd Regiment he saw action on the opening day of the Revolution and gave us the only narrative by a participant in the embarkation of the Concord expedition. On the night of April 18, 1775, Mackenzie led several of his companies to their appointed rendezvous with Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, who was to command the march on Concord. Smith was notoriously slow and incompetent; he and the other troops were late; and Mackenzie, a stickler for promptitude, was dismayed by the laggardly start of the expedition and by the lack of an embarkation officer to take charge of loading troops aboard the boats assigned them. He loaded his two companies; troops from other regiments followed his lead; and then the men floated idly about in the tidal basin of the Charles River until Lieutenant Colonel Smith made his appearance.