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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 next day word reached headquarters that Smith was in trouble, and Mackenzie went out with a relief force under Lord Percy. It was probably no accident that the able Mackenzie was given the most dangerous assignment of the afternoon—command of the rear guard in the long, galling retreat—and it was characteristic of the man that even after that gruelling, anxious day he should return to quarters and record his observations of the harried flight from Lexington and Concord while events were still fresh in his mind. It had been a costly, humiliating defeat, yet Mackenzie was not one to carp or blame; he noted simply that Gage had been the victim of faulty information and stated his conviction that “an Officer of more activity than Col o Smith, should have been selected for the Command of the troops destined for this service.” To supplement his relation of the events the indefatigable Mackenzie copied a map drawn by a fellow officer, showing the positions of the armies at Concord, and pasfed this into his diary.
After the British evacuated Boston, Mackenzie served as Major of Brigade under General William Howe in Halifax, returning to New York in August of 1776, where he was appointed deputy adjutant-general of the army. Here, again, he was to shed some light on events while participating in several of the great British victories of the war. After Howe landed troops at Kip’s Bay on Manhattan Island, threatening to trap the rebels still remaining in the city of New York, the general was delayed—the tale goes—by Mrs. Robert Murray, who invited Howe for luncheon at her house on Murray Hill. While the British general and his army were detained by this accomplished hostess Israel Putnam marched four thousand Americans up the west side of the island to safety. Or so legend has it. But Mackenzie tells a different story. After the Kip’s Bay landing the troops formed, according to Mackenzie, and “advanced to Murray’s hill (or Ingleberg) an advantageous piece of ground,” where they waited until the second division “were landed at Kipp’s Bay about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. General Howe [then] made a movement with the greatest part of the army towards Haerlem.” As he so often did, Howe took his own good time, waiting until all of his troops were ready; but the delay was his idea, not that of an attractive rebel sympathizer.
By the fall of 1776 Howe had chased Washington’s army into Westchester, and the only rebel foothold on Manhattan Island was Fort Washington, where vast amounts of irreplaceable cannon, ammunition, food, and other supplies were stored, watched over by a garrison of several thousand soldiers. One night a rebel deserter named William Demont slipped through the British lines and was brought to Captain Mackenzie for an interview. As Mackenzie tells it, Demont described the “great dissensions in the Rebel Army, everybody finding fault with the mode of proceeding, and the inferior officers, even Ensigns, insisting that, in such a cause, every man has a right to assist in Council, and to give his opinion. … The people from the Southern Colonies declare that they will not go into New-England, and the others that they will not march to the southward.” Demont’s estimate of the situation was all too true, and after talking to the deserter Mackenzie concluded that the rebels “must soon go to pieces.” This was undoubtedly the burden of his report to Howe—a report that probably triggered the general’s decision to move against the fort at once.
On November 16 the Fort Washington garrison surrendered after a heroic but unequal fight, and as the beaten rebels marched out they were stripped of their clothes by Hessians. Mackenzie, watching this scene, was ashamed of Britain’s allies. The rebels had no right to expect mild treatment, he realized, but he liked to think that “it is right to treat our Enemies as if they might one day become our friends.” He was a plain-speaking, honorable man who regarded magnanimity in victory as a distinguishing characteristic of British troops.
Late that fall Mackenzie boarded ship along with some six thousand British under the command of Henry Clinton and set sail for Newport, Rhode Island, which they took without opposition. For three years this force remained there—surely a frustrating experience to a man like Mackenzie. As the English historian George Trevelyan described the operation, “For any effect which they produced upon the general result of the war, they might have been as usefully, and much more agreeably, billeted in the town of the same name in the Isle of Wight.” Even so, Mackenzie’s record of that time and place is of considerable interest; everything he saw is described in remarkable detail, and his is one of the few existing personal narratives written from a British perspective, including maps, drawings of landmarks, and a full account of the rebels’ capture of the British general Richard Prescott—who was to be exchanged for General Charles Lee.
In 1781 Mackenzie was back in New York—still removed from the scenes of climactic action but dutifully recording the news of headquarters and the tidings from Virginia, where Lord Cornwallis found himself abandoned in the sleepy village of Yorktown.