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Prestonpans: What really happened?



Book readers and history buffs know the outcome of the Battle of Prestonpans, which is the focus on Outlander, Episode 210.  If you don’t know, then there may be a little spoiler here.

Initially known as the Battle of Gladsmuir, the Battle of Prestonpans, fought on September 21, 1745, was the first battle of the second Jacobite Rising.  The Jacobite army, consisting of loyal followers of James Francis Edward Stuart and led by his son, Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), met and defeated England’s King George’s forces led by Sir John Cope.  The victory was a huge morale boost for the Jacobite army.

How did the Jacobites win the Battle of Prestonpans?

“On September 20, Cope’s forces encountered Charles’ advance guard.  Cope decided to stand his ground and engage the Jacobite army.  He drew up his army facing south with a marshy ditch to their front and the park walls around Preston House protecting their right flank.  A Highlander supporter, Robert Anderson, was a local farmer’s son who knew the area well and convinced Charles’ Lieutenant General, Lord George Murray, of an excellent narrow route through the marshlands.  Commencing at 4:00 a.m., he moved the entire Jacobite force, walking three abreast along that route, known as the Riggonhead Defile, in silence, arriving to the east of Cope’s army at Seton West Mains.  Although Cope kept fires burning and posted picket during the night as the Highlanders were making their move, they were not spotted by the pickets until around 5:00 a.m.

“At 6:00 a.m., as dawn broke on September 21, 1745, Cope’s foot soldiers and dragoons beheld the spectacle of some 2000 Highlanders charging through the early mist, making ‘wild war cries and with the blood-curdling skirl of the pipes.’

“Cope’s inexperienced army had just wheeled round from facing south to facing east in great haste but could only fire their cannons and muskets just once before the Highlanders were upon them.  They they fled, despite Cope and his officers’ attempts to force them at pistol point to make a stand.  Cope’s army, facing east to confront the Jacobites, now had the ditch to their south and the walls of Preston House to the west behind them, blocking their panicked retreat.

“The ‘battle engagement’ was all over in less than fifteen minutes with hundreds of government troops killed or wounded and 1500 taken prisoner as the redcoats fled the field.  The Hanoverian baggage train at Cockenzie was captured with only a single shot fired, and it contained £5000, many muskets, and ammunition.  The Highlanders suffered less than 100 troops killed or wounded.  The wounded and prisoners were given the best care possible at Prince Charles’ insistence.”

Their good fortune would not hold when the Jacobite army met British troops, led by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, in their final confrontation at Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746.



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