Saturday, February 2, 2013

Meet Basking Ridge's patriot nobleman: Lord Stirling, William Alexander

Driving around parts of Somerset County, you'd be excused for thinking that everything's named "Lord Stirling," because you see it all over the place. There's a park, an apartment complex, stables, a school and even a town with the name. It long led me to wonder "Why in heck did a guy with a British title get so many things named after him?" It all sounded way too much like the product of some English loyalist who ruled a country dominion.

William Alexander, Lord Stirling
by Bass Otis
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Lord Stirling was New York-born William Alexander. He claimed title in the Peerage of Scotland as a descendant of the grandfather of the first Earl of Stirling, perhaps attempting to gain control of the vast land grant that would have come with it. While his claim wasn't validated by the British House of Lords, Alexander continued to use the title, making for what must have eventually been an interesting public relations dilemma for King George.

The land would have been a nice bonus, but Alexander had little to worry about when it came to supporting himself. His mother was a successful merchant, and when he saw the opportunity, he expanded the business to supply the British military during the French and Indian War. Well known in society, he married Sarah Livingston, whose brother William later became the first state governor of New Jersey. (You'll recall the long reach of the Livingston family from our visit to Liberty Hall in Elizabethtown.) The couple had a house in Manhattan, which they sold after building a large estate on 1000 acres in what became Basking Ridge.

Alexander made the most of his New Jersey property, cultivating over 2000 grape vines to support the growth of the winemaking industry in the New World. He also once owned the land that's now known as Sterling Hill in Ogdensburg, but his attempts at iron mining ended up pretty much as Edison's did more than 100 years later, expensive but largely fruitless. He also played his lordship to the hilt, reportedly amassing a huge wardrobe and riding around town in an ornate coach emblazoned with the family crest.

What did any of this have to do with a PR problem for King George? As colonists grew more and more frustrated with British rule, Alexander stood firmly with the patriots. Already a colonel in the New Jersey militia, he'd drawn from his considerable wealth to outfit those who volunteered to serve under him. Considering that and the fact that George Washington was a close family friend, it's not surprising that Alexander agreed to join the Continental Army, becoming the only American brigadier general to claim a title.

Alexander led troops in several pivotal battles in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania between 1776 and 1778, but his defining moment took place during the Battle of Long Island. Outnumbered 25 to one, the troops under his command held the British long enough for the other Continentals to escape to safety. Alexander himself was captured and later freed as part of a prisoner exchange, his valor and audacity recognized by military on both sides. He was elevated to major general, with future president James Monroe serving as his aide-de-camp.

Amid the huzzahs, however, were brickbats from our old reliable, Aaron Burr. It's commonly known that Lord Stirling enjoyed a good glass of wine (or several), but according to Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, Burr outright stated that "Monroe's whole duty was to fill his lordship's tankard and hear, with indications of admiration, his lordship's long stories about himself."

Whether Burr's assessment was accurate or not, it's clear that Alexander held the trust of Washington and the admiration of his troops. He might have been full of himself -- who knows? -- but the new country got more from his service than he profited from his position. After being named commanding officer of the northern troops in 1781, Alexander died of gout, his fortune gone and his feats of bravery apparently forgotten not long after.

Except in Basking Ridge, it seems. His estate was sold to pay his debts, and the house was eventually torn down, but much of his property is now a Somerset County park named in his honor. Adjacent to the larger Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, it offers an environmental education center and an extensive trail system, as well as a horse stable. One of our readers also pointed out that the County holds a Lord Stirling 1770s festival each fall, featuring tours, period-appropriate demonstrations and specimens from an archaeological dig of the property.

One more note on Alexander: given his military feats and those of his descendants, one might consider him the original in a line of "Jersey sons of a gun." Several male descendants of his daughter also distinguished themselves in military service, most notably Hidden New Jersey favorite, Civil War General Philip Kearny. The longer I study prominent New Jerseyans, the more fascinating the connections get.

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