How Loudoun County got its name: The shameful story of Lord Loudoun

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The recent news that most of western Loudoun has been proposed as a “Mosby Heritage Area” stirred to life an old curiosity of mine about the origins of the name of our county. Lord Loudoun, so it turns out, never even visited Virginia though he had been named our governor. But that was the least of his sins. Despite being in America for only two short years, from 1756 when he was appointed military commander of all the British troops in North America to 1758 when he was fired, he managed to leave quite a trail of debris behind him. And because our county was formed in 1757, we got stuck with his name.

John Campbell, a wealthy scots aristocrat, became the fourth Earl of Loudoun and thus “Lord Loudoun” upon the death of his father. The young earl showed his military prowess during the royalist uprising of 1745 when according to one historian he “had demonstrated his professionalism by marching undauntedly from one defeat to another.” After losing almost all the men of his regiment, he received another regiment and lost again at Inverness. At a third battle he was “throne into a panic by the bluffing of a blacksmith and other four,” and then in a move which would become his trademark and motto bided his time sitting out the war till after the Battle of Culloden. He was described by Massachusetts Governor Shirley as “a pen and ink man whose greatest energies were put forth in getting ready to begin.” Ten years later, after Braddock’s army was destroyed during the French and Indian War, due to his social standing and his attention to bureaucratic niceties, this “master of army paper work, this general of the pen” was appointed to save British America from the French. To list all of his military disasters and stupid decisions would be enough to make you wonder how the British ever won any war. Only the superior incompetence of their enemy, the French, made victory even a remote possibility.

Loudoun’s arrival in North America was characteristically delayed but quickly followed by his first blunder. Ignoring the advice of the local colonials like George Washington, who had accompanied Braddock and seen what the French and Indians could do to British regulars, Loudoun did nothing to fortify the remaining western forts. Warned that Oswego was in danger of falling, Loudoun went to Albany, as near as he could get to the war front, and promptly got bogged down in a dispute over the purchase of provisions. While he haggled, Oswego fell to the French. While encamped at Albany, Loudoun’s most notable act was to issue an order putting the colonial militias under British commanders despite explicit agreements that the colonial troops would fight under their own leaders. This lead to a long period of political wrangling during which no fighting could take place. Loudoun’s one strategic move, again against local advice, was to abandon the face off in the western frontier and to gather his troops instead to take the French seaport fort of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, far from the scene of the actual fighting. Preparations for this were long and difficult and delayed. “Bumblingly true to form,” as one historian noted, “Loudoun dithered while the French concentrated a fleet at Louisbourg superior to theirs.” Instead of attacking the fort when he could, Loudoun had his men exercise and plant cabbage in preparation for a long siege. Eventually, he was forced to abandon the entire effort and return to New York without firing a shot. Meanwhile, the French, seeing their opportunity, attacked the weakened British forts on the Western frontier. As predicted by the colonials, Fort William Henry was overrun and taken. After Loudoun was recalled, Benjamin Franklin himself declared his campaigns to have been “frivolous, expensive, and disgraceful to our nation beyond conception.” He was, said Franklin, always busy but accomplishing nothing: “He was like St. George on a tavern sign, always on horseback and never riding on.”

 

Loudoun and American Independence

We can be proud, in a backward sort of way, that the man after whom our fair county is named, whatever his military mishaps, had a very important hand in forming some of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. John Campbell, the Scottish aristocrat and officer who held the title Lord Loudoun, became titular Governor of Virginia and supreme commander of all the British forces in North America after the disastrous defeat of Braddock in the French and Indian Wars. He was, by all historical accounts, not only the most inept, the most incompetent, the most arrogant, and the most sluggish, but also the most tyrannical agent of the British crown that American colonials ever suffered under. Among his many crimes was Loudoun’s insistence that the colonial governments quarter his troops, that is put them up in their taverns and barracks, and if no room was available there to force them upon private citizens in their homes.

Loudoun’s insistence on this was an early warning to many that the King’s subjects in the colonies did not have the rights of of other Englishmen. In those days, the British army was made up the scum of society. Soldiers were often “recruited” from jails, poorhouses, or from the cities’ streets. They were known for their barbarity and brutality, and were rightly feared by the populace. One historian described the Americans’ horror at quartering these “lewd and vicious outcasts of society,” by asking, “How could a respectable churchgoing head of family expose his wife and daughters to depraved men in such intimacy that intercourse daily might result in intercourse nightly?” Nevertheless, to every colonial assembly’s refusal to allow such quartering in their communities, Loudoun bullied and threatened until he got his way. The Quakers of Pennsylvania tried to resist without success. In New York, when the colonial government refused to allow him to quarter his troops, he responded “G_D D__n my blood! If you do not billet my officers upon free quarters this day, I’ll order here all the troops in North America under my command, and billet them myself upon this city.” This threat worked so well that he then used it in Boston. There, the government, more willing to spend money to avoid disaster, had built barracks. But Loudoun wanted his officers to live in comfort in town. When the Bostonians insisted that there was adequate space in the barracks they had built, Loudoun wrote, “If on return I find things not settled, I will instantly order into Boston the three battalions from New York, Long Island, and Connecticut. If more are wanted I have two in the Jerseys, at hand besides those in Pennsylvania.” Such behavior was bad enough, but in order to find soldiers, Loudoun kidnapped unwilling citizens right off the cities’ streets. In one notorious impressment campaign, he sent in his troops at midnight and dragged 800 men at random, almost a fourth of the male population, out of their homes and off the streets of New York to fight in his Louisbourg Campaign. And then, of course, he bided his time for so long that he never got around to using them. Twenty years later, 1n 1776, such tyrannical behavior as that represented by these and other “quartering acts” was still a painful memory. It was because of the highhanded behavior of Brits like Lord Loudoun that the colonials were driven to rebel. And they remembered him when the Declaration was written. According to one eminent historian of the era, “When they published their Declaration of Independence in 1776, some of their grievances had arisen relatively recently, but others can be traced back to Earl Loudoun’s mission and behavior.”

Loudoun the man

Lord Loudoun can best be understood as a representative of the British aristocratic class of the 1700s. He lived in an age when ones family name and title were the guarantees of power and privilege. No amount of stupidity, venality, or licentiousness could reduce the benefits of having been born into a noble family. Thus, when John Campbell became Lord Loudoun, his military career was set, no matter that he proved himself incompetent. Money also helped, choice positions in the army being for sale to the highest aristocratic bidder. So his title, his family money, and his connections, not his ability or brains, shaped his career. Most historians have noted his attention to detail. Indeed, it was this slow and deliberate approach to every problem which made him so often late to so many battles. But there was a fun-loving side to Lord Loudoun too. Like most of the members of his social class, he enjoyed the creature comforts. When he finally set sail for North America in 1756, already months overdue, he took with him wine, silverware, dinner plate and other essentials such as two secretaries, a surgeon, seventeen personal servants, including, according to his doting biographer, Stanley Pargellis, “a ‘matter de hotel,’a ‘vallet de chamber’, a cook, a groom, a coachman, a postilon, a footmen, helpers, and two women, one of them, Jean Masson, his mistress.” He also remembered to bring his own nineteen horses “with their housings of green velvet and of black and gold, his travelling coach, his chariot, his street coach.” Every evening, when he wasn’t travelling, Loudoun hosted a full dinner table. At his first Christmas in the colonies, they consumed in one week nineteen dozen bottles of claret, thirty-one dozen of Madeira, a dozen of Burgundy, four bottles of Port, and eight of Rhinewine. According to the usually protective Pargellis, the conversation of these military leaders “abounded in the application of such military terms as scaling ladders, approaches, and stolen marches, to the conquest of colonial beauties. Of these the loveliest was charming Polly Philipse, heiress to Philipse Manor, in whose ‘Dependent Company’ no British officer with a spark of manhood in him failed at one time or another to enlist. Even Loudoun ‘muster’d occasionally.'” Such behavior disgusted the sober Puritans and Quakers, irritated the practical and parsimonious politicians like Ben Franklin, and outraged many other church-going colonials. Loudoun didn’t care. He ridiculed the colonials as “enthusiastic saints” and demonstrated his respect for religion by seizing one Dutch church, removing the pews, and using it for a powder magazine. The ever-forgiving Pargellis notes that though Loudoun and his aides might consider it diplomatic to attend church on occasion, “the army in general reflected the spiritual apathy of some parts of the eighteenth-century Church of England.” That, of course, is putting it mildly. When the colonials revolted, they were, according to our foremost Revolutionary War historian Gordon Wood, rejecting the whole aristocratic world of corrupt privilege of which Loudoun was so excellent an example. After the revolution, the few remnants of that world slowly disappeared in the North. The South, still loyal to the likes of Lord Loudoun, tried to maintain a shadow feudalism, a kind of bumpkin aristocracy based on slavery. But even that was finally conquered in the Civil War. Today, in Loudoun County, there remains of that world only a few proud aging Virginia Gentlemen, would-be lords sitting on the surviving acres of their family estates in solitary glory. When the developers turn their farms into malls and townhouses, only the name of Loudoun will remain to remind us of the not-so-glorious past.

-Dr. Dave Williams (this originally appeared in “The Blue Ridge Leader”)