Walkabout: Lord Stirling’s War

Montrose is on vacation this week. If you missed it before, please enjoy learning how Sterling Place got its name:

As everyone knows, most of the named streets in our fair city are named after famous people, of one kind or another. We’ve got presidents, pastors, politicians, founders, prominent families and military men. Some of these people are quite interesting in their own right, and the stories of how they got streets named after them are often quite interesting, as well. One of the most interesting is stories involves Sterling Place, which runs from Park Slope through Crown Heights, running from 5th Avenue to East New York Avenue.

Sterling Place used to be called Butler Street, and traveling from Gregory Place, just west of 5th Avenue, to Court Street, it still is. The name change came twice, once in 1873, when Butler Street between 5th and Flatbush was changed to Sterling Place, and later in 1897, when the name was extended out to East New York Avenue. But who was Sterling, and why name a street after him?

It turns out, Sterling Place really should be “Stirling Place”, as the street was named after William Alexander, the self-appointed “Lord Stirling”, a general in the Continental Army, and a hero of the Revolutionary War. But Americans don’t have titles, especially English gentry’s titles, especially after a war of independence from England and their aristocracy. So what makes “Lord Stirling” so special?

He was actually born here, in New York City, in 1726, to wealthy parents, and was very, very distantly related to the last Lord of Stirling, of the Peerage of Scotland. He joined the British army during the French and Indian Wars, and became aide-de-camp to Governor William Shirley of New York. When Shirley was called back to England, in 1756, to answer charges of dereliction of duty, Alexander came with him.

While he was there, he discovered that the title of “Lord Stirling” was unclaimed, so as the senior male descendant of the grandfather of the first Lord Stirling, he claimed the title, and voted in an election of Scottish Peers. Unfortunately for him, the British House of Lords never validated the title, as Alexander didn’t have the paperwork or provenance to prove his claim, but he didn’t care. He would call himself Lord Stirling for the rest of his life.

Aside from the perks of having peasants tug their caps when you passed, and being called “Milord” and “Your Lordship”, Alexander was really interested in the land claims the House of Stirling had in North America. As the Earl of Stirling, he would have claim to much of the New England coast, parts of Nova Scotia, and the entire St. Lawrence River valley.

To make the claim even more legit, he partnered with the nephews of the last Earl of Stirling. By the arcane British laws of title and inheritance, they were farther away from the Earldom than he was, so this was a win-win, had it succeeded. It was tied up in the courts forever, and nothing came of it, in the long run.

In 1761, William Alexander came back to America, now Lord Stirling. He took the job of Surveyor-General for the Province of New Jersey, and was on the Provincial Council. He was also one of the founders of King’s College, which would later become Columbia University, and was its first governor. He was friends with the important and notable, dabbled in agriculture and mining, and generally lived it up like a Scottish laird. He built a house in Basking Ridge, NJ, and sold his house in New York City.

Although he was wealthy, he wasn’t Scottish lord wealthy, and he began to go into debt to finance his lifestyle. In spite of that, he was friends with people like George Washington, who did spend the night at his home several times, and even gave Stirling’s daughter away at her wedding. Then war broke out.

When the Revolutionary War began, Lord Stirling’s allegiances were with the Americans, title or no title. He was made a colonel in the New Jersey militia, and given troops. He paid for the outfitting of his men out of his own pocket, and was never cheap in supporting the cause. Early on he caught the notice of the Continental Congress, when he and his volunteers captured an armed British transport. The Congress made him a brigadier general in March of 1776, and by August, he was in Brooklyn, leading the 1st Maryland Regiment in the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn.

The 1st Maryland took heavy losses, fighting the British and their Hessian allies at the Old Stone House in Gowanus. But Stirling led them well, and their bravery in battle held the British back long enough to allow George Washington and most of his troops to escape to Brooklyn Heights, then across the East River to Manhattan, and then on to safety.

He was captured in the battle, but his bravery impressed even the enemy forces, and he was widely referred to as the “bravest man in America” by Washington and the British. He was eventually released in a prisoner exchange, was promoted, and became one of General Washington’s most able and trusted generals.

He would go on to command and win battles at Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. He lost at Short Hills, and in a raid on Staten Island, but throughout, he showed bravery, intelligence and prudence. Stirling even uncovered a plot in 1780, by disaffected officers, called the Conway Cabal, who sought to overthrow Washington, and replace him with General Horatio Gates.

He never wasted his men on futile attacks or poorly thought-out strategies. Washington trusted him enough that he gave him command of the northern part of the army, while he took his army south in 1781. Ironically, throughout all of the war, he was called “Lord Stirling” by both Washington and his men.

Lord Stirling took up residence in Albany, in charge of half of the army, but not in charge of his health. He had long been a heavy drinker, and it had taken its toll. He had severe gout and rheumatism, and he was quite ill when he got to Albany, and never really recovered. He died there in January of 1783, only months before the end of the war. It is probably because of this early death that he is not better known, which is a shame, as he was quite an important figure in the Revolutionary War. He’s buried at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.

The proximity of the Battle of Brooklyn site to the then “Butler Street” prompted city fathers to name the street after Lord Stirling, as evidenced by a Brooklyn Eagle story in 1902 which talked about the confusion of not having the entire length of the street named Stirling. As there was a section named Butler to begin with, then a short Sterling Place, then the resumption of Butler Street after Flatbush Avenue. The article also mentioned that “Stirling” had become “Sterling” very early on, and was due to a clerk’s error in listing the street. As this was government, a study had to be done to determine this, even back in 1902.

Today, Sterling Place is now best known for the horrific and tragic plane crash that took place in Park Slope in 1960, when 134 people died when two planes crashed over 7th Avenue and Sterling Place. The would-be lord of the manor, and brilliant general in our country’s war for independence, is almost totally forgotten. But then, most people don’t know who Montgomery, Garfield, Carroll or Polhemus are, either.

(Photo: S.Spellen)

Lord Stirling portrait: New York State Historical Society

Lord Stirling portrait: New York State Historical Society

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