Culloden: Anatomy of a Battle.

Bonnie Prince Charlie cheered by his troops. The dash and intelligence of the ’45 campaign went out the window at Culloden. Painting by the author.

So far we’ve seen how it happened, we’ve seen why it happened, and we’ve seen what lead up to it. But what were the keys to victory and indeed the reasons for the defeat at Culloden?

Although his description of Culloden leaves much to be desired, Allan Mallinson does observe with his customary eye for soldierly conduct the key aspects that won Cumberland the day.

“The Forty-Five was yet another demonstration of the superiority of well-trained regulars, the devastating effect of volley fire, the winning factor of logistics, and the ‘force multiplier’… of the Royal Navy’s close support” [1]
Mallinson also noted the effectiveness of the Royal Artillery in provoking the disorganised charge that began the battle. And I think a separate post is required to deal with the role of the navy in fighting the Jacobites. Yet, despite this admirable summation he credits Cumberland with the abilities of an “Able General” [2] which given his record would seem to be at odds with fact. What is true is that Cumberland was an able General when confronting an opponent that relied almost entirely on his enemy making a mistake. Though we may grant his preparations were superb, Culloden was the Duke’s only battlefield victory.
From this we are presented with the basic elements of the victory, well directed artillery fire supported by disciplined infantry volleys fired by regular troops steady enough to use their bayonets.

First let’s look at the ground.
The position chosen by Colonel O’Sullivan was much against the wishes of Lord George Murray, but while Murray’s objections are famous in their criticism of the ground, Lord George’s own choice at Dalcross was little better, if not worse. The argument that the land was too flat ignores the fact that the highlanders had fought on a flat at Prestonpans, the argument that it benefitted the enemy cavalry ignores the fact that at Prestonpans and Falkirk the highlanders and beaten the Regular dragoons. What was different about Culloden was the state of the ground and the lack of surprise.

Culloden Moore was a common stretch of rough grazing land, devoid of trees and with much less heather than you see nowadays, it was described as a “plain field” and abutted the larger Drumossie Moor. It forms part of an exposed 150m ASL upland spur that rises gradually from the Moray Firth and then descends steeply to the water of Nairn. It takes its name from the nearby estate of Culloden House which stood on its north western fringe. The House was serviced by a Mains, the walled park of which more or less marked the northern edge of the battlefield where the Jacobite left flank rested. A good thousand yards from here to the southeast stood a farmstead called Culchunaig which lay upon the edge of a large livestock enclosure that bore the name Culwhiniac. On the other side of the Farm ran a small feeder that trickled into the River Nairn through a gully, starting approximately North east of Balvraid Farm, deep in the rear of the Jacobite army. The Culwhiniac enclosure was built out of stone, approximately 6 feet in height, the walls forming an irregular hourglass shape that ran another thousand yards or so down to the Nairn. Just over from this on its eastern side was a horseshoe of packed earth and turf which took the name of the nearby croft known as Leanach. Following a basic line diagonally from the edge of Culloden Park to Leanach ran the old Moor road, this was a significant feature because it betrayed the lie of the ground.
The moor has a subtle camber that is not always discernible to the naked eye, it being deceptively higher at Culchunaig and Leanach by a matter of degrees than it is at the level of the parks. When roads were built in the past, the planners generally routed them across ridges and areas of elevation to ensure they didn’t eventually wash away or flood. Thus by observing even this simple road a person could see where the ground was firmest. What this indicates is the direction of drainage, water was carried slowly from the plateau of the moor towards the firth and collected in great boggy pools as it filters down the gradual shelves of elevation. But the table is so shallow that over time the constant saturation resulted in deep bogs that in wet weather and winter extended from the middle of the field all the way out to the line of the parks. Make no mistake, you’d not end up dry shod walking along the side of Culwhiniac either but here the land falls away into a steeper decent to the valley of the Nairn, but at least you won’t end up knee deep in a peat bog.
Strategically speaking this featureless landscape offers equal advantages to an army, but on the whole it was devoid of any special significance except that it was possible to block the way to Inverness by jamming troops in between Culloden Park and Culchunaig. The walled parks and enclosures might to an active mind have offered the possibility of defence, but it would be hard to differentiate it from many other spans of common ground between Nairn and Inverness, had the battle been fought two miles in either direction the difference would’ve been minimal.
Let us end this description by mentioning advantage. Some authors have written that the ground inordinately favoured the British forces, due to the open terrain where their cavalry and artillery could operate effectively. Personally I’ve not been able to understand why this would be so. Both horse and guns require solid, dry ground to be properly effective and we can go into that later, but suffice to say the Moor’s unsuitability was not to do with these factors.
The physical terrain affected the battle in two main ways. First the bogs. The Jacobite front line ran along for almost half of their extent from Mackontosh’s Regiment to the MacDonalds, probably over 500 yards. When the centre reached first truly boggy pools some swerved to the right, and followed the line of the road along the firmer ground leading them into the left of the Stuart’s of Appin and mixing with them into a larger mass. The rest did not make contact. The Jacobite left flank was made up of 3 battalions of MacDonald’s. Now they had been stubborn about obeying orders up until the attack thus the right flank had already moved closer to the enemy and the Jacobite line was thus swept back somewhat [3]. When the order came to charge the MacDonalds did so but as they approached the centre of the field they encountered knee deep bogs and were unable to progress to contact. However the state of the ground did prevent the government cavalry from entering the fray until the Jacobite infantry were broken. The second effect was the walls of Culwhiniac. Belatedly troops were directed towards it, but by that time the Highlanders under Ballimore had broken through them and had opened another passage out the other side so Hawley’s Dragoons cold get into the Jacobite rear. The loyalist highlanders then took up positions behind the walls facing Moor and enfiladed the Clans. However the Culchunaig “re-entrant” or gully when held by even the small force of Jacobite cavalry under Elcho was obstacle enough to keep the enemy horse out of action for the duration of the fighting.

Napoleon said that this element accounts for most of the battle and to put it simply the British troops, rested, fed, confident in their, prowess, drill and their officers had healthy morale while that of their Jacobite opponents had caught a definite chill. The reason for this was Lord George Murray’s infamous night march to Nairn. Over 20 miles through the dark without the benefit of track or road. The army had marched in two divisions, Murray’s in the lead and the Duke of Perth’s following. However Murray was only halfway there at 1.45am and decided to turn back. He did so without telling Perth who ended up taking his position to attack and engaging the enemy picquets before finding out Murray had scarpered. Thus the Jacobites ended up scattered across acres of moorland on the morning of the 16th and received insufficient sleep and absolutely no fresh rations even though there were 10 days worth stored at Inverness. Faction between the three different Jacobite field commanders was also a knock on problem which I’ll mention lower down.

The Jacobite artillery was a fragile thing, it is variously recorded as having fired two salvoes before either running out of suitable ammunition or taking flight [4]. The gunners were not professionals, just amateurs firing 22 imported French and captured British 3 and 4 pounders. Derided for their poor show, these guns did still kill a number of the enemy, in their opening shots. But let us remember the ground. Firm ground is required for roundshot to ricochet properly and care had to be taken that the recoil from the guns did not leave the pieces hopelessly mired in the mud. As it turned out both sides fired high, because they needed the balls to pass directly through the enemies ranks before the first “graze”. It is thought by some [Reid] that the artillery bombardment did not last any more then 15 minutes at most, and that the entire tambour described by some as lasting 30 minutes [5] should be read to include the firing as the Clans charged [6]. The shorter bombardment has an attractive element of reality to it because it presumes that the Highlanders were not mindless idiots to stand like empty headed regulars would and take a pounding. Yet at the same time it shows how troops unused to prolonged artillery fire can be induced to make a false move. The contribution of the Royal Artillery to the victory can therefore not be too clearly stated, and it is highly possible that their provoking fire of roundshot and then of grape when the Jacobites attacked accounted in total for as much as 300 casualties before the first volley was fired by the infantry.

Undoubtedly the winner for Cumberland at Culloden was his musketry and bayonet combination, serving as it did as a highly efficient self contained weapons system allowing the soldier to operate in close and at range. The British privates at Culloden carried the Land Pattern Musket, effective to within 100 yards but only accurate at 50. It was operated en masse and delivered in volleys via a number of systems. The usual method for the mid 18th century army was by platoons, whereby the battalion would be separated (told off) into smaller sections to better manage fire control. These sections were called platoons and were purely tactical. Before going into action a given number of platoons were created and designated a “firing” say one to three. On commencement of the fire, the platoons of the first firing discharged their pieces and began to reload, at which time the second firing delivered theirs and did likewise leaving the third firing to follow suit. Now the first firing would be reloaded and the system would continue. It had the advantage of never leaving the entire regiment unloaded and creating a rolling sequential fire that could be sustained for much longer than volley by ranks or battalions. Yet platooning was difficult to pull off without much practice and was next to useless in dissuading a cold steel attack. Though the system of rank fire was not usually used by the British army General Hawley felt it was the best method to use against the highland charge. Quite simply each rank presents its muskets and fires on the command. Battalion, when the entire line gives its fire simultaneously is even simpler. Munro’s and Barrell’s regiments seem to have used the rank system, yet on the right flank the Royals and Pulteney’s regiments adopted platooning. Volleying by rank failed Barrell’s regiment because it left the battalion unloaded when the charge came in, whereas Munro’s regiment only just had time for its rear ranks to reload and was thus able to use bayonet and ball to repel the attack. In the end the battle was won by the massed muskets of General Huske’s second line who formed a patch over the gap and shot the highland incursion to pieces. Some fine musketry was also to be observed by the French troops of the Jacobite reserve, armed with French Charleville muskets, perhaps 1728 model [7]. The Royal Ecossais were the last formed unit on the field, and adopting the French four rank drill retired by wings delivering their fire alternately, probably by rank or battalion as was the French custom.

Highland targe and broadsword of European or Lowland manufacture said to have been carried in the 1715 rising. But was Culloden really just about cold steel?

Cold steel.
Bayonets and swords are the main concern here, though indeed it was rare for bayonets to be actually used in conventional battle the unique nature of highland warfare unusually saw the British resort to them properly during the battles of the ’45 [8]. Over the last 270 years the British bayonet drill has been credited solely with the victory. To be fair contemporaries thought so too because of the close quarter tactics the highlanders preferred. The National Trust believed it, books have peddle it, and so too does every TV documentary from the 1964 Culloden to Dan and Peter Snow’s British Battles. So what was so special? In point of fact, very little. Bayonet fighting was a crude science in the 18th century. Most military theorists equated it to what had been done with pikes in the 17th century. This required a soldier to perform a movement called “Charge Bayonets”. In 1745 drill manuals advocated a stiff posture highly influenced by Pike drills. On the command “Charge your bayonet breast high” the men drew back their muskets into the crook of the left arm, steadying it along the chest, placing the butt into the palm of the right hand, while the left gasped the stock near the swell. The bayonet thus appeared to protrude out from the shoulder. On the command “Push” (in the 17th century there was both a push your Pike and a charge your Pike) the men took a step forwards, straightening the right leg and thrusting with both hands this projected the bayonet out to the extent that it was almost entirely its own length from the body. An added frill was inserted during the six weeks in Aberdeen prior to Culloden, which was that soldiers were ordered to thrust obliquely across their neighbour to stab at the unguarded ribs of the clansman attacking him. In this way the new drill allowed the men of Barrell’s and Munro’s Regiments to kill or wound a surprising amount of Jacobites and took the punch out of the Highland charge. However don’t think that this effective little method actually won the battle. Consider that for each man in Barrell’s regiment to have killed one or two men each, as one witness testified, would mean that this regiment alone would have accounted for over 600 men. This just isn’t logical as only 750 men were counted dead on the immediate battlefield [9] and the Jacobites had charged through two volleys and at least two salvoes of canister each from at least four guns [10]. No indeed, what is amiss here is the hard truth that the arrival of the charging highlanders wasn’t uniform and made this choreographed defence moot after the first or second push of the bayonet. Records from Chelsea Hospital show that Culloden Veterans were admitted with a preponderance of wounds occurring on the left arm. Indicating that many highlanders observing a soldier stab out at the man beside them did the logical thing, stopped and cut at the exposed arm. Barrell’s Regiment seems to have been fighting according to General Hawley’s instructions prior to Falkirk and delivered their last volley at 10-12 paces. Volley and melee were therefore almost simultaneous as a result because only the front rank can effectively use its bayonets, and the rear ranks being unloaded, the Jacobites cut through their centre. Also of note is the fact that an only an estimated 300 of the charging clansmen might have been armed with swords, the rest all had muskets and polearms as their primary weapon, a bayonet pushed obliquely at a fusilier is only at best going to hit him in the arm. The regiment, when broken, having stubbornly stood firm wheeled aside like a saloon door. Munro’s regiment held firm taking heavy losses on its left flank, having its front rank charge bayonets, and the centre and rear ranks fire over them. The bayonet blunted the highland charge, but did not stop it. Interestingly in the French service the bayonet posture of 1754 “Croïsez la Baïonette” was more efficient and flexible for combat, but then cold steel was much preferred in the Bourbon infantry. Although it’s unlikely as some authors state that the French were using the 1754 drill at this time, they were probably still using the 1703/4 with amendments, I’ve been reliably informed that the following is correct, and indeed the differences are confined to a slightly sharper angle of point in the 1703/4 manual.
The French regulars and Scottish battalions instructed after the Continental manner would hold their muskets in a much more natural pose. Here the right hand does not leave the stock but grips the weapon much as they would to fire it and the left hand close on the swell. The lock is held more or less at belt level with the bayonet angled with some abruptness towards the opponent’s chest or face. This allows a great deal more options and freedom to fight. Wolfe, who served with Hawley at Culloden would alter the British drill during the Quebec campaign to something very similar.

Command and control.
A great boon to Cumberland was that the rivalries of the Jacobite high command played into his hands. O’Sullivan, Charles’ Chief of Staff hated Lt. General Lord George Murray and the feeling was mutual, Lt General the Duke of Perth muddied the waters also by his presence in the mix, let alone the added problem of Prince Charles and the varying clan chiefs.
On the day of the battle there was no clear field commander. Murray and Perth had hitherto been acting as “General’s of the day”, and Murray having commanded on the 15th technically Perth should have had overall tactical command, but Murray tended to take charge in battle and what transpired was that Perth commanded the left and Murray the right. The Prince was of course supreme commander but O’Sullivan and Lord George were unable to work with each other. Murray being in a precious state of mind that day sullenly refused to take any responsibility for anything, while waspishly pointing out what should be done at every opportunity. O’Sullivan and Murray both made alterations to the deployment and reacted accordingly to events without consulting each other leaving Perth to play catchup on the left flank, meanwhile the Prince endowed with that invisible Stuart self confidence that had lost so many causes blithely oversaw the whole show while giving only one definite order the entire day. The miscommunication allowed for morale to become further dented when Murray insisted his battalions of Athollmen form the right of the army. This offended the MacDonalds who proceeded to act like fractious children until the main charge went in and then have suffered the mockery of history ever since because the ground prevented them from closing properly. Meanwhile Cumberland could depend on a slew of professional and capable soldiers all of whom answered to a rigid military hierarchy bred out of service traditions dating back to the Restoration, and thus (usually) rose above personal animosity and put duty first.

Culloden by Morier. Steadiness was the real winner at Culloden, steadiness and a .72 caliber miracle, with bayonet and some guts behind it.

The secret weapon. Steadiness.
I hope that all of this together sums up the essential anatomy of victory and defeat. Cumberland was no military genius but he didn’t have to be. All he needed to do was be an efficient quartermaster, keep his men fed, payed and rested, all of which he did, and them get them in decent order into action. After that it really wasn’t a question of superior firepower or technology, steadiness was the key. When writers speak of veterans they don’t refer to their precision in drill or superhuman courage, green troops can drill as well as veterans can, and be just as courageous. The benefit of discipline and seasoned troops such as Cumberland deployed in the first line at Culloden is dependability, their ability to handle stress. A battalion that will coolly and precisely do what it is told while under attack is worth two larger unsteady units that will be more likely to panic and rush. 18th century fighting was all about stillness and order, the boon of professional troops is that they have nowhere else to be and indeed are being paid to put on a good show. All the bayonet drills in the world would never make up for the hard won experience of the British infantry and artillery who met the highland charge head on and defeated it just because that was what they had been told to do.
Mallinson, Allan. The Making of the British Army
Reid, Stuart. Culloden, Like Hungry Wolves.
Ibid. Prebble,John: Culloden. Harrington, Peter: Culloden. Duffy, Christopher: The ’45.
Reid: Wolves.
Reid: Culloden.
Reid: Wolves.
Duffy, Reid.
Houlding, J. A: French Arms Drill of the 18th century.

2 Replies to “Culloden: Anatomy of a Battle.”

  1. The fact that you cite the now highly discredited Prebble book (his works to do appear on the history reading lists of any major Scottis University) explains some of the highly prejudiced comments in this article. If you have actually read the exhaustive work of Dr. Christopher Duffy – world renowned expert on 18th century warfare and certainly one of the most respected historians of the Battles of the ’45, you would know that no one chose the position at Culloden – the location Sullivan chose was in fact Newlands to the east. On the morning of April 16th, after the disastrous failure of the night march, the Jacobite Army had only two choices – stand to block Cumberland advance into Inverness or let the Government army take Inverness. The position between the walls of Culloden Parks and Culwhiniac was the only choice and did prevent outflanking from the Government Horse. Also, the old saw that the Highlanders were a disarrayed mob wielding swords and axes has long been disproved – see Fight for a Throne and Murray Pittock’s Culloden. Your disparaging comments about Charles Edward and the Stuarts expresses nothing but personal prejudice – The Prince gave a number of orders during the battle, including to Murray to charge before the artillery was in place in the Government centre – which three times Murray refused to obey. If he had, the centre under his comment might not have received the devastating carnage of more than 700 men killed in a few minutes. The Prince also ordered the Irish Piquets to offer cover fire of the fleeing clan Donald at the Culloden Park walls – which saved a significant number from the onslaught of Kingston and Cobham. If you consult the corroborated original sources for the Battle of Falkirk, you will see that Prince Charles was very involved in the command that day and a number of his decisions were extremely effective.

    1. Deborah.

      Though I do cite Prebble, as is the honourable thing as I did use it for a few odd things, it is unfair of you to determine a prejudice merely because I did so. For that neither indicates how much I used the work in question nor does it suggest how much credence I give it.

      It is disappointing that one of your evident experience should employ a strange and petty manner of bibliographic snobbery, which I find the self righteous and unfair. To question wether a writer has ‘read’ a book they cite is the height of incivility.

      There is ample evidence to show that the position at Culloden was indeed chosen by O’Sullivan as the logical place to defend Inverness after the night march, Jacobite commanders had been scouting the areas for days, and I’m well aware there were other places under consideration for a general action. You have read much too much into a very limited survey. Again unfair.

      Where on Earth you plucked the idea that I subscribe to the idea of the highland army being a mob I have no idea. That is wishful thinking on your part, in other posts I’ve stated the current evidence that shows the high number of firearms of the Jacobite force and the creditable discipline of certain Battalions. In this article I don’t think I mention a mob once, nor do I suggest that disorder was prevalent prior to the chaos of the actual close to action.

      Your evident regard for Charles Edward is kind, but unmoving. I admit to writing that he gave only one definitive order during the battle, and in this I will further admit to being a likely exaggeration, however he gave the same order about three times, which in sum amounts to one and I highly doubt any orders he gave to the Battalions of the reserve as the retreat continued can be satisfactorily corroborated. Nevertheless you may depend on a revision on this matter and an acknowledgment, since logic dictates he must have given more directions than repeatedly ordering and questioning why the charge was not occurring, wether we know what they were or not.

      That being said, while I have little regard for the Prince’s capabilities as a General, though he displayed creditable leadership on some occasions, that is hardly something that can be said to be unfair on my part. Especially since I think I struck a balance of criticism between both commanders, you seem quite happy overlook the criticism levelled at Cumberland.

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