LESLIE, ALEXANDER. (c. 1740–1794). British general. A descendant of the earl of Leven, Leslie was lieutenant colonel of the Sixty-fourth Foot at Halifax before being sent to Boston. He commanded the raid intended to destroy a reported artillery depot at Salem, Massachusetts, on 26 February 1775. Confronted by a raised drawbridge, growing numbers of armed militia, and abusive crowds, Leslie could have anticipated Lexington then and there. However, he avoided an armed clash with admirable coolness and restraint, eventually accepting a compromise which allowed him to cross the bridge and immediately march back again without doing any damage. The only casualty was a local militiaman who, having smashed in the last boat on the river, had bared his breast to the troops and received a slight bayonet wound. Leslie was a brigadier general of light infantry at Long Island and Kips Bay and was in command of the British outposts in the fighting at Harlem Heights—the skirmish that significantly bolstered American morale—on 16 September 1776. At White Plains he found a ford across the Bronx River and led two regiments in an unsuccessful bayonet attack on Chatterton's Hill. At Maidenhead on 3 January 1777, his brigade failed to detect Washington's night march on Princeton by a route about three miles away.
In 1780, now a major general, Leslie was ordered by Clinton to the Chesapeake to meet, or at least act as a diversion in favor of, Cornwallis's thrust north into Virginia. Landing at Portsmouth, he received orders from Rawdon, the acting commander while Cornwallis was ill with fever, to bring his twenty-five hundred men to Charleston. Landing there on 16 December, he did not reach Camden until 4 January 1781; his slowness indirectly delayed Cornwallis's reinforcements for Tarleton, so contributing to the Cowpens debacle. Five days later he received orders to join Cornwallis at Winnsboro for the invasion of North Carolina; he arrived just as Tarleton appeared with the survivors of Cowpens. On 1 February, Leslie and O'Hara were almost drowned at Cowan's Ford on the Catawba when the floodwaters swept their horses downstream. Leslie was in command of the British right at the beginning of the attack at Guilford Courthouse on 15 March and joined O'Hara for the final phase. In July, his health now deteriorating, Leslie was sent back to Charleston and thence to New York. Instead of sending him back on 28 August, as intended, Clinton kept him at headquarters, where he took part in the councils of war during the Yorktown campaign. He finally sailed for Charleston in October to take command in the southern theater after Cornwallis's surrender. Arriving at Charleston on 8 November, he quickly saw that he must limit his operations to hanging onto the city. Exercising the discretion given him by Clinton, he had the Savannah garrison evacuated by sea on 11 July 1782. He left Charleston on 14 December 1782.
Leslie's service was solid rather than distinguished. He was courageous and persistent, and his refusal to be drawn into combat at Salem was commendable. On the other hand, his carelessness at Maidenhead and his slow march to Camden both had serious consequences for the British cause.
Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. London: Longman, 1964.
revised by John Oliphant
J. A. Cannon