Historical Dictionary of the British Empire

By James S. Olson; Robert S. Shadle | Go to book overview

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ABERCROMBY, RALPH. The eldest son of George Abercromby, a very wealthy Whig landowner, Ralph Abercromby was born in 1734 in Clackmannshire, Scotland. He studied at Rugby and read for law at Edinburgh University and at Leipzig, but he put aside legal studies and decided on a military career. In 1756, he was commissioned a coronet in the 3rd Dragoon Guards. The young officer served during the Seven Years War* and was very impressed with the discipline of the Prussian troops and the tactical skill of Frederick the Great. He rose steadily in rank, but he was not in sympathy with British policy in North America and was unhappy with the poor quality of the British Army. He served in Parliament ( 1774-1780) for Clackmannshire and then, in 1783, went on half pay. In 1787, Abercromby was promoted to major-general.

When France declared war on England in 1793, he was returned to active duty, assuming command of a brigade under the overall direction of the Duke of York. Abercromby was wounded at Nijmwegen, Holland. When the duke returned to England, less able commanders took over, and their errors led to a disastrous retreat. Abercromby directed the rear column with great skill, and, as a reward, he was made a Knight of the Bath in 1795. The disaster reinforced his belief that the army was sadly deficient in both leadership and discipline.

In November 1795, Abercromby became commander-in-chief of the British forces in the West Indies* and was directed to capture the French sugar islands. He seized St. Lucia* and Trinidad.* Abercromby also took a sincere interest in the welfare of his troops, particularly their health in the oppressive Caribbean climate. Upon his return to England in 1797, he was made commander in Ireland.* There Abercromby attempted to carry out army reforms and reestablish civil authority. In 1798, totally frustrated by the lack of cooperation, he resigned from that post. He next served in Scotland and, in 1799, led an expedition to

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