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Biographical Sketch of Alexander Chesney (1756-1843)

By Phil Norfleet

 

The Journal of Alexander Chesney is one of the most important eyewitness documents concerning the Revolution in South Carolina during the years 1775-1782.  The Journal together with a comprehensive introduction were published in a 1921 Ohio State University Bulletin entitled: Journal of Alexander Chesney, a South Carolina Loyalist in the Revolution and After.  Both of these narratives are reproduced below.  

Genealogy of Chesney Family

This hyperlink provides access to a good web site concerning Alexander Chesney's family genealogy.

A son of Alexander Chesney, Francis Rawdon Chesney (1789-1872), was a British Army general and a well-known explorer of the Euphrates and founder of the overland route to India.  Also, a grandson of Alexander Chesney, Charles Cornwallis Chesney (1826-1876), was a brevet-colonel of the Royal Engineers and a noted author and professor of military history at Sandhurst.

Some early American members of the Chesney family are discussed in a Chesney Family Memorandum appended to this web site.  The memorandum was written circa 1897, by a grand-nephew of Alexander Chesney, a man also named Alexander Chesney, who was born in St. Clair County, Illinois in 1821 and died in Nashville, Illinois in 1899.

 

Introduction to the Journal of Alexander Chesney

The Journal of Alexander Chesney, a South Carolina Loyalist in the Revolution and After, was published in Ohio State University Bulletin, Volume XXVI, Number 4, October 30, 1921.  The Journal was edited by E. Alfred Jones of London England, with an introduction provided by Professor Wilbur H. Siebert.  Professor Siebert's introduction to the Ohio State version of the  Journal is as follows:

THE JOURNAL OF ALEXANDER CHESNEY may be divided into four parts, namely, (1) the account of Mr. 's family connections and of the migration of his father, Robert, with wife and children, from county Antrim, Ireland, to the Pacolet river, South Carolina; (2) Alexander Chesney's' experiences in the Revolution to April 5, 1782; (3) his life, after his return to Ireland, as a loyalist applicant for relief and compensation; and (4) his career as a revenue officer at Mourne, Ireland, to about 1821.

In many respects the vicissitudes through which Alexander Chesney passed are typical of the experiences of numerous other American loyalists. His story, briefly sketched, is that of an adherent of the British crown who, as a youth, served as a guide for Tory refugees. For this he was imprisoned for a few days and then given the alternative of joining the Whigs or standing trial. As his father's family had been threatened with ruin for harboring some of these refugees, Alexander joined the Whigs in the hope, he says, of protecting his kindred. He served with them as a private from April, 1776, in campaigns against the Creek and Cherokee Indians and was at Augusta, Georgia, with them in the summer of 1779. Between these expeditions he engaged in conveying produce by team to Charleston, South Carolina; which was then in the possession of the Whig forces.

When, at length, the British troops captured Charleston, May 12, 1780, and General Sir Henry Clinton issued a proclamation summoning the king's friends to embody, Mr. Chesney went within the lines, June 25, and became a lieutenant in the loyal militia. From this time on he served the crown faithfully in various capacities and quickly won the confidence of Major Patrick Ferguson, who was placed in command of Fort Ninety-Six.  On August 9, 1780, Mr. Chesney was appointed captain and, after participating in a few minor engagements, was in the defeat and surrender of Ferguson's force at King's Mountain, October 9.  Soon after this, Chesney escaped and reached home, October 31. There he remained for the next three weeks, concealing himself in a cave part of the time and staying with his father-in-law at intervals. Hearing that Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton had defeated Sumter at Blackstock's Hill, Novem­ber 20, Chesney raised a company of militia and joined a strong party of Tories under Brigadier-General Cunningham on Little River. In December Chesney was placed in command of the militia guard at the jail of Ninety-Six, but went with Tarleton when the latter came to that neighborhood and was with him in the defeat and dispersion of his force at the Cowpens, January 17, 1781. Chesney again retired to his home, only to find it despoiled of all his personal effects except two horses, with which he was able to bring his wife and child to Robert McWhorter's place on the Edisto river. Leaving them there, he proceeded to Charleston where he was paid for some cattle and provisions he had supplied to Ferguson, and was assigned one of the sequestered houses and plantations of the Whig proprietors of the Charleston district, together with a quantity of provisions and the use of three Negroes. Accordingly, in March, 1781, he removed his family to comfortable quarters on the Ponpon River, a tributary of the Edisto, and, employing addi­tional Negroes, began to cultivate a crop of rice and Indian corn.

On his return to Charleston in May, Chesney raised a troop of horse by direction of Colonel Balfour and was stationed with it at the British post at Dorchester, South Carolina, whither he now brought his family.  He promptly informed Lord Rawdon of the activity of the Americans in that vicinity and accompanied a detachment to clear them out. During this skirmish he was wounded in the thigh by one of the enemy. Early in July Chesney went with Rawdon's force to relieve Fort Ninety-Six. The besieging Americans withdrew, crossed Broad River, and moved down the left bank towards Charleston. Rawdon, fearing for the safety of the loyalist inhabitants in the direction of Long Cane Creek, sent his light troops to bring them in and with the remainder of his men took the road back to Charleston, but was soon cut off by the enemy. Under these circumstances Chesney volunteered to carry a letter from Rawdon to Balfour at Charleston, asking aid. In reply to this appeal Colonel Balfour sent forward a detachment which enabled Rawdon to advance.

After Lord Rawdon led his force from this section of South Carolina, Chesney joined a corps of three companies raised for the protection of the sequestered Whig estates by John Cruden, Esq., the commissioner “for the seizure, superintendence, custody, and management of captured property” in South Carolina.  Meantime, the Americans had been rapidly regaining control of the Province and by December, 1781, the British found themselves confined to Charleston and its immediate vicinity.  Chesney was now appointed to superintend the cutting of wood, which was made necessary by the winter season, and took pleasure in relieving the destitute condition of a number of refugee loyalists by employing them in this work.  Chesney had lost his wife at the close of November, 1781, and was compelled by ill health to give up the supervision of the wood cutters early in the following January.  As he grew worse, instead of better, he sent his child to his relatives and sailed from Charleston, April 5, 1782, landing at Castle Haven, Ireland, May 19.

By June 4 he was in Dublin, where he was introduced to a loyalist, Mr. Philip Henry, who had been exiled with others from South Carolina in June, 1778, and was now an officer in the Customs house at Dublin.  Mr. Henry advised Mr. Chesney to seek a position in the revenue service and to file a claim for the losses he had suffered in the American war.  After a short stay in Dublin, Chesney paid a brief visit to his relatives in county Antrim and then proceeded to London, where he submitted a memorial, supported by testimonials, to the Lords of the Treasury, August 3, asking for immediate relief. Having thus begun this negotiation, he took lodgings at 58 Crown Street, Westminster. Through the kindness of his landlord Mr. Chesney made the acquaintance of Mr. Lewis Wolfe, a clerk in the Treasury, who then or later acted as the agent in London for those American refugees who had returned to the northeast of Ireland. Mr. Wolfe proved to be helpful in various ways to our applicant.

Later Mr. Chesney attended a large meeting of the Association of American Loyalists in London at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand, where it was determined to petition the king's ministers, Mr. Chesney being named one of a committee of three to prepare the petition on behalf of those loyalists who had rendered services to Government and lost their property.  After drafting another memorial and copying his testimonials for Lord North, arranging with two loyalists to send him any word from the Treasury, calling on Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis about his personal affairs, and authorizing Mr. Wolfe to act for him in his absence, Alexander Chesney took his departure from London, August 16.

On his journey homeward he waited on Lord Rawdon, from whom he received a letter soliciting the interest of General Burgoyne - now commander of the forces in Ireland - in having the bearer appointed to a position in the Irish Customs. At length, on August 30, he boarded the packet at Liverpool on his way to Dublin. Calling on Burgoyne in the latter city, he was given little encouragement in regard to the desired appointment. By September 7 he was back in county Antrim with his relatives. A few days later a letter from Mr. Wolfe asked for a sworn statement of his losses in America, accompanied by certificates from Cornwallis, Tarleton, and others. These documents he supplied promptly, his estimate of his losses totaling £1,998. 10s.

By the middle of December, 1782, Chesney heard from Lord Rawdon and, by the latter's direction, returned to Dublin to see about the Customs appointment. The outcome of this mission was an appointment as tide waiter at Waterford, whither the appointee betook himself to remain, as it turned out, only two weeks, for neither the location nor the duty pleased him. He, therefore, got himself removed to Belfast, and on March I married his second wife.

The honeymoon had lasted but little more than a fortnight when a letter from Mr. Wolfe called for the presence of the bridegroom in London, in connection with his claim as a distressed loyalist. Obtaining leave of absence from the Irish board of Customs, Chesney made his second journey to the British capital, ar­riving March 24, 1783. He spent the next week or more in getting his papers ready for the Treasury office. It was not, however, until May 6 that he was examined by the commissioners on Loyalist Claims. He also served as a witness for some of his fellow exiles when their claims were heard. Additional days were spent in calling on his own witnesses and in paying occasional visits to the Treasury. After spending two months in London and receiving a temporary allowance of £50 a year, he returned to Belfast.

On October 13, 1783, Chesney found it necessary to go to Dublin again to prepare a new memorial for the commissioners on Loyalist Claims. He did not overlook the opportunity afforded by this visit to apply for another appointment in the Customs. After returning to Belfast for a few days he, in company with two loyalist friends, journeyed for the third time to London, where he learned that he had been named coast officer at Bangor, a post that paid well and was not distant from county Antrim.  Once more he wrote out his memorial, this time preparing copies for all the Commissioners. In addition he got his claim certified by other refugees from South Carolina, whose claims he certified in turn. He then returned to Belfast and removed his family to Bangor late in December, 1783. In the fall of the year following the commissioners put him to the further trouble of furnishing more proofs that his property had been confiscated.

On Christmas day, 1785, Mr. Chesney visited Mourne and effected an exchange with the coast officer at Annalong, which was a fishing village in county Down, where the new Customs officer was to have some exciting experiences with the nest of desperate smugglers harboring there. He brought his family from Bangor to Mourne, February 14, 1786, and in August received £133. 12s. in part settlement of his claim, the remainder of the award, namely, £255. 18s. coming to hand in November. Thus, it had cost our South Carolinian three visits to London, the repeated submission of memorials and testimonials, and much correspondence since August 3, 1782, to obtain an annual allowance of £50 and an award of less than £400 on a total claim of £1,998. 10s., which seems to have been later reduced to £1,564. 10s.  Either at this time or later Mr. Chesney's annual pension was cut down to £30. Needless to say the recipient of these sums was not pleased with the results of his efforts, and alleged that both his award and pension had been reduced by the commissioners on account of his employment in the Customs which, he said, they included as part compensation.

During the year 1789 the boatmen and smugglers at Annalong formed a combination to get Coast Officer Chesney removed from his place. However, he succeeded in thwarting them, clung to a position which was proving to be profitable, despite the risks of life and limb undoubtedly connected with it, and invested his compensation money in a town property.  That smuggling was not declining at Annalong is indicated by the fact that Chesney reported to the lord lieutenant the arrival in Glassdrummond Bay on February 19, 1793, of five vessels engaged in the contraband trade. Ac­cordingly, that official, in conjunction with the Irish Board of Cus­toms, sent several cruisers and two detachments of troops to protect the coast.  By this time Chesney's personal affairs were prospering, and he thanked God “for health in the family and plenty of everything.”

Already in 1791 the Association of United Irishmen had been formed, and in the fall of 1796 its members in county Down and several neighboring counties were secretly drilling in preparation for revolt. This activity did not escape the notice of Mr. Chesney, who obtained a commission and embodied the Mourne Infantry at the end of January, 1797. His company was the first under arms in county Down, a circumstance to which he was inclined to attrib­ute the prevention of a general insurrection in Mourne.

Despite the pressing nature of his official and military duties at this period, Captain Chesney was none the less attentive to the interests of his children.  His oldest daughter, Eliza, was already thirteen and in a boarding school at Newry, and he was applying for a cadetship for his boy, Francis, who was only a few months more than nine years of age. He was promised an appointment for Francis, but was informed that the boy would not be eligible until he was fourteen.  Nevertheless, the ambitious father obtained a commission for this youth in the Mourne Yeomanry from Lord Castlereagh in May, 1798, attributing his success to that nobleman's ignorance of the appointee's age. At about the same time Mr. Chesney reluctantly became a justice of the peace.

Late in May the Mourne companies, which had been put on permanent duty on account of the outbreak of the rebellion, were ordered to Newry. Early in the following month Captain Chesney returned to Mourne with part of the cavalry, surrounded the houses of the suspected leaders there during the night, and carried them off to Newry as hostages for the protection of the inhabitants, in case of a rising during the absence of the corps. After going with a detachment to Dundalk where, according to report, the rebels were under arms, Chesney and the Mourne Yeomanry marched back to Mourne, and half of the corps were released from permanent duty; but the order was rescinded, August 25, 1798, three days after the French had landed at Kallala Bay.

The closing pages of Alexander Chesney's Journal, which ends with the year 1820, is filled for the most part with items concerning his children. On March 24, 1803, his elder son, Francis, who was now fifteen, started alone on his way to London in the hope of being admitted to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Being found deficient, he was placed successively in the Walworth and Diptford academies and the Royal Military College at Great Marlow, Buckshire, a preparatory college for Woolwich. Eighteen months from the time of his first leaving home, Francis was gazetted to a second lieutenancy, to the evident satisfaction of his father who, in January, 1805, sent his younger son, Charles, to follow in his brother's footsteps, having obtained for him the promise of an East India cadetship. The expense of Charles's schooling, together with some trifling debts, proved somewhat embarrassing to his father during the year 1806; but the latter rejoiced in the thought that certain seizures he had made would "set him free." In 1807 Charles was in the Military Academy at Woolwich, and Francis was quar­tered with his company at Portsmouth, but was moved in the opening days of March, 1808, to the island of Guernsey. In the follow­ing June Eliza married Captain John Hopkins, and in October, 1809, Charles, now a lieutenant in the artillery, sailed for India, arriving at Madras, February 1, 1810.  Jane visited with her sister, Mrs. Hopkins, who with her husband, spent part of this year in Dublin. Francis remained in Guernsey until November, 1813, when he resigned his staff position there and sought military employment on the continent.  Mr. Chesney, Sr., with the aid of Francis and several friends outside the family, tried to get an ap­pointment in the Customs for his son Alexander, but within the limits of the Journal seems not to have succeeded.  The birth of still another son, Thomas Crafer Chesney, is mentioned as having occurred on March 13, 1808, but no other entry appears regarding him.  On February 13, 1814, Matilda died of a fever, which had at­tacked other members of the family.  In the following September Francis, who had been on “an excursion to France and along the ports of Holland,” was assigned to a company at Woolwich. In 1815 he was promoted to a captaincy and in the next year was stationed at Leith Fort in Scotland.  On November 22, 1816, Jane married the Reverend Henry Hayden, while Captain Hopkins retired from the service on a good pension.  In the autumn of 1817 the fever again broke out in the Chesney family and left Mary, Anne, and Charlotte much debilitated.

In February, 1818, Mr. Chesney was greatly surprised at receiving a letter from his eldest son, William, of whose survival he was not even aware, stating that he was living in the State of Tennessee, but was not in flourishing circumstances.  The letter also referred to his grandfather, Robert Chesney, as being still alive.

Meantime, Charles had married in the island of St. Helena and, being in poor health, had brought his wife to England and later to Ireland. Here they had taken a lodging at Rosstrever and were visited by Charlotte, Anne, and Mary, who had not yet fully recovered from their former illness.  In September, 1819, Charlotte married George Washington Bell. Three months later the Reverend Mr. Hayden lost his curacy in county Roscommon and brought his family to stay with his father-in-law until the following spring, when he was sent out as a missionary to St. John, New Brunswick, by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

In January, 1820, Mr. Chesney was charged with neglect of duty by Customs officers at Newry, but was cleared by the surveyor-general who heard the case fully, and the matter ended with the approval of the defendant's conduct by the board of Customs.

During the previous dozen years at least smuggling had been going on at Annalong, as shown by occasional brief references in the Journal, and, according to Chesney, outside of Mourne where he had been able to hold it in check by the employment of a number of guards, the smuggling of tobacco into Ireland had been much stimulated by the close of the Napoleonic wars.  Naturally, Chesney's success in foiling the smugglers had aggravated them and led him into many quarrels with them. The marked increase in the clandestine trade and the falling off in the import duties had aroused the lords of the Treasury to try their hand at the suppression of smuggling in the summer of 1820 by sending the royal naval inspector-general of the Preventive Water Guard to survey the Irish Channel with a view to establishing a preventive force.  The Irish board of Customs instructed their revenue officers to co­operate in this project by supplying every assistance and information, an order which Mr. Chesney appears to have complied with to the best of his ability, although he was to learn at the end of the year that the Water Guard, when established, would supplant his office.  However, he had made many seizures during the year, for which he had received a considerable amount of money, and he began at once to make arrangements for building on his farm at Ballyardle.

Not only is Chesney's record of thirty-five years in the Irish Customs highly creditable to him, as affirmed by the surveyor-general and the board of Customs in Ireland, but so also was Chesney's concern for the welfare of his children, including his son William, from whom he had been so long separated. In the closing sentences of the Journal Alexander Chesney notes that he has authorized William to draw on Mr. Crafer and thinks it better that he should receive his portion of his father's estate and “turn it to account where he is,” than spend money coming to Ireland “where he would find most things unsuited” to him.

The publication of this Journal, with its accompanying documents and its wealth of valuable notes, will add an important number to that small group of personal records by American loyalists which comprises the Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen; the Letters of James Murray, Loyalist; Colonel David Fanning's Narrative; the Correspondence of Thomas Barclay; the Recollections of a  Georgia Loyalist; The Journal of a Voyage from Charlestown, S. C., to London, 1778; Lieutenant Anthony Allaire's Diary (printed in Dr. Lyman C. Draper's King's Mountain and Its Heroes); the Diary and Letters of Thomas Hutchinson; Lieutenant James Moody's Narrative of His Exertions and Sufferings in the Cause of Government since 1776; The Narrative of the Transactions, Imprisonment, and Sufferings of John Connelly, an American Loyalist and Lieutenant-Colonel in His Majesty's Service; J. F. D. Smyth's Tour in the United States of America; The Case of Ferdinand Smyth Stuart with His Memorials to the King, &c.; The Winslow Papers; Joseph Galloway's Letters to a Nobleman on the Conduct of the War in the Middle Colonies; The Examination of Joseph Galloway before the House of Commons; C. Stedman's History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, and Judge Thomas Jones's History of New York during the Revolutionary War.

It may be objected that some of the above named publications are not diaries, journals, or personal narratives; that at least one of them is a book of travels and that others are historical in nature.  It would be futile in the space at command to attempt comparisons among the publications listed above. Suffice it to say that the authors of all of them were American loyalists and that even those publications which, according to their titles, are most removed from the autobiographical, will be found on closer inspection to contain not a little of the distinctly personal. All of these writings have their value for the student of American Revolutionary history and especially for the one who is interested in the Tory phase of the subject.

It is scarcely necessary to speak of the special qualifications of Mr. E. Alfred Jones for the task of editing The Journal of Alexander Chesney, since the admirable results of his labors are manifest in this volume. The present writer can not, however, deny himself the pleasure of saying that Mr. Jones has long been familiar with the abundant materials relating to the American loyalists that are to be found in the Public Record Office, the British Museum, and other collections in London. Nor can he forbear to add that the Editor has greatly increased the value of this volume by his copious annotations, many of which contain information not easily avail­able and some, information not accessible at all in print. Mr. Jones found Chesney's Journal in the British Museum (Additional MSS., 32627).  

 

THE JOURNAL OF ALEXANDER CHESNEY

A SOUTH CAROLINA LOYALIST IN THE REVOLUTION AND AFTER

I have prepared a digitized, electronic version of Alexander Chesney's Journal based on the document first published by Ohio State University in 1921.  The Ohio State version was heavily footnoted; however, as several of these footnotes appear to be erroneous, I have chosen to omit the footnotes in my version.  It also should be noted that the original Journal was produced during the 18th century and was written in the style of the period.  Chesney's rather tangled prose was never reviewed by an editor before publication and contains many spelling errors and obvious grammatical errors. The sentences run on forever and are filled with haphazardly placed commas and semicolons.  As a result, the Journal is very difficult for people living in our "instant communication" era to understand, especially for persons used to 15-second video/sound bites.  Accordingly, my digitized version differs slightly from the Ohio State publication in that I have, in most cases, used modern spelling, shortened some of the excessively long sentences and fixed some of the more glaring grammatical mistakes.  For the reader's convenience, this electronic version has been divided into four, individually accessible parts as shown below.

Part 1- Chesney’s Family Connections and Migration to South Carolina

Part 2 - Chesney's Experiences during the Revolution

Part 3 - Chesney's Life as a Loyalist Applicant for Relief and Compensation

Part 4 - Chesney's Life as a Revenue Officer at Mourne, Ireland

 

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