United by a bid for liberty

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As the USA celebrates Independence Day today, Iain Grimstone remembers six Scots who crossed the Atlantic to fight for America’s freedom

HIS level gaze seems to stare right back at those who crane to see him, desperate to discover if his legendary compassion and humanity were captured by the sculptor.

Standing a stone’s throw from another of history’s great thinkers, David Hume, Abraham Lincoln watches over Edinburgh from Old Calton Graveyard.

It is a strange place to find the 16th President of America, the man who finally joined the nation’s states in a single union and finished what was started with the signing of the declaration of independence 216 years ago - an event which is being celebrated today by Americans all over the world.

But this Lincoln presides over an impressive if enigmatic monument to six Scots who served with the victorious forces of the Union during the hellfire of the Civil War, from which modern America was born.

He stands above a freed slave clinging to the plinth in grateful adoration. Large letters declare the theme of "Suffrage, Emancipation, Education and Union. In Memory of Scottish American Soldiers" and further proclaims the words of Lincoln "To preserve the jewel of liberty in the framework of freedom".

However, the puzzle begins with the realisation that the six named Scottish American soldiers were not emigrants, and nor, as is often wrongly assumed, did they fall in battle.

John McEwan, William Duff, Robert Steedman, James Wilkie, Robert Ferguson and lastly - added at a rededication in August 1993 - Alexander Smith, all returned to Scotland to live out their days, and they or their widows eventually received army pensions from the US.

It is probable that not more than two of them (McEwan and Smith) are actually buried in the plot provided for them, though other unnamed soldiers of similar service and origin may be.

The plot was part of a gift from the American Consul in Edinburgh to help ease the eventual funeral costs and avoid a horror of those days - the pauper’s grave.

The project was a result of the enthusiasm of US Consul Wallace Bruce, whose name in that office sums up the whole Scottish-American theme.

According to American historian Roger Norton, Bruce was apparently motivated by the story of John McEwan who had enlisted as a private in the "Scottish regiment" from Illinois and served under colonels with good Scottish names such as Daniel Cameron and Walter Scott Howard.

After the war, which ended in 1863, McEwan died in Edinburgh from the lingering effects of wartime experiences. Bruce, aware of his widow’s need for a pension, agreed that a suitable burial ground in Edinburgh ought to be made available to soldiers such as McEwan, and his "idea was hailed with enthusiasm".

Indeed, it probably was, although, as Richard Hunter of the Edinburgh City Council Archives points out, the council’s attitude was more measured. "They didn’t seem too bothered. It was dealt with like any other application. While minutes of meetings record the bare details of the plot given at Old Calton, the entry simply reads that the ground provided is ‘for certain old pensioned American soldiers’."

All this seems straightforward enough. But no-one can quite explain why Scots would choose to serve in the Union Army in the civil war of another country. After all, Scottish soldiers could find all the employment and adventure they might want in the then blooming British Empire.

But it is perhaps the words on the monument at Old Calton which explains their desire to travel to America to fight. While there were other reasons for the war, in his recently published The American Civil War, historian Brian Holden Reid states: "Without the issue of slavery there would have been no war. It threw into doubt the very meaning of American freedom."

And, of course, freedom is something both Scots and Americans have had to fight a London monarch for.

The concepts expressed in the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, wonderfully update what was surely a prime model for his document, Bernard de Linton’s eloquent Declaration of Arbroath on behalf of the newly-independent Scots’ nation, 456 years earlier.

And the expression of the sovereignty of people, as opposed to monarch or president, is too similar to be a coincidence. In both documents, two unifying themes are dealt with - freedom and liberty. Jefferson wrote "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", while de Linton most famously wrote "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."

Many of the movers behind this American Declaration were freemasons and the document is known to reflect Masonic philosophies. And while modern freemasonry was yet to be born, Scotland was home to the dying embers of a movement, which was to hugely influence freemasonry, the Knights Templar.

It’s not known precisely what Robert Bruce’s connection with the Templars was, but his desire to have his heart presented at their Temple in Jerusalem - after his death, as he was too busy to go in his lifetime because of the war with England - has a nice echo with Lincoln’s postponed application to the masons under the Illinois Grand Lodge of Freemasons. It was also put off because of the war and then made impossible by his assassination.

So were the soldiers from Scotland freemasons on a mission of conscience over slavery, similar to the socialists of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War decades later?

It’s a tempting theory, but there does not seem to be evidence to support it beyond all doubt. However, the Curator of the Grand lodge of Scotland Robert Cooper realises that such ideas are not improbable, as the American hero Paul Revere - famous for riding through the night warning that "the British are coming!" - was a member of Lodge St Andrew in Boston.

And this was the lodge, founded by Scots, which broke its meeting to "take tea" and resumed "after tea" on the night of the Boston Tea Party. According to Cooper, "the radicals and rebels were to be found in the Scottish lodges, while the British establishment loyal to the Crown used English-founded lodges".

Cooper is also in no doubt that the Declaration of Independence is informed by Scottish-founded lodge thinking. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were among 13 masons who helped Jefferson write the declaration, although he himself was not a member.

So does the love of liberty and a connection with masonry - which has always been more of the common people in the US and Scotland than in other countries - explain the puzzle of the Scots in the Union Army?

Something must have attracted them and others to this cause. A search of the Illinois State Archive reveals that, while they record one soldier from each of England, Ireland and Wales, there were an incredible 52 from Scotland fighting for the Union.

But not every link between the two peoples is cause for backslapping. This year, Americans will celebrate their Declaration of Independence with acute emotions. US Consul Wallace Bruce, with his name such an astonishing reminder of Scotland’s struggle for independence, would have almost certainly known, as every Scot should but might not, the date when his namesake struck his world-changing blow for freedom.

Scotland’s Wallace, the man now popularly known as Braveheart, defeated the supposedly undefeatable chivalry of his arrogant oppressor with an army of the plain folk of Scotland at Stirling in 1297. It was September 11.