On beautiful, sunny mornings there is no better way to start the day than a walk or bike ride with the dogs. They all set off with me, although some are slightly more circuitous about their return, preferring to inspect any bins for food. One morning, turning past the azalea beds, I stopped by the black gates leading to the Castle to chat to some security men who had been posted there through the night due to an upcoming event. With close cropped hair and in camouflage, they were huddled together and explained nervously that they had undoubtedly seen a ghost that morning.

We walked along the drive together while they told of seeing a small figure dressed in white which had then disappeared into the central window of the Castle. Amusingly, it quickly dawned on me that it was just the back of a painting, the other side of which is, in fact, a little boy dressed in a white dress, accompanied by his dog. I didn’t let on as some stories are better left!

That child grew up to be Major Sir John Acland, the father of the second Countess of Carnarvon and he has quite an extraordinary story. His wife was born Lady Harriet Fox-Strangways, daughter of the Earl of Ilchester, and part of the 18th century Whig aristocracy. In contrast, her husband was a Tory country squire, fond of hunting. He bought his colours (joined the army) and in 1776 left to fight in the American War of Independence. Lady Harriet boarded the ship as well and accompanied him throughout the campaign.

Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Harriet at the time of her marriage to John Acland, 1771

They set sail across the Atlantic in early April 1776. The crossing was not without incident and “one of the sailors died who had been ill in a fever”. There was an outbreak of measles and arguments over direction. Finally, on May 17th, Lady Harriet notes that they “saw land on each side of the ship”.

Engraving by Pollard of Lady Harriet Acland’s arrival by boat at the American camp on the Hudson.

They had arrived in “the River St Laurence. Great part of the day fine, warm weather.” The British General John Burgoyne was to lead a large invasion army southward from Canada in the Champlain Valley and hope to meet a similar British force marching north from New York City, whilst another British force would march east from Lake Ontario.

“Saratoga” became the shorthand for the two ensuing battles that marked the “coup de grace” to the British invasion from Canada. The journal here notes that the first battle on September 19th “lasted 5 hours and half with only momentary interruptions and was at length terminated by night”. The advantage might have just fallen to the British, but reinforcements from south and east failed to materialise.

October 7th “A detachment of 2,000 men march’d out of the camp and halted a mile from it. Attacked by a very superior number … unfortunate turns of war the enemy (American) got possession of the 2 12 pounders, and 4 or 5 six pounders ….Towards the close of evening Major Acland was wounded through both his legs… and fell into enemy hands.”

Engraving by Barlow of the funeral procession of General Simon Fraser, killed at Bemis Heights, 7 October 1777

He was described by the American general Horatio Gates as “a rough fellow, who was drunk almost every day but nevertheless a brave officer”. Waving a flag of truce, his wife was allowed to enter the enemy camp and remained with him, nursing him back to health. Major Acland spent nine weeks recovering before he was given parole by his captors to sail home. This little journal is a remarkable record of these ten months.

The journal’s entries concerning the retreat after Bemis Heights and Lady Harriet’s decision to join her wounded husband in captivity.

Having returned home to Devon in south west England, Major Sir John Acland took umbrage at Lieutenant Lloyd who had made disparaging remarks about the integrity of American officers and challenged him to a duel in defence of American honour.

As a result of this duel, plus a nasty bout of pneumonia, Acland died two weeks later.