University Archives


A. Sutherland, Crimean War Bugler: "I sounded the charge for the Light Brigade the Charge of the six hundred"

5pp autograph letter signed by Alexander Sutherland (ca. 1811-1905), a British Crimean War veteran who "sounded the charge for the Light Brigade the Charge of the six hundred" at the Battle of Balaklava on October 25, 1854. Written in Denver, Colorado on October 17, 1899. Signed as "Alex Sutherland" on the last page. On one bifold sheet (double-sided) and one additional half sheet. Expected wear, including uneven toning and a few professionally repaired paper folds. Isolated loss to the top of the third page, and stains from mounting adhesive to the last page not affecting legibility, else very good to near fine. 4.875" x 7.875".

In this intriguing letter to Louis Keller, Crimean War veteran Alexander Sutherland intensifies the controversy surrounding one of the most famous episodes of the Battle of Balaklava: the British Charge of the Light Brigade. In that fearsome battle, British cavalry, led by James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), had engaged in a direct frontal assault against heavy Russian artillery in error. (The incident is often cited in military textbooks to illustrate the disastrous consequences of unclear directives or miscommunication.) Casualties were high. Contemporaries witnessed the advance with horror and admiration at the single-minded heroism of the British cavalrymen. The event was memorialized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's epic poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854).

In this letter, Alexander Sutherland reasserted his claim that he had sounded the first bugle call at the Battle of Balaklava. Sutherland felt the need to defend his claim as other buglers from the battle had assumed the honor. (Almost 20 men were listed on British muster rolls as Orderly Trumpeters, or Buglers, prior to the battle. Of these men, William Brittain, Martin Leonard Landfried, and Henry Joy were variously put forth as the first buglers to sound the charge.) Of these candidates, Sutherland mentions only Henry Joy (1819-1893) by name in this letter; Joy had died six years earlier and could not defend his record.

According to Sutherland, there were actually several buglers attached to each of the five cavalry regiments comprising the Light Brigade (not even counting the Heavy Brigade, which also participated in the charge.) Any one of these buglers could have sounded the charge, but only one could have sounded the first charge--Sutherland himself.

Sutherland wrote in part, with untouched spelling and punctuation:

"I have read with deep interest - And if the honor of sounding the charge belonged to Henry Joy I would not rob him of it. I am sure my dear Sir I would not rob the dead of their honor but I say now as I said to you in a former letter I sounded the charge for the Light Brigade the Charge of the six hundred but - I can explain in a most satisfactory manner (?) Joy's claim to that honor. The six hundred were divided into three platoons And two Company's to each platoon And each company had its bugler marking in all six Buglers. I was in the first platoon with Lord Cardigan who you know made the charge I sounded the charge for the six hundred but it was scarcely finished when it was sounded by the Buglers [loss] the second and third platoon And each of them [?] beside myself may say in return (?) that they sounded the charge at Balaklava. But I was Lord Cardigan's Bugler I sounded the charge And was the first to sound it - for I was with Cardigan And no body being close deny Lord Cardigans right to the honor of that Charge…"

The identity of the first bugler to sound the charge at the Battle of Balaklava may never be certain. What is undisputed, though, is Alexander Sutherland's tenacity in defending his claim. He was Lord Cardigan's bugler, and was with the commander during the battle. Sutherland thus wanted to be numbered among Tennyson's heroes:

"When can their glory fade? / O the wild charge they made! / All the world wondered. / Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!"

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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