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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

Chapter Eight

 p77  Two Clever Rogues and Other Intrigues

In the winter of 1812 Mr. Madison's administration was in considerable need of fuel to feed the flickering war spirit. Impressment, as we have seen, though valid, had become a rather stale issue. The orders in council were still a thorn in the flesh, but the merchants were of two minds about them. The New England merchants were definitely and actively hostile to war as a remedy. The country as a whole was not sufficiently aroused to give serious thought to preparation for the conflict. Something new, startling and dramatic was needed to turn the trick. And, by a lucky chance, fate placed that most desirable weapon in Mr. Madison's hands, a weapon calculated to confound his enemies both at home and abroad.

To explain the situation one must needs return to the year 1808‑09 when the public was in an uproar over the Chesapeake affair and war with Britain seemed but a matter of days. It was the desire, nay even the duty, of Sir James Craig, the then Governor-General of Canada, to know the temper of the American people at firsthand, particularly that of the New Englanders who might prove useful to the British cause in an emergency. To undertake the delicate mission of confidential agent for Sir James a gentleman bearing the name of John Henry offered himself. Sir James accepted Mr. Henry's services and to Boston, the seat of Federalism, Mr. Henry went. From there he kept up a lively correspondence with Sir James.

Sir James seems to have imagined that Mr. Henry was inspired by purely patriotic motives and would scorn anything sot debasing as pay. In this surmise Sir James was in error. Upon returning to Canada Mr. Henry presented his bill. Sir James protested it and the Governor-General and his emissary failed to reach an agreement. Meanwhile Sir James died and Mr. Henry sailed for England to  p78 carry his claim to the Foreign Office. There he stated his case and is reported to have valued his services at $160,000. The Foreign Office proved to be as unsympathetic as had Canada's Governor-General. In consequence it was a disappointed, perplexed and embittered agent who left England in the autumn of 1811 on a packet boat bound for Boston.

Aboard ship Henry fell in with a personable fellow traveler, a young Frenchman bearing the impressive name of Count Edouard de Crillon. As acquaintance blossomed into friendship the attractive young count unbosomed himself to Henry while they paced the decks or sat during long evenings in the cramped cabin. The young man was, according to his story, a son of the Duc de Crillon, member of an ancient and noble family of France. By marriage, he explained, he was connected with Bessières, the Maréchal Duc d'Istrie, a favorite of Napoleon. Count Edouard, too, had stood high in the estimation of the Emperor, until an innocent enough escapade removed him temporarily from the good graces of his master. He had, in consequence, deemed it advisable to retire to America until the unfortunate incident had had time to blow over.

Having received Count Edouard's confidences, it was only natural that John Henry should, in turn, give an account of himself. In Crillon he discovered an interested and sympathetic listener. Henry, Crillon agreed, had been treated shabbily by the officers of the Crown, so shabbily indeed that patriotism and loyalty to his former employers were no long matters of consideration. Thus encouraged, Henry exhibited to Crillon the Boston correspondence which he had in his possession and announced that he had thought of offering it to the government of the United States.

After one look at the letters Crillon expressed himself as convinced that here were documents of great political importance that ought by all means to be in possession of the authorities in Washington. What was more, Crillon suggested that he could be of great assistance in approaching the Washington government through his connection with the French Minister, Serurier. Henry expressed himself as most grateful to his new friend and accepted the offer.

In the course of their conversations, Henry had disclosed a desire to retire from a world that had treated him so shabbily, and to seek out some remote but pleasant spot where he might pass the remainder  p79 of his days. In this aspiration, too, Crillon thought that he might be of help. He had spoken to Henry of St. Martial, his country estate at Le Beur, situated on the Spanish border not far from the ancient seat of his family at Crillon. As a matter of fact, Crillon had the title to St. Martial with him. Now if Henry were interested he would willingly turn over the title to St. Martial to him, taking in return the cash the United States Government would undoubtedly be willing to pay for possession of the Henry correspondence. Henry was delighted at the prospect of owning St. Martial and the bargain was struck.

Upon the arrival of the ship at Boston Crillon at once wrote to Serurier. Having waited a reasonable time without receiving a reply from the French Minister, Crillon suggested that Henry remain in Boston while he set out with the letters for Washington to handle the matter in person. So, while Henry waited, Crillon arrived at Washington and presented himself to Serurier. The French minister received him coldly, but soon was thawed by the charm of his young countryman; and, impressed with the documents he carried, introduced him to Secretary Monroe who, in turn, presented him to President Madison.

Incriminating evidence against the Boston Federalists was most welcome to the two Virginians at that moment, and such evidence the Henry documents purported to give. The President and his Secretary of State jumped at this opportunity to discredit the opposition. A young nobleman, French or otherwise, was a welcome addition to the drab and provincial capital, and seldom indeed did the provincial capital have a chance to entertain a nobleman with the grace and courtliness of Crillon. He was a frequent guest at the White House during the months of January and February. Hostesses in search of a new sensation for their teas, receptions and balls overwhelmed him with invitations and all the women lionized him, the maidens no doubt wondering what a figure they would cut as the Comtesse de Crillon.

Delight­ful as the social interlude might be Crillon could not forget that he was in the capital on important business. The President and Mr. Monroe had examined the letters carefully and were satisfied with their contents. Eventually the time came to settle the matter of their disposition. How much did Crillon want for them? He  p80 set the price at $120,000. The President and the Secretary of State gasped. They could imagine what that sum would sound like to their tight little Treasurer, Gallatin. No, no. As much as they wanted the letters the sum of $120,000 was out of the question. They offered $50,000. Crillon replied that he would have to consult with Henry, and a summons was sent to Henry to hurry down from Boston. After discussion Henry accepted the offer, but upon the express condition that the letters were not to be published until he had left the country. He had no desire to be confronted by a group of angry Federalists, whom he had delivered into the hands of their archenemies. To this reasonable request the President and the Secretary of State consented. Henry departed from Washington taking the title to St. Martial with him. Crillon handed over the letters to Monroe, and Monroe handed over to Crillon the sum of $50,000 which he had taken from the contingent fund.

On March 9, having assured himself that Henry was on the high seas, President Madison set off the dynamite. He forwarded the letters to Congress and with them a statement in which he charged that the British Government had been guilty of the high crime of sending an agent to foment dissatisfaction against the constituted authorities of the nation and to engage in intrigues with the disaffected for the purpose of bringing about resistance to the law and, eventually, in concert with a British force, of destroying the union and forming the eastern part thereof into a political connection with Great Britain.

When the President's statement reached Congress, Federalists were in a dither. Of what indiscretions had their colleagues in Boston been guilty? How deeply involved were they in plots against the government? Examination of the letters promptly relieved their anxiety. The name of not a single individual appeared in the correspondence. The important information that Henry had forwarded to Sir James Craig was, in fact, no more than he might have obtained from the Federalist newspapers. Here and there Henry had filled spaces with asterisks indicating that the spaces might have included matter too vital to be consigned to paper. And, to cap the climax, it was revealed that the letters were not the originals, but only copies.

The shoe was now on the other foot. The emboldened Federalists  p81 demanded of Monroe that he give them the names of the persons who, Madison charged, had intrigued with Henry. To this demand Monroe could only reply that he knew no more than was in the letters. Crillon was then summoned to appear before Congress and testify to what he knew of the affair. But Crillon, too, could shed no further light. The Federalists immediately turned the incident to their own advantage, scoring the President and the Secretary of State for having wasted $50,000 of the public money on worthless documents!

At that juncture Crillon grew restive. He had learned of Napoleon's projected expedition into Russia. Such a momentous affair, he declared, could not be permitted to occur without Crillon having a share in it. He would return to France, throw himself upon the mercy of his imperial master, beg forgiveness and ask leave to take part in the campaign. And so the gallant young nobleman said good‑bye to the President, the Secretary of State and the many friends he had made during his visit and departed from Washington. As a favor he willingly consented to carry with him diplomatic correspondence destined for the American Minister in Paris, Joel Barlow. Serurier, too, seized the opportunity to intrust to Crillon letters for the French Foreign Minister.

Crillon had hardly left the shores of America when a dispatch arrived in Washington from Barlow, who had been busy investigating Count Edouard. To the chagrin of Madison and Monroe he announced that there was no Duc de Crillon, there was no Le Beur, there was no St. Martial. Count Edouard de Crillon was an impostor. The only thing about him that was real was the $50,000 of government money he had in his pocket!

Unfortunately for the administration the embarrassment caused it by Henry's letters led to embarrassment in another quarter. Part of the manifest destiny envisioned by the young empire builders in Congress were the Floridas, East and West. West Florida was that territory lying between the Mississippi and the Perdido Rivers, which today constitutes the southern portions of the States of Mississippi and Alabama. East Florida comprised the territory that is the present State of Florida. In the Louisiana Purchase agreement the disposition of the Floridas was left vague by Napoleon, intentionally, no doubt, to embroil the United States in a dispute with  p82 Spain. The United States claimed West Florida, though the Spaniards continued to control it.

In the summer of 1810 the citizens of the Baton Rouge district of West Florida, chiefly of American and British descent, revolted against the Spanish rule, raised a flag with a single star, declared the district to be an independent state and appealed to the United States Government for aid and protection. The independence, however, was short-lived, for the United States Government responded to the appeal by claiming the district as part of the Louisiana Purchase and sending troops to enforce the claim.​a

Meanwhile Napoleon had conquered Spain, the Spanish royal family had fled and Great Britain had begun to exhibit an alarmingly solicitous attitude toward His Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain. Suspicious as always of Britain, Congress in January, 1811, passed a secret resolution in which it declared "that the United States, under the peculiar circumstances of the existing crisis, cannot, without serious inquietude, see any part of the said territory [the Floridas] pass into the hands of any foreign power." The resolution went on to say that if any foreign power threatened to seize the Floridas or if the citizens themselves expressed a desire to be annexed, the United States would take possession.

During the spring West Florida was in turmoil and by summer the United States had taken over all of it except Mobile, which remained under the control of Folch, the Spanish Governor. President Madison appointed as commissioners Colonel McKee, an Indian agent, and Brigadier General Mathews, a distinguished Georgia statesman who had served his country in the Revolutionary War and his state as its governor, to treat with Folch. The Spaniard declined to confer with the commissioners and the question of West Florida was delegated to Governor William Claiborne of Louisiana, while Mathews and McKee were directed to turn their talents toward East Florida.

The problem of East Florida was difficult because the people of that benighted land preferred their barbaric existence to citizen­ship in the United States. In the course of the operation of the embargo and the non‑importation laws the town of Fernandina, on Amelia Island across the St. Mary's River from Georgia, had become virtually  p83 a free port. Fernandina was the center of a thriving, though illicit, trade in slaves and other contraband. To win them over to a right way of thinking General Mathews needed something more than patriotic phrases. Mathews journeyed to Washington to discuss the matter with Madison and the President obliged by ordering Captain Hugh G. Campbell, commanding the United States naval forces in the southeast to hurry five gunboats to the St. Mary's River, together with the sloops Wasp and Nautilus. Campbell also was directed to ship to St. Mary's, Georgia, 20 barrels of gunpowder and 500 pounds of lead. Simultaneously Captain T. A. Smith was ordered by the War Department to move a force to Point Petre, on the St. Mary's River, near St. Mary's, Georgia.

There seems to have been some hitch in the arrangements for the State Department received from its distinguished representative in the field, General Mathews, a letter which read:

"On my arivil hear, I found the Gentilmin hows [whose] names I give you well disposid to sarve our Government. But thare has not one solder arived or one armed vesil or a Gun Boat in this rivar, from this cause its thought not propar to attempt Eneything at present."

Monroe received this impressive state paper but appears to have considered no answer necessary. In fact the Secretary took care to engage in no correspondence that would reveal official participation in the intrigue.

Foster, the British Minister at Washington, was beginning to take cognizance of the doings in the Floridas and to prod the State Department for an explanation. On July 2 Foster addressed a note to Monroe bringing to mind the "intimate alliance subsisting between His Majesty [George III] and Spain." He referred specifically to the military occupation of West Florida. He announced that the Prince Regent, acting in behalf of His Majesty, was "still willing to hope that the American government has not been urged to this step by ambitious motives or by a desire of foreign conquest, and territorial aggrandizement." The alleged affection of the Prince Regent and the mad King, his father, for their fellow monarch, the deposed King of Spain, was most touching. If the occupation continued, said Minister Foster, he was commanded to present the solemn protest of His  p84 Royal Highness against an attempt "so contrary to every principle of justice, good faith, and national honor, and so injurious to the alliance between His Majesty and the Spanish nation."

To this ultimatum Monroe replied that the President of the United States could not admit of the right of Great Britain to interfere in any question relating to West Florida. He cited the many and grave injuries inflicted upon the United States by Spain, replaced his country's claim under the Louisiana Purchase and finally clinched the argument by asserting that the inhabitants had themselves asked aid of the United States. So much for West Florida.

In East Florida the kettle continued to simmer. In August Mathews wrote to Monroe asking 200 stand of arms and 50 horsemen's swords. There is no record of a reply. On September 5 came a note from Minister Foster. Foster, it seems, had it from the Spanish Minister, Chevalier d'Onis, who had it from the Governor of East Florida, that on August 14 General Mathews had been at Newton, on the Spanish side of St. Mary's River, treating with the inhabitants to deliver the town to the United States, "using every method of seduction," promising to each white man "fifty acres and a guarantee of religion and property." Shocked to the core Foster declared himself "wholly unable to suppose that Governor Mathews can have orders from the President."

It took the Secretary of State two months to compose an answer. On November 2 he replied "With equal frankness I shall now communicate the part they [the United States] have acted with respect to East Florida." Again he recited the wrongs inflicted upon the United States by Spain. To Foster's charge of dishonor he retorted that it would be "equally unjust and dishonorable in the United States to suffer East Florida to pass into the possession of any other power." He then made known officially the secret resolution which Congress had passed on January 15. But of the good General Mathews' mission Mr. Monroe said not a word.

In November Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy, ordered Captain Campbell to take command of the flotilla at St. Mary's. T. A. Smith, now promoted to lieutenant colonel, was with the soldiers at Point Petre. The year 1811 drew to a close without further action. Then, on March 11, 1812, Mathews advised Campbell that the time was ripe for delivering the stroke. He also sent word to Point  p85 Petre, but here the empire builders hit a snag. Lieutenant Colonel Smith was away and Major Jacint Laval, in temporary command, for reasons best known to himself, flatly refused to cooperate. Mathews' most persistent appeals could not move him. The plot stood still in its tracks until Lieutenant Colonel Smith returned. On March 14 Mathews took the bull by the horns and gave orders to proceed. His best efforts had resulted in the winning over of only 250 "patriots," including but a few dozen Spaniards. At Rose's Bluff, on the south side of the river opposite St. Mary's, the pathetic little band unfurled its flag. Two days later the revolutionists moved on Fernandina and demanded the surrender of the town, on which the guns of Campbell's flotilla were trained.

The secret resolution of Congress had called for an appeal by the people of Florida to the United States on a threat of foreign invasion. Mathews had his revolutionists and, to give the proceedings a further air of legality, a renegade Englishman was now engaged to appear upon the scene and announce that Great Britain was on the point of occupying the peninsula.

Justo Lopez, the Spanish Commandant, might have defied the patriots but he did not like the look of the guns of the United States Navy frowning upon the town. Before replying to the ultimatum he took the precaution to inquire of Campbell whether, if he resisted, the flotilla would open fire. Campbell answered, in effect, that the United States was far from intending to take aggressive action against a nation with which it was at peace; but on the other hand, it could not close its ears to the appeals of the patriots. In other words, he would fire.

Under the circumstances Lopez could do nothing but surrender. The Spanish flag was hauled down, and in its place went up the standard of the patriots, a flag bearing the words "Salus populi, suprema lex." The populi, 250 in all, whose safety was being preserved by the might and power of the United States Navy, stood by to receive their salvation while the grandiose sentiment expressed by the flag caused a ripple of laughter among those who understood Latin. Flushed by this initial success Lieutenant Colonel Smith and his regulars hastened to the outskirts of St. Augustine and demanded the surrender of that town.

But here the imperial design came to an abrupt end. The events in  p86 Florida coincided with the revelation of the Henry letters in Washington. Federalists wanted to know what moral difference there was between Henry's activities in Boston and Mathews' intrigues in Florida. If the administration supported Mathews, then the whole force of its charges against the nefarious British was lost. Monroe was quick to appraise the situation. It was a question of the government or Mathews. Monroe, as Secretary of State, chose to abide by his solemn oath to uphold the government. He wrote to Foster disavowing Mathews' conduct in Florida, asked Foster to inform D'Onis, the Spanish Minister, and dismissed Mathews. The American troops, however, were permitted to remain on Amelia Island.

The old general, unschooled in the niceties of diplomacy, was stunned by the sudden turn of events. He had performed his mission efficiently and successfully. East Florida was as good as a part of the United States. And all he received in reward was dismissal and disgrace! Mathews at first was too shocked to act; he accepted dismissal in silence. But as the shabby treatment he had received dawned upon his reviving consciousness, he resolved to go to Washington and defend himself. And what a nice scandal that would have created!

The excitement had, however, been too much for the old man; he died on the journey, his lips forever sealed. In this supreme sacrifice he served the administration as magnificently as he had ever served his country during his long and distinguished career. Let it be hoped that he received his just deserts upon his "arivil" in the Promised Land.

Thayer's Note:

a The history of the Republic of West Florida — here summarized in a single paragraph and not altogether accurately at that — is a fascinating one, and a sizable section of my American history site is devoted to it: an entire book (Stanley Clisby Arthur's The Story of the West Florida Rebellion) and several journal articles.

Page updated: 8 Jul 13