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Chapter 10

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 12

Chapter Eleven

 p109  Disaster on the Niagara Front

The bluest of blood flowed in the veins of Stephen Van Rensselaer. He was the fifth in lineal descent from William Van Rensselaer, the earliest and best known of the American patroons. His education was the finest that money could buy and he bore the distinction of having attended both Princeton and Harvard. From his father he inherited a vast estate. With such an enviable background of wealth and breeding he was, virtually by necessity, a Federalist. Though opposed to the war he sacrificed his political beliefs to his patriotism and, in spite of a lack of military training and experience, accepted a commission as major general of the New York militia.

The summer of 1812 found him in command on the Niagara front. His deficiency in the military arts he counted upon overcoming by attaching to himself his nephew, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, who had seen considerable active service in the Revolution. As has been previously mentioned, while Hull was engaging and being engaged by the enemy at Detroit the central theater of the war was inactive save for a few unimportant forays on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence. The Americans raided towns on the Canadian shore and the Canadians were driven off in raids on Ogdensburg and Sackett's Harbor in New York. General Dearborn's unauthorized armistice served to delay the American effort.

Nor was Dr. Eustis, War Secretary, success­ful in speeding the machinery of national defense. Volunteers and militia were slow to take the field. So it was that on September 1, more than two months after the declaration of war, General Van Rensselaer at his headquarters at Lewiston, on the American bank of the Niagara a day's march below the falls, could count less than 700 men. These were  p111 ill‑equipped, ill‑fed, many of them without shoes and all of them clamoring for pay. (See Map II)

These circumstances the public ignored. What it had not over­looked was that Van Rensselaer was a Federalist and that he had been opposed to the war. The ugly rumor was spread that, because of his politics, he was being deliberately lukewarm in his military efforts. His situation was in no way improved by the fact that he was a candidate to succeed New York's Governor Tompkins, who was a Republican. The General was overwhelmed with letters from patriotic citizens far from the battle front and goaded by editorials in the Republican press urging a swift and decisive stroke to wipe out the stain of Detroit.

During September the situation improved materially. At last arms and men were on the way and by the first week in October Van Rensselaer's command grew to some 6,000 men distributed along the Niagara from Buffalo to Fort Niagara at the river's mouth. General Alexander Smyth, a Virginian of Irish birth and an officer of the regular army, had arrived at Buffalo, then a village, with 1,650 regulars and 386 militia. At Lewiston was Brigadier General William Wadsworth with 1,700 New York militia and Brigadier General Miller with 600 militia. At Fort Niagara there were 1,350 regulars.

Opposing this force and covering thinly a line 35 miles long were only 1,500 of the enemy, including British regulars, militia and Indians. Thus the Americans enjoyed a superiority of about four to one. However, as at Detroit, the British had an incalculable advantage in the person of the resource­ful Brock who had hastened back from the scene of his victory over Hull to meet the new threat as lieutenant to general R. H. Sheaffe.

Still further to weaken the American effort there developed an instance of the traditional feud between the regular army and the militia. After Smyth had established his headquarters at Buffalo he refused to report in person to Van Rensselaer and, though unfamiliar with the ground, proposed a line of attack contrary to that already chosen by the commander in the field. When, on October 5, Van Rensselaer invited Smyth to a council of war, the latter did not even condescend to reply. The meeting therefore was abandoned and Van Rensselaer determined to proceed on his own.

For a brief moment fortune smiled on the Americans. On the  p112 night of October 9, Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliott, of the Navy, leading a force of 124 men, slipped across the river from Black Rock, boarded and captured the British brigs Detroit and Caledonia, which were lying under the guns of Fort Erie. The Detroit, formerly the Adams, had been surrendered by Hull and renamed by the British. The Caledonia was brought safely off; but the Detroit ran aground and, after being fought over for several hours, had to be burned by the Americans to prevent her recapture. This bold enterprise, accomplished in the face of strong enemy resistance, gave impressive evidence of the valor of which the Americans were capable when properly led. A volunteer member of the expedition was a stalwart young lieutenant colonel of the regular army, standing six feet four inches and conspicuous for his Virginia accent. That day he was receiving his baptism of fire and he was to be heard from many times in this and other wars. His name was Winfield Scott.

Van Rensselaer's men, in their camp at Lewiston, had been chafing under their inactivity. Lieutenant Elliott's victory made them even more impatient to share in the glory. In response to this popular appeal Van Rensselaer determined to make his long-awaited attack.

Lewiston and Queenston face each other across the Niagara River where it breaks through a narrow, rocky gorge. The stream at this point is only 600 feet wide but has many treacherous eddies. The village of Queenston lies on a plateau and above it are the heights rising over 200 feet from the river bank and presenting a precipitous front to the stream. Halfway up the heights on the more gradual slope facing Queenston the British had constructed a redan, a v‑shaped fortification mounting a battery, which commanded Queenston and the American shore. The Americans also had erected a battery on the heights above Lewiston with the guns directed toward the Canadian heights.

The cliffs and the rocky shore, combined with the river barrier, offered an uninviting prospect to the attackers, as General Smyth had pointed out in proposing an alternate plan. However, during the false armistice in August some of the Americans had had an opportunity to visit the Canadian shore under a flag of truce and discovered that Queenston was lightly held. They counted upon a  p113 surprise attack to seize the heights, thus turning the British flank. After that they proposed to sweep down the Canadian bank carrying everything before them until they reached Fort George, at the mouth of the river opposite the American Fort Niagara.

General Van Rensselaer placed his nephew, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, in immediate command of the expedition, a choice which led to a charge of favoritism. The hour for the attempted crossing was set for 3 A.M. on October 10. On the evening before, 13 large boats were brought down on wagons from the falls and, after dark, launched from the Lewiston landing. The men embarked in preparation for the assault. Rivermen familiar with the currents were assigned to getting the boats across, under the direction of a Lieutenant Sims who had been selected as being especially fitted for the job. A storm set in which drenched the party while they waited patiently for the order to proceed.

Promptly at the appointed hour the order was given and the first boat, with Lieutenant Sims in it, moved out into the darkness. The others were about to follow when the discovery was made that there were no oars. Sims had taken them all with him. In consequence the attack had to be called off, and the attackers returned to camp to dry themselves as best they could and curse whoever was responsible for the fiasco. When day dawned it was learned that Sims had dropped down the river, tied his boat to a tree and decamped. Thus disgracefully he passed out of history and thus dismally ended the first attempt to carry the American flag across the Niagara. Contemporary accounts give no explanation for Sims's strange and disloyal behavior.

General Van Rensselaer rather hoped that this humiliating experience would dampen the ardor of his men sufficiently to give him time to hold a council of war and perfect his future plans. But, in spite of the tragicomic prologue, the men were as impatient as ever to get on with the job. The element of surprise might, of course, have been regarded as lost since the arrival of the boats and the activity in the American camp were now apparent to the British. On the contrary, the very ineptitude of the Americans proved to be the most perfect deception. The British could not believe that so apparent a plan was to be taken seriously and assumed that it was a feint to mask a real attack on Fort George. They therefore did nothing to  p114 strengthen their force at Queenston, which consisted of one lone company of Canadian militia, a small body of Indians and 60 grenadiers of General Brock's 41st Regiment of Regulars.

The second attempt was set for 3 A.M. of the 13th. Meanwhile Lieutenant Colonel John Chrystie, commanding the 13th U. S. Infantry at Four-mile Creek, to the east of Fort Niagara, asked General Van Rensselaer for command of the expedition. But the General refused to displace his nephew, though he consented to Chrystie taking part with his regiment in the attack. Chrystie and his men made their way to Lewiston by a back road, unseen by the British. With him came Lieutenant Colonel Fenwick and a detachment of artillery.

This time the attacking party was composed of 300 regulars and 300 militia, but since the regulars had been only a short period in the service the distinction was not great. This time also the boats were put in charge of a reliable man to prevent a repetition of the Sims episode. And, since the regulars got to the boats ahead of the militia, they were the first to embark. Once more a storm came up in the night to add to the men's discomfort. And once more at the appointed hour the order to proceed was given.

The second attack proved more success­ful than the first. Within a few minutes the prows of 10 of the boats touched the Canadian shore while the artillery on the Lewiston heights covered the landing. But the British were on the alert, and, while the attackers were still in the boats, they poured a deadly fire into them, killing and wounding a number of the Americans. Three of the boats went astray in the darkness and in one of them was Lieutenant Colonel Chrystie, so that as the battle opened the 13th Infantry was without its leader. The command fell to John E. Wool, the regiment's senior captain, a young man in his early twenties who had recently entered the service.

Though he was receiving his baptism of fire, Captain Wool possessed the instincts of a true soldier. He at once organized his men and led them from the beach to the plateau where he formed them in line of battle. He was shortly joined by Colonel Van Rensselaer and the militia who formed beside him. The preparations were made none too soon for the British counterattacked fiercely. In the exchange  p115 of fire Van Rensselaer was wounded in five places while Wool received a ball through both his thighs.

So vigorous was the British attack that Van Rensselaer ordered a withdrawal to the protection of the rocks on the riverbank, though even here the Americans were not altogether free from enemy fire. Day had now dawned, and Van Rensselaer made an estimate of the situation. His wounds were so severe that it was clear he could not continue on the field. On the other hand, if nothing were done the Americans would soon be driven back across the river; or, more likely, they would be captured where they stood.

The only apparent solution was to offer the command of what seemed a forlorn hope to Captain Wool, young and inexperienced and wounded though he was. Wool without hesitation accepted the mission which involved the capture of the heights. Two choices lay before him. He might lead his men to the plateau from which they had retreated and attack the British head on. Or he might undertake to scale the steep side of the heights which faced the river and reach his objective without being seen. Wool selected the latter route. Fortunately he had with him several officers who knew the way. In some places the approach was so steep that Wool's men had to drag themselves up by the branches of trees growing out of the rocks. But as they struggled toward the summit they discovered a path which had been left unguarded and which greatly expedited the last stage of the climb.

Meanwhile at Fort George, seven miles down the river, General Brock received warning of the attack. He at once mounted his charger and, accompanied by an aid, galloped to Queenston. He arrived to find that the first American attack had been beaten off and that the British defenders were now massed defiantly around their redan. Brock inspected the fortifications and apparently was satisfied with the situation.

But at that moment a noise attracted the attention of the British to the heights, and to their chagrin they discovered Wool and his men swarming over the summit. One look was enough. They turned and retreated toward Queenston. Brock did not even have time to mount his horse. The Americans rushed exultantly down the hill, seized the redan and raised the Stars and Stripes.

 p116  Brock, however, was not a man to give in easily. He quickly reorganized his force and marched it back up the hill, attacking so fiercely that Wool and his men were driven to the summit and almost over the cliff. One of Wool's men, in fact, was about to raise a white flag and another, before retreating, spiked one of the British guns. But Wool, disdaining surrender, rallied his little band, ordered a charge and once more drove the British past the redan and back to the protection of Queenston, where Brock chided his grenadiers of the 41st Regiment for giving way.

Just then two companies of York militia, under Lieutenant Colonel McDonnell, arrived in Queenston from Fort George, and with these reinforcements Brock determined to have another try. A second time he turned his men toward the heights and, to encourage them, led the column himself on horseback. The forces were hardly engaged when Brock, who presented a conspicuous target, fell from his horse with a bullet through his chest. He lived only long enough to warn his aide not to let the men know of his death. McDonnell now took over the command, but the American fire was so accurate that he had scarcely assumed his duties when he, too, fell mortally wounded. With both leaders gone the British attack faltered, then stopped and the men turned and retired in confusion, leaving the Americans masters of the field.

It was now the middle of the morning and reinforcements were moving steadily from the American shore, the boats providing a shuttle service across the river. Among them came General Van Rensselaer, General Wadsworth, of the New York militia, Lieutenant Colonel Scott and other officers. Scott had arrived from the falls the night before and, like Chrystie, had offered to take command and been refused. But with Solomon Van Rensselaer wounded, no further conflict over rank remained. Scott, as superior officer, took over while General Wadsworth graciously withdrew in his favor. Scott at once put Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Totten, of the Engineers, to work throwing up fortifications. The lost Lieutenant Colonel Chrystie had by this time recovered his bearings and appeared on the scene to resume command of the 13th Infantry, Captain Wool being relieved to return to the American shore to have his wounds dressed. He had done more than enough fighting for one day, had conducted himself superbly and richly deserved a rest.

 p117  The work of entrenching and making the proper disposition of the forces continued until two o'clock in the afternoon. At that hour a band of Indians under their handsome young chieftain, John Brandt, debouched from the woods to the west of the Americans' position. Frightful in their war paint, brandishing tomahawks and uttering blood-curdling cries, they set upon the outposts and drove them back on the main body. Under the force and surprise of the attack the left of the American line gave way. Scott, seeing the danger, rushed to the spot, boldly exposing his full stature to the enemy, replied his men and soon had the Indians retreating to the woods. Calm once more fell over the battlefield.

But it was the calm before the storm. A mile to the north, at Vrooman's Point, below Queenston, a long column of British soldiers in their red coats appeared in view. It was General Sheaffe bringing reinforcements from Fort George. Instead of advancing directly on the heights, Sheaffe made for the village of St. David's, several miles to the west. There he was joined by Chief Brandt and his Indians and another British force that had marched north from Chippawa. Sheaffe's force now numbered upwards of 1,000 men, exclusive of the Indians. To oppose him Scott had, or thought he had, only 350 regulars and 250 militia.

The little band of Americans on the heights, however, was encouraged by the knowledge that on the opposite shore were more than 1,200 militiamen who had not been engaged and who could be quickly transported across the river in the boats. But the flow of reinforcements was slowing down and General Van Rensselaer recrossed the river to hurry them up. Imagine his surprise when he reached the American camp to learn that the militiamen would not move! The General pleaded, threatened and cajoled. Several other prominent men in the community harangued the warriors, who the day before had been so impatient to do battle. The speakers pointed to the handful of their fellow countrymen on the heights across the river in imminent peril and besought the militiamen to go to their rescue.

The militiamen were unmoved. They didn't need to have the danger pointed out to them. They had heard the war whoops of the Indians and the fire of the musketry; they had seen the wounded and learned from eyewitnesses details of the carnage. They were in  p118 no mood to leave a safe spot for a dangerous one. Many of the accounts state that they invoked the Constitution, contending that nobody had the right to send them outside the national boundaries. On that point General Van Rensselaer's report is silent. He is content to say simply that they would not go. The best he could do was to send word to Scott that if worst came to worst the boats would be there to bring his force off.

Around 4 P.M., having marshaled his troops, Sheaffe launched his attack. Scott had counted 700 men in his command in all, but it was later estimated that not more than 250 stood their ground to meet the oncoming host. They received the first shock bravely and warded it off, but when Sheaffe brought his artillery to bear on the center and attacked both flanks simultaneously, the American line gave way.

Defeat quickly turned into rout as the Americans tried to save themselves by seeking the most convenient line of retreat to the riverbank, fighting their way by the plateau above Queenston or scrambling down the sheer side of the heights and taking refuge in the caves at the bottom. To make the tragedy complete the boatmen took fright and refused to bring the survivors off.

The Americans made several efforts to surrender but those who raised the flag of truce were killed by the Indians. At last Scott, in desperation, ripped a white cravat from the throat of Lieutenant Totten, attached it to the end of his sword and waved it in the air. This attracted the attention of the British and the Indians were called off. Thus disastrously for the American cause ended the battle, and the rounding up of the prisoners began. Though not more than 250 Americans had fought on the heights, those taken by the British were found to number 900. Save for several hundred who had been captured in an attempted landing at Vrooman's Point, the vast majority after reaching the Canadian shore had skulked in the caves by the river and had seen no fighting at all.

In the several engagements during the day the British lost in killed and wounded 130 officers and men. The estimated loss of the Americans was 90 killed and 100 wounded, in addition to those made prisoner. Among the captured were Lieutenant Colonel Scott, General Wadsworth and several other high-ranking officers. Detroit  p119 had not been avenged and the score now stood at two to nothing against the Americans.

To one person the outcome was no surprise. General Smyth might well flatter himself that he had had the foresight to stick to his tent at Buffalo instead of sharing the shame of defeat under the leader­ship of a militiaman. That was what came of failing to give the command to a regular. But time and patience correct many errors. After the defeat at Queenston, General Van Rensselaer, the militiaman, resigned his commission and Smyth, the regular, succeeded to his place.

It has been said many times that the pen is mightier than the sword. Smyth brought both his pen and his sword along with him, but he used his pen to better advantage. No sooner had he taken over command than he sat down at his desk to compose a proclamation to the people of New York designed to stir their patriotism and at the same time to congratulate them upon the sort of man they now had to lead them. Reminding them of the traditional valor of the American people, he added: "That valor has been conspicuous, but the nation has been unfortunate in the selection of some of those who directed it. One army has been disgracefully surrendered and lost; another has been sacrificed by a precipitate attempt to pass it over at the strongest point of the enemy's lines with most incompetent means. The cause of the miscarriages is apparent. The commanders were popular men 'destitute alike of theory and experience' in the art of war!"

Having thus neatly disposed of Hull and Van Rensselaer, the General proceeded in logical order to give an intimation of what the New Yorkers might expect from him. "In a few days," he wrote, "the troops under my command will plant the American standard in Canada. They are men accustomed to obedience, silence and steadiness. They will conquer or they will die."

Would the New Yorkers stand by with folded arms? Would they force him to appeal for aid to the Six Nations and "suffer the ungathered laurels to be tarnished by the ruthless deeds of the Indians"? Here the General evidently dipped his pen in ink as he turned a phrase over in his mind. The result of his reflection must have gratified him as he read it over. "Shame, where is thy blush!  p120 No. Where I command, the vanquished and peaceful man, the child, the maid and the matron shall be secure from wrong. If we conquer, we will 'conquer but to save.' "

Then at last, oblivious to his own recent conduct during the battle of Queenston, he arrived at the exhortation:

"Men of New York, the present is the hour of renown. Have you not a wish for fame? . . . Then seize the present moment. If you do not you will regret it and say 'the valiant have bled in vain; the friends of my country fell and I was not there.' Advance then to our aid. I will wait for you a few days. I cannot give you the day of my departure. I will organize you for a short tour. But come on. Come in companies, half companies, pairs or singly. Ride to this place if the distance is far, and send back your horses. But remember that every man who accompanies us places himself under my command and shall submit to the salutary restraints of discipline."

So eloquent was the appeal, so ringing the challenge that the patriotic New Yorkers could not ignore it. They came "in companies, half companies, pairs and singly." Smyth's army, for the space of one month, was increased to 4,500 men. It included not only New Yorkers under Congressman Peter B. Porter, now wearing the star of a brigadier, but regulars, volunteers from Baltimore under General William H. Winder and Pennsylvania volunteers under General Tannehill. The troops were ordered to rendezvous at Black Rock on the New York side of the river, a few miles from Buffalo and opposite Fort Erie. Smyth's plan was to attack between Fort Erie and Chippawa, which lay several miles to the north of the fort.

When the army had been assembled the General stiffened its morale with a windy address which closed with another blast of inspired prose in his most florid style:

"Rewards and honors await the brave, infamy and contempt are reserved for cowards. Companions in arms! You come to vanquish a valiant foe. I know the choice you will make. Come on, my heroes! And when you attack the enemy's batteries, let your rallying word be 'The cannon lost at Detroit, or death!' "

Orders were issued for the embarkation to take place, under the direction of General Winder, at the navy yard below Black Rock early on the morning of November 28. Silence and stratagem were not among Smyth's distinguished qualities. So noisy was his camp  p121 that the enemy had become fully aware of his plan and made preparations to meet it. A thousand men were spread out along the Canadian shore which fairly bristled with artillery.

The season in that part of the country was now far advanced and the day selected proved to be cold and stormy. While it was still dark the advance guards put out in the boats. Some of them reached the Canadian shore and captured a battery. But there was great confusion in the darkness, and though members of the party displayed rare courage, no advantage was gained and those who did not get back to the American shore were taken prisoner by the British. At this critical moment the commanding general was nowhere to be seen. Having delivered the exhortation and assigned the problem he left its solution to the subordinates. From early morning until late afternoon the men of the main body were allowed to sit exposed and shivering in the boats in a cold rain that soon turned to sleet and from sleet to snow.

The original plan had failed, but nobody knew what other plans, if any, were in the General's mind. The men's patriotism was sorely taxed. Smyth had promised them the chance for valor and glory, but there was little of either sitting in open boats which were by now coated with ice and rapidly filling with water. At last, when their endurance was almost at an end, an order came through. It was a cheerful message from the commander enjoining them in his most graceful language to "disembark and dine." The army by this time was beginning to realize the sort of man that had been assigned it as a leader. As for Peter B. Porter, he disembarked his New Yorkers and, without waiting to "dine," marched them off home.

Undismayed by this failure, Smyth ordered a renewal of the attack on the morning of November 30 and again set himself to the task of raising the flagging spirits of his men by applying his pen to the composition of still another literary masterpiece. As though addressing an army of postmen he exclaimed, "Neither rain, snow or frost will prevent the embarkation." Then, having noted that the previous attack had lacked an element of gaiety, he took pains to see that the same error should not occur again. "While embarking," he announced, "the music will play martial airs. Yankee Doodle will be the signal to get under way. . . . The landing will be effected despite of cannon. The whole army has seen that cannon is to be little  p122 dreaded . . . Hearts of War! Tomorrow will be memorable in the annals of the United States."

And the morrow was memorable, though not in the sense that Smyth had meant. The "Hearts of War" were now thoroughly disgusted with their commander. Reluctantly and after much persuasion from their company officers they again took their places in the boats. Ugly rumors began to fly about that the Pennsylvanians were on the point of asserting their constitutional rights and refusing to set foot outside of the United States. Even the officers were beginning to question the wisdom of undertaking so risky an expedition under a leader who gave every impression of being either a coward or a madman. Every minute the temper of the men was growing worse. At this point the regular officers in the army took matters into their own hands and hurriedly called a council of war. There was little debate over what should be done. From the council was issued an order that all troops were to debark at once and return to camp. It was announced further that an invasion of Canada was to be abandoned for the time being; the regulars were to go into winter quarters, the volunteers were to go home.

Now that the suspense was broken and it was known that the war was over for the time being, the men lost all sense of discipline and behaved like schoolboys at the end of a term. Muskets were discharged at random and at the risk of life and limb. The camp was turned into a bedlam. In the course of the celebration the commander was not forgotten. A double guard had to be placed before Smyth's tent to protect him from his own men. Even this precaution was insufficient and the General had to move his headquarters several times to escape the insults hurled at him.

General Porter lost no time in expressing publicly his sentiments of Smyth in no uncertain terms, and Smyth defended his somewhat tarnished honor by challenging Porter to a duel. The two men met and exchanged shots at twelve paces, but neither was hit. Three months later Smyth retired permanently from the army, "unwept, unhonored and unsung." But his gift for oratory was not to be wasted. He returned to Virginia, took the stump and made such good use of his eloquence that he was elected to Congress.

While these operations had been taking place at Detroit on the left, and at Niagara in the center, the grand strategy on the right  p123 had been even less event­ful. Dearborn, the reluctant generalissimo, headed a force of nearly 6,000 men in the vicinity of Lake Champlain. His only accomplishment was to make a desultory advance toward Canada, capture a blockhouse and fall back to his original position. Feeling that he had done his bit for the time being he went into winter quarters.

So ended the campaign of the year 1812. Henry Clay had promised to subdue Canada with the Kentucky militia alone. Thomas Jefferson, from his lofty lookout at Monticello, where all the world seemed to lie at his feet, had turned military critic and written to a friend abroad that "the acquisition of Canada this year [1812] as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching." The muster rolls of the United States Army show that the during that year militia called into service numbered 49,187. To this must be added 15,000 regulars. Thus, during 1812, no less than 65,000 men were called to active service, yet so widely were they distributed that nowhere had there been more than a few thousand men on a single field. Three attempts at the invasion of Canada had been repulsed and not an inch of Canadian soil was in American hands, while the flag of Britain flew exultantly over Detroit. No wondered the New England Federalists, who hadn't wanted the war anyway, charged that the failure of the Canadian effort was deliberate, that the South was afraid of the inclusion of Canada in the Union, and that the last thing Mr. Madison desired was a brilliant victory in that zone of operations. And, indeed, it almost passed belief that an honest effort could have failed so dismally.

Page updated: 11 Oct 13