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Chapter 18

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 20

Chapter Nineteen

 p221  Wilkinson in Quest of Laurels

"To whom will you confide the charge of leading the flower of our youth to the Heights of Abraham? Will you find him in the person of an acquitted felon?"

At last John Randolph's prophetic utterance before the Twelfth Congress was to come true. Perhaps, after all, the prophecy was not surprising for General James Wilkinson was a warrior of no mean distinction. Like Dearborn and Hull, he had seen active service in the Revolution. For a time he enjoyed the confidence of Washington, but his love of intrigue got the better of him. When he was discovered taking part with Conway in the cabal against the Commander he lost his position in the field. Wilkinson next assumed the office of Clothier-General to the army only to retire once more when serious shortages were found in his accounts. Nevertheless, after the war he was back again in the regular army, and as Federal commander in the Southwest he had the honor of raising the Stars and Stripes in New Orleans. In that same capacity he became involved in the conspiracy of Aaron Burr. It was rumored that Burr counted upon him to seize New Orleans. But if that charge was true Wilkinson neatly cleared himself by appearing as chief witness against the Vice-President. He received a pension from the Spanish Government, presumably for services rendered, and his name appeared on the Spanish account books as "Spy No. 13."

It is said that where there is smoke, there must be fire. Wherever Wilkinson happened to be there was always smoke, but it never quite burst into flame. He faced a Congressional court of inquiry and a court-martial, but so far as conviction was concerned he led a charmed life. "Not guilty" was invariably the verdict, though in  p222 one instance Madison accepted the decision of the court "with regret."

When it became apparent that old Henry Dearborn was no longer capable of commanding the army on the Canadian border Secretary Armstrong began to look about for a successor. There were two possibilities in the Southwest; one was Wilkinson, the other Andrew Jackson. But Jackson's military genius was then unknown. Besides, he too was suspected of connivance with Burr, though later events proved how baseless the suspicion was. While Armstrong knew Jackson chiefly through the insults he had hurled at the administration, he was personally acquainted with Wilkinson with whom he had served in the Revolution. So it was that the invitation went to Wilkinson, who was none too keen to accept it, and not to Jackson, who was impatient to go. Had Jackson been selected by Armstrong in place of Wilkinson history might have contained a glorious chapter in place of one that records the shameful failure of American arms.

So it was to Wilkinson in New Orleans that the Secretary of War wrote inquiring, "Why should you remain in your land of cypress when patriotism and ambition equally invite you to one where grows the laurel?" An offer couched in such florid language could hardly be refused. The invitation went out in March; but seldom has a commander proceeded more casually to his post. It took Wilkinson until July 31 to reach the national capital. He had the excuse of having been ill on the way. Wilkinson was another of the numerous veteran leaders of 1812 who enjoyed bad health.

In Washington Wilkinson lingered, conferring with Armstrong on plans for the contemplated campaign. Armstrong proposed first an attack on Kingston and then an expedition down the St. Lawrence against Montreal. This was not ambitious enough for Wilkinson. At least while he was still some thousand miles from the front enjoying the comparative comforts of Washington. He countered with a plan of his own. He would first drive the enemy from the peninsula between Lakes Erie, Ontario and the Niagara River. Having cleared that territory and, assuming that Harrison and Perry had failed in their mission, he would next proceed westward and reduce Fort Malden. With the peninsula and Upper Canada subjugated, it would be time enough to move on Montreal and deliver the coup de grâce. Armstrong began to question whether he had  p223 been wise in his choice of a commander. He put his foot down upon so extravagant and chimerical a proposal as a march on Malden and eliminated it from the field of operations, but stuck to the campaign against Montreal. Yet after almost two weeks of conferences, when Wilkinson was ready to depart for Sackett's Harbor where he was to make his headquarters, no definite plan of action had been determined upon by the new leader and his chief in the War Department. (See Map III, p156)

With an astonishing lack of tact, and simultaneous with Wilkinson's transfer, Armstrong shifted General Wade Hampton, of South Carolina, from the southern to the northern front to command the American troops on Lake Champlain. Hampton was a proud and wealthy planter who had seen service under Marion in the southern area during the Revolution. He knew Wilkinson, distrusted and detested him. Hampton was under the impression that his army of 4,000 men at Burlington, Vermont, was an independent command. But no sooner had Wilkinson reached Albany, New York, than he tried Hampton out by issuing an order to him. Hampton protested directly to Secretary Armstrong, refusing to take orders from Wilkinson and offering his resignation. Armstrong, however, prevailed upon him to remain at his post and hastened north to be on the scene and help keep the peace between his two subordinates who seemed more interested in waging war against each other than against the British. Whatever the understanding may have been between Armstrong and Hampton, Wilkinson was determined to assert his authority. He reached his post at Sackett's Harbor on August 20 and four days later dispatched a letter to Armstrong in which he cautioned him against meddling. "I trust," he wrote, "you will not interfere with my arrangements, or give orders within the district of my command, but to myself, because it would impair my authority and distract the public service. Two heads on the same shoulders make a monster." The campaign could not have got off to a worse start.

Wilkinson's command consisted nominally of from 12,000 to 14,000 men. Of these, 5,000 were at Sackett's Harbor, 5,000 at Fort George on the Niagara; and 4,000, if they could be called Wilkinson's, were with Hampton at Burlington. Sickness had been very prevalent on the Lakes during the summer so that of the force mentioned  p224 it was estimated that the effective strength was not more than 9,000. Wilkinson himself was soon added to the sick list and his reports began to take on the aspect of a hospital chart. "I dictate this under much depression of head and stomach," he wrote Armstrong on September 11. Five days later he was little improved. "I have escaped my palet, and with a giddy head and trembling hand will endeavor to scrawl you a few lines."

The season was already growing late, yet valuable days were wasted in lengthy discussions of plans between the Secretary of War and his obstinate lieutenant. Opposing the American forces, the British had in the field an army of 8,000 men spread out all the way from the Niagara Peninsula to Montreal, with Kingston as its center. It was finally agreed to abandon the attack on Kingston, Commodore Chauncey blockading the naval forces in that harbor, while Wilkinson should enter the St. Lawrence and set out toward Montreal. At the same time Hampton was ordered to set his army in motion from Burlington and form a junction with Wilkinson on the St. Lawrence at the mouth of the Chateaugay River for the final assault upon Montreal.

Troops were drawn from Fort George to swell the ranks at Sackett's Harbor and Colonel Winfield Scott, who had been on the Niagara during the summer facing Vincent, was told that if Vincent left that front he might take more troops from Fort George and realize his ambition of having a part in the campaign against Montreal. While the final preparations were being made September sped by and it was not until October 12 that Wilkinson was ready to order a rendezvous at Grenadier Island where the waters of Lake Ontario enter the St. Lawrence. Five more days passed before the little army set out in scows, bateaux and sailboats accompanied by an inadequate number of pilots who knew the treacherous currents in that neighborhood.

The day of departure could hardly have been worse. As the expedition put out into the lake a gale set in, attended by snow and sleet. In the ensuing darkness 15 of the large boats were lost, many others were damaged, and the whole force was thrown into confusion. It was three days before the remnants of the expedition were collected together on the island, still in a disorganized and damaged condition. Wilkinson wrote courageously to his superior that, in  p225 spite of this initial disaster, he would proceed to carry out his mission. The Commander needed all the courage he possessed, for the storms continued, battering the boats and creating intense suffering among the men. Finally the temperature dropped and the rain was followed by a snowfall of 10 inches. The fury of the elements add to all the other difficulties so that the reorganizing and re‑equipping of the expedition consumed two more weeks.

At last, on November 5, the army again embarked and entered the St. Lawrence River. Commodore Chauncey's operations on Lake Ontario throughout the summer had proved quite ineffectual. He and Yeo, who commanded the British naval forces on the lake, had played hide and seek with each other and occasionally exchanged shots, but without bringing about a decisive action. Now that Chauncey's task was blockading Kingston he allowed the British gunboats to slip through and these immediately proceeded to harass Wilkinson from the rear. At the same time British troops from Kingston pursued the expedition by the road which followed the river along the Canadian shore and caused it further annoyance, taking pot shots at the boats whenever occasion offered.

Unable to put up with this persistent pressure on his rear Wilkinson detached Colonel Alexander Macomb with 1,200 picked men and ordered him to clear the Canadian shore. Hearing that the British were being reinforced he sent General Jacob Brown with more men to support Macomb and, after that, General John P. Boyd with still more men to assist Macomb and Brown. November 10 found the expedition at the head of Longue Saute, a rapids eight miles long. Once the boats were in them there would be no way of getting out. To make matters worse news came that the British had seized a blockhouse at the foot of the rapids and were preparing to contest the passing of the Americans. Wilkinson dispatched General Brown down the river road to dislodge the British. Meanwhile the enemy in the rear were making things unpleasantly hot for him and, to cap the climax, the pilots refused to enter the rapids and run the risk of being caught in them during the night. There was nothing for Wilkinson to do but too moor his boats, take shelter for the night and await favorable news from Brown. The spot selected lay below an island known as Chrysler's and opposite a farm of the same name.

The night passed without incident and, early in the morning, the  p226 reliable Brown sent back the encouraging news that he had dislodged the British at the foot of the rapids. Wilkinson gave the order for the flotilla to move. But it was too late; the British in his rear were already upon him. In this critical moment Wilkinson again fell ill. A note headed "From My Bed" was dispatched to Brown advising him of the situation and in it Wilkinson wailed, "It is now that I feel the heavy hand of disease — enfeebled and confined to my bed while the safety of the army intrusted to my command, the honor of our arms and the greatest interest of our country are at hazard."

Wilkinson roused himself enough to direct General Boyd to turn and outflank the enemy. Indeed, the situation had become unendurable and there was no chance of relief until the Americans stood and fought. Boyd took up a position with his left on the St. Lawrence, his right protected by a swamp and heavy woods. Opposite him on the Chrysler farm was the British line, protected by a heavy rail fence and ravines near the riverbank. In the St. Lawrence the American gunboats took up position to fend off any possible attack from the gunboats of the British. On the American right General Swartout was in command, on the left General Leonard Covington, mounted upon a snow-white charger. The day was cold and raw with flurries of snow and sleet, and the ground over which the battle was to be fought was a sea of slush.

Yet the Americans proceeded gallantly to the attack. Swartout opened the engagement by charging upon the enemy's advance guard and driving it back upon the main line. The fighting then became general. As the Americans moved forward they were met by a hail of shrapnel and bullets but kept stoutly on. In spite of the ravines, the fence and the mud, the cold that numbed their fingers so that they could with difficulty load their muskets, and the enemy fire that tore holes in their ranks, they succeeded in dislodging the British and driving them back a whole mile.

But their temporary advantage had been gained at considerable cost. Covington on his white charger, gallantly leading his men, proved too good a target. He fell, mortally wounded. And, when the Americans needed it most, their ammunition gave out. There was nothing to do but retire over the ground they had just gained, and the British, seeing them withdraw, set upon them with everything year  p227 they had in the way of shot and shell. When the Americans who were in the reserve observed their comrades retreating they fell into a panic and soon the whole army was running helter-skelter from the field. Fortunately, at this moment a reinforcement of 600 men dispatched by Wilkinson reached the scene, and its arrival halted the rout. The battle of Chrysler's Field ended with both armies facing each other, but neither daring to go forward. The American losses were heavy. They included 102 men killed and 137 missing as compared with a British los of only 22 killed, 150 wounded and 15 missing. One account gives the forces engaged as from 1,600 to 1,700 Americans against 800 British; another declares they were about even, including the Indian allies of the latter. The most serious loss of the Americans was General Covington, who died of his wounds shortly after the battle.

In any event, it was not an engagement of which the Americans could feel proud, indicating as it did poor organization and incompetent leader­ship. Wilkinson in his report to Armstrong enlarged upon his physical handicaps. "The disease," he wrote, "with which I was assailed on the 2nd of September, on my journey to Ft. George, having with a few short intervals of convalescence, preyed on me ever since; and at the moment of this action, I was confined to my bed, and emaciated almost to a skeleton, unable to sit on my horse, or to move ten paces without assistance."

The demonstration of Chrysler's Field augured ill for success against Montreal. But then Wilkinson counted upon meeting Hampton down the river with fresh men and much-needed provisions. The following day the expedition proceeded unmolested through the rapids, joining General Brown and his detachment, which was waiting at the bottom. And there Wilkinson received the disappointing news that Hampton would not meet him. Wilkinson could not appeal to the Secretary of War to enforce the order, for the third member of this strange triumvirate had departed for home, leaving the other two members to settle their differences as best they could.

Hampton, too, had been having his difficulties. He set out from Burlington for the Canadian border but ran into a drought which threatened to cut off the supply of water for men and horses, and he was forced to change his route. He then found himself facing a British army. He attempted a flanking movement, but the troops assigned  p228 to the task lost themselves in a swamp and, when they came into conflict with a small detachment of the enemy, fled in dismay. The British were equally surprised and fled as rapidly in the opposite direction.

After this unsatisfactory contact between two small detachments, the main bodies approached each other. The British, under Lieutenant Colonel De Salaberry, numbered 1,000 men; Hampton's force, 3,500. De Salaberry, however, stationed his buglers at a considerable distance from each other and ordered them to sound off. Hampton, hearing the bugles so far apart, a seemed that he was facing an army of immense proportions and, rather than sacrifice his command, gave the order to retreat. He did not halt until he reached a place called Chateaugay Four Corner from which he had set out and a considerable distance from the St. Lawrence.

After these experiences Hampton was in no mood to keep his rendezvous with Wilkinson. It was absurd for Wilkinson to talk of Hampton supplying him with rations when Hampton himself was short of supplies. Besides, his personal animosity toward Wilkinson encouraged him to keep as far away from that gentleman as possible. So it was that Hampton's adjutant appeared to report that the meeting was definitely off.

So, too, was the campaign against Montreal. Wilkinson and his generals contented themselves with drawing up a paper condemning Hampton's behavior. Armstrong presumably had not entertained the idea that an attack on Montreal by Wilkinson would be successfully carried out; for, before his departure, he designated a site for winter quarters at French Mills, a few miles up the Salmon River. To this spot the dispirited army now repaired, suffering great hardship on the way and after they reached the camp. Wilkinson turned over the command to General Brown and set off for a place where he was much more at home than on the field of battle — a hospital at Malone, not very far away. Wilkinson's career was drawing to a close. Later in the winter he attempted another expedition in the direction of the Canadian border, but it was brief and as disastrous as his first. After that he went home to face a court-martial where, as usual, his conduct was exonerated. Wade Hampton, too, gave up his command and retired to his broad acres in South Carolina.  p229 Of the three bunglers Armstrong alone held on to resume bungling in an even more conspicuous field.

Throughout December and January Brown and the army remained at French Mills where they constructed rude huts that afforded little comfort. The cold was intense and the men were short of blankets. In the trip down the St. Lawrence most of the medicines and hospital stores had been lost and the nearest source of supply was Albany, a good 250 miles away. Provisions were scarce and of poor quality. And throughout the whole time the Americans were menaced by the enemy who gave them no peace. It was a great relief when at last in February orders were received to move. Through the snow and along the shores of the St. Lawrence Brown led the forlorn army back to Sackett's Harbor, from which it had set out so hopefully five months before. In that time all it had gained was bitter experience and the loss of a leader who should never have attempted to lead.

Meanwhile disaster had struck the American cause on the Niagara front. It will be recalled that Colonel Winfield Scott was told that if Vincent left the Niagara he might take the 800 regulars at Fort George and join the expedition against Montreal. Vincent did leave, and so did Scott, though his men had to march by land and never reached Wilkinson. General McClure took over the command at Fort George but his force was now composed only of militia and volunteers and, as was usual with these soldiers in time of emergency, their enlistments were about to expire.

Vincent's abrupt departure was due to the fact that he had received news of the defeat of Proctor in the battle of the Thames and naturally assumed that Harrison would immediately follow up his victory by marching eastward and joining forces with the Americans on the Niagara, at Sackett's Harbor and on Lake Champlain. He therefore hastened by forced marches to Burlington Heights, at the western end of Lake Ontario, to intercept him. There he learned to his relief that, instead of advancing, Harrison had retired to Detroit. There being no further threat in that direction, Vincent retraced his steps to the Niagara to resume his harassment of the Americans.

Vincent's action placed McClure in a predicament, as the force under the latter was reduced and of poor quality. McClure determined  p230 to abandon Fort George and retire across the river and concentrate his men on the defense of Fort Niagara. In his alarm he seems to have lost his head for he not only attempted to blow up Fort George but, for no apparent reason, he set fire to the village of Newark, destroying all the houses and leaving the inhabitants without shelter in the bitter cold of the Canadian winter. His action was as strongly condemned by Americans as by Canadians but this did nothing to palliate the demand for retaliation that arose throughout Canada.

It was not long in coming. On December 18 the infuriated British took possession of Fort George and, in the night, crossed the river. A body of 1,000 men, including Indians, attacked Fort Niagara, which with criminal negligence had been left unguarded, captured the fort and deliberately slaughtered the greater part of the garrison. The raiders now swept up the American side of the river while another British force crossed at Queenston. The combined forces gained momentum as they went, bringing terror and destruction to Lewiston, Manchester, Schlosser and Tuscarora. At Black Rock they burned the Ariel, Little Belt, Chippawa and Trippe which had lain at anchor there since their part in the battle of Lake Erie. The raid ended with the plunder and destruction of Black Rock and Buffalo attended by excesses that were customary when Indians had a hand in the game. The whole of upper New York was thrown into a state of terror and militia and volunteers were called out in a hurry to stem the tide. The British at last concluded that they had done enough to avenge Newark, retired as they had come, and left the border towns mourning their dead and the destruction of their property.

During the year 1813 the American operations on land had met with complete failure, with the exception of the battle of the Thames. Yet the records of the Adjutant General's office show that during the year the United States Army reached a total of 149,148 men, of whom 19,036 were regulars and 130,112 were militia. These figures are exclusive of volunteers and rangers. That would indicate a tremendous effort and a force far outnumbering any British force that could have been brought against it. Yet so short were the individual terms of enlistment and so widely distributed were the troops that never were more than a few thousand brought together  p231 on a battlefield. As an example of the waste of man power, no fewer than 66,376 militiamen from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia were employed in observing no more than 2,600 regulars and sailors on British ship marauding in Chesapeake Bay.

As for the colossal failures in Canada, well might the Federalists continue to declare that the Virginia Dynasty and its Southern and Western supporters had never intended Canada to be taken and that the failures were deliberate.

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