Military Subjects:  War of 1812

 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 2: February 2006

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

BOOK REVIEW

Minor Literature of the War of 1812

Reviewed by: Donald E. Graves

McClure, George. Causes of the Destruction of the American Towns on the Niagara Frontier, and Failure of the Campaign of the Fall of 1813. Benjamin Smead (printer), Bath, NY, 1817

Beardsley, Charles E. The Victims of Tyranny; A Tale. D. June, Buffalo, NY, 1847

These two titles are suitable for joint discussion because they have a very tenuous connection in the form of Joseph Willcocks, the Canadian traitor who fought for the United States during the War of 1812.

Beginning with McClure's Causes of the Destruction, the author was a prewar resident of Bath, NY where he served as a sheriff and judge. He was also a brigadier general in the state militia who received command of the New York brigade sent in September 1813 to replace US regular troops who had been occupying the area around Fort George, Upper Canada, since the previous May but who were withdrawn to participate in Wilkinson's ill-fated campaign against Montreal. Included in McClure's force was a small unit of Canadian renegades, led by Joseph Willcocks, a former member of the Upper Canada legislature and there is no doubt that Willcocks had great influence on McClure who made him "Police Officer" of the American-occupied zone, an appointment that permitted Willcocks to unleash a miniature reign of terror on his former countrymen, particularly those who had opposed him during his prewar political career. Still worse, the Canadian Volunteers engaged in widespread looting as did their New York militia comrades, behaviour was in distinct contrast to the regular troops who had previously been in garrison and whose conduct was usually correct.

McClure's brigade was only enlisted for a three month period and, by December, when its term had almost expired, he began to grow desperate as British forces were beginning to harass his outposts. His appeals for reinforcements were not met and, in mid-December 1813, McClure decided to abandon Upper Canada and retire to the American side of the Niagara River. He was in possession of an order from Armstrong that, if necessary to the defence of Fort George, he could destroy the neighbouring village of Newark (present Niagara-on-the-Lake) but, instead, McClure decided to destroy Newark and then withdraw from Fort George. There is little doubt that this decision was inspired by Willcocks, a prewar resident of Newark, whose men carried out the actual destruction on 10 December, turning nearly 400 civilians (mostly women and children) out into the cold of a Canadian winter and burning the town to the ground.

This needless act of destruction infuriated British commanders who engaged in massive retaliation. Over the next three weeks, the British army carried out a campaign of fire and sword on the American side of the Niagara River, first capturing Fort Niagara by a brilliant feat of arms and then razing every habitation between Lakes Ontario and Erie, including the village of Buffalo. McClure and Willcocks, the true authors of this disaster, were not present as McClure withdrew from his command after sending Willcocks to Albany to plead his case with Governor Tompkins. The wanton burning of Newark embarrassed the American federal government which officially repudiated McClure's act and, not surprising, he was removed from command and treated with widespread obloquy by his fellow New Yorkers, particularly those residing in the Niagara area.

Like many another failed general in many another war, McClure attempted to justify his actions by postwar publication. The result is his 1817 pamphlet, Causes of the Destruction …  which contains a lengthy introduction explaining his side of the matter but also contains copies of McClure's correspondence between September 1813 and January 1814. McClure blamed the destruction of the American Niagara on others -- which should be of little surprise -- primarily Secretary of War Armstrong but, in descending order, Major-Generals James Wade Hampton and James Wilkinson, Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott (who abandoned the Niagara with his regiment to join Wilkinson) and Captain Nathan Leonard, the commandant of Fort Niagara whom McClure condemns as being "much intoxicated" at the time the British took his post. Very little mention is made of Willcocks or the role he played in the disaster except that McClure informs Tompkins that Willcocks, whom he is sending to Albany, will explain his motives. In any case, Willcocks, always quick to abandon a sinking ship, seems not to have wasted further time on the wretched McClure but, instead, travelled to Washington to meet with Secretary of War Armstrong.

McClure's little pamphlet is useful for scholars because it sheds light on military operations in the Niagara in the autumn and early winter of 1813 and provides considerable background for one of the more distasteful events of the war. It must, however, be read with caution and only in conjunction with other official documents as McClure's choice of evidence was very selective.

The historical jury is very much still out on Joseph Willcocks, regarded by some Canadians as a true patriot who was the victim of royalist oppression, and by others as a thoroughgoing rotter who spread death and destruction in his wake. Regardless of one's opinion of the man (and the reviewer tends very much to the latter view), Willcocks, however, perhaps deserves some sympathy because he suffered the worst possible fate of any historical figure -- he fell into the hands of a third rate novelist.

That novelist was Charles E. Beardsley and the novel was The Victims of Tyranny published in Buffalo in 1847. Thankfully, Victims seems to have been Beardsley's only literary production as an (admittedly quick) survey of the Internet only turned up the information that a man of the same name was a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention in 1850, so he may be a native of that state. In his preface, Beardsley assures his readers that the "following work, although assuming the character of a fiction, is founded on fact" In response, the reviewer, who has tracked the trail of Joe Willcocks for more than three decades, can firmlystate that is entirely fiction, and bad fiction at that.

The first line of Victims immediately gets off on the wrong foot when it informs us that "Joseph Wilcox, the son of an Irish Baron, emigrated to Upper Canada, in eighteen hundred and nine." In actual fact Willcocks, who came from a more humble background, arrived in that province in 1800. Be that as it may, our hero soon falls out with the cruel and oppressive governor, Sir Anthony Arbuthnot, although not with the governor's attractive daughter, Arietta, who displays democratic sensitivities unusual with her station. Forced to flee from the tyrannical yoke, Willcocks resolves to join the American forces who have just invaded Upper Canada (the novel jumps from 1809 to 1813 with breathtaking suddenness). He is urged to do so by his loyal American servant, Sam Johnson from Kentucky, who speaks in dialect as the following passage, in which they argue over the identity of a group of mounted men, illustrates:

"You think them a body of American cavalry -- do you?" enquired Mr. Wilcox at length.

"Sartin -- and we'd best be joggin' on, I guess," said the servant in reply, and then he moved forward.......

"The British cavalry wear blue too, Johnson."

"'Ta'nt the true blue, howsomever; and another thing, Squire Wilcox, there's a leetle difference in the  fashin o' their caps. It's my idee we'd best be joggin!"

"Very well, Johnson. You have never yet failed me in my exigencies. We will proceed."

Shortly after this exciting exchange, the dynamic duo "were proceeding down the eastern side of this valley" when "their sympathies were suddenly aroused by female shrieks." Moving rapidly to the source of the commotion they discover a beautiful young woman about to suffer a fate worse than death at the hands of a painted savage but when "the monster who had been thus far successfully resisted," sees our hero advancing, pistol in hand, he escapes "vengeance by flight."

"The female had no sooner been rescued from her intended despoil, than, her delicate frame relaxing, she became almost lifeless" and faithful Johnson (who always provides the muscle in this book) picks her up in his arms. The mysterious young woman, we are informed, possesses "strikingly expressive features, while her hair raven black, hung in profuse and glossy clusters over her temple" crowning a "delicate" frame but one "perfectly symmetrical." She turns out to be Caroline Clarington, the only and much beloved daughter of General Clarington, the American commander at Fort George "and the proprietor of extensive domains, in South Carolina."

The Clarington family, we later learn, has never had much luck with the aboriginal peoples of North America as it seems Caroline's lovely mother, Ezilka, also got herself in a rather ticklish situation in an earlier frontier war. Prostrate "on her knees before a savage Saick (a nation of Indians employed in the British service)" who is being urged on by a cruel officer of the British Indian Department (one Anthony Arbuthnot who, if you are still following this, later becomes the governor of Upper Canada) to dispatch her as "a human sacrifice to the Sun after a victory," Ezilka was only saved by the timely intervention of a noble Mohawk, a true "forest Prince," who, having committed this Christian act, promptly disappears from a plot already complicated by too many characters.

Not surprisingly, the younger Clarington female (she of the "perfectly symmetrical" form, not the mother) becomes the love interest in the story but since Beardsley must at some point deal with the fact that Willcocks was killed in action at Fort Erie in September 1814, she unfortunately never marries our hero.

The story continues with a very unlikely account of the Niagara campaign of 1814. In a subplot, possibly intended as comic relief but falling somewhat short of the mark, faithful Sam Johnson has numerous encounters with Doctor Bluster and Major Mustiface (the "champion" of the British army) until, shortly after the battle of Lundy's Lane (which is fought over three days in this book although I recall it being somewhat shorter) he dispatches Mustiface in a sword duel. After many peregrinations too rambling and lengthy to discuss here, we finally arrive at Fort Erie and the inevitable death of our hero. Willcocks is hit while leading a bayonet charge during the sortie of 17 September (he was actually killed 12 days earlier) and is immediately carried into the fort "where surgical aid was at hand, but his body was without the reach of human skill." In fact,

As if death had mistrusted his weapons, wound after wound was discovered; and the Surgeon at length shaking his head in hopelessness at the servant [loyal Sam Johnson of Kentucky], who was anxiously gazing for an encouraging look, walked off, without much of a professional effort.

Beckoning faithful Sam closer, Willcocks breathes his last words in the Kentuckian's ear -- not surprisingly, it is "a message for Caroline" that

though branded as a traitor, conscious that God rewards and punishes according to the intentions of his creatures, I die in faith of a blessed immortality. Tell her that the hope of possessing her, has alone rendered indurable the latter part of this life, and that my last prayer is, that though torn asunder here, we may live together hereafter in a mansion of the house of God, and enjoy that peace which passeth understanding.

After having uttered such dialogue, our hero has no choice but to shuffle off the mortal coil and the distraught Sam Johnson "applying his lips to the cold brow of his master, no longer suppresses his grief" at the death of his "beloved kiernel."

I think sufficient and probably too much has been said about the Victims of Tyranny and there is nothing more useful to add.

Donald E. Graves

 

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