The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 2: February 2006





By Donald E. Graves



The Duke of Wellington, when commenting on the War of 1812, once attributed the successful British defence of Canada "to the inexperience of the officers of the United States in the operations of war."[1] There was more than a little truth in this ungenerous assessment because, while British generalship in the conflict was often uninspired, it was usually competent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about American generalship which was too often completely lacking in any of the necessary qualities to achieve victory. The adverse effects of the absence of a large professional military establishment was clearly evident in the choice of the men who led the regular army in the field -- particularly in the first eighteen months of the war. Given time and energy, almost everything necessary for the United States Army to achieve success -- recruiting, arming, training -- was accomplished but leadership cannot be extemporized and it required nearly two long and painful years of reverses before senior military commanders came to the fore who were the equals of their British counterparts in battle.

Between June 1812 and December 1814, thirty-three men held general officer rank, either substantive or by brevet[2], in the United States Army. The names and careers of the most famous (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison and Winfield Scott, for examples) and the most infamous (William Hull, James Wilkinson and William H. Winder) are well known but there were others about whom little is known. Some of these men were as good if not better generals than the leading personalities, and some were even worse than the infamous leaders. The purpose of the following series of articles is to provide basic biographical details of all American general officers, give some account of their wartime records, and make an assessment of their abilities and performance. This assessment, which is based on my knowledge of their actions during the war is, of necessity, somewhat subjective and for this reason I fully expect that there are those who disagree with my opinions.

I have chosen to break down this biographical series by annual classes -- the year in which these men reached general officer rank. This has been done because it is the best way to demonstrate how the criteria for choosing the senior leadership of the army changed as the war progressed -- by its last year, performance counted above almost every other criterion for promotion to the rank of general officer.



The generals of 1812 have been the subject of much criticism by historians who have ridiculed them for their age, infirmity, lack of experience and incompetence.[3] In the light of the serious reverses suffered by the United States in the first year of the war, much of this criticism is valid but the inadequacy of many of these men is also a reflection of the total unpreparedness of the United States in 1812 to wage an offensive war. Having only a small and neglected regular army with very few senior officers, the government was forced to commission general officers from the ranks of Revolutionary War veterans or the militia. The government was forced to work with the material at hand - of the seventeen men commissioned as generals in 1812, seven were prewar regular officers and fifteen had either Revolutionary War or militia backgrounds. Experience in the Revolution may have been distant and militia experience may have been slender but it was at least experience.

Any discussion of the Class of 1812 must begin with the three senior officers of the prewar army. By the Act of 12 April 1808, that army was allowed three officers of the rank of brigadier-general and these positions were occupied by Peter Gansevoort, Wade Hampton and James Wilkinson. The massive increase of the army (on paper at least) legislated by the Act of 11 January 1812 provided for the appointment of two major-generals and five additional brigadier-generals and also created the positions of inspector general and adjutant general to be held by officers with the rank of brigadier-general. For major-generals, the administration chose Henry Dearborn and Thomas Pinckney while the five new brigadier-generals were John Armstrong, Joseph Bloomfield, Thomas Flournoy, William Hull and James Winchester. Two prewar regular colonels, Thomas Cushing and Alexander Smyth, were promoted to brigadier-general and appointed adjutant general and inspector general respectively. The Act of 28 March 1812 added another senior position, the quartermaster general, who was to be a brigadier-general and Morgan Lewis was appointed to it with the appropriate rank. The Act of 6 July 1812 allowed the army two more brigadier-generals and these positions given to John Chandler and William Henry Harrison. Finally, two promotions to general officer occurred within the army: Colonel John Parker Boyd was promoted to fill the vacancy created by the death of Peter Gansevoort in July 1812 and in the same month Henry Burbeck, commander of the prewar Regiment of Artillerists, was breveted a brigadier-general.

There was a definite pattern to the creation of generals in 1812. Not having complete faith in the abilities of the three prewar generals (Gansevoort, Hampton, and Wilkinson) the administration commissioned two veterans ((Dearborn and Pinckney) as major-generals to rank them. Between March and July, eight largely political appointments were made (Armstrong, Bloomfield, Flournoy, Hull, Lewis and Winchester) with Chandler and Harrison following in the summer. Active preparations for war did see the promotion of officers already in service (Boyd to replace Gansevoort, and Cushing and Smyth to take over major staff departments) while Burbeck was probably given brevet rank because of his extensive coast artillery experience, the first line of defence at the time.

Although the government clearly tried to select men with previous military experience, it is perfectly clear that, in the final analysis, the choice of in 1812 was primarily based on political grounds. Colonel Zebulon Montgomery Pike, one of the more professional members of the prewar army, called the Class of 1812 "cabinet generals" and predicted that "it is only after several of us who have some knowledge of military business are sacrificed, that men will be placed to lead who are now in the ranks or in obscurity -- you shall then see our cabinet generals retire and fighting generals brought forward."[4] Pike's prediction would turn out to be entirely accurate.

The biographies and wartime careers of the generals of the Class of 1812 (arranged alphabetically) are as follows.[5]

John Armstrong (1758-1843)

A native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Princeton, Armstrong had a distinguished record in the Revolutionary War, participating in the Quebec campaign of 1775 and serving as an aid de camp in various capacities. He rose to the rank of major by the end of that conflict but his record was marred by his

authorship of the notorious 1783 Newburgh Addresses to the officers of the Continental Army. Armstrong pursued a career in Pennsylvania state politics, serving as secretary of state and adjutant general of militia. He later moved to New York, where he married into the powerful Livingston family, settling at Red Hook on the Hudson. From 1800 to 1804 Armstrong was a federal senator and from 1804 to 1810 minister to France. Always interested in military matters, Armstrong published a book entitled Hints to Young Generals by an Old Soldier in 1812 largely cribbed from the writings of the French military theorist, Jomini, and which he later confessed to have written in only ten days.[6]

As war approached, Armstrong's background and experience made him a prime candidate for appointment as a senior officer. He was recommended by New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins to President Madison, commissioned a brigadier-general in July 1812 and placed in command of the defences of New York City where he remained until named secretary of war in January 1813. As secretary, Armstrong did much to clear out the deadwood in the army and promote deserving younger officers but was hampered by the inefficiency of the military apparatus of the United States and by the some of the actions of his predecessor, William Eustis. Armstrong, however, was also an intriguing, caustic personality and he soon incurred the enmity of his cabinet colleagues particularly Secretary of State James Monroe who had military aspirations of his own.

John Armstrong had a sound grasp of military and strategic fundamentals but was too easily distracted from an objective. He displayed a fatal tendency to meddle in active operations and often acted more like a general than a cabinet official. His interference in the autumn 1813 campaign against Montreal was a major contributing factor to its failure and his negligence in taking active steps to defend Washington in the summer of 1814 verged on criminal. Not surprisingly, Armstrong was made the scapegoat for the resulting disaster and resigned in September 1814. He later published a history of the war which is notable because it is highly critical of almost every general who served in the conflict.[7]

John Armstrong was an ambitious and talented man who managed to infuse energy and direction into the American war effort and to put the administration of the army on a more rational and professional basis. But he always exhibited a certain indecisiveness and, although he could choose the correct aim, he simply could not maintain it.

The standard and somewhat adulatory biography is Edward Skeen, John Armstrong Jr., 1758-1843: A Biography, (Syracuse, 1981).

Joseph Bloomfield (1753-1823)

A native of New Jersey who had pursued a career in law and state politics, Bloomfield served as governor of that state from 1801 to 1812. Previously, he had seen service in the Revolutionary War, fighting at Quebec, Monmouth and Brandywine. His commissioning in March 1812 as a brigadier-general was politically motivated because Bloomfield, a strong Federalist, was an asset for Madison's Republican administration.

Despite his background, Bloomfield did not prove to be a good leader. On the outbreak of war, he assisted in recruiting in New York and Pennsylvania before taking command of a brigade at Plattsburgh in September. He was often sick, exerted little discipline and failed to provide winter quarters for his troops and in November 1812 left them for more comfortable personal quarters. While in brigade command, Bloomfield depended on the zealousness of Colonel Zebulon M. Pike who, as one contemporary acidly remarked, saved him "the trouble of every sense but hearing."[8] In early 1813, Bloomfield assumed command of Military District No. 4 (western New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware), a position he held until 1814. Bloomfield was honorably discharged in 1815.

A courteous and distinguished gentleman of the old school, Joseph Bloomfield was unsuited by reasons of health, age, energy and talent to hold an active field command. That he did so can only be attributed to politics.

John Parker Boyd (1764-1830)

A native of Massachusetts and a prewar regular officer, John Boyd was unusual in that he had seen active service as a mercenary commander in the Indian state of Hyderabad from 1789 to 1806. In 1808, Boyd was commissioned a colonel in the U.S. service and given command of the 4th Infantry which he led during the Tippecanoe campaign in 1811. Promoted brigadier-general in August 1812, Boyd commanded a brigade at Niagara from January to June 1813, and was present at the amphibious assault on Fort George on 27 May. When Dearborn left the army in early July 1813, Boyd assumed command at Fort George and retained it until Wilkinson arrived in September. Under orders from Armstrong not to engage in any military action that could be avoided, Boyd followed these orders to the letter.

Boyd commanded a brigade in Wilkinson's 1813 offensive against Montreal, At Crysler's Farm on 11 November, he threw 2600 men in a series of disjointed attacks against a well-positioned force of 1200 British and Canadian regular troops and was forced to retire from the field.

Boyd was never again employed on active service but served under Morgan Lewis in Military District No. 3 (eastern New York and New Jersey) in 1814. Boyd was discharged from the army in 1815, which he felt was unfair and attempted to justify his wartime record in a small pamphlet published that year.[9]

A steady but unimaginative officer, Boyd was capable of handling a regiment or brigade under close supervision but seems to have feared responsibility and inadequate for independent command. When in such commnands, he exhibited considerable indecisiveness as characterized by his army nickname of "Tippecanoe Boyd" as in "Tippy-Canoe Boyd."[10]

Henry Burbeck (1754-1848)

Burbeck was an officer of the Continental Artillery who was retained in the regular establishment in 1783. His promotions were steady: captain of artillery in 1786; major in 1791, colonel of artillery and engineers in 1798; colonel and commander of the Regiment of Artillerists, 1802-1812. The senior gunner of the army, Burbeck was breveted a brigadier-general on 10 July 1812 and employed throughout the war on coast defence and ordnance duties. Stationed at New York City in 1812-1813, Burbeck later commanded Military District No. 3 in 1813 and, in 1814, was transferred to the ordnance arsenal at Greenbush.

Henry Burbeck, a solid if unexceptional officer, was honorably discharged in 1815.

John Chandler (1760-1841)

A native of Massachusetts, Chandler fought in the Revolutionary War as a private at Saratoga and later served on board a privateer. Following that conflict, Chandler moved to Maine and pursued a number of occupations such as blacksmith, tavernkeeper, millowner and postmaster. He served several terms as a state senator and one term in the U.S. Congress. Chandler was a major-general of the Massachusetts militia when he was commissioned a brigadier-general in the regular army in July 1812.

He commanded a brigade at Niagara in the spring of 1813 and was present at the battles of Fort George in May and Stoney Creek in June. Chandler was taken prisoner at the latter action and not exchanged until August 1814. He later commanded Military District No. 1 (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) in 1814-1815. Chandler was honorably discharged in 1815 and later pursued a career in federal politics as a senator from Maine.

John Chandler was a political appointment who rendered undistinguished service as a general and it might be (cynically) said that his capture was possibly a good thing because it prevented him from doing worse damage than he did.

Thomas Henry Cushing (1755-1822)

Cushing was a prewar regular officer who had begun his service as an NCO in the Revolutionary War, rising to the rank of brevet captain in 1783. Cushing remained in the army and was promoted captain in 1791, major in 1793, lieutenant colonel in 1802 and colonel in 1805. Cushing's strength lay in his knowledge of military regulations. He was an inspector in 1797-1798 and adjutant and inspector general from 1802 to 1807. In the spring of 1812, Cushing was promoted to brigadier-general and appointed adjutant general, a position he held until March 1813. In poor health, Cushing never saw action during the war but commanded Military District No. 1 in 1813 and Military District No. 2 in 1814. He was honorably discharged in 1815 and later became the Collector of New London.

Essentially a staff officer, Cushing rendered good but limited service.

Henry Dearborn (1751-1829)

A Revolutionary war veteran who had served in the ill-fated expedition to Quebec in 1775 and risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the conflict, Dearborn was a staunch Republican who served two terms as secretary of war (1801 to 1809) in the administration of Thomas Jefferson. Having a comfortable living as Collector of the Port of Boston, the 61-year-old Dearborn was reluctant to accept the rank of major-general offered him in January 1812 fut finally did so.

Not being in the best of health, it took Dearborn some six weeks before he could get on duty and it was not until mid-March 1812 that he met with Secretary of War William Eustis in Washington. As the "first major general" of the army, Dearborn acted in the role of chief of staff and conceived a plan for the conquest of Canada which envisioned a main thrust north up the Champlain valley to Montreal with supporting attacks from Detroit, the Niagara and Sacket's Harbor. It was a sound plan but it required a large and trained army which Dearborn did not exist, speed which he did not display, and a careful coordination of operations that was never present.

In the summer of 1812, Dearborn established his headquarters at Greenbush near Albany but his prolonged absence from this post and the lack of communication between him and Secretary of War William Eustis (who neglected to inform him that he was also responsible for the attacks planned from the Detroit and Niagara) spelled disaster for American arms in the first summer of the war. In the late autumn, Dearborn arrived at Greenbush to lead the offensive up the Champlain valley but the season was too late and the only result was a small demonstration he made just across the border.

In the spring of 1813, on the orders of newly-appointed Secretary of War John Armstrong, Dearborn planned to attack Kingston but was easily diverted from this objective and instead captured York and Fort George, Canada, in April and May, 1813. Much too infirm to command in person, Dearborn was content to let subordinate officers (notably Colonels Zebulon Pike and Winfield Scott) handle the actual planning and operational tasks during these operations. On both occasions, however, he failed to follow up his victories by actively pursuing a beaten enemy. By June 1813, Dearborn was too ill to command the army now quartered at Fort George and on 6 July he was "retired" from command by the president on grounds of ill health.

Dearborn requested a court of inquiry on the reasons for his removal but later let the matter rest. He took command of Military District No. 3 (eastern New Jersey and eastern New York) and, in July 1814, transferred to Military District No. 1 (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) where he did much to improve the federal government's image in that somewhat disaffected area. He also presided over the court martial of William Hull, perhaps an improper appointment because Dearborn bore some responsibility for the failure of Hull's campaign, and, in early 1815, was president of the court martial of James Wilkinson. Dearborn was discharged from the army in the spring of 1815 and later served as ambassador to Portugal.

Henry Dearborn was knowledgeable about military affairs but was too old and feeble to command in the field and might have been better employed -- if he was to be employed -- as the secretary of war. He was liked but not well respected by his subordinates who nicknamed him "Granny." In essence Dearborn had fought his war three decades before and was too old for the post he occupied during the new conflict.

The standard (but uncritical) biography is Richard A. Erney, The Public Life of Henry Dearborn (New York, 1979).

Thomas Flournoy (1775-1857)

Very little is known about this Georgia lawyer and perhaps state militia officer who was commissioned a brigadier-general in the regular army in June 1812. Flournoy served under Wilkinson in the Military District No. 7 in 1812 and assumed command of the district when Wilkinson departed in the spring of 1813. Flournoy was a cautious man and displayed little aggression in dealing with the Creeks in 1813-1814. In early 1814, he asked to be relieved and resigned on 13 September of that year.

Peter Gansevoort (1749-1812)

A New Yorker who had risen to the rank of colonel in the Revolution and was remembered for his successful defence of Fort Schuyler during that conflict, Gansevoort was appointed a military agent in 1802. In 1809 he was named a brigadier-general in the regular army and also seems to have also functioned as a major-general of New York militia. Gansevoort died on 2 July 1812, shortly after the outbreak of war.

Wade Hampton (1751/52-1835)

A South Carolinan, Hampton claimed to have seen service with Marion and Sumter in the Revolutionary War. One of the first southern farmers to experiment with growing cotton, Hampton became an extremely wealthy man and also pursued a career in politics, being elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate and, in 1803, to Congress. Volunteering his services during the Chesapeake crisis of 1808, Hampton received a commission as colonel of light dragoons and was promoted brigadier-general in 1809. He was a bitter enemy of Wilkinson and the rivalry between the two divided the small officer corps of the prewar army into opposing camps.

Hampton commanded at New Orleans from December 1809 to May 1812 when he assumed command at Norfolk. He was promoted major-general on 2 March 1813 and, in June of that year, given command of a division at Burlington, Vermont. When Wilkinson assumed command of Military District No. 9, of which Hampton's division was a subordinate part, Hampton was angry about having to serve under a man whom he personally detested and threatened to resign until he extracted a promise from Secretary of War Armstrong that he would not have to take direct orders from his hated rival.

Hampton's division numbered close to 5,000 men, most of whom were raw recruits, but he energetically trained his command and enforced a very strict discipline which led to him being nicknamed "Old Hickory" by his men for his enthusiastic use of caning as a means of corporal punishment.[11] Although instructed to co-operate with Wilkinson in a joint attack on Montreal, Hampton more or less acted independently and, in October 1813, moved north to the border to commence an invasion of Canada. He established a forward base at Chateauguay Four Corners and was inactive for nearly a month before moving into enemy territory.

Hampton had hardly begun this movement on 25 October when he received an order from Armstrong telling him to prepare winter quarters which meant that the offensive was more or less at an end. Nonetheless, on the following day, Hampton half-heartedly attacked a smaller but very well-positioned and led Canadian force at Chateauguay which decisively fought off a series of hesitant and disjointed American probes. Hampton then retreated back to the Four Corners, NY, where he received an order from Wilkinson to join that general at St. Regis but ignored it and instead retreated to Plattsburgh. Determined to make Hampton the scapegoat for the failure of the offensive, Wilkinson issued orders for his arrest but Hampton left Plattsburgh before they arrived and, with Armstrong's permission, retired from the army without penalty, his resignation being formally accepted on 16 March 1814.

Hampton returned to his plantations and, over the next two decades, became one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the United States. He never again served in a public position but his grandson of the same name became one of the best Confederate cavalry leaders of the Civil War.

In no sense of the word a fighting general, Wade Hampton did exhibit a more professional attitude toward the training and discipline of his troops than either Dearborn or Wilkinson. His failure in the autumn of 1813, the first time he had commanded troops on active service, was almost predictable but he is considerably less to blame for the collapse of the campaign against Montreal than are Armstrong and Wilkinson. Hampton appears to have been a fairly good peacetime soldier but possessed neither the personality nor the talent for senior command in wartime.

William Henry Harrison (1773-1841)

A Virginian, Harrison entered the regular army as an officer in 1791 and rose to the rank of captain, serving as an aide de camp to Anthony Wayne during the Fallen Timbers campaign. He resigned his commission in 1798 and became Secretary to the North West Territory in 1799 and Governor of Indiana in 1801, a

post he occupied for five terms. In November 1811, Harrison commanded a mixed force of regulars and militia that defeated a force of hostile aboriginals at the battle of Tippecanoe, possibly the first action of the War of 1812. In August 1812, Harrison was commissioned a regular army brigadier-general and succeeded to the command of the Northwest Army after Hull's surrender.

He showed real talent in this position, keeping the British and the aboriginal allies off balance and surviving two sieges of his base camp at Fort Meigs in May and July 1813. Harrison emphasized the importance of logistics, stockpiling food and building roads to facilitate his movements. When American control of Lake Erie was won by Perry's victory at the battle of Put-Bay in September 1813, Harrison invaded Canada and decisively defeated the retreating British forces at the battle of the Thames in October 1813, ending once and for all the aboriginal threat in the Northwest. Harrison, who had been promoted to major-general

in March 1813, was then placed in command of Military District No. 8 (Kentucky, Ohio and the Northwestern Territories) but Armstrong disliked him and transferred most of his regular troops away which, along with other issues between the two men, led to Harrison's resignation in May 1814. Harrison later pursued a successful political career which culminated in his election to the presidency in 1841, although he died shortly after being inaugurated.

William Henry Harrison was a successful general because he applied the lessons he had learned from Wayne about campaigning in frontier areas to his operations during the War of 1812. Harrison was sometimes accused of being too cautious but his concern with logistics contributed largely to his military success. A very political general, Harrison was an excellent commander of militia and able to get the best from these fickle civilian soldiers. He was not a charismatic leader but an intelligent and practical man and an experienced frontier campaigner who has justly earned the right to be named one of the most successful American generals of the war.

There are many biographies of William H. Harrison but perhaps the standard work is Freeman Cleeves, Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time (New York, 1939).

William Hull (1753-1825)

A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Yale, Hull fought in the Revolutionary War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was retained in the army in 1783-1784. He served as a judge and senator before being appointed Governor of the Michigan Territory in 1805. As war approached in 1811, Hull wavered about the idea of a military command but, when assured that he could continue as governor, he accepted the rank of brigadier-general.

Hull was ordered to assume command of a force composed of Ohio militia and the 4th Infantry intended to invade western Upper Canada. He advanced toward Detroit which he reached on 5 July 1812 but then became very cautious and, as Washington had made no special effort to inform him that war had been declared, he put his personal papers on board a vessel which was captured by the better-informed British who thus learned his strength and plans. Finally, on 12 July, Hull crossed into Canada but did little other than issue proclamations before withdrawing to the United States on 8 August and establishing himself at Detroit.

By this time, however, his line of communication had been nearly cut off by the aboriginal warriors allied with the British and although he made two unsuccessful attempts to clear it, his nerve began to fail. On 15 August a much smaller British force commanded by the aggressive Major General Isaac Brock arrived across the river from Detroit. As a bluff, after a few rounds of artillery fire, Brock demanded that Hull surrender his force and, to the amazement of Brock and the disgust of Hull's senior subordinates and soldiers, Hull did exactly that on 16 August. Hull's stated reason was that he wished to prevent a massacre of the civilians at Detroit by the aboriginal warriors but the evidence is compelling that he suffered a mental collapse.

The surrender of Hull's army shocked the government which, hitherto, did not seem to have taken the war very seriously. The prisoners captured at Detroit were soon exchanged and Hull, after returning to the United States, was court martialled in the spring of 1814 on charges of treason, cowardice, neglect of duty and bad conduct. The court found Hull guilty only of neglect of duty and bad conduct but sentenced him to be executed. President Madison suspended the sentence because of Hull's record in the Revolutionary War and Hull spent the last years of his life in an unsuccessful attempt to clear his name.

William Hull was clearly incompetent but a great part of the responsibility for the failure of his 1812 campaign lies with the inadequate preparations made by Secretary of War William Eustis and the general lack of coordination demonstrated by Dearborn in his direction of the offensives against Canada in the first year of the conflict. Hull was partially the victim of circumstances beyond his control but this does not excuse his surrendering his strongly-entrenched force to an enemy with less than half his numbers.

Morgan Lewis (1754-1844)

A native of New York, Lewis was a Princeton graduate who had a distinguished Revolutionary War record, rising to the rank of major and seeing service at Brandywine and Saratoga. A lawyer by profession, Lewis pursued an active career in state politics and served as governor of New York from 1804 to 1807. Related to Armstrong by marriage and also a personal friend of James Madison, Lewis was commissioned a brigadier-general and appointed quartermaster of the army in April 1812. He does not seem to have been very successful in that post and was more or less kicked upstairs in March 1813 by being promoted major-general and shifted to the Niagara under Dearborn. When Dearborn was retired, Lewis held a "watching brief" over military affairs in the north and served as Wilkinson's second in command during the offensive against Montreal in the following autumn. He was sick throughout most of this operation and contributed very little to it and withdrew from the army when it went into winter quarters in November.

In the spring of 1814, Lewis was assigned to command Military District No. 3 (New York and New Jersey) and was honorably discharged in the spring of 1815. He devoted much of his later life to charitable activities and was instrumental in founding the New York Historical Society.

Morgan Lewis was one of the better political generals chosen in 1812 but only because he did not do much damage -- but then he never held posts of real responsibility. If challenged, Lewis appears to have been a capable administrator but suffered continually from poor health due to his age. The portrait of him that emerges from the words of his contemporaries is of a well-meaning and amiable man, but not a particularly intelligent one.

Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828)

Thomas Pinckney was commissioned a major-general on 27 April 1812 and served in that rank to June 1815. A native of South Carolina, he was a graduate of Oxford University who had practised law in England before returning to participate in the Revolutionary War in which he rose to the rank of major, serving as aide de camp to Generals Lincoln and Gates. After independence, Pinckney pursued a very successful career in law, politics and diplomacy, being elected governor of South Carolina and later serving as minister to Great Britain and Spain in the 1790s. In 1796 he was a failed Federalist candidate for the vice-presidency but later represented South Carolina in Congress.

Clearly picked because of his political and regional connections, Pinckney commanded Georgia and the Carolinas throughout the war and proved himself a good administrator and organizer, despite a lack of staff and shortages of all military necessities. His success in this post was an example of how the talents of an able but aged man could be utilized to their best effect and Pinckney was one of the best political appointees to the general officer ranks.

Alexander Smyth (1765-1830)

A native of Ireland, Smyth practised law in Virginia and pursued a very active career in state politics, serving several terms as a delegate and state senator. In 1808, Smyth was commissioned a colonel in the Rifle Regiment and while in this position, compiled the infantry drill manual that replaced Steuben's "Blue Book."[12] Smyth's work was actually a combination of material in Steuben and an adaptation of the 1791 French regulations but it was a useful manual much used during the war.

Promoted brigadier-general in 1812, Smyth was also named the inspector general of the army. In August and September, he commanded a brigade at Greenbush and later marched it to the Niagara frontier. Smyth's record in the field is one of unparalleled incompetence and reads like the libretto of a comic opera -- he quarrelled with his superiors, duelled with a subordinate officer, mounted half-hearted invasion attempts of Canada and issued regular bombastic bulletins in the Napoleonic style which earned him the nickname of "Van Bladder" from his own men. His soldiers detested him and tried to set fire to his tent or otherwise injure him and he was forced to sleep under heavy guard and frequently change his residence.

Smyth's request for leave in January 1813 was granted with almost indecent haste and, while away from the army, he was legislated off the list of generals through the simple medium of his name being omitted in the new Army List which came out in May 1813. This was technically an illegality but everyone but Smyth was prepared to overlook it. Smyth petitioned Madison for reinstatement asking for the privilege of dying for his country, a request that -- fortunately for both Smyth and the United States -- was turned down.

A book soldier with limited military talents, Alexander Smyth, like James Wilkinson, represented some the worst aspects of the pre-war regular army. His best service to his country was his compilation of a new system of infantry drill -- in almost every other endeavour during his brief six month tenure as general, he was an utter failure.

James Wilkinson (1757-1825)

A native of Maryland by birth, Wilkinson studied medicine before abandoning his studies to join the Continental Army where he rose to the rank of brigadier-general at the age of 20 although he was forced to resign his position as clothier general because of suspected malfeasance. After the Revolutionary War, Wilkinson dabbled in land speculation along the Mississippi and began a longstanding and profitable career as a paid spy of Spain. In 1791 he accepted a lieutenant colonel's commission in the regular army and served with Wayne during the Fallen Timbers. In 1796, on the death of Wayne, Wilkinson, who had been promoted brigadier-general in 1792, became the senior officer of the army and remained so until 1812. He continued his commercial activities and his contacts with the Spanish who paid him handsomely, particularly after he was posted to command the large force of regular troops in the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson was involved in Aaron Burr's conspiracy but, when this was uncovered, turned against his fellow conspirators and was able to survive the legal proceedings that followed. In fact, he survived several trials and inquiries, the last one before the war ending only in February 1812 and being concerned with his conduct while in command in Louisiana. It resulted in the damaging verdict "not proven."

Wilkinson was detested but feared by many officers in the prewar army and the officer corps became largely divided into two camps, one favouring Wilkinson, the other Wade Hampton. In the spring of 1812, having negotiated a successful outcome to his latest legal proceeding, Wilkinson was re-appointed to command the Southern Department with headquarters at New Orleans. He remained at this station until 1813, managing to bloodlessly annex Mobile from the Spanish but also continued his part time commercial activities which led to complaints against him and, in an attempt both to remove him from the south and to prop up the ailing Dearborn in the north, Secretary of War Armstrong promoted him major-general and ordered him to Fort George in March 1813.

Taking his time, Wilkinson did not even reach Washington until 31 July 1813 where he learned that Dearborn had been retired and he was now commanding in the north and that Wade Hampton, his hated rival, at Plattsburgh, was subordinate to him. Unfortunately, these two bitter enemies had to cooperate if the planned offensive against Montreal was to succeed but relations between them quickly broke down and, to make matters worse, Armstrong told Hampton that he would not have to take direct orders from Wilkinson.

In fact, by this time neither Hampton nor Wilkinson wished to serve -- either with each other or in the northern theatre -- and both threatened to resign. To keep peace between them Armstrong himself went north in August 1813 to try and co-ordinate the forthcoming offensive. Suffering from illness and arguing with Armstrong over the choice of objective, Wilkinson delayed the operation until late October, much too late in the season to carry out a major movement against Canada. Nonetheless, he set out from Sacket's Harbor with a force of 7,300 troops, almost all regulars, to move down the St. Lawrence by boat against Montreal while, at the same time, ordering Hampton to meet him at St. Regis near French Mills, NY. Hampton, however, had already carried out his own abortive offensive without Wilkinson's knowledge and was by now in full retreat back to his base at Plattsburgh.

During the movement down the St. Lawrence both Wilkinson and his second-in-command, Major-General Morgan Lewis, fell ill and were often unable to perform their duties. When a large part of Wilkinson's army was beaten at the battle of Crysler's Farm on 11 November 1813 after it had attacked a smaller British force which had been following their movement, Wilkinson decided to call off the offensive. Wilkinson's somewhat erratic behaviour during this operation, induced by the fact that he took considerable amounts of laudanum (a mixture of alcohol and opium) gave rise to rumours that he was drunk on duty. In any case, when he learned that Hampton was not going to meet him at St. Regis, he used this as an excuse to go into winter quarters at French Mills, where his army froze through three bitter months of winter weather while Wilkinson enjoyed more comfortable quarters in Malone, NY. He began a paper war with Armstrong in an attempt to shift the responsibility for the failure to take Montreal either to the secretary or Hampton and sent orders to have that officer arrested for disobedience but Hampton, sensing the direction the wind was blowing, had already left his command and travelled to Washington. Here, he submitted his resignation from the army and was allowed to retire without penalty.

Wilkinson continued in command in the north until April 1814, spending much of his time over the winter bombarding Armstrong with fantastic schemes for new invasions of Canada. In April he mounted an attack on the Canadian border town of Lacolle Mille, at the head of Lake Champlain but it failed, primarily because of bad weather and inadequate preparation by Wilkinson. That same month Armstrong removed him from his post and brought charges against him, the most serious being neglect of duty and intoxication. A court martial did not sit until January 1815 and, after hearing considerable evidence on the abortive 1813 campaign, found Wilkinson not guilty and acquitted him.

Not surprisingly, the government took the opportunity to get rid of Wilkinson when the army was reduced in the spring of 1815 and he returned to land speculation and various other commercial schemes, none of which were profitable, before dying in poverty in Mexico City in 1825. In 1816, Wilkinson published his memoirs which are notable for their length, confusing organization and bitter invective against almost every senior officer in the army and administration, but particularly John Armstrong.[13]

It is almost impossible to make a positive comment about James Wilkinson, Winfield Scott thought him an "unprincipled imbecile" but this may be too harsh although two biographies written about the man have telling titles: The Finished Scoundrel and The Tarnished Warrior. His long and troubled career as the senior officer of the prewar army was only possible because Wilkinson possessed both excellent political connections and an uncanny ability to wriggle out from under legal charges. He represents the worst aspect of the infant American military establishment and so infamous is his record that James Wilkinson is now best remembered as "the general who never won a battle but never lost a court martial."

The standard biographies are James R. Jacobs, The Tarnished Warrior: Major General James Wilkinson (New York, 1939) and Royal O. Shreve, The Finished Scoundrel (Indianapolis, 1933).

James Winchester (1752-1826)

A resident of Tennessee, Winchester was a state politician and brigadier-general of the Tennessee militia who had a reputation as a good fighter against the aboriginal peoples. He apparently also saw some service in the Revolutionary War attaining the rank of lieutenant. Commissioned a brigadier-general in the regular army in March 1812, Winchester was given command of 2,000 militia raised by Kentucky to aid Hull at Detroit but Hull surrendered before this force could move. Winchester now commanded the Northwestern Army but, when William Henry Harrison was appointed over him, Winchester took over the left division of that force.

In the fall of 1812, Winchester mounted an attack against the aboriginal villages on the Maumee River in retaliation for the warriors' attack on Fort Wayne. At the end of December 1812, Harrison ordered Winchester to move towards Detroit and although Harrison later recommended that Winchester halt his march because of the aboriginal threat, he did not make this recommendation an order. On 18 January 1813, Winchester's advance guard defeated a force of warriors and Canadian militia at Frenchtown on the River Raisin in the Michigan Territory. Winchester occupied the village but neglected to take elementary precautions against a surprise attack and, at dawn on 21 January, he was attacked by British regulars and warriors and, after a stiff fight, Winchester surrendered his force of 800. Some of the American prisoners were murdered by Indians and this atrocity gave birth to an early American battle cry of the war: "Remember the River Raisin!"

Winchester spent some time as a prisoner of war but was exchanged and, in 1814, held a command in the Military District No. 7 (Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee) under his personal friend, Andrew Jackson. He resigned from the army in March 1815 and returned to civilian life.

There is controversy over Winchester's offensive in January 1813. On balance, it would seem that Winchester was right in maintaining his forward motion but he must be censured for not entrenching his position at Frenchtown more strongly, a precaution that should have been automatic for a seasoned frontier campaigner. In the final analysis, it might be said that Winchester was an officer who had risen to his level of competence but that level did not prove high enough when faced with a more professional foe.


[1]. Quoted in J.M. Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812 (Toronto, 1964), 240.

[2].Brevet rank was introduced in the US Army as a means to award officers for meritorious service. Normally the brevet carried no greater authority than the officer's substantive or true rank although an officer could be ordered to perform the duty of his brevet rank. Following the War of 1812, the whole matter of brevet ranks became misused when they functioned as a way to promote officers in the tiny peacetime army when there were no vacancies. Brevets became the subject of abuse and resulted in many controversies.

[3].See in particular, J.R. Jacobs and Glenn Tucker, The War of 1812: A Compact History (New York, 1869), 14; and Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago, 1965), 69-70. A recent and-to-the-point examination of the Class of 1812 which probes the reasoning behind their appointments is Arnold Blumberg, "A Rather Unsuitable Crew: American General Officers and the Start of the War of 1812," Journal of the War of 1812, (Winter 2001), 6-8.

[4]. William Duane to Thomas Jefferson, 26 Sept 1813, in "Letters of William Duane," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series, vol 20 (1906, 1907), 362.

[5].Unless otherwise noted, the biographical information on each general officer is taken from the following reference works which are listed here in descending order of usefulness: Roger J. Spiller and Joseph G. Dawson, eds., Dictionary of American Military Biography (3 vols, Westport, 1984); Allan Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (22 vols, New York, 1928, 1967); Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (2 vols, Washington, 1903); George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy (1868, supplement, vol 9, 1950); James Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography (7 vols, New York, 1888, reprinted Detroit, 1968); Rossiter Johnson, ed., The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans (10 vols, Boston, 1904, reprinted Detroit 1968); National Cyclopedia of American Biography (63 vols, 1891, reprinted Ann Arbor, 1967); Who Was Who in America, Historical Volume (Chicago, 1967).

[6]. Edward Skeen, John Armstrong Jr., 1758-1843: A Biography, (Syracuse, 1981), 122-123.

[7]. John Armstrong, Notices of the War of 1812 (2 vols., New York, 1840).

[8]. William Duane to Thomas Jefferson, 26 Sept 1813, in "Letters of William Duane," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series, vol 20 (1906, 1907), 362.

[9].John Boyd, Documents and Facts Relating to Military Events During the Late War (Washington, 1816).

[10].John Fredriksen, ed., "A Georgia Officer in the War of 1812: The Letters of William Clay Cumming," Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol 71 (Winter 1987), 681, Cumming to father, 20 November 1813.

[11].United States National Archives, Record Group 94, Journal of General George Izard, 21 October 1813.

[12].D.E. Graves, "From Steuben to Scott; The Adoption of French Infantry Tactics by the U.S. Army 1807-1816," Acta No. 13, International Commission on Military History, Helsinki, 1991, 223-235.

[13].James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times (Philadelphia: 3 vols, 1816).



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