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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 4: September 2006




By Donald E. Graves



With the exception of Daniel Parker who was clearly a bureaucratic appointment, most of the Class of 1814 were combat veterans with proven records and they were also much younger than their predecessors. War is truly a young man's calling and the average age of an American general commissioned in 1814 was 34, down radically from the average of 55 for the Class of 1812 and substantially lower than the average of 41 for the Class of 1813. As a group, the Class of 1814 was dominated by officers of the prewar army, seven of the nine new generals were regular soldiers who had seen action in the war, among them a Military Academy graduate (Swift) and an officer who had both studied and lectured at the Academy (Macomb) The two non-regulars were militia general Andrew Jackson, a successful frontier fighter, and Eleazar Ripley, a good wartime officer who had been appointed to regimental command from civilian life in 1812. The Class of 1814 can be characterized as young and experienced soldiers who were promoted on merit. They were the survivors of the ruthless process of elimination that is war and almost all performed well in command -- thes Class of 1814 were the "fighting generals" of Pike's prediction, which finally came to pass. The members of the Class of 1814 were as follows.[1]

Daniel Bissell (1769-1833)

Daniel Bissell entered the army in 1792 as an ensign. Prior to the war, his promotion was slow but steady: lieutenant in 1794, captain in 1799 and lieutenant-colonel in 1808. In 1812, Bissell was promoted colonel and given command of the 5th Infantry with which he served -- and served well -- in the north until March 1814 when he was promoted brigadier-general and assigned a brigade in Izard's Right Division at Plattsburgh. He commanded this brigade throughout 1814 and won a tactical draw at the small action fought at Lyon's Creek or Cooks' Mills, Canada, on 19 October 1814. This was his only experience with independent command but it does not seem to have been a positive one as he was granted leave because of "nervousness" and saw no more action during the war.

Bissell was retained in the regular army in 1815 with the substantive rank of colonel but allowed the brevet rank of brigadier-general. He was honorably discharged in 1821.

Not enough is known about Daniel Bissell to make an accurate evaluation of his military abilities but, with the exception of his shakiness on the Niagara in 1814, he seems to have been a somewhat plodding but reliable soldier.

Edmund Pendleton Gaines (1777-1849)

A North Carolinan, Gaines was commissioned an ensign in 1799 but honorably discharged in 1800. He returned to the sevice in 1801, was promoted first lieutenant in 1802 and captain in 1807. Shortly before the war, Gaines left the army on leave to study law but returned in 1812 when he was promoted major and then lieutenant-colonel. Gaines served in the 24th Infantry in 1812-1813 and on Harrison's staff in the Northwest Army. In March 1813 he was promoted colonel and given command of the 25th Infantry and also served as adjutant general of the northern army until September 1813. He participated in Wilkinson's autumn 1813 offensive against Montreal and the following March he was promoted to brigadier-general and assigned a brigade at Sackets Harbor. After Brown was wounded at Lundy's Lane, he requested that Gaines take command of the Left Division then being besieged at Fort Erie. Gaines did so and performed very creditably, beating off a serious British night attack on 15 August, for which he was breveted a major-general. Badly wounded a few days later, Gaines saw no more combat during the war but was retained in the peacetime army and served until his death in 1849. His career in the postwar army was marred by a long and bitter feud with Winfield Scott.

Although he was a somewhat quarrelsome personality, Edmund Gaines was a professional soldier who rendered good service although he did not see as much combat as many of his contemporaries. The best biography is James Silver, Edmund P. Gaines, 1777-1849, Frontier General (Baton Rouge, 1949).

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)

A South Carolinan by birth, Jackson emigrated to the Nashville, Tennessee, area where he established a law practice. He was elected to Congress in 1796 but later resigned to become a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Jackson early evinced an interest in military matters and, in 1802, was commissioned a major-general of Tennessee militia and was retained in this position until 1814. In the autumn of 1812, Jackson was commissioned a major-general of U.S. Volunteers and put in command of a force intended to attack Spanish East Florida. This attack was cancelled in March, 1813 and Jackson led his men back to Tennessee where they were disbanded. In November 1813, Jackson, recovering from wounds suffered in a duel, assumed command of a new force of volunteers to fight against the Creeks Indians. His campaign was inconclusive but in March 1814, with the aid of a regular regiment, the 39th Infantry, he decisively defeated the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend. The government rewarded Jackson by commissioning him a regular brigadier-general on 19 April 1814 and the following month, he was promoted to major-general to fill the vacancy created by William H. Harrison's resignation.

Jackson was assigned to the 7th Military District where he arrived in September in time to thwart a British attack on Mobile. In November 1814, Jackson took Pensacola from the Spanish and then moved quickly to New Orleans to prepare the defences of that city against a threatened British attack. When a British force landed and move closer to the city, Jackson mounted an inconclusive night attack on the enemy on 23 December 1814, and then withdrew to a prepared defence line along the Rodriguez Canal. Aften an artillery bombardment on 1 January 1815, which failed to break Jackson's line, the British commander, Lieutenant-General Edward Pakenham, launched an assault on the canal line on 8 January which was decisively repulsed with heavy losses, Pakenham was killed and the enemy withdrew. New Orleans was the last major engagement of the War of 1812 and, since it was an overwealming victory, allowed the United States to have claimed victory in the conflict.

After the war, Jackson remained a major-general in the postwar army but resigned in 1821 to become governor of Florida. In 1828 he was elected the 7th President of the United States and held that office until 1837.

Andrew Jackson was an excellent natural soldier who possessed the will, energy and decisiveness to achieve victory against odds. Although he first made his reputation as a militia officer, Jackson had studied military theory and his behavior, especially in the matter of discipline, was essentially that of a regular. He was one of the three most successful American military leaders of the war, in company with Brown and Harrison, but such was the fame accorded to both his victory at New Orleans and his postwar reputation as president, he is better remembered today.

There are many biographies of Jackson, that of Robert Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 (New York, 1977) is possibly the best. The best single study of the New Orleans campaign is Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812 (New York, 1972 and Toronto, 2002).

Alexander Macomb (1782-1841)

Born in the Michigan Territory, Macomb entered the army as a cornet of light dragoons in 1799. He was discharged in 1800 but was re-commissioned in 1801 and attended the Military Academy although he is not regarded as a formal graduate of that insitution. In 1802 Macomb was commissioned a first lieutenant of engineers and remained at West Point until 1805 before assisting in the construction of fortifications on the Atlantic coast. He was steadily promoted and, by the outbreak of war, was lieutenant-colonel and acting adjutant general in Washington. He made repeated requests for field duty and, in July, 1812, was promoted colonel and given command of the newly-raised Third Artillery Regiment.

Macomb trained this regiment before leading it north where it wintered at Sacket's Harbor where he was instrumental in fortifying that vital base on Lake Ontario. Fighting as infantry, Macomb and the Third Artillery participated in the attack on Fort George in May 1813 before joining Wilkinson's expedition down the St. Lawrence in the autumn of that year. During this operation Macomb commanded the "elite" of the army which consisted of his own regiment and a battalion of the 1st Rifle Regiment and he often came under Brown's command. He wintered with the army at French Mills, NY and, promoted to brigadier-general in March 1814, took over a brigade in Izard's Right Division at Plattsburgh. When Izard moved the greater part of his army west to the Niagara in August 1814, Macomb assumed command at Plattsburgh and, on 11 September 1814, rebuffed a British attack led by the senior British officer in North America, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost. This victory brought him to national prominence and he was breveted a major-general.

Retained in the army after the war, Macomb became commanding general in 1828 after the death of Brown and served in that post until his death in 1841.

Alexander Macomb was an intelligent and professional officer with an excellent grasp of both theoretical and practical military matters. His successful defence of Plattsburgh in 1814 blunted the main British offensive of the War of 1812 and was, in terms of the effect it had on peace negotiations, possibly the most important American victory in that conflict. Macomb also contributed to the professionalization in the army during his tenure as commanding general, continuing and amplifying the work started by Brown.

Unfortunately, there is no modern biography of this important officer.

James Miller (1776-1851)

James Miller, a native of New Hampshire, was commissioned a major in the infantry in 1808 and promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1810. He fought at Tippecanoe in 1811 and commanded the 4th Infantry in Hull's army in 1812 and was breveted a colonel for his actions in that campaign, one of the few regular officers to be distinguished in that fiasco. In 1813 he served as commander of a detachment of the 6th Infantry and in March 1814 was promoted substantive colonel and given command of the elite 21st Infantry, Ripley's old regiment and one of the best units in the northern army.

Miller commanded the 21st in the early stages of the Niagara campaign of 1814. His moment of glory came at the battle of Lundy's Lane on 25 July 1814 when Brown ordered him to make a frontal attack on the centre of the British position in an attempt to capture the enemy's artillery. Miller's modest reply, typical of the man, was "I'll try, sir" (now the motto of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the "Old Guard" and a descendant of the 21st Infantry). The British position was taken and held against repeated counterattacks. For this service Miller received an immediate brevet promotion to brigadier-general and commanded a brigade for the remainder of the campaign.

Miller was retained inthe army after the war but resigned in 1819. He later served as governor of the Arkansas Territory.

James Miller was a solid officer, an excellent regimental commander and outstanding combat leader. He is yet another deserving candidate for a full biography.

>Thomas A. Smith (1781-1844)

A pre-war regular, Smith was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery in 1803. He was promoted first lieutenant in 1805 and, three years later, transferred to the rifle regiment with the rank of captain. Smith was a lieutenant-colonel in 1810 and was promoted colonel and commander of the rifle regiment in 1812. In that year he commanded a force of regulars that, depending on the federal government's whim, either tried to invade Spanish Florid or prevent irregular American forces from doing so. In January 1814, Smith was brevetted a brigadier-general and given a brigade in Izard's Right Division during the following summer. He was retained in the army at the substantive rank of colonel but resigned in 1818.

Thomas Smith was a regular soldier who rendered competent, if unexceptional, service.

Daniel Parker (d. 1846)

A native of Massachusetts, Daniel Parker served for a long time as the chief clerk of the War Department. In November 1814 he was commissioned a brigadier-general and appointed adjutant general and inspector general, a bureaucratic decision that was perhaps made to increase his status when dealing with senior officers. In 1821 he was made the paymaster general of the army but was superceded in 1822 and left the service.

Although he wore a uniform, Daniel Parker was not a soldier but a civil servant and is only included in this survey to complete the roster of the 33 men who held general officer rank in the army during the War of 1812.

Eleazar W. Ripley (1782-1839)

A pre-war lawyer and politician in Massachusetts, Ripley was was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel in the 21st Infantry from civilian life in 1812. He was promoted to colonel and commander of that regiment in March 1813, and through rigorous training and attention to discipline, turned the 21st Infantry into one of the best units in the northern army. Ripley led his regiment at the battles of York, Fort George and Crysler's Farm in 1813 before being promoted to brigadier-general in March 1814 and receiving command of a brigade in Brown's Left Division.

Brown and Ripley never really established a good working relationship. Brown had wanted another officer, preferably Macomb, to have his second regular brigade but Ripley seems to have been chosen, not only because of his stirling record as a regimental commander but because he had powerful political connections in New England, an area much disaffected to the war. Ripley was somewhat cool and distant in personality and always exhibited extreme caution in command. Brown, a born fighter, got along better with his other regular brigade commander, the aggressive and outgoing Winfield Scott. The cool relations beteween the two men only got worse when, shortly before the Left Division invaded Canada, Ripley told Brown that the forthcoming operation would, in his opinion, end in disaster.

When both Brown and Scott were wounded at the battle of Lundy's Lane on 25 July 1814, Ripley assumed command of the Left Division and fought a good tactical defensive battle under very difficult circumstances. Brown, however, never forgave him for not obeying Brown's order to renew the action the next day although the division was in no condition to do so. Brown was further infuriated when Ripley decided to withdraw to Fort Erie, basically throwing away the fruits of the tactical victory at Lundy's Lane and, at Brown's insistence, Gaines was transferred from Sacket's Harbor to take over the division. Ripley performed very well during the British assault on Fort Erie on 15 August but he was not well liked by the other senior officers of the division who pleaded with Brown to return to command after Gaines was wounded a few days later. Brown did so but continued to have problems with Ripley who, at first, refused to carry out his assigned task in the planned sortie of 17 September which resulted in him being removed from command although he was later re-instated at his own request. During this operation, Ripley was wounded and saw no more active service during the war.

Although Ripley was breveted a major-general in November 1814 for his services at Lundy's Lane, Brown seriously contemplating bringing charges against him for his somewhat dilatory performance during the summer of 1814. He was dissuaded from this by the administration and Ripley was retained in the army in 1815. In 1816, while in command at Boston, Ripley court martialled one of Brown's favourite staff officers, Charles K. Gardner, after Gardner made some intemperate remarks about Ripley's record in 1814. This proceeding was stopped at the order of the president but Ripley rushed a pamphlet into print which contained all the negative evidence amassed against Gardner but none of the evidence in his favour. Stil worse, it included the text of a supposedly confidential letter written by Brown at the insistence of the government in which he exonerated Ripley for his performance in the Niagara. Brown, the fighting general, was never a match for Ripley, the New England lawyer, when it came to paper battles.

Not unnaturally, Brown was infuriated and, thereafter, the two officers were always kept separate in the service, Ripley being sent to the Louisiana Territory while Brown was posted to the north. Ripley resigned from the army in 1820 and pursued a career in state politics until his death.

Eleazar W. Ripley was an excellent regimental commander but a cautious and defensive-minded brigade commander. He performed well at Lundy's Lane where he commanded in the latter stages of the battle and managed to preserve the position of the Left Division at a critical stage in the action. He performed less well at Fort Erie. On the other hand, perhaps if Brown had been a more experienced division commander he would have been more appreciative of Ripley's defensive talents and less critical of his lack of aggressive traits, particularly in view of the fact that his other regular brigade commander, Winfield Scott, was aggressive to the point of rashness. The root of all the problems between the two and between Ripley and the other senior officers of the division may have been Ripley's withdrawn and distant personality -- even Ripley's own staff did not like him although they did respect him.

There is no modern biography of Eleazar W. Ripley, an officer who deserves more attention than he has received from historians.

Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

More than any other general officer, Winfield Scott typifies the increasing professionalism of the United States Army during the war. A Virginian, Scott studied law beforebeing commissioned as a captain in the light artillery in 1808. Scott served in Louisiana where he ran afoul of James Wilkinson and was suspended for one year for making derogatory public remarks about that officer. Scott utilized this year to study military books and advance his knowledge of warfare. He became a dedicated reader of military literature,and always took a 5 foot portable bookshelf with him on campaign. Rejoining the army, Scott served on Hampton's staff in Louisiana and accompanied that officer north when he was replaced by Wilkinson in 1812. In June of that year, Scott received a double promotion to lieutenant-colonel and, "at the age of 26, with a hot war before me", felt that there was "nothing to be desired but the continued favor of Providence!"[2]

Scott's war record reads like a history of the campaigns on the northern frontier. In September 1812, he commanded a detachment of the Second Artillery that concentrated at Greenbush and later marched to the Niagara where Scott played a leading role in the battle of Queenston Heights fought on 13 October 1813. Taken prisoner, he was exchanged in January 1813, promoted to colonel and given command of the Second Artillery. He joined Dearborn's army at with his unit at Fort Niagara in May and, functioning both as a regimental commander and adjutant or chief of staff to the ailing Dearborn, planned and led the successful assault on Fort George, Canada, on 27 May 1813. He remained with the army throughout the summer, commanding a raid which captured York, the capital of Upper Canada, in August. In September Scott and his regiment were left at Fort George when most of the army were moved to Sackets Harbor in anticipation of Wilkinson's offensive against Montreal. Receiving permission to join the main army, Scott caught up with Wilkinson on horseback just in time to fight a successful action under Brown's command at Hoople's Creek, Canada.

During the winter of 1813-1814, Scott was called to Washington for consultations with the War Department but, in March 1814, was promoted to brigadier-general and given a brigade in Brown's Left Division. In command at Buffalo from April to June Scott put this formation through the most rigorous training program of the wartime army and the results were immediately apparent when it invaded Canada and gained a major victory against British regulars at the battle of Chippawa of 5 July. Scott commanded in the early stages of the bloody battle of Lundy's Lane on 25 July but was badly wounded and did not return to duty until December when he assumed command of Military District No. 10 with the brevet of major-general for his services the previous summer. One of his last wartime duties was presiding over the committee that chose a system of infantry tactics for the army, as there had been many problems in this regard throughout the war.

Scott's services in the regular army after the war are well known and need only be briefly summarized here. He was passed over for command of the army in 1828 because of his longstanding feud with Edmund Gaines and the appointment went instead to Alexander Macomb. On Macomb's death in 1841, Scott became the senior general of the army and held that position until 1861. He planned and led the campaign against Mexico in 1847-1847, during which he trained a new group of young officers including Robert E. Lee who served on his staff. Scott was still in service when the Civil War began in 1861 and planned the basic strategy utilized by the Union during the war. When he retired in November 1861 Winfield Scott had served for 53 years and throughout most of that period, certainly from 1815 to 1861, was the most dominant personality in the army.

Wintield Scott was a thoroughgoing professional who played an important role in the War of 1812. In 1814, he provided the badly-needed training and discipline for Brown's Left Division that made the American regular the equal of his British counterpart. He was firm believer in discipline, training, maintaining the health of his troops and was a fearless and aggressive commander in action. But Scott also his faults -- he could be arrogant, boastful and inflexible and throughout his long career, he was embroiled in a series of petty personal feuds with his contemporaries. But these faults were far outweighed by the many fine services he rendered his nation in four wars.

There are many biographies of Winfield Scott, most of which are adulatory, and Scott wrote his own memoirs which can not be trusted, particularly on matters regarding the War of 1812. The best biography of the man is the most recent -- Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory (Lawrence, 1998).

Joseph Gardner Swift (1783-1865)

The first graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, Swift was the only cadet to obtain general officer rank during the War of 1812. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of engineers in 1802, promoted first lieutenant in 1805, captain in 1806 and major in 1808. In July 1812, Swift received a double promotion to colonel and was named chief engineer of the army.

Swift performed good services during the war but perhaps the most important was during the autumn 1813 offensive against Montreal when he functioned as Wilkinson's de facto chief of staff. He was able to provide much sound advice to his commander and worked hard to prevent the antagonism between Wilkinson, Armstrong and Hampton from becoming worse than it was. Due to the constant incapacity of Wilkinson (because of illness or the doses of laudanum Wilkinson took to counteract it) Swift frequently exercised actual command of the army during the movement down the St. Lawrence. His greatest moment came at the battle of Cryler's Farm on 11 November 1813 when both Wilkinson and his second-in-command, Morgan Lewis, were too sick to perform their duties while the next senior officer, John P. Boyd, was manifestly incapable. It was Swift who more or less took over command and, although the army was defeated, he managed to stave off a complete rout.

For his services, Swift was breveted a brigadier-general in February 1814 and was retained in the army after the war. He resigned in 1818 to pursue a successful career as a civilian engineer.

Along with Izard and Macomb, Swift was one of the best educated officers of the wartime army and, like these two officers, also deserves a biography.


[1].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).

[2].Winfield Scott, Memoirs of General Scott, written by himself (New York, 2 vols, 1864), vol 1, 51.i