The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 15: May 2011


For want of this precaution so many Men lose their Arms:" Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815 Part 10

By Donald E. Graves

And so to War, 1812-1815

In the spring of 1812, the strength of the U.S. Army's regular artillery establishment more than doubled. The twenty companies of the Regiment of Artillerists (soon to be re-designated the First Regiment of Artillery) and the ten of the Regiment of Light Artillery were augmented by the forty companies (twenty each) of the Second and Third Regiments of Artillery.[37] For many pre-war officers, the result was accelerated promotion–Winfield Scott was a captain in the Regiment of Light Artillery in May 1812; two months later he was a lieutenant-colonel in the Second Regiment of Artillery. Generally speaking, the regular artillery underwent this increase without any real loss of quality in leadership because, in contrast to the infantry, the artillery had received the greater part of the graduates of West Point in the previous decade. Of the 85 cadets who had been graduated between 1802 and 1812, 45 were serving in the artillery when the war broke out and, of the 32 cadets who were to graduate between 1812 and 1814, no fewer than 27 joined that arm.[38] The artillery was the most professional component of the wartime regular service and it is interesting to note that three of its pre-war officers–George Izard, Alexander Macomb and Winfield Scott -- reached the rank of major-general before the conflict ended.[39] 

The West Point graduates had at least cut their gunners' teeth on Francis Holliday's Practical Gunnery, the artillery and ballistics sections of Jared Mansfield's Essays, Mathematical and Physical, De Scheel's Treatise, Kosciuszko's Manoeuvres and a copy of L'Artillerie Raisonée by Guillaume Le Blond which was first published in 1761, as these were the only artillery texts in the academy library up to 1814.[40] But what literature was available to officers commissioned direct from civil life? On this subject we again have the evidence of William Wade, a militia officer who entered federal service in 1813, who remembers acquiring a collection of official, semi-official and private works when he took up his new duties. In the official category was Williams's translation of De Scheel to serve as a guide for ordnance design and carriage construction while in the semi-official category were the more recent works of Kosciuszko and Tousard plus Adye's ever handy little Pocket Gunner, Stevens's Young Artillerist's Pocket Companion of 1797 which was still being offered for sale as were copies of the 1779 edition of John Muller's Treatise, which dated back to the 1750s! Wade obtained copies of all of these works but not the Compendious Exercise or Stoddard's Exercises–the two official manuals–as his duties were not concerned with service in the field. Of the various titles available to him, Wade recalled that Tousard's Artillerist's Companion and Adye's Pocket Gunner "were regarded by the officers of artillery and ordnance during the war of 1812 as their best guides."[41]

And so young Wade and other American artillery officers rode off to war, pockets and portmanteaux bulging no doubt with annotated volumes of Tousard and well-thumbed copies of De Scheel and Adye, all probably spattered with candle wax that betrayed long hours of study into the night as well as the odd wine stain, probably resulting from a modicum of that beverage taken both to aid the digestive and accelerate the learning processes.

Where most of these officers were bound was the northern border. It is often forgotten in the United States but the major military campaigns of the War of 1812 were not waged along the Atlantic seaboard or in Louisiana but against the British possessions to the north. The greater part of the operations in this theatre was carried out by the regular army and for the regulars, the conflict waged in 1812-1814 was a northern war. The statistics bear this statement out–of the 48 regular infantry regiments or fragments of regiments in service during those years, 31 served in the north as did both of the regular dragoon regiments, two of the four regular rifle regiments and about three-quarters of the artillery companies.[42] In December 1813 three of the five major-generals in the regular establishment were in the north as were six of the thirteen brigadier generals and the same proportion of senior staff officers.[43] The climate in the north, which ranges from sub-arctic in January to sub-tropical in July, was bad enough but a disastrous combination of faulty strategic direction, incompetent leaders, poor logistics and poorer communications as well as a very professional opponent condemned the regular army to thirty bad months that brought many hardships but precious little glory.    

And how did the regular artillery fare in this difficult theatre? Thankfully, we can now turn from our examination of dusty old tomes and their even dustier old authors and take a brief look at its wartime record. In fact the regular American artillery units performed superbly during the War of 1812. Well led, trained and disciplined, the gunners were often the best soldiers in service -- so much so that on many occasions they fought as infantry and one luckless company of the Third Regiment actually ended up as marines on board the naval squadron on Lake Ontario.[44]

One of the best units in the northern army was Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott's Second Artillery Regiment. Scott is not usually remembered as an artillery officer but he began his lengthy career in that arm. He mustered his newly raised regiment at Philadelphia in the summer of 1812 and was fortunate enough to be blessed with a number of very competent young officers who would distinguish themselves over the next two years. Among them were Jacob Hindman from Maryland, a former regular infantry officer who had obtained a transfer to the artillery; Nathan Towson from the same state, a short-sighted and poetry-loving former militia gunner; Thomas Biddle from a socially prominent Philadelphia family with strong naval connections; John Ritchie from an equally prominent family in Alexandria, Virginia and Samuel B. Archer, another Virginian and a somewhat eccentric character with a salty turn of phrase who once remarked–when admonished about his overly aggressive attitude toward the enemy–that if he could "boil all hell down to a pint," he would fill his shells with it and make the enemy "swallow as much of that concentrated essence as he could give them."[45]

Winfield Scott was a fervent admirer of French military thought and literature. In 1809 he had applied to the Secretary of War for permission to travel to France to collect materials that would allow him to write treatises for the army on "military police, discipline and tactics" but not, it seems, directly on artillery.[46] His request was rejected but as recruits came into his camp at Philadelphia in the summer of 1812 he commenced training them probably by using Stoddard's Exercises and books from his own personal library which accompanied him on campaign in a specially-constructed five-foot portable bookshelf. We know something about the contents of Scott's library because when it was sold at auction in 1876, a catalogue of its contents was compiled. In terms of artillery texts, Scott possessed copies of Adye's Pocket Gunner and Gassendi's Aide-Mémoire as well as some post-1815 titles. The most interesting item in the catalogue, however, is Lot 517 which consisted of 50 volumes, mostly French, published between 1769 and 1814, and uniformly bound "in full calf, gilt, marbled edges" which, "in some places has notes in his ["Scott's] handwriting."[47] Given the publication dates and the binding, this is probably the contents of Scott's famous portable bookshelf but, unfortunately, the wretched clerk who compiled the descriptions did not see fit to give us more information about the lot's contents thereby doing a great disservice to all serious students of early 19th century American military literature. 

Manfully swallowing our disappointment, let us follow Scott's gunners as they went to war. In September 1812 he moved north with two companies of his regiment, leaving the remainder of the Second Regiment at Philadelphia. Nathan Towson commanded one of these companies which distinguished itself in a "cutting out" expedition that captured two British ships on Lake Erie near Buffalo. Scott and his men then fought at Queenston Heights in October, a battle that ended badly as he was taken prisoner following the defeat of the American force. He was back with the Second Artillery in May 1813 when it played a prominent part in the amphibious attack on Fort George, Canada, some companies serving as gunners and some as infantry with Captain Jacob Hindman commanding the first assault wave to land. On 6 June 1813, three companies of the regiment fought as infantry at the battle of Stoney Creek while a fourth, under Samuel Archer, fought as artillery. When Scott was appointed to a brigade command in late 1813 the newly-promoted Major Jacob Hindman assumed command of a battalion of the Second Regiment, one company of which participated in the ill-fated Wilkinson offensive against Montreal in the autumn while the remaining companies garrisoned Sackets Harbor during the following winter.[48]

By the spring of 1814 when the three foot artillery regiments were consolidated into the Corps of Artillery, Hindman's battalion had a very high reputation in the northern army. In April he concentrated it at Flint Hill near Buffalo in April where Scott was training the infantry of Major-General Jacob Brown's Left Division. For his part, Hindman put his battalion through daily live and blank firing exercises aided by his now veteran company commanders -- Captains Biddle, Ritchie and Towson -- and a new arrival, Captain Alexander Williams, the son of Colonel Jonathan Williams.[49] For field service, Hindman organized his four companies into "half divisions" on the lines of the organization established by Gribeauval and by War Department's 1813 Regulations.[50] These specified that a "division" was to consist of four guns "of the same caliber, and two howitzers, or of six pieces or cannon of the same caliber" while a "half division" was to consist of two pieces of cannon of the same caliber, and one howitzer, or of three pieces of cannon of the same caliber."[51] The intent of the regulations was that each company of artillery constituted a division in the field but the strength of Hindman's companies was so low that they could only form half divisions. Towson and Ritchie's companies, each fielding two 6-pdr. guns and one 5.5-inch howitzer, were assigned to the two regular infantry brigades in the Left Division while Biddle's company , with three medium 12-pdrs., and Williams's company, with three 18-pdr. guns provided heavier fire.[52]

On 3 July 1814, Hindman's battalion crossed into Canada with the Left Division and during the next eighteen weeks, participated in every major action of the hard-fought and bloody Niagara campaign. Towson and Biddle's companies were engaged at the battle of Chippawa on 5 July, the crossing of the Chippawa River on 8 July and, with Ritchie's company, the bombardment of Fort George a few weeks later. The battalion's great moment of glory came on 25 July when all its companies–except that of Williams, which had been left to garrison Fort Erie–were engaged in close quarter action at the battle of Lundy's Lane, the bloodiest single battle of the War of 1812. Ritchie was killed but when the Left Division withdrew from the field at the close of the action, Biddle managed to bring off a British brass 6-pdr. gun which can now be seen as a trophy piece at Fort McNair in Washington. Hindman's battalion played a major part during the siege of Fort Erie in August and September, with Williams being killed during the unsuccessful British night assault of 15 August.[53]

When Hindman's battalion withdrew to the American side of the Niagara in early November 1814, Hindman and Towson were the only surviving officers in the unit–the others had been killed, wounded or captured. An eyewitness who saw the two men and their gunners when they landed on friendly soil recorded that their uniforms were held together by bits of string as most of their buttons had been cut or shot off.[54] But, as a senior officer remarked Hindman's battalion had acquired such great renown and

“had so distinguished itself during the whole of the campaign as to attract even the commendation of the British officers, who had gotten the impression that it was under the direction of the most experienced French artillerists. They were quite surprised to learn that the officers were all American, and none beyond thirty years of age.”[55]

A fine compliment, indeed, but it is clear that, although its tactical doctrine may have been largely derived from French sources, the courage and intelligence of the officers and gunners of the United States artillery during the War of 1812 was entirely native in origin.

End Notes

[37]. Many of these companies, however, were authorized but not raised. 

[38]. ASPMA, vol. 2 (1834), 634-636, Register of Cadets who have been graduated at the United States Military Academy ... from June, 1802, July, 1823. Information on careers of cadets at the military academy from ASPMA, vol. 1, 840, Register of Cadets who have been Appointed to the Military Academy, which includes all those appointed from 1801 to 1818; and George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United Sates Military Academy, 3 vols., New York, 1863.

[39]. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 2 vols., Government Printing Office, Washington, 1903, volume 1.  

[40]. USNA, RG 107, Micro 221, reel 56, Partridge to SW, 11 April 1814.

[41]. Wade, "Early Systems of Artillery."

[42]. Rene Chartrand and Donald E. Graves, "The United States Army of the War of 1812: A Hand Book," unpublished manuscript, c. 1988.

[43]. ASPMA vol. 1, 348-437, Register, Rules and Regulations of the Army, December 1813.

[44]. Information on the service of the regular artillery regiments in the war is extracted from Chartrand and Graves, "The United States Army of the War of 1812".

[45]. Sketch of the LIfe of General Nathan Towson. Baltimore, N. Hickman, 1842, 11.

[46]. Birkheimer, Historical Sketch, 301.

[47]. Catalogue of the Libraries of the late Genl. Winfield Scott with additions by his Nephew, Colonel Henry Lee Scott ..., Leavitt, New York, 1876.

[48]. Chartrand and Graves, "The United States Army of the War of 1812."

[49]. Alexander Williams to Jonathan Williams, 8 June 1814, Lily Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

[50]. ASPMA, vol. 1, Register, Rules and Regulations of the Army, December 1813.

[51]. ASPMA, vol. 1, Register, Rules and Regulations of the Army, December 1813.

[52]. On the organization of Hindman's battalion in 1814, see Donald E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead! The Battle of Lundy's Lane, 1814, Brass Studio, Toronto 1997, 257, Order of Battle and Strength, Left Division, United States Army.

[53]. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!, 75-229.

[54]. William Horner, "Surgical Sketches: A Military Hospital at Buffalo, New York, in the Year 1814," Medical Examiner and Record of Medical Service, 16 (Jan. 1853), 24.

[55]. Cromwell Pearce, "'A Poor But Honest Sodger': Cromwell Pearce, the 16th U.S. Infantry and the War of 1812, Pennsylvania History, 43, (1985), 160.



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