November 26, 2014

Calm, practical, orderly and considerate – Jacob Brown

Jacob Brown was born in Bucks County, Pa. in 1775. His early career was as a schoolmaster and surveyor. In 1799, he purchased a patch of land with his father in Black River County, Northern N.Y., and spent 39 years developing the town of Brownville. His prominence in the community led to a commission in the state militia as a brigadier-general. Brown was described as calm, practical, orderly and considerate. He was further described as being above average height, not always able to control his quick temper, and sometimes his determination would turn to withdrawing even in good circumstances.

When the War of 1812 started, Brown was a militia commander in northern N.Y. State. Brown managed to get more out of citizen soldiers than other militia commanders. He impressed many people with his defence of Ogdensburg, N.Y. in October 1812. He also impressed his superiors with his actions in the defence of Sackets Harbor in May 1813. His actions at Sackets Harbor led to a commission in the regular army where he was soon promoted to major-general.

In 1814, Brown was given command of the American forces along the Niagara River, known as the Left Division. On July 3, 1814, Brown and his army crossed the Niagara, captured Fort Erie, and fought the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane. At Lundy’s Lane Brown was wounded by a musket ball that passed through his right inner thigh ‘very high up.’ Shortly thereafter Brown was wounded again when he was struck on the left side. He was forced to turn command over to Brigadier-General Eleazer Ripley.

Brown spent his convalescence with friends near Buffalo, and was attended by a personal surgeon and his wife. Two weeks after being wounded he was able to walk and spent most of his time trying to gain reinforcements for the troops under siege at Fort Erie. Brown retook command of the Left Division in early September when Brigadier-General Edmund Gaines was wounded at Fort Erie.

After the war, Brown and Ripley continued their feud that emerged during the Niagara 1814 campaign. Later in life, Brown was marred by financial and physical problems. His business ventures went sour and he eventually died in 1828 at the age of 53 from a stroke.

If you want to find out more about Jacob Brown and the Niagara 1814 Campaign, there are a number of good books available. Don Graves newest book And All Their Glory Past, along with Richard Barbuto’s Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada, give a good overview of Brown and the Niagara 1814 Campaign from a British/Canadian and American perspective.

November 19, 2014

Good, honest, industrious women – Army laundresses

Women attached to both the American and British armies received daily rations but were expected to contribute to their regiment. These army wives often performed nursing duties but there were a number of different jobs available. One lucrative position for these women included acting as laundresses since this service was in constant demand.

In the U.S. Army, women were paid local rates and were responsible for ensuring that the washhouse was kept clean. Laundresses were often the wives of senior enlisted men and frequently had a considerable amount of work to perform since American regulations stated that soldiers “will not wear their Fatigue Frock & Trowsers more than three Days without washing.”

Company commanders ensured that every woman had a fair proportion of washing so that the needs of the garrison were not neglected and to avoid complaints from some woman that others received more work and pay. Army regulations were firmly enforced and any transgressors were turned out of the garrison and “not suffered to enter it again.” It appears that some laundresses were dishonest and of a questionable moral character but the majority were, as one American general wrote, “good, honest, industrious” women “ever-ready for a fight, yet kind of heart in a rough manner, always ready to assist in times of distress.”

As for British laundresses, a popular military treatise published before the War of 1812 set out important guidelines. It stated methods for women to do their work properly and that these women be punctually paid so that they could perform their job correctly. Senior officers were permitted to set the price for laundry work and in one location, the going rate was two pence halfpenny (about four cents) for each shirt washed. Considering that private soldiers made about 20 cents per day, army wives could potentially earn more money than their husbands could. However, the fixed price could not be changed, and any woman “refusing to wash for the above sum will be struck off the rations.”

No matter what job army women performed during the war, their task was difficult and challenging. If you want to learn more about women in the 19th century, head to the Battlefield House Museum in Stoney Creek this Saturday for their Jane Austen event. Click here for more information. 

November 12, 2014

Distressed for many days – the last duel fought in Canada

During the war, John Norton and his warriors played a pivotal role in defending Niagara and Upper Canada. When the War of 1812 ended, John Norton and his wife Catherine sailed for Britain in the summer of 1815. The couple first went to Scotland where Catharine took English lessons and by many accounts she was a “very keen student” who could “hardly be prevailed on to quit her Spelling book and writing for anything else.”

In 1816, the Nortons returned to Upper Canada and settled on the Grand River where John Norton received his land grant for retired officers. John and Catharine’s life together appeared to be going well until 1823 when their life together ended. John Norton writes that a young man, who he fostered from childhood and who fought with him during the war, had “offered her [Catharine] the grossest insult a woman can receive.” Apparently, Catharine had succumbed to the young man’s charms, causing John to force both Catharine and her lover to leave the property.
John Norton

The young man returned to John’s home and challenged him to a duel. Pistols were chosen as the weapon for the duel, John Norton writes, “I told him that when he took aim at me and I saw him ready to fire I would treat him as I did my enemies.” John Norton shot and killed the man. “When I saw the poor young man stretched on the ground and the recollections of past times crowded into my mind,” John Norton writes, “pity succeeded to every other feeling and to a much higher degree; I was so much distressed for many days.”

After the “last duel fought in Canada,” as it became known, ended John Norton decided to turn himself in, was found guilty of manslaughter and fined £25 and discharged. Norton refused to see Catharine again but left her a share of his pension. Catharine wrote Norton begging his forgiveness, but Norton refused to see her. Norton decided to head for American territory where he is believed to have died in the 1830s.

As for Catharine, she made her way to Fairfield on the Thames River where missionaries reported that she died in 1827. The woman described by John Norton to be beautiful and the apple of her husband’s eye had become by one account a “dirty old squaw.”

If you want to find out more about John Norton, you can read his journal online. Click here for the website.

November 05, 2014

The Niagara 1814 campaign ends

In late October, the commander at Fort Erie, General Izard, had a decision to make: retain Fort Erie or abandon the position. After the Battle ofCook’s Mills, Izard ordered his men to form on the Chippawa plain across from Drummond’s position on October 21, 1814. Izard’s plan was to coax Drummond out from behind his defences so that the British force on the Niagara could be destroyed, but Drummond refused to battle.

Both the British and Americans knew that fighting in Niagara was over for 1814 and both sides prepared for the long winter. Izard ordered a number of units across the Niagara to enter winter quarters. Eventually, Izard decided that holding Fort Erie would not be practical since crossing the Niagara River in the winter was difficult. Izard wrote to Secretary of War Monroe that the problems at Fort Erie,

Induced me to examine maturely the advantages, and inconveniences of retaining Fort Erie under the American flag. I can find not one of the former, (except it being a trophy) which in any point of view would justify my exposing in a weak, ill-planned, and hastily repaired redoubt (it scarcely deserves even that humble designation) some hundreds of valuable officers and men, with the cannon, and various stores, which if it were taken would necessarily fall with it into the hands of the enemy.   
Fort Erie in ruins, 1930s
Izard also pointed out that the battalion designated to defend Fort Erie was experiencing “daily and numerous” desertions. After consulting three of his trusted officers, Izard made the final decision that Fort Erie would be “dismantled, evacuated, and destroyed.” The garrison was tasked with digging huts into the side of the defences to be filled with gunpowder to destroy the fort. It rained incessantly during the last week of October and early November that Major Totten of the engineers, responsible for the demolition, found it difficult to dig shafts for the gunpowder anywhere in the fort “without meeting water in almost every instance of our attempts.” Finally, on November 5, the fuses were lit and the defence works were destroyed in clouds of mud, dirt, wood and stone. U.S. Lieutenant Norton wrote, “The explosion was tremendous and worth seeing.”

With Fort Erie evacuated and both sides moving to winter quarters, the Niagara 1814 campaign finally ended after 125 days of hard fighting during the longest and bloodiest fighting of the War of 1812.