August 20, 2014

For honour’s sake

At the start of the War of 1812, the U.S. officer corps lacked combat experience and many American officers were lawyers, merchants and clerks in commercial society. Winfield Scott described most of his fellow officers in 1812 as “imbeciles and ignoramuses.”

This crop of new officers came with an extreme sense of honour and many American officers would “devote every thing to the service of his country, except his honor.” This new officer corps readily insulted others and quickly felt slighted compared to their British counterparts who had a keen sense of duty and their place in class hierarchy.

For the Americans, the newspapers were another important battleground as they published accounts of battles as well as battle reports from commanders. These reports invariably cast the best possible light on the commanding officer, since they were the ones writing them, and on their favoured subordinates. Officer who felt slighted by these reports submitted letters to the newspapers, which often created rivalries and feuds.
Militia Officer, New York State

The winter season provided a great opportunity for officer to secure furloughs for leave to Washington in order to advance their own interests. In March 1814, one congressman wrote, “So great has been the resort of epaulettes here that many have inquired who were left with the Troops?” Leaving the troops behind squandered a great opportunity to train the troops, who resented the fact that they could not go home.

Courts-martial were far more abundant in the American army than in the British. Many officers pressed charges against one another, causing General George Izard to lament, “It is wonderful how much valuable time these Courts Martial engross.” Of course duelling was another way to settle disputes between officers.

Although duelling was prohibited in the U.S. Army, it did take place and some generals even encouraged this practice. With honour as a paramount concern, duellists shot at each other instead of the enemy. In the spring of 1813, two officers crossed the Niagara River to duel in order to leave New York’s legal jurisdiction, but were taken by surprise by the British and captured. At Fort George in 1813, Lieutenant Smith killed Dr. Shumate in a duel, depriving the camp of a much-needed surgeon during epidemics of malaria and dysentery.

Politics, war and honour proved a bloody mix for officers, since fighting each other was easier than fighting the British. Although the American officers retained their sense of honour as a paramount concern, their officer corps did improve during the war. By the time of the Niagara 1814 campaign, younger energetic officer took over and focused on training their men for the task at hand. A renewed sense of duty and training ensured that the Niagara 1814 campaign was the most successful for the American Army during the War of 1812.

This weekend you can head to Fort George for their annual timeline event with interpreters and animators representing the War of 1812, WWI, WWII and more. Click here for details.

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