The British Army in North America

Some Background

What most Americans know about the British Army in North America is this: they were the most powerful Army in the world, partnered with the most powerful navy in the world, and that the American colonists in rebellion never stood a chance.  This, of course, is only true in the context of a refined, well trained army sent to confront farmers, shopkeepers, barmen, and boat builders who were drafted into the colonial militia. 

In 1754, the British Army had about 4,000 regulars serving in the North America [Note 1].  To understand what this means, in terms of manpower strength, the average size of an infantry regiment was between 700-800 men.  Given these numbers, then there were five regiments assigned to the colonies, each consisting of ten companies, the entirety being a brigade.  The brigade commander may have formed battalions of five companies each.  It is likely that British Army units were placed where they were most needed; given the size in area of the thirteen colonies, they were hardly an effective fighting force.  The soldiers in residence had been long neglected by the home government; they had become complacent in their duties and posed no threat to anyone, much less the French or their Indian surrogates.

Regimental Colonels were honorary positions of well-placed gentlemen.  The colonel’s frequent absences from the regiment made the lieutenant colonel the officer commanding, and he was assisted by a major.  Aiding the officer commanding was a small staff of five men (excluding personal batmen).  If the lieutenant colonel and major were absent from the regiment, then the senior captain stepped in as officer commanding.  In such conditions, with captains commanding the regiment, then it fell upon the lieutenants to command the companies.

The British infantry company was composed of 3 officers, 2-4 musicians, 6 noncommissioned officers, and 56 privates.  Sickness, desertion, and battle losses meant that British companies/battalions/regiments/brigades seldom — if ever — went into combat at full strength.

Young men of the eighteenth century often joined the British Army for economic reasons.  The onset of the Industrial Revolution and land closure brought enormous social changes in Great Britain.  Common laborers, textile workers, and displaced artisans joined the army to escape poverty.  The British private received eight pence per day before taxes — about £1.00 per month.   It was’t much, but it was better than the soldier could make “back home” as a laborer — £1.00 being somewhere in the neighborhood of $25.00/month in 2021 currency.

Where the British Soldiers Came From

The common soldier enlisted in the British Army under widely varied circumstances.  The unemployed textile worker may have sought out the recruiter and accepted the King’s shilling for his service “at the pleasure of the King.”  In other words, this recruit may have been recruited for life.  But the British Army also hired mercenaries; men who fought for money, and only when the money was right.  Most recruitments in the British Isles came from poverty stricken sections of the larger cities.  Each regiment recruited for itself and regimental colonels would often lead recruiting parties into towns and villages.  Some people were, with the permission of the Crown and local courts, pressed into service.  They were vagrants, homeless people, drunkards, and some were prisoners who thought it would be a better life in the Army than eating rat meat in a dark, dank prison in the midlands.   

British military officers purchased their commissions (and sold them).  The purchase price of a military officer’s commission was high enough that it precluded men of moderate means from becoming British officers, or ascending higher in rank.  Most officers up to the rank of major were of the middle class.  Only sons of nobility could afford high command; they had to be well-born, and   as such, they served concurrently as politicians and general officers.

The Braddock Expedition    

On 20 February 1755, Major General Edward Braddock arrived in the colonies with two regiments and assumed command of all British land forces as Commander-in-Chief of the British North American Army.  He met with several of the colonial governors in Alexandria on 14 April.  They persuaded him to undertake vigorous actions against the French, who had instigated native populations against British settlements.  With colonial militia reinforcing British regulars, Braddock planned his punitive expedition against the French around the following: a militia officer from Massachusetts would lead an attack against Fort Niagara; General Sir William Johnson from New York would lead an assault against the French at Crown Point; Colonel Monckton would lead an attack on the Bay of Fundy, and Braddock would himself march an expedition against Fort Duquesne (Pittsburg) on the Ohio River.

The main thrust of the British attack was Fort Duquesne.  General Braddock commanded the 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot (1,350 men), an additional force of 500 regular and colonial militia, field artillery, and other support troops, for a total of around 2,100 men [Note 2].  A twenty-three year old lieutenant colonel of militia accompanied Braddock — a surveyor, who knew the landscape, and a man capable of serving as Braddock’s aide-de-camp.  His name was George Washington.  Major General Braddock fell mortally wounded at the Battle of Monongahela on 9 July 1755, carried from the field by Colonel Washington and Colonel Meriwether.  Although Washington had no official position within the chain of command, he nevertheless brought order to the regiments and commanded a rearguard for the evacuation of the British expedition from the field.  Of Braddock’s regular force, 456 were killed, 422 wounded.  Of his officers numbering 86, 26 were killed, 37 were wounded.  There were 50 women in the Braddock expedition, all but four were killed.  Subsequent defeats along the frontier prompted London to expand the British Army in North America.  It was  easier said than done.

The average Englishman had little interest in serving in the British Army; it was a challenging lifestyle at the best of times.  Between 1755-57, only 4,500 Englishmen enlisted for service in the colonies.  At the same time, 7,500 British colonists enlisted in the British Army of North America.  After Grat Britain formerly declared war against France in 1756, recruiting efforts on the Homefront were more successful.  Some 11,000 regulars were sent from Britain to America in 1757.  Simultaneously, the flow of colonial recruits diminished to a mere trickle of what it had been.

In early 1758, the British government appointed General James Abercromby to serve as Commander-in-Chief in North America.  Abercromby brought reform and improvement in an army that grew to twenty-three battalions (about 8,000 men).  That year marked the turning point of the war and the British Army reclaimed its prestige.  After the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the regular British Army serving in North America was raised to 10,000 men.  Americans living on the frontier welcomed these men; the British regular represented colonial security.  On the other hand, while Americans enjoyed the peace of mind and safety provided by the British Army, no one wanted to pay for them in the form of taxes.  This made no sense to any thinking person, but it is difficult to argue that most American colonists in 1770 were skilled in that regard.

The American Revolution

In terms of the sentiments of American colonists, there were only two sorts where the British soldier was concerned: those who loved them, and those who hated them.  There was no middle group.  The rabble-rousers in Boston fell into the latter category and sought to create confrontations with the symbol of British authority at every opportunity [Note 3].  By 1775, the British North American soldier was a highly proficient, extremely professional soldier — one could not look upon the colonial militiamen with anything but contempt.  British soldiers didn’t run away from a fight.

The colonist’s fuss about paying their “fair share” of taxes to support the British Army in the colonies brought disdain from the British regular.  He didn’t respect the colonist, and he didn’t respect the leaders of the emerging American government or its militia.  A few years earlier, no one wanted to serve as a British regular officer more than George Washington, but the British establishment responded to his every effort with scorn.  After 1770, colonial farmers, shopkeepers, and militia came to realize that despite all they did for England, the British would always regard them as second-class citizens.

France’s entry into the colonial revolution on the side of the Americans changed Great Britain’s strategic calculus.  The British were no longer masters of the sea along America’s sea coast.  While the British Army was widely distributed from Canada to Florida and the West Indies, the French could deliver fresh troops to any place along the East Coast at a time of their own choosing — unchallenged by either the British Army or the Royal Navy.  Because the West Indies was more valuable to the British than the rebellious colonies, a large number of British Army and Royal Navy resources were diverted to protect British interest there.

The government in London soon realized that the colonies in New England were probably beyond saving.  British loyalists living in New England were few in number.  The southern colonies, on the other hand, had large populations of loyalists; there was hope that these colonies might be saved, and so the British Army and Royal Navy turned its attention to the Carolinas and West Florida.  Britain’s effort toward saving the southern colonies was the match that lit the kindling in the southern colonies; capturing Charleston added logs to the fire.  

General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown (Oct 1781).  One key feature in the southern campaign was the number of British Loyalists who fought the British fight.  The Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 was an exclusively American engagement.  The outcome of King’s Mountain prompted the Loyalists to reconsider; after all, there was never a guarantee that the British would win the war — and if they didn’t, then what would happen to the loyalists?  Loyalists would have been suicidal to throw their lot behind the British if there was any chance at all that the patriots would end up as the victors — which, of course, they were.

British regular soldiers continued to fight well and the colonial militia always maintained their fear of British regular formations.  The problem was that the British Army was getting smaller with each battle.  Cornwallis did not have a regular pipeline for troop replacements, which meant that each British victory came at a high price.  The British soldier was poorly fed, poorly cared for, and quite often poorly led … but they steadfastly performed courageously in battle after battle — at the beginning of the conflict and at the end of it.

The Age of Sail

It was never easy to support the British Army 3,000 miles away on the North American continent.  To feed these soldiers a daily ration, the British government contracted with food producing companies who transported the rations in bulk across the Atlantic.  By the time they arrived and found their way into the Red Coat’s mess kit, the rations were inedible.  Biscuits were full of weevils, the bread was moldy, the butter rancid, the flour spoiled, insects infested peas, and then came the maggoty beef.  It is no surprise to learn that the British soldier was seriously malnourished and toothless by the time he reached 30 years of age.  Senior officers did register complaints, but they fell on deaf ears.

Adding to the difficult task of crushing rebellion was the corruption of British bureaucrats, contractors, ship’s captains, and commissary officers in the supply chain.  Corruption didn’t begin with the British war ministry, and it certainly didn’t end there.  One may wonder how well the family of Lyndon Baines Johnson profited from the Vietnam War. 

Thirty Years Later

Many historians will argue that the American Revolution ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris of that year.  I disagree.  Oh, there may have been a treaty with Great Britain, but the behavior of the officers commanding British Army forces in North America never changed toward the Americans, nor — for that matter — did the behavior of the Royal Navy toward American flagged ships.  Among more than a few senior British  Army and Navy officers, an American Revolution “re-do” was a worthwhile undertaking.  Officers commanding British forts in Canada never once stopped instigating Indian attacks against American western settlements or westward migrations — even to the extent of paying Indians for American scalps.

Renewed conflict with Great Britain in 1812 favored the Americans because, at the time, the British were up to their nickers in a fight with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Because the priority for army forces was given to Europe, the British manned their North American forts with cadre staffs.  Sadly, by 1812, America no longer had a George Washington to lead them.  They had to rely on much older revolutionary era generals who, truth be known, weren’t all that good as generals when they were much younger.

While it was true that the early conflict favored the Americans, we should recall that America was once more at war with a powerful nation — and one that had one hand tied behind its back.  It would have been advantageous to the Americans to win its War of 1812 early on — but no.  Incompetent generals and one disaster after another denied the Americans a clear victory, even while confronting a much-diminished British army.  It may have been too much for the Americans to covet Canada.

In 1814, Napoleon was soundly defeated, and when this occurred, the British were then able to turn their full attention to the United States.  In that year, the British mauled the American army at Bladensburg, Maryland (See also: At Bladensburg, 1814), burned the city of Washington, and reasserted the Royal Navy’s control over the Eastern Seaboard (See also: Joshua Barney).  It wasn’t until after the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812, that General Jackson destroyed the British Army in New Orleans — (See also: At Chalmette, 1815) an American victory at last, but it was a superficial victory.  The Americans did kill a lot of British soldiers — but to no good purpose.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, F.  The War that Made America: New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
  2. Brumwell, S.  Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  3. Curtis, E. E.  The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution.  New York: AMS Press, 1969.
  4. Ellis, J. J.  His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Knopf, 2004.
  5. Fortescue, J. W.  A History of the British Army (Thirteen volumes).  New York: AMS Press, 1976.
  6. Schenawolf, H.  British Army Command and Structure in the American Revolution; Grenadier & Light Infantry Battalions.  Revolutionary War Journal Online.

Endnotes:

[1] North America included the thirteen British Colonies and after 1763, Canada.

[2] General Braddock’s overwhelming defeat was partly due to his lack of understanding about French activities and their shenanigans with native tribes.  He also didn’t understand the Indians and had no interest in recruiting them for service with the British Army, which may have been a product of his aristocratic arrogance.  Several additional issues plagued the operation from the beginning, including the difficulty in procuring the necessary supplies that would sustain his force while in the field.  One the expedition began, he found the roadway was too narrow and in constant need of widening to move artillery and cargo wagons, it was rutted and painfully slow.  His frustration in the lack of speed caused him to split his force.  With 1,300 men in his “flying column,” he crossed the Monongahela River on 9 July, ten miles away from Fort Duquesne … but it was difficult terrain.  The collision of both British and French/Indian forces surprised both groups.  Braddock’s advance guard was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage.  The Indians immediately assumed their usual practice of independent action; most of the French fled back to the Fort.  Gage’s line of soldiers, wearing red coats, were difficult for the Indians to miss.  As the soldiers began taking casualties, somewhat shaken by the war whoops of the Indians, Gage’s line became a shamble.  Several of the British, in their confusion, fired on other British formations.  Thereafter, the battle became a rout.  Though Braddock exhibited personal courage and tenacity, the advantage went to the Indians, who were able to fire at the red coats from behind trees.  It was the first time in North America where a British force was destroyed by an inferior number of enemy.  

[3] In a manner similar to the way the modern-day BLMOs seek confrontations with police officers and random members of white society.

The Marine Who Commanded Ships

Historically, one of a kind

The first American ship to carry the name Essex was a 36-gun frigate [Note 1] constructed by Mr. Enos Briggs of Salem, Massachusetts, a design of Mr. William Hackett, and named in honor of Essex County, Massachusetts [Note 2].  United States Ship Essex was launched on 30 September 1799, presented to the United States Navy in December, and accepted for service on behalf of the Navy by Captain Edward Preble, USN, the ship’s first Commanding Officer.  In January 1800, USS Essex departed Newport, Rhode Island in company with USS Congress; their mission was to serve as escorts for a convoy of merchant ships.  The United States was then engaged in the Quasi-War with France [Note 3]; Essex and Congress were ordered to protect these merchant vessels from assault and confiscation by the French Navy.  After only a few days at sea, a storm de-masted Congress and she was forced to return to the American coast.  Essex continued on alone.  USS Essex was the first US Navy ship to cross the equator and the first American man-of-war to make a double voyage around the Cape of Good Hope (March, August 1800).

The second cruise of the Essex took her to the Mediterranean under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, serving in the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale [Note 4].  During this journey, Essex participated in the Barbary Wars through 1806.  Upon return to the United States, Essex underwent refit until 1809 when she was re-commissioned as a patrol vessel along the East Coast of the United States.

Period Note

The Jay Treaty of 1795, more formally The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, was the framework of Alexander Hamilton, supported by George Washington, and brokered by John Jay.  The Jay Treaty was intended to resolve certain deficiencies in the Treaty of Paris (1783) whose sole purpose was to avoid further confrontations with Great Britain.  The goals of the Jay Treaty were mostly fulfilled (withdrawal of British Army forces in the Northwest Territory, cessation of US confiscation of property belonging to British loyalists, etc.) but several issues remained unresolved, such as Great Britain’s impressment of American sailors from ships and ports.  From 1803, when Great Britain went to war with Napoleonic France, the British established a naval blockade to choke off trade with France.  The United States disputed this blockade, proclaiming it illegal under internationally recognized laws of the sea.  But to enforce the British blockade, and to make its point of naval supremacy, the British navy increased its impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.  This behavior, more than any other, inflamed the passions of the American people.  In 1811, USS President closed with a Royal Navy sloop operating off the coast of North Carolina, challenged her, and then fired upon the smaller vessel.  Eleven British sailors were killed.  So now the passions of the British people were inflamed.  As a result of this incident, the British became greatly annoyed and began arming North American Indians and encouraging them to attack American frontier settlements.  The United States declared war against the United Kingdom on 18 June 1812.  It became known as Mr. Madison’s War.

With the outbreak of war, David Porter [Note 5] was promoted to Captain on 2 July 1812 and assigned to command USS Essex.  Sailing his ship to Bermuda, Porter engaged several British transports, taking one of these as a prize of war.  On 13 August, Porter captured HMS Alert, the first British warship captured during the conflict.  By the end of September, Essex had taken ten British merchantmen as prizes.

In February 1813, Porter sailed Essex into the South Atlantic where he sought to disrupt the British whaling fleet.  His first action in the Pacific was the capture of the Peruvian vessel Nereyda.  His purpose in seizing this vessel was that it held captive and impressed American whaling crewmen.   Over the next year, Porter captured 13 British whalers; one of these was a French registry vessel, captured by the Royal Navy, sold to the owner of a British whaling fleet, and re-named Atlantic.  In capturing these ships, Porter also took 380 British seamen as prisoners.  In June, Porter offered parole to these captives, providing that they would not again take up arms against the United States.  Porter renamed Atlantic as Essex Junior and appointed his executive officer, Lieutenant John Downes, to command her.

John Marshall Gamble (1791-1836) was only eight-years old when Essex went into service in 1799.  Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gamble received his appointment to second lieutenant of Marines on 16 January 1809 when he was only 17 or 18-years old.  At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Gamble commanded the Marine Detachment, USS Essex [Note 6].  Gamble was an accomplished Marine Corps officer but he is distinguished as the only Marine officer to command a United States Navy ship of war.  Actually, Lieutenant Gamble commanded two ships, both British prizes pressed into United States service — seized and renamed USS Greenwich [Note 7] and USS Sir Andrew Hammond.  Gamble also distinguished himself during a land action on an island called Nuku Hiva where Captain David Porter established the first US Navy Base in the Pacific Ocean.

Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia).  Captain Porter arrived at Nuku Hiva at a time when island natives were at war with one another.  Shortly after landing his shore party, Porter claimed the island on behalf of the United States and ordered the construction of a fortification and an adjacent village, which he named Fort Madison and Madisonville, respectively, after President James Madison.  He also constructed a dock that was needed to facilitate repairs to his growing fleet of ships.  For reasons known only to himself, Porter involved himself in the tribal conflict —possibly to curry favor with the majority of the warring natives.

Porter’s first expedition into the interior was led by Lieutenant Downes.  He and forty others, with the assistance of several hundred native islanders called Te I’is, captured a redoubt held by as many as 4,000 Happah warriors.  Afterwards, the Happah joined the Te I’is and Americans against another island group called Tai Pi.  Captain Porter led a second expedition, which involved an amphibious assault against the Tai Pi shoreline.  This second expedition, with Captain Porter in overall command, included 30 American sailors and Marines (with artillery), under Lieutenant Gamble, and 5,000 native warriors.  From this point on, however, Captain Porter’s fate took an unfortunate turn.

On or about 13 July 1813, following a sharp naval engagement, Lieutenant Gamble, commanding USS Greenwich, captured the British armed whaler Seringapatam. [Note 8]  The engagement was significant because, at the time, Seringapatam posed the most serious British threat to American whalers in the South Pacific.  Subsequently, Captain Porter wrote to Lieutenant Gamble, stating, “Allow me to return to you my thanks for your handsome conduct in brining Seringapatam to action, which greatly facilitated her capture, while it prevented the possibility of her escape.  Be assured sir, I shall make a suitable representation of these affairs to the honorable Secretary of the Navy.”

Captain Porter reported Gamble’s conduct to the Navy Department: “Captain Gamble at all times greatly distinguished himself by his activity in every enterprise engaged in by the force under my command, and in many critical encounters by the natives of Madison Island, rendered essential services, and at all times distinguished himself by his coolness and bravery.  I therefore do, with pleasure, recommend him to the Department as an officer deserving of its patronage.”

During the sea battle between Greenwich and Seringapatam, which took place off the coast of Tumbes, Peru, damage to Seringapatam was not particularly significant, but did necessitate repairs to return the vessel to a state of sea worthiness.  There were no human casualties on either side.  Once the Americans repaired Seringapatam Captain Porter assigned Masters Mate James Terry of the USS Essex as prize master, and Seringapatam joined Porter’s squadron.

In September 1813, Porter returned Essex to Nuku Hiva (along with four prizes) for repairs.  Around mid-December, Porter ordered Essex re-provisioned and readied for sea.  With Essex Junior as an escort Porter began a patrol of the Peru Coast.  Seringapatam, Hammond, and Greenwich remained at anchor under the guns of Fort Madison and Gamble assumed command of the garrison.  Many of the crewmen of the captured ships were American; they and several British crewmen volunteered to serve under Porter.  There were also six British prisoners of war who refused to serve the United States.  Not long after Porter set sail, local natives became so troublesome that Gamble was forced to land a detachment of men to restore order.  At this point, Gamble’s mission was to maintain order, guard the captive ships, guard prisoners of war, and do so with but a hand full of men.

Four months later, Lieutenant Gamble despaired of Porter’s fate [Note 9] and ordered repairs and rigging for sea of Seringapatam and Hammond.  When signs of mutiny appeared among the men, Gamble ordered all arms and ammunition placed aboard Greenwich.  Despite these precautions, mutineers freed the British prisoners of war and captured Seringapatam on 7 May, wounding Lieutenant Gamble in the scuffle.  Mutineers placed Gamble in an open boat and Seringapatam sailed for Australia.  

Gamble, returning to Hammond, set sail with a skeleton crew bound for the Caribbean Leeward Islands but was intercepted en route by the British sloop HMS Cherub.  As it turned out, Gamble’s capture served the interests of the United States.  At the time of his capture, Gamble was in possession of gifts intended for the King of the Leeward Islands.  Captain Tucker of HMS Cherub seized these gifts as prizes of war.  More than that, Tucker, having discovered several American ships in the Leeward Islands harbor, sent demands to the king to surrender these ships to him at once.  When the king refused, Tucker landed a detachment of Royal Marines to enforce his demands.

Upon landing, the Royal Marines discovered that it was literally impossible to enforce their captain’s demands while surrounded by very angry Caribs [Note 10].  Captain Tucker wisely withdrew his force and sailed away.  Meanwhile, when the king learned that his gifts had been confiscated by the Royal Navy, he was incensed and diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Leeward Islands deteriorated.

At the conclusion of the War of 1812, Gamble returned to his duties as a Marine officer.  He was promoted to captain on 18 June 1814, advanced to Brevet Major on 19 April 1815, and to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on 3 March 1827.

John M. Gamble died on 11 September 1836 at the age of about 44-45 years.  In terms of the family’s legacy, the destroyer USS Gamble (DD-123) and Port Gamble, Washington were named in honor of John Gamble and his brother, Peter, who served as a Navy lieutenant during the War of 1812.  USS Gamble served as a destroyer in World War I and a minesweeper in World War II.  Owing to the ship’s condition after two world wars, the Navy scuttled the ship in July 1945.

Sources:

  1. 1.Daughan, G. C.  The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the USS Essex During the War of 1812.  Basic Books, 2013.
  2. 2.Captain David Porter, USS Essex, and the War of 1812 in the Pacific.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, 2014.  Online.
  3. 3.Porter, D. D.  Memoir of Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy.  Albany: J. Munsell, 1875.
  4. 4.Toner, R. J.  Gamble of the Marines: The Greatest U.S. Marine Corps Stories Ever Told.  I. C. Martin, 2017.
  5. 5.Turnbull, A. D.  Commodore David Porter, 1740-1843.  New York and London: Century Press, 1929.

Endnotes:

[1] A frigate in the days of sail was a warship that carried its principal batteries on one or two decks.  It was smaller in size than a ship of the line (which is to say, smaller than the warships that were used in the line of battle), but full rigged on three masts, built for speed and maneuverability and used for patrolling and escort duty.  They were rated ships having at least 28 guns.  The frigate was the hardest-worked warship because even though smaller than a ship of the line, they were formidable opponents in war and had sufficient storage for six-months service at sea.  A “heavy frigate” was a ship that carried larger guns (firing 18-24 pound shot) developed in Britain and France after 1778.

[2] Essex County, Massachusetts was created by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on 10 May 1643.  Named after the county in England, Essex included the towns of Salem, Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Gloucester, and Andover.  Essex County was the home of Elbridge Gerry, known for creating a legislative district in 1812 that gave rise to the word gerrymandering, which suggests that politicians in Massachusetts have been corrupt for at least the past 208 years.

[3] An undeclared war between the US and France from 1798 to 1800.  John Adams was president.  When the US refused to repay its debt for the Revolutionary War, American politicians argued that after the French overthrew their king, the nation to whom this debt was owed no longer existed; accordingly, said certain members of the US Congress, the debt was null and void.  In response, France began seizing US flagged ships and auctioning them for payment.

[4] After 1794, the US Congress was unwilling to authorize more than four officer ranks in the Navy.  These were Captain, Master Commandant, Lieutenant, and Midshipman.  Commodore, therefore, was a title only, temporarily assigned to a U.S. Navy captain who, by virtue of seniority, exercised command over two or more U.S. naval vessels, and the rank Master Commandant was later changed to Commander.

[5] David Porter (1780-1843) was a self-assured naval officer who served on active duty with the U.S. Navy from 1790-1825, and as Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy from 1826-1829.  He later served as Chargé d’Affaires of the United States to the Ottoman Empire (1831-1840) and United States Minister to the Ottoman Empire (1840-1843).  Porter was the adoptive father of David G. Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral.

[6] Gamble was promoted to Captain USMC in June 1814.

[7] Captain Porter later decided to burn Greenwich to keep the ship from being recaptured by the British South Atlantic squadron; it was a sensible decision because destroying the ship deprived the British of valuable whale oil, which at the time, was in high demand in England.

[8] Seringapatam was constructed in 1799 as a warship for Tippu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore.  The British stormed his citadel at Seringapatam, and Sultan was killed.  The British then sailed the ship to England where it was sold to British a whaling merchant.  The ship made six voyages to the Southern Atlantic and Pacific until captured by Greenwich.

[9] Gamble’s concern was well-founded.  On 28 March 1814, Royal Navy Captain James Hillyar forced Captain Porter’s surrender at the Battle of Valparaiso.  HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub disabled Essex to the point where he could no longer resist.  Following the battle, Captain Hillyar provided care and comfort to Porter’s wounded crew, disarmed Essex Junior, and gave Porter his parole to return to the United States.  Captain Hillyar sailed the Essex to England, where it was used as a transport ship, prison ship, and then ultimately sold at public auction for £1,230.

[10] The Caribs (now called Island Caribs) for whom the Caribbean was named, inhabited the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles.  They were noted for their aggressive hostility and fiercely resisted European colonization.  They identified themselves with the Kalina people, or mainland Carib of South America.  They continue to exist within the Garifuna people, also known as black Caribs in the Lesser Antilles.

 

RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.

At Chalmette, 1815

US FLAG 1814
U. S. Flag 1814

The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States evolved from several factors: (1) British impressment of American sailors, (2) The Americans accepted for citizenship British deserters, (3) British frigates blockaded US harbors in their search for British deserters, (4) British supported native Americans and urged them to commit hostile actions toward American settlers, (5) American interests in expansion into the Northwest Territory, and (6) America’s internal politics, with one faction demanding a stronger central government and closer ties to Great Britain, with the opposing party demanding a smaller central government, preservation of slavery and states’ rights, westward expansion, and a stronger break with the British.

Hostility with Great Britain, which at the time had the world’s strongest navy and land army, did not favor the United States.  With few exceptions, senior American army officers —holdovers from the Revolutionary War— were elderly, full of themselves, tired, and incompetent.  The combination of these factors led to American defeats at Detroit, Queenston Heights, and Upper Canada.  Whether the United States succeeded or failed in this latest confabulation, the American people did not want another war with Great Britain; they were war-weary, which made James Madison a very unpopular president.

On the Continent, the United Kingdom was heavily committed to fighting Napoleon Bonaparte and could not immediately spare its army or the Royal Navy to confront the United States.  These circumstances led the British to develop a conservative strategy in North America: defend British territory on land, employ naval blockades of American harbors, and harass US naval shipping at sea.

MajGen Robert Ross
MajGen Robert Ross

Following the death of Major General Robert Ross, who commanded the British North American Army, killed in action near Baltimore, Maryland, the British war office appointed Major General Edward Pakenham[1] to succeed him.  In August 1814, the United Kingdom and the United States initiated diplomatic negotiations to end the war.  British Secretary of War Henry Bathurst issued Pakenham secret orders commanding him to continue prosecuting the war, even if he heard rumors of a peace treaty being signed because Bathurst feared that the United States Senate would refuse to ratify such a treaty.  Bathurst did not want Pakenham to endanger his troops or miss an opportunity to gain advantages over the American Army.

In December 1814, the British navy stationed sixty (60) ships in the Gulf of Mexico, east of the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane[2].  Aboard these ships were 14,450 soldiers.  An American flotilla of gunboats under the command of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby-Jones[3], blocked their access to the lakes.  British forces under Captain Nicholas Lockyer attacked Jones with 1,200 British sailors and Marines in 42 longboats.  Each longboat was armed with a small cannonade.  In this engagement, known as the Battle of Lake Borgne, Lockyer captured Jones’ vessels.  Lockyer lost 17 of his men killed in action, with 77 wounded.  Jones lost 6 Americans KIA, 35 wounded, 86 captured[4].  Among the wounded were both Jones and Lockyer.

While Lockyer engaged Jones, General John Keane, commanding a force of three-thousand British soldiers, established a garrison on Pea Island (now, Pearl Island), which was about 30 miles east of New Orleans.  On 23 December, Keane led a vanguard force of 1,800 soldiers to the east bank of the Mississippi River, 9 miles south of New Orleans.  Unknown to General Keane at that time, New Orleans was undefended.  Keane bivouacked his force at the Lacoste Plantation pending the arrival of reinforcements in preparation for an assault on New Orleans.  When British officers commandeered the home of Gabriel Villeré, Villeré escaped through a window and warned General Andrew Jackson of the approaching British Army and informed Jackson of Keane’s position.

That very evening, Jackson led an assault force of 2,000 men to engage General Keane.  After achieving surprise and disrupting the British camp, Jackson withdrew his force back to the Rodriguez Canal, 5 miles north of Keane’s encampment.  General Jackson’s foray cost him 24 men killed in action (KIA) and 115 wounded in action (WIA).  General Keane reported 46 of his men KIA, 167 WIA, and 64 missing in action (MIA)[5].  General Pakenham’s force arrived in the field on Christmas day.  After conferring with Keane, Pakenham ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to test the Jackson defense.

Between 24 December and 8 January, General Jackson ordered his “rag-tag” army to construct, expand, or improve existing defensive positions.  Jackson’s command of 4,732 men included 968 US Army regulars, 164 sailors and Marines under the command of Major Daniel Carmick, 1,060 Louisiana militia and volunteers, 1,352 Tennessee militia, 986 Kentucky militia, 150 Mississippi militia, 52 Choctaw warriors, and a volunteer force operating under the pirate Jean Lafitte.

When completed, Jackson’s defensive line was substantial.  There were three lines of static defenses organized north of the Rodriguez Canal, which was fifteen feet wide and around eight feet deep.  The breastwork, which included felled timber and soil, protected riflemen from enemy musket fire.  Behind the defenses, Jackson constructed earthworks for his artillery.  In addition to eight batteries of artillery, Jackson had at his disposal naval guns aboard the USS Carolina, the steamboat Enterprise, and the grounded USS Louisiana.  Carmick’s force of sailors and Marines manned the western redoubt and helped coordinate naval gunfire from the vessels already named.

Soon after Pakenham’s main force on 1 January 1815, British artillery initiated a barrage of Jackson’s defenses.  The exchange of artillery lasted over three hours and ceased only when Pakenham had expended all available munitions.  Several of Jackson’s guns were silenced, which necessitated a realignment of artillery.  During the barrage, Major Daniel Carmick fell wounded from fragmentation striking his forehead.  Command of the naval forced passed to First Lieutenant Francois de Bellevue, USMC.

Battle of New Orleans
Battle of New Orleans, 1815

Initially, General Pakenham intended to launch an assault on Jackson’s position after first softening the American position with artillery fire.  Whether it was a matter of Pakenham not realizing that he was short of artillery munitions, or that his fire plan was deficient, or some other reason, Pakenham canceled the attack.  General Pakenham did not realize how close he had come to defeating Jackson.  Several of Jackson’s militia had abandoned their positions during the British barrage and were not likely to return.  Instead, Pakenham delayed his offensive until the entire force of 8,000 infantry was assembled ashore.

Pakenham’s force included eight battalions of Highlanders, the 14th Light Dragoons, elements of the 95th Rifle Brigade, and the 1st and 5th India Regiments.  Several hundred blacks, recruited from West Indies colonies reinforced the British order of battle and a force of undetermined size of native Americans under the war chief Kinache.

The British assault began on the morning of 8 January 1815.  Pakenham ordered a two-prong attack.  Colonel William Thornton was to cross the Mississippi from the west back during the night with a force of 780 men, move up-river, and storm the naval battery under Commodore Daniel Patterson.  Then, with captured American artillery, Thornton would turn those guns on the American line.  General Keane would lead his force along the river and position them shy of Jackson’s defensive line for a frontal assault.  General Samuel Gibbs (Pakenham’s deputy) would lead his column along the swamp, approaching the American on Jackson’s left flank.  Major General John Lambert would hold his brigade in reserve.

No military operation plan survives its first objective, and this was the case with Colonel Thornton, who was delayed twelve hours when a dam constructed on one of the canals failed, forcing his men to drag their boats through muddy ground.

Notwithstanding Thornton’s delay, Pakenham ordered his assault to begin before dawn.  Heavy fog and the pitch-black of the early morning hour wrapped his men as in a cloak, denying them a clear vision of what lay ahead.  As the fog lifted, Pakenham’s forward line encountered withering American fire.  Colonel Thomas Mullins, commanding the 44th East Essex Regiment, had forgotten the ladders and fascine[6] he needed to cross the Rodriguez Canal and scale the American breastwork.  When Mullins and most of his officers were killed, along with General Gibbs, the men became confused and floundered.

With his right-center struggling, General Pakenham ordered General Keane to detach his 93rd Highlanders and move across the open field and reinforce the British right flank.  During this movement, Keane fell wounded.  On Pakenham’s left flank, Colonel Rennie’s force managed to attack and overrun an American redoubt next to the river but was unable to hold the position or advance into the American line.

Jackson sent the 7th Infantry to recapture the redoubt.  After 30 minutes of intense combat, Colonel Rennie and most of his men lie dead.  On Pakenham’s right, British infantry threw themselves on the ground or into the canal to avoid American musket fire and grapeshot.  A handful of men made it to the top of the parapet, but they were soon killed or captured.  The 95th Rifles had managed to advance ahead of the main assault and were concealed in a ditch below the parapet, but without additional support, they were unable to advance further.

Jackson’s Americans repulsed the two-pronged British attack.

Pakenham Death
Death of MajGen Pakenham

While directing his troops on the field, grapeshot from US artillery shattered General Pakenham’s left knee and killed his horse.  As he was helped to his feet by his senior aide-de-camp, Major Duncan MacDougall, Pakenham was wounded a second time in his right arm.  Then, having mounted MacDougall’s horse, another salvo of grapeshot ripped through his spine and he fell to the ground mortally wounded.   With his second in command already dead (Gibbs), Major Wilkinson reformed the 21st Regiment and initiated a third assault.  Wilkinson was shot as he achieved the top of the parapet; the Americans, impressed with his courage under fire, carried him to safety behind the rampart.  The 93rd Highlanders, having no further orders, were caught in the open and were slaughtered by American artillery.  General Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade, assumed command of the British force.  Lambert led his reserve brigade onto the field.  Observing that the attack had failed, he ordered a withdrawal with the rifles of his brigade providing covering fire for the retreating army.

The British had but one success during the Battle of New Orleans: it was the delayed attack on the west bank of the river where Thornton’s brigade and detachments of Royal Navy and Marines attacked and overwhelmed the American line.  In this assault, Thornton was wounded, but his success had no effect on the outcome of the battle.  General Lambert directed Colonel Alexander Dickson, his chief of artillery, to assess the British position.  Dickson reported that no fewer than 2,000 additional men would be required to hold what they had.  On this advice, Lambert ordered a general withdrawal from the field.  In the American camp, Jackson believed that his defense strategy had failed and was preparing to withdraw when he received word that the British had already begun their withdrawal.

The battle was brief but costly.  Pakenham’s force suffered 285 killed, 1,265 wounded and gave up 484 prisoners[7] —all within 25 minutes.  The Americans lost 13 killed and 30 wounded.  Admiral Cochrane continued his naval bombardment of Fort St. Philip for another ten days but finally withdrew on 18 January.  In the Duke of Wellington’s final analysis, the failure of this campaign was the result of Admiral Cochrane’s shortcomings as Commander-in-Chief of British Forces and the failure of Colonel Mullins to carry the ladders and fascines onto the field.  There is little doubt that Colonel Mullins’ error cost Pakenham his victory at New Orleans.

After the battle, General Andrew Jackson commended the navy and Marines for their gallant conduct.  On Jackson’s recommendation, the Congress resolved on 22 February 1822, that “Congress entertain a high sense of the valor and good conduct of Major Daniel Carmick, of the officers, noncommissioned officers, and Marines under his command, in the defense of [New Orleans] on the late memorable occasion.”

US Marine Corps Major Daniel Carmick, wounded during Pakenham’s artillery barrage, died from his wound on 6 November 1816.  At the time of his service in New Orleans, Carmick was the second-ranking officer in the Marine Corps.  Lieutenant de Bellevue, later promoted to captain, resigned his commission on 9 March 1824.

One of the saddest footnotes to any battle exists in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans.  The fight actually occurred after a peace accord had been signed by British and American officials on 24 December 1814 —days before American and British forces confronted one another on 8 January 1815.  Word of the peace was not received in the United States until 11 February 1815.  In the final analysis, however, given Henry Bathurst’s secret directive to Pakenham, that is, to “continue the war even if he should hear rumors of a peace treaty”, the Battle of New Orleans would in all likelihood have taken place as it did even if word of the peace had reached American shores in time to avoid the conflict.  The Bathurst directive reminds us that great danger to our forces exists whenever civilian officials interject themselves into the prerogatives of a field commander.

Sources:

  1. Borneman, W. H.  1812: The War that Forged a Nation.  New York: HarperCollins, 2004
  2. Chapman, R.  The Battle of New Orleans: “But for a Piece of Wood.”  Pelican Publishing, 2013
  3. Drez, R. J.  The War of 1812, Conflict and Deception: The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014
  4. Patterson, B. R.  The Generals, Andrew Jackson, Sir Edward Pakenham, and the road to New Orleans: New York: New York University Press, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] Sir Edward Michael Pakenham (1778-1815) was the son of the Baron Longford and the brother in law of the Duke of Wellington.  Pakenham was an experienced military officer, with service as a dragoon in the Rebellion of 1798, in Nova Scotia, Barbados, and Saint Croix.  In 1803, he led an attack at Saint Lucia, where he was wounded, and in 1807 fought in the Danish Campaign at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807.  He was wounded for a second time at Martinique.

[2] Cochrane, who was then servicing as a vice admiral, commanded the North America and Jamaica Stations.  Under Cochrane, Ross successfully burned the city of Washington and laid down the massive barrage at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, from which the Star-Spangled Banner was penned by Francis Scott Key.  Despite criticism of the Duke of Wellington directed at Cochrane, he was advanced to full admiral in 1819.  He passed away in Paris, France on 26 January 1832.

[3] Catesby-Jones (1790-1858) was appointed a navy midshipman in 1805 but lacking in education the Navy suggested he return home and study geography, navigation, and surveying as a measure to improve his future chances for an active naval assignment.  When the navy mobilized gunboats following the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, Catesby-Jones was assigned to gunboat 10, commencing active service in August 1807.  After distinguishing himself at the Battle of Lake Borgne in 1814, Jones continued his service as a navy officer, reaching the rank of commodore.  He passed away while serving on active duty in California.

[4] Attached to Jones were 35 Marines, three of which were killed and two wounded.

[5] The number of killed and wounded in this action may be accurate but given the placement of Keane’s encampment at the Villeré Plantation, the numbers reported as MIA seems questionable.  It is more likely that some of these MIAs deserted Keane.

[6] A rough bundle of brushwood or other materials used for strengthening an earthen structure or making a pathway across uneven or saturated terrain.

[7] 484 British riflemen had pretended to be dead; when the British force withdrew, these men stood up and surrendered to the Americans.

The Intrepid Commodore

Joshua Barney c. 1800I initially introduced my readers to Commodore Joshua Barney while recounting the Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred in 1814.  His command of the Marines at Bladensburg (where the President of the United States placed himself under Barney’s command) piqued my interest in this heroic figure from America’s past.  As it turns out, Commodore Barney was not simply a highly skilled naval officer, he was gutsy, determined, and resourceful, as well.

A son of Baltimore, Maryland [1], Joshua Barney (1759-1818) initially went to sea at the age of 12 in 1771.  Four years later, he served as second-in-command to his brother-in-law aboard a merchant ship involved in European trade.  When the brother-in-law died, Barney assumed command of the ship and navigated the ship to Nicard Occitan (Nice).  There is much about his early years that we do not know, but he did marry twice and had children with both his wives.

Beginning in 1776, Barney served as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy, the master of the Hornet, and at the time, the youngest commander of a Continental warship.  In this capacity, he participated in the raid on New Providence, in the Bahamas, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins.  The Navy promoted him to lieutenant in recognition of his gallantry in the action between Wasp and the British brig [2], HMS Betsey.  Later, while serving aboard Andrew Doria, he played a prominent role in the defense of the Delaware River.  The British took Barney as a prisoner (and exchanged him) on several occasions during the Revolutionary War.  In 1779, the British held him at the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, England until he escaped in 1781.  Barney wrote a memoir about his adventures, published in 1832 by his relatives, long after his death.

In April 1782, the Navy placed Barney in command of the Pennsylvania ship Hyder Ally.  During the Battle of Delaware Bay, Barney captured the better-armed HMS General Monk.  Monk was renamed General Washington and Barney was rewarded by giving him command of that ship.  With orders to deliver dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France.  Barney’s return voyage to the United States carried news of peace with Great Britain and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Barney joined the French navy.  The French appointed him to serve as a squadron commander with the rank of captain.  From June through October 1796, Barney commanded the frigate [3] Harmonie, which was serving on station in the Caribbean and Chesapeake Bay.  As the Napoleonic Wars did not begin until 1803, it does not appear that Captain Barney served under the French flag at that time.

The United States had no interest in becoming involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but the loss of commercial ships to British raiders, the illegal impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and the insult to national pride eventually brought the United States back to war with Great Britain in 1812.  Even so, the United States was ill-prepared for another war, either on land or at sea.  Were it not for the fact that the British were fully engaged with France in Europe, it might have gone very badly for the fledgling United States in the early days of this conflict.  The Royal Navy was, at that time, the strongest navy in the world.  In comparison, the United States Navy was but a flea on the backside of a rogue elephant.

Without a navy of any substance, the United States began to construct, commission, and capture ships to serve as warships.  One of the more successful privateers was Joshua Barney of Baltimore, Maryland, who in 1812 was 53 years of age and living near Elk Ridge, Maryland.  Because he had served under a foreign flag as a naval commander, the US Navy denied Barney command of a United States Navy ship; instead, the Navy offered him command of the privateer schooner Rossie.  As a privateer, Barney excelled.  On a single voyage, Barney captured four ships [4], eight brigs, three schooners [5], and three sloops [6], a total value of around 1.5 million pounds.  By December of 1812, the Royal Navy was rampaging the Chesapeake Bay, blockading ports and taking what they wanted from shoreline villages and towns.  Their first defeat came at the mouth of the Elizabeth River when the Royal Navy failed to seize Norfolk, Virginia —but as an act of revenge, the British sacked the town of Hampton.  The American army’s commitment to operations in Canada left the Chesapeake Bay undefended, allowing the British navy to invade the American shore with impunity.

Despite its few resources and very little money, the United States government resolved to do something.  This is when Captain Barney stepped forward with a plan to defend the Chesapeake.  In those days, it was easy for a citizen to approach the President of the United States.  Barney drew up his plan and delivered it personally to President Madison.  It was as detailed a plan as anyone had ever seen, including sketches of gunboats that were like river-barges [7], equipped with oars and light sails, and armed with one large gun.  As Barney envisioned it, these small vessels would be manned by local men, would draw attention to themselves but they would also be proficient in keeping an eye on the British navy.  With a shallow draft, the barges would be able to withdraw close to shore where the British could not follow.  One of Barney’s selling points was that the barges were relatively inexpensive to build and, once the war was over, the vessels could go on the block for commercial use.

President Madison was suitably impressed.  He appointed Barney as Commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  Construction of the barges began in earnest and bounties were offered to entice men who would otherwise have served as privateers, or enlisted men in the land forces.  News of the flotilla quickly spread, and this prompted the British to construct barges of their own on tangier Island.  Within a short time, Barney had seven (7) 75’ barges, six (6) 50’ barges, two gunboats [8], one row galley [9], a lookout boat, and his flagship USS Scorpion [10].

With eighteen vessels (but scant supplies), Barney led his flotilla from Baltimore to attack Tangier Island and destroy the British efforts there.  With the discovery of British reconnaissance troops near St. Jerome’s Creek, Barney decided to attack these men.  The surprise was that a British warship was in hiding not far distant, causing Barney to make a rapid withdrawal into the Patuxent River.  British captain Barrie, in command of HMS Dragon, blockaded the mouth of the Patuxent River and waited for reinforcements from HMS Jaseur and HMS Loire.  Barney continued his withdrawal to the shores of St. Leonard’s Creek.  Initially, with the realization that the British out-gunned him four to one, Barney saw little chance of besting the British, but his position offered an excellent defense.  We remember this three-day battle as the Battle of the Barges.  The conflict ended in a draw, but Barney did not lose a single man to British fire, while the Royal Navy suffered numerous casualties.

In August of 1814 48-British ships arrived in the Chesapeake with a contingent of 5,400 soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross.  These troops landed at the little down of Benedict and began their march northwards.  Admiral Sir George Cockburn, serving as overall commander-in-chief, sailed up the Patuxent River … altogether setting into motion the Battle of Bladensburg —the defense of the City of Washington.  Given the timidity of the undisciplined American militia, all that really stood between General Ross’ army and Washington was Commodore Barney and around 500 sailors and Marines.  Of course, we know that it was a futile defense and Barney was (once more) captured by the British.  Although seriously wounded, Barney was well-treated by the British, who congratulated him on his gallantry under fire.  Before his capture, Barney ordered his flotilla burned to keep them from falling into the hands of the British; the remnants of this force remain at the bottom of the Patuxent River today.  With the peace came Barney’s release from captivity and he returned to his home in Anne Arundel County.

The wound he received in 1814 eventually killed Commodore Barney, who at his death was only 59 years old.

Sources:

  1. S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Joshua Barney, online resource.
  2. Barney, M. A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney From Autographical Notes and Journals in Possession of His Family and Other Authentic Sources.  Gray and Bowen, publishers, 1832.
  3. Shomette, D. Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.  Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers (1982)
  4. Ellis, J. J. His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2004

Endnotes:

[1] When Baltimore was still an American city.

[2] A brig is a two-mast square rigged ship.

[3] A frigate in the age of sail was a warship built for speed and maneuverability and could be a vessel of several sizes.  Their principle batteries could be placed on a single deck, or on two decks with smaller guns.  They were generally two small to stand in the line of battle.  They were full rigged with square sails on three masts and mostly used as escort ships and patrolling.  They usually carried 28 guns.

[4] In context, ship meaning ships of the line or full-rigged vessels with three or more full-rigged masts.  Ships of the line were generally categorized as first, second, or third-rate vessels (more than 64-guns).  Fourth-rate ships came into being in the mid-18th century (50-60 guns).

[5] A schooner is a fore and aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts, of which the foremast is shorter than the main.

[6] Sloops were fore-and-aft rigged vessels with a single mast.  They were later powered warships between corvettes and frigates in overall size.

[7] Essentially, shoal-draft flat bottom boats normally constructed as river or canal transport of bulk goods.

[8] Gunboats were of various sizes and armaments with a single mast.

[9] An armed craft that used oars rather than sails but was often fitted with sails in addition to its oars.

[10] Scorpion was a self-propelled floating artillery battery, sloop rigged with oars.  As part of the Chesapeake Bay flotilla, Scorpion was commanded by Major William B. Barney, Commodore Barney’s son.

At Bladensburg, 1814

Americans generally regard the War of 1812 as an engagement between Great Britain and the United States, a war lasting from 1812 to 1815.  Today’s post is about this conflict.  There was another war during this period, also sometimes referred to as the War of 1812; it involved the French invasion of Russia.  The 1812 Overture [1] reminds of this event as part of the Napoleonic Wars.

As with all history, there were a number of events that eventually led the United States into lethal conflict with Great Britain.  In this particular conflict, there were a series of British behaviors that the Americans found offensive, and these were triggered by the fact that Great Britain went to war against Napoleonic France in 1803 in a conflict lasting until April 1814.  In many ways, the Napoleonic War was an international conflict —a world war, perhaps— that involved Great Britain, Russia, Batavia, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, Scandinavia, and Finland.

From the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Napoleonic France in 1803, British strategy involved the use of its considerable navy to halt or restrict trade with France by any other nation.  The British believed that Napoleon Bonaparte could be weakened economically and militarily by limiting the flow of goods into France.  Their strategy might even cause the people of France to rebel against their tyrant emperor.  At the time, the United States was emerging as a new nation.  The British naval blockade of French ports restricted the United States’ access to a much-needed trade partner, and of course, the American navy was much smaller than the British Royal Navy.

The first objectionable behavior was the British blockade of French ports; a second behavior involved the British policy of accosting ships in international waters and impressing sailors from foreign ships into service with the Royal Navy.  From the British perspective, this activity was understandable: The Royal Navy needed experienced sailors to man ships to establish their blockades.  To the Americans, the practice was illegal and objectionable.  Of course, trade with France benefitted the economic interests of the United States.  Leading to war with Great Britain were two related incidents:

On 22 June 1807, HMS Leopard accosted the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia.  Leopard was supposedly looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.  Leopard’s attempt to intercept Chesapeake caused that ship to take flight.  After several British broadsides [2], Chesapeake surrendered (having fired only one shot in her own defense).  After arresting four crewmen, the British sent Chesapeake on her way [3].  Commanding Chesapeakeat the time was Captain James Barron, USN.  Baron was later court-marshaled and dismissed from the navy.  The incident, when publicized, enraged the American people, but President Thomas Jefferson, being no enthusiast of the American navy, ignored them.  He and the US Congress backed away from popular demands for open warfare with Great Britain.  While American leadership was searching for a backbone, the British navy reiterated its intent to inspect all non-British ships for deserters and contraband.

On 1 May1811, HMS Guerriere detained USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook, New Jersey and impressed Mr. John Diggio, a member of Spitfire’s crew and a citizen of Maine. In response, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton directed USS President and USS Argus to patrol America’s coastal waters from the Carolina coast to New York.  In command of USS President was Commodore John Rodgers [4].  On 16 May, Rodgers sighted HMS Little Belt and, believing her to be HMS Guerriere, gave chase.  On more than one occasion during the hours-long pursuit, each ship’s captain signaled his demanded to know the other’s identity; neither captain would give up this information and so eventually, both ships engaged.  USS President was a much larger ship (more guns) and in raking HMS Little Belt, nine British seamen died, and 23 others were seriously injured.  The President lost one man killed in action.  Both captains later claimed that the other had fired the first shot.

A third objectionable British behavior was that they supplied firearms to hostile Indians and incited them to attack America’s western settlements.  Seeking to limit America’s westward expansion, the Indians became a useful British tool in achieving this policy.  The Indian’s murderous attacks achieved two things: it did hinder (although only slightly) American westward expansion, but it also created deep resentment toward both the British and the Indians.

On 18 June 1812, pressured by congressional war hawks, President James Madison declared war on the United Kingdom.  When publicized in London a few months later, the article appeared as a mere footnote on page 34 of the London Times.  The British were not impressed.  With most of its army and navy fighting against Napoleon in Europe, the Americans were a mere annoyance —a flea to be swatted aside until a later time.

At the beginning of the war, the British adopted a defensive strategy in dealing with the Americans. Initially, offensive operations were limited to the border separating Canada and the United States, and in the western regions where American settlements were sparsely populated and poorly defended.  The prevailing attitude among these western settlers was utter disdain for a government that failed to protect them from Indian and Redcoat depredations.  Elsewhere, underscoring early America’s regionalism, the War of 1812 was unpopular among those living along the eastern seaboard; among those who depended on trade for their livelihood.

In any case, the American’s initial efforts against the British were unfocused, contrary to the United States’ long-term interests, and grossly inept.  The British handed the Americans defeats at Detroit, Queenstown Heights, and Montreal.  Finally, in 1813, the Americans won the Battle of Lake Erie and managed to defeat the Tecumseh Confederacy [5].  Meanwhile, the Royal Navy blockaded American seaports which allowed the British to raid the American coastal regions at will.  One of these actions involved the British Army’s assault on the city of Washington. Great Britain’s land war against the United States began in earnest after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814. Thousands of British combat veterans were reassigned to the American continent.

What the British wanted most of all was a quick end to the war with the United States; war is expensive, and the British had been at it since 1803.  Accordingly, a new British strategy evolved: seizure of New England and New Orleans: isolate and control US trading hubs and transportation routes north and south. In addition to destroying American trade, the British sought to demoralize the American population by attacking their main central seaboard cities: beyond Boston and New Orleans was Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah.

Major General Robert Ross
Major General Robert Ross

Major General Robert Ross [6], appointed to command all British land forces along the Atlantic Coast, arrived in Maryland directly from the Napoleonic War. He had been wounded at the Battle of Orthez but recovered sufficiently to command all British forces along the Atlantic Coast.  He confidently led his 4,500-man army from Benedict, Maryland towards Washington.

Brigadier General William H. Winder [7], appointed to command the American forces in defense of Washington, theoretically commanded fifteen-thousand militia, but his professional force at arms consisted of only 120 dragoons, 300 regular infantry, 360 sailors and 120 Marines.  In reality, the American militia involved 6,500 poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and undisciplined citizen-soldiers.  With but few exceptions, America’s militia excelled in only one area: it’s rate of march in retreat.

On 20 August 1814, Winder ordered his force to advance south toward Long Old Fields and Woodyard to confront the British force at Upper Marlboro.  After a brief clash with General Ross’ advance units late in the day on 22 August, (and, fearing a British night attack [8]), Winder ordered a retreat.  It occurred to Winder that Bladensburg was the key to a solid defense of Washington.  Whoever controlled Bladensburg would command the roads to Baltimore and Annapolis —roads along which reinforcements were moving to join Winder.  Bladensburg also lay on one of the only two routes available to the British for an advance on Washington.  Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move his force of men to Bladensburg and “… take the best position in advance of Bladensburg, and should you be attacked, resist for as long as possible. [9]

Stansbury immediately deployed his force [10] on Lowndes Hill where he hastily dug earthworks for artillery emplacements.  The road from Annapolis crossed Lowndes Hill; the road from Upper Marlboro extended to its south and west.  The roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore all intersected behind it and the town of Bladensburg.  Stansbury’s position dominated the likely British approach and controlled all vital lines of communication.

Early in the morning of 23 August, Winder advised Stansbury by courier that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River with the intention of firing the lower bridge. Surprised, Stansbury subsequently developed an unreasonable fear that the British might turn his right flank. Rather than strengthening his commanding position, he decamped and marched his exhausted troops across the Bladensburg Bridge, which he failed to destroy, to a brickyard two miles further on. Stansbury thus squandered his only tactical advantage over the approaching British [11].

Behind Stansbury’s right flank was a brigade of Washington militia under Brigadier General Walter Smith. Smith’s brigade occupied a strong position behind a creek and along the crest of a small rise, but Smith had not conferred with Stansbury about this position and there was a gap of a mile between them.  Smith’s position would do Stansbury no good at all.

Joshua Barney c. 1800Commodore Joshua Barney commanded the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  His sailors and Marines manned artillery batteries that briefly held off the British advance on the upper hill of the present-day Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Barney’s men manned two 18-pound guns and three 12-pound guns, which had come from the Washington Navy Yard.  To Barney’s left were the 1st Regiment of District Militia, an artillery battery under Major George Peters, and a provisional battalion of regulars under Lieutenant Colonel William Scott. The 2nd Regiment of District Militia was posted as a reserve behind Peters and Scott.

The Battle of Bladensburg began on 24 August when British Colonel William Thornton led his 85th Light Infantry Brigade into the advance on Bladensburg.  Baltimore artillery and well-aimed rifles impeded his advance for a time, but he and his men eventually moved forward under fire in loose order.  Unfortunately for Winder, Baltimore’s solid shot artillery was of little use against scattered skirmishers.  Ultimately, Thornton’s advance forced the Baltimore artillery to retreat with only five of their six guns.

The British 1st Battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot managed to ford the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River above the bridge.  As they prepared to envelop the American left, General Winder commanded the Fifth Maryland to initiate a counter-attack against them; it was during this engagement that the First and Second Maryland broke ranks and fled the battlefield.  In the heat of the battle (fog of war), General Winder’s orders became confused or were misunderstood.

The British pressed their advantage but were soon engaged by Smith’s brigade and Commodore Barney’s sailors and Marines.  Thornton’s brigade made several frontal attacks across the creek, but each time his advance was thwarted by Barney’s naval artillery and counter-attacks by Marines [12].  With the British attempting to isolate American positions, General Winder directed an orderly withdrawal [13].  Smith’s brigade initially fell back in good order, but it wasn’t long before nearly every American militia unit went into full retreat.  It was the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American Arms —later referred to as the Bladensburg Races.

Bladensburg Marines
Marines at Bladensburg

Commodore Barney, however, did not receive Winder’s order to withdraw.  With fewer than three rounds of canister shot and charges per gun, Barney’s sailors and Marines held their positions against British frontal assaults for well over two hours; in some instances, the Marines counter-attacked the British with ferocity and resolve [14].  But Barney’s situation worsened when the drivers of ammunition carts joined in the general retreat.  Eventually, the British 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 44th Regiment made an attempt to surround Barney’s land flotilla.  Observing this, Barney ordered his men (and the president) to retreat to avoid capture.  Barney, himself badly wounded in the thigh by musket shot, was captured.

The British suffered far more casualties than the Americans, most of these inflicted by the sailors and Marines in Commodore Barney’s flotilla, but the fact is that the American militia ran from the field of battle to save themselves.  British casualties included 64 killed in action with an additional 185 seriously wounded.  Americans reported killed in action numbered 10 or 12 with 40 wounded and 100 captured [15].  Modern scholars argue that of the American captured, most suffered serious injury.

In any case, on the evening of 25 August, Major General Ross led his force into the city of Washington. As British soldiers set fire to government buildings throughout the city, General Ross and his staff enjoyed a quiet dinner in the Presidential Mansion (now called the White House) before setting it ablaze.  It was the first and last time that a foreign army ever occupied the United States capital.

CMC House MB Washington
The Commandant’s House

But there was one government building spared from the British torch.  Out of respect for the Marines who so valiantly defended their country’s capital at Bladensburg, the British spared the Marine Barracks located at 8th & I Streets in southeast Washington.  It was then, and continues to be, the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps [16].  There are scholars today who argue that this story is a myth; they say that the Marine Barracks was simply overlooked by storming British soldiers.  The argument appears implausible (and revisionist) in light of the fact that the British did locate and set fire to the Washington Navy Yard, which was (and is) just down the street from the Marine Barracks.  For anyone intent on burning down government buildings, Marine Barracks Washington would be impossible to overlook.

Post script:  On the morning of 12 September 1814, Major General Robert Ross led his men to what would become the Battle of North Point, a part of the larger Battle of Baltimore.  Advance elements encountered American skirmishers, and as General Ross rode forward to personally direct his troops, American sharpshooters shot him through the right arm into his chest.  History recalls the two men that likely fired the fatal shot: Daniel Wells, aged 18 years and Henry McComas, aged 19 years.  General Ross succumbed to his wounds while being returned to the British Fleet.

Endnotes:

[1] Written in 1880 by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

[2] British guns resulted in the death of three Americans and serious injury to eighteen others.

[3] All four crewmen were later tried for desertion and one of these men was hanged.

[4] Commodore Rodgers was an insightful and competent naval officer. Anticipating war with Great Britain, he had all ships of his squadron properly fitted for wartime service at sea. He led his ships to sea within the hour of learning about President Madison’s declaration of war.

[5] A league of Indians in the Great Lakes region of the United States involving the Shawnee leader Tecumseh who set into motion a long series of hostile acts directed at westward-moving Americans.  The confederation fell apart after Tecumseh’s death in 1813.

[6] Robert Ross (1766-1814) was an Irishman who began service with the British Army in 1789.  Between 1789-1814, Ross fought Krabbendam, Netherlands, Alexandria, Egypt, Naples, Italy, and in Spain at Corunna, Roncesvalles, Sorauren, and Orthez.

[7] Winder (1775-1824) was a Maryland attorney commissioned as an Army colonel at the outset of the War of 1812.  Captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813, he was later exchanged for a captive British officer.  Winder was appointed to command the 10th Military District (encompassing Washington and Baltimore) on 4 July 1814.

[8] Earlier, Winder had been captured during a British night attack.

[9] Williams, John S.  History of the Invasion and Capture of Washington, and of the Events Which Preceded and Followed.  Harper & Brothers, New York, 1837.

[10] Stansbury commanded the First, Second, and Fifth Regiments of Maryland Militia; three volunteer rifle companies, and two batteries of Baltimore artillery.

[11] If we bemoan the fact that American militia “cut and run” in the face of the British Army, we must have nothing but scorn for the hundreds of government officials who hastily departed the city of Washington to safer locations further south –although it may have been a prudent decision based solely on their understanding that the British would give no quarter to any captured American official.

[12] The number of Marines participating in the Battle of Bladensburg was 120; it was, at the time, one-third of the total force of United States Marines.

[13] General Winder’s battle plan had made no provision for withdrawal; without designated fallback positions, the militia simply retreated from the battlefield and headed for all points south of Bladensburg.

[14] Commanding the Marines under Barney’s command was none other than President James Madison.

[15] Heidler’s Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.

[16] This is the reason why the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps at Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest continually used public building inside the nation’s capital.

The Twiggs-Myers Family, Part II

TWIGGS Levi 001Major Levi Twiggs was the younger brother of David E. Twiggs, born in Richmond County, Georgia on 21 May 1793.  Upon the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, the nineteen-year-old Levi Twiggs wanted to join fight but was prevented from doing so by his parents, who insisted that he remain with his studies.  Levi obediently continued his studies at Athens College for several more months.  Ultimately, however, Levi was unable to repress his passion for military service and, having been motivated by the reported exploits of Commodore Decatur of the American Navy, Levi left school and begged his parents’ permission to join the United States Marine Corps.

Levi was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on 10 November 1813.  After his initial training and indoctrination, Levi was assigned to the Marine contingent at Patuxent River.  The mission of these Marines was to oppose any passage of the British fleet, which was then hovering along the coastal regions of the Chesapeake Bay.  During this initial assignment, Lieutenant Twiggs displayed exceptional leadership ability and energy in leading his small force of Marines, traits that would continue to distinguish his service as a U. S. Marine.

He was next assigned to the frigate USS President, then commanded by Commodore Decatur. Twigg’s assignment would be as second-in-command of the Marine Corps detachment, then numbering around 56 seasoned Marines.  Upon reporting aboard ship, however, his senior officer was not present, and Twiggs assumed command of the detachment.

USS President sailed from New York on 14 January 1815.  Due to ill-marked channel markers, the ship ran aground along the outer banks of the harbor.  Stranded on a sandbar for a full lunar cycle, the ship lifted and dropped with the incoming tides.  It was not long before her hull had been significantly damaged, her timbers twisted, and masts sprung.  Damage to the keel caused the ship to sag amidships.  It was Commodore Decatur’s judgment to return to port for repairs, but once the ship was clear of the sandbar, strong winds and tidal currents contrived to push her out to sea.

Decatur realized that his ship was unseaworthy. Under these circumstances, he set a course to avoid the British fleet, which was believed to be operating along the coast of the Chesapeake Bay.  Decatur set out in search of a safe port for much-needed repairs.

Within a few hours, Decatur spotted enemy sails on the horizon.  President being sluggish underway, Decatur ordered expendable cargo thrown overboard, but the British frigate HMS Endymionsoon overtook President and began delivering broadsides.  President put up a gallant defense and unmercifully raked the enemy with ball, bar, and chain shot, but ship’s damage adversely affected her maneuverability and HMS Endymion was a better ship.  The battle raged for hours as Endymion and President jockeyed for advantages.  Decatur finally surrendered his ship to the British at midnight.

During the President’s engagement, Twiggs acquitted himself with gallant energy and a cool frame of mind while under fire, displaying the composure of a more experienced officer.  His men having discharged more than 5,000 cartridges with accurate and deadly fire, Commodore Decatur pronounced the detachment’s combat efficiency as “incomparable.”

Taken as prisoners of war, the President’s officers were transported and detained in Bermuda until the peace accord was signed.  Upon return to the United States, Commodore Decatur and ship’s officers were referred to a court of inquiry and court-martial but all were acquitted of wrong-doing.  Meanwhile Commodore Decatur offered First Lieutenant Twiggs glowing praise for his performance of duty.

From 1816 to 1823, Twiggs was attached to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  During this time, he became engaged to and married Pricilla Decatur McKnight [1].  In 1824, Twiggs was once more ordered to sea, this time under the command of Commodore Lewis Warrington’s West Indian Squadron where he served for two years in efforts to suppress piracy in the Caribbean, Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and Lucayan Archipelago.  On his return, Twiggs was assigned to the Navy Yard at Philadelphia.  He was advanced to brevet Captain on 3 May 1825. In November of that year, he assumed command of the Marine Barracks at the Norfolk Navy Yard (in Virginia).  In June 1826, Captain Twiggs was ordered to Florida where he participated in the Seminole Indian wars.

The Seminole Indian Wars were a trial for the Americans. They confronted with dangerous hostiles, of course, but also had to contend with dangerous reptiles, pestilence, swamp fevers, and dehydrating heat and humidity.  From 1828 until 1843, Major Twiggs served in routine assignments at various posts and stations in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. His overall performance of duty was regarded as exceptional.

In 1843, Major Twiggs assumed command of the Marine Barracks at the Philadelphia Navy-Yard.  By this time, Twiggs had earned an enviable reputation as a professional Marine and a refined southern gentleman.  During his long period of thirty-four years’ service, Major Twiggs requested leave of absence on one occasion: the illness of a member of his family.  He was absent from duty for one week in 34 years.

Considering the size of the United States in 1846, comparing that to its population, the Mexican-American War was a massive undertaking. If one were looking at a list of navy vessels in 1846, one might easily conclude that the size of the Navy was massive. It was not.  There were but two squadrons: The Home Squadron (Commodore David Conner, later Matthew C. Perry), and the Pacific Squadron (Commodore John Sloat, later Robert F. Stockton, W. Branford Shubrick, James Biddle, and Thomas ap Catesby Jones).  Each of these squadrons had ships, of course, and a list of them would appear impressive. There were ships of the line, but most of the Navy’s vessels were cargo ships, revenue cutters, paddle steamers, riverine craft, and barges.  Nor was the war (which is to say, the Navy’s mission) confined to old Mexico.  There was a war to be won in California, as well—which was largely a Navy operation supported by the Army.  In Mexico, it was an Army operation, supported by the Navy.

The missions included blockading Mexican ports, or seizing and hold them, amphibious operations, and riverine assaults.  At this time, the entire Marine Corps consisted of only 63 officers and 1,200 enlisted men.  These were distributed about the Navy’s ships of the line, and guarding shore activities (Navy Yards).  In order to provide a battalion of fighting Marines, the Commandant of the Marine Corps (Colonel Archibald Henderson) was required to strip the barracks at Boston, Gosport, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia to no more than a sergeant’s guard. Additionally, new recruits were shipped out with inadequate training.  There were simply an insufficient number of Marines to man a 600-man combat regiment.  Henderson decided to form a battalion, instead.  Three hundred Marines formed the battalion, divided into six-line companies.

General Zachery Taylor approached Mexico through Texas. He commanded a force of about 4,000 soldiers.  General Winfield Scott commanded a force of about 12,000 Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel.  The Mexican force outnumbered the Americans —by 20,000 troops.  The Mexicans had the ability to replace their war casualties. The Americans didn’t have this flexibility.

With only 63 Marine officers serving on active duty, there was a scramble to be included in the Marine Battalion.  Major Levi Twiggs one of these.  The battalion departed the United States on 2 June 1847.  More than 300 officers and men sweltered in the heat as the sailing ships slowly made their way south.  The ship stopped for supplies at Havana, Cuba on 17 June with only two days in port.  The battalion of 22 officers, 2 Navy doctors, and 270 enlisted men arrived at Veracruz on 29 June under the command of brevet Lieutenant Colonel Samuel E. Watson. Another 66 Marines arrived from Pensacola, Florida a few days later.

Watson’s battalion remained near Veracruz for two weeks before marching inland.  He was ordered to join Winfield Scott’s army, then at Puebla.  Upon arrival, the Marines were attacked to General Franklin Pierce’s [2] brigade.  Bad weather, deep sand, and enemy harassment hampered the Marine’s progress.  Pierce assigned the Marines to form a rearguard for the brigade

On 21 July, Pierce’s brigade reached the National Bridge over the Antigua River.  The Marines repulsed an enemy attack as they approached the bridge.  In the fighting there, young Second Lieutenant George Decatur Twiggs, Levi’s son, serving with the 9thUS Infantry, was killed in action.

The march had taken three weeks; the Marines and soldiers of Pierce’s brigade were weary as they finally reached Puebla.  Scott was ready to move —but the troops needed a rest. They got two days.  Scott assigned Watson’s Marines to General Quitman’s 4thInfantry Division.  Quitman assigned Watson to command a brigade consisting of a detachment of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment and the Marine Battalion.  Major Twiggs, as Watson’s executive officer, assumed command of the Marine Battalion.

Meanwhile, Mexican President-General Antonio López de Santa Anna fortified Mexico City and all approaches to it.  Scott was taking a big risk marching inland; outnumbered, hampered by citizen insurgents and unfamiliar terrain, Scott faced the real possibility of being cut off from any retreat to the coast.  It was a rough route of march, the same one taken by Cortez in 1519.  The Americans marched through wide valleys and scorching deserts.  There was a steep climb to a narrow plateau, the apex of which was 10,500 feet above sea level.  From the point, the Americans could see the valley of Mexico, encircled by rugged mountains.

Scott’s force moved steadily toward Mexico City. The Americans fought a series of minor engagements along the way.  On 20 August 1847, the Mexicans were defeated at Contreras and Churubusco and fled toward the capital.  Enroute to Mexico City, the Marines were assigned to guard the supply train. When engagements erupted, the Watson’s Brigade (and the Marines) were kept in reserve. On 23 August, both sides agreed to an armistice and a peace commission met in an attempt to bring an end to the fighting.  From the Mexican point of view, the willingness of the Americans to even discuss peace at this stage was a sign of weakness; they used the armistice period to further reinforce their positions.  The ceasefire ended on 6 September—Scott claiming that the Mexicans had violated the terms on several occasions and the Americans moved forward once more.

On 11 September, General Scott convened a war council to discuss the next step.  After listening to what his subordinates had to say, Scott decided on an assault upon the Castle of Chapultepec before going into Mexico City.  Sited on a hill overlooking Mexico City, the citadel was the key to the city …  American batteries began shelling the citadel on 12 September.  Major Twiggs led a detachment of Marines to reconnoiter to determine enemy concentrations.  Twiggs and his Marines came under heavy fire, and Major Levi Twiggs fell, mortally wounded. The Marines, however, had accomplished their mission by drawing the Mexicans out of the fortress.

On the day the Marines entered the citadel, Sam Watson was directed to assume command of the Army’s 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, and with Twiggs killed in action, Major William Dulaney assumed command of the Marine Battalion.  Watson’s health, however, had given out and he departed Mexico City for return to the United States in early November.  He died at Veracruz, Mexico on 16 November 1847.  He was laid to rest in the same grave as Major Twiggs at Veracruz.

Sources:

  1. A Continent Divided: The US-Mexico War, Center for Greater Southwestern Studies, University of Texas, Arlington, 2019
  2. Winters, J.D. The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963
  3. Warner, E. J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959
  4. Russell K. Brown, New Georgia Encyclopedia, History and Archeology, 29 Jan 2010: John Twiggs

Endnotes:

[1] Priscilla was the daughter of Captain James S. McKnight, U. S. Navy.  When McKnight was killed in action, she was adopted and raised by Stephen Decatur.  Priscilla was the mother of Lieutenant George Decatur Twiggs, US Army, who was killed in action during the Mexican-American War while serving with the 9thUS Infantry, engaged with the enemy at Natural Bridge in the Mexico City campaign on 12 August 1847.  She never recovered from the loss of both her husband and her son in the same war.

[2] President of the United States, 1852-1856.

Lieutenant Colonel Commandant

Franklin Wharton Lieutenant Colonel Commandant
Franklin Wharton
Lieutenant Colonel Commandant

Franklin Wharton was born into a prominent Philadelphia family on July 23, 1767. He had forsaken a successful business career to enter the Marine Corps, receiving a commission to Captain in August 1798. Captain Wharton’s first assignment took him to the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia, but within a few weeks, he was assigned to the frigate USS United States. He commanded the ship’s Marine Detachment until the close of the so-called Quasi-War (1801).

At the age of 36 years and only five years of service as a Marine, Franklin Wharton was appointed Major Commandant of the Marine Corps. He was the third commandant, following Lieutenant Colonel William Ward Burrows I. When the nation’s capital was moved to Washington DC, Wharton was advanced to the rank and position of Lieutenant Colonel Commandant and the first Commandant to occupy the official residence of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which continues to serve in that capacity.

At the time Wharton assumed his office, the US Navy was engaged with the Barbary Corsairs. The Commandant’s principal task was supplying Marines to serve aboard an increasing number of frigates. At the conclusion of the Barbary Wars, Congress demanded an inflexibly frugal economy. As ships returned from the North African coast, they were either decommissioned or their crews were significantly reduced.

By 1810, the mood inside the Nation’s Capital was grim; there was a war coming, and the difficulties facing the Marine Corps were considerable. Even after the formal commencement of hostilities with the British, Congress refused to increase the size of the Corps. Congress nevertheless expected Wharton to supply Marines for duty at sea; Marines participated in land engagements at Annapolis, Fort McHenry, Portsmouth, Chaney Island, Bladensburg, and in New Orleans.

Funding was not Wharton’s only problem. The Act of 1798 was written in such a way to produce significant confusion from the office of the Secretary of the Navy down through both the Navy and Marine Corps chain of command. The Secretary of War interpreted the legislation to mean that while Marines served aboard ship, they belonged to the Navy; when Marines served ashore, they belonged to the ranking Army commander of that department. Even while at war with Great Britain, Marine officers were placed under arrest and court-martialed for refusing to obey the orders of a senior Army officer. This problem did not “go away” until 1834.

To make matters worse for Wharton, there were a few Marine officers who greatly desired to become Marine Corps Commandant, and one of these in particular began to encourage others to publicly question Wharton’s competence to remain in office. Of concern to a few was Wharton’s “failure to take to the field” as the British approached Washington. In fairness, it was a confusing time. There was no rapid communications, and I am quite certain that Wharton did not know with any degree of certainty the displacement of his forces. With important documents in hand, Wharton and his staff made their way to the Washington Navy Yard. Although instructed by the Secretary of the Navy to rally at Frederick, Maryland, Wharton placed himself at the disposal of Commodore Thomas Tingey, U. S. Navy, and Commandant of the Navy Yard. Tingey instructed Wharton to leave the Navy Yard; he was set to set it afire. Wharton, it was said, seemed confused. He left the Navy Yard by small boat.

One of Wharton’s political enemies, the insubordinate Brevet Major Archibald Henderson, argued that Wharton has injured the good reputation of the Marine Corps. Charges were filed and the Secretary of the Navy ordered a court-martial, which convened on September 20, 1817.

The President of the Court was Colonel William King, 4th Infantry, U. S. Army. Board members included Colonel T. J. Jessup, 3rd Infantry, U. S. Army, Major Richard Smith, USMC, Major J. M. Davis, General Staff, U. S. Army, Captain Robert D. Wainwright, USMC. The Specific charges made by Brevet Major Archibald Henderson were as follows: Charge 1: Neglect. Specification 1, that LtCol Wharton never commanded any parade in the Marine Corps; Specification 2, that LtCol Wharton never commanded any Marine Corps unit in the field; Specification 3, that LtCol Wharton never inspected any Marine Corps unit; Specification 4, that LtCol Wharton neglected to provide Captain Robert D. Wainwright the information he needed to execute the sentence of a courts-martial; and Specification 5, that due to LtCol Wharton’s neglect, Private Peter Moore had been unnecessarily and oppressively held in confinement beyond the end of his enlistment.

The charges were outlandish, of course and LtCol Wharton was acquitted of all charges, but the episode created ill feelings among the Corps’ senior officers. Lieutenant Colonel Wharton died while serving in office a little less than one year later, on September 1, 1818.

Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Wharton did make substantial contributions to the efficient organization of the emerging Marine Corps. For the first time the uniforms and equipment were standardized for all Marines, traditions and practices well established and reinforced, and it was during his command that the United States Marine Corps Band began their award winning tenure as “The President’s Own.” Colonel Wharton is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, New York City.

Archibald Henderson did eventually become Commandant of the Marine Corps; a post he held for 39 years —but not before he battled with Major Anthony Gale over the right of succession. Gale was eventually cashiered from the Marine Corps after a year in office but given Henderson’s revolting behavior toward Wharton, we can only imagine what intrigues he might have arranged against Anthony Gale.

Major Levi Twiggs, USMC

Major Levi Twiggs was born in Richmond County, Georgia on 21 May 1793. He was the sixth son of Major General John Twiggs of revolutionary memory, whose patriotic devotion of his person and his purse in the war of independence earned for him an imperishable renown. A faithful son of his country, who at the outset of that unequal contest, raised from his private fortune an effective brigade, which, with his own services, he tendered to the cause of liberty, services which proved most efficient, earning for himself the rank of Major General in our then infant army, and the still higher title of “Savior of Georgia.” The present eminent Major General David E. Twiggs in the fifth son of the same illustrious sire.

1812-1840At the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, the subject of the present notice, then just having completed his nineteenth year, was desirous of entering the service, but failing to obtain the sanction of his parents at that time, he continued his studies at Athens College in his native state, for some months longer. At length, his military ardor was fanned into an irrepressible flame by the gallant exploits of our little navy, and on learning the news of the capture of the Macedonian frigate, by the United States under Commodore Decatur, he immediately left college, and solicited again his parents consent to apply for an appointment in the Marine Corps, which was now granted. He enter the Corps as second lieutenant on 10 November 1813 and, after a brief sojourn at headquarters, was stationed on the Patuxent with the troops which were posted there to oppose the passage of the British fleet, then hovering along the coast of the Chesapeake, which he displayed the energy of character and good conduct which ever after distinguished him. From this duty, Lieutenant Twiggs was ordered to join the frigate [1] President, commanded by Commodore Decatur, on her last memorable cruise under our flag. She sailed from New York on the 14th of January 1815, and soon after encountered a British fleet, consisting of the Majestic razee [2], the Endymion, Tenedos, and Pomona frigates, and a gun brig, and was captured after a most gallant defense —one of the opposing frigates, the Endymion, having been first disabled and her fire silenced in full view of the other ships of the hostile squadron.

By some untoward accident, the senior Marine officer did not sail in the President, and that arm of the service was commanded on this occasion by Lieutenant Twiggs —who by this time had attained the grade of first lieutenant—with such consummate skill and gallantry as to elicit the warmest applause of his commander, and to obtain honorable mention of his name in the commodore’s official dispatches. Lieutenant Twiggs’ command numbered fifty-six men, who, as is stated in Mackenzie’s Naval History, discharged during the action five thousand cartridges, and whose fire was pronounced by Commodore Decatur “incomparable.”

The officers of the President were detained as prisoners of war in Bermuda, until news of the peace reached there, when they returned to their country.

From that period until 1823, Lieutenant Twiggs was attached to the New York station, from whence in that year he was ordered to Philadelphia, having in 1822 united himself in marriage to a daughter of the deceased Captain McKnight, of the Marine Corps, and a niece of Commodore Decatur —the afflicted lady who now deplores his death. In 1824, he was ordered to the frigate Constellation under Commodore Warrington, to cruise among the West India islands, in which service he was absent nearly two years. On his return he was again attached to the Navy Yard at Philadelphia, having been advanced to captain by brevet during his absence, on 3 May 1825.

In November 1825, he was placed in command of Marines at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

In June 1826, Captain Twiggs was ordered to Florida, where he was engaged in the Seminole War until the month of April following, discharging the constant and very arduous duties attendant upon a war with wandering savages, marked by all the perils of treachery and ambuscades, and the more fatal dangers of a pestilential climate, and every species of suffering and exposure.

From the period of his return from Florida until 1843, having obtained the rank of major on the 15th of November 1840, he was from time to time, placed in command of Marines at the several stations of Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, discharging his duty at every post, and on all occasions, to the entire satisfaction of the Navy Department, and of the local authorities and citizens with whom he had either official or personal intercourse.

In 1843, Major Twiggs assumed command of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where he proved himself worthy of the rank and station which his gallantry and long services had earned, by the scrupulous discharge of every detail of his duty as an officer, and no less by his amiable, manly, and exceptionable bearing as a good citizen and high-bred gentleman. During the long period of 34 years’ service, he never but once asked a leave of absence, and then on account of the illness of a member of his family, when he was off duty but a single week.

Battle_of_ChapultepecOn the 2nd of June 1847, Major Twiggs departed for Mexico, having solicited active service. On the 20th of June, he arrived at Vera Cruz. On the 16th of July, he left for the interior with General Pierce’s brigade and reached Puebla on the 6th of August, which place he left with Major General Quitman’s division, a few days after, and on the 13th of September he fell, at the head of his command, leading them to the assault at the storming of Chapultepec; pierced by a bullet through the heart.

Of the details of the operations in which Major Twiggs was engaged, as well on the march to the Mexican capital as on the bloody fields in its neighborhood, no precise accounts have yet been received. We only know that, whilst in the performance of the proudest duty of a soldier, his brave spirit took its flight.

Of an imposing presence and noble mien, he was the personification of courage; dauntless himself, he infused the same quality into all his followers, performing the duties of his profession with a zeal that never flagged, and a singleness of purpose that considered no obstacle. Tenderly alive to the domestic sympathies, he sacrificed them all to his sense of duty to his country. This sentiment was uppermost in his heart. When he left home, therefore, upon his last tour of service, like a wise and good man, he made all his worldly arrangements, based upon the probability that he would never return, whilst he studiously avoided alluding to them to his family.

The death of his gallant son, George Decatur Twiggs, who fell a volunteer in Major Lally’s command at the National Bridge, on the 12th of August, on the way to join his uncle the general, whose aid he was to become, had already excited a sincere and deep-felt sympathy for the bereaved mother. Having but just entered his twentieth year, a young of the finest talents, and with the brightest prospects, already distinguished in the walks of literature, and pursuing his legal studies with the zeal inseparable from an ardent temperament, he also, true to his blood—the commingled blood of heroes, which flowed in his veins—panted for martial fame. In one action, he had already gained the applause of his commander; in the next, whilst activity discharging the duty of a lieutenant in the place of one who had just fallen, the fatal missile of the enemy cut him off in the flower of his age.

“As some fair tree which erst the forest graced

And charmed the eye by blooming vines embraced,

Prone on the earth, a lovely ruin, east,

Yields to the lightning’s stroke, or tempest’s blast!”

Of the many brave men who have laid down their lives for their country’s honour during the existing war, none fought more gallantly, nor died more nobly, than did these kindred spirits—the father, and the son. Neither has it pleased an all-wise Providence to call hence on any of those battlefields, recently rendered immortal by the achievements of our heroic soldiers, a more worthy and well-tried citizen than the one, nor a youth of brighter promise than the other.

Well appreciated by his friends, to whom he was endeared, as well as by his own virtues as those of his estimable wife, the news of the fall of Major Twiggs, almost coincident as it was with that of his son, has created a deep sensation of universal sorrow and sympathy. Generous, humane, social, affectionate, and with a soul of chivalry, he was swayed by the gentlest emotions; considerate to those under his command, without any relaxation of discipline, he was the friend of the soldier, and was rewarded by the soldier’s obedience and devotion. As an officer, long holding most responsible and arduous stations, his conduct always elicited the applause of his superiors; and in all the social relations, and more especially in those of domestic life, his deportment may be pronounced to have been faultless. Of scrupulous integrity, he was conscientious in the discharge even of his minutest duties: a tender and affectionate husband, a most kind and indulgent parent, leaving a wife and three daughters to lament his loss. Alas, it is to those widowed and orphaned hearts that his many virtues are best known, and by them that they will be most fondly cherished; hearts crushed beneath a weight of affliction which few are called upon to bear, for scarcely had they begun to recover from the shock of the loss of a son and brother, before this last stunning blow fell upon them like a thunderbolt. Let them be considered henceforth as the widow and children of the nation, for to their ease the annals of war, with its aggravated horrors, can scarcely produce a parallel. To their prior bereavements it would be out of place to refer here. But that gracious Being, who has seen fit to visit them with such grievous afflictions, will not fail to comfort and uphold them in this our of their bitter trial.

Among the testimonials of respect from senior officers, and different friends, was the following order dated from the Adjutant and Inspector’s Office, Washington on 20 November 1947, and addressed to Captain J. G. Williams, commanding Marines at Philadelphia:

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps with profound and cordial sorrow, announces to the officers and soldiers the death of Major Levi Twiggs, while leading his command to victory and glory, on the 13th September, under the walls of the city of Mexico. In his loss the Corps has to mourn for a gallant officer, who has passed all of his young in its ranks, and his country for an estimable and patriotic citizen, and those who knew him most intimately, for a valued friend and a high-minded gentleman.”

“The usual badge of mourning will be worn for him by the officers of the Corps for one month, and the flag at headquarters will be half-masted tomorrow.”

“By order of Brevet Brigadier General Commandant.”

___________

Off additional interest:

  1. Levi Twiggs was the great uncle of John Twiggs Meyers, the topic of two previous stories of the Corps.
  2. Marine Corps participation in the Battle of Chapultepec and subsequent occupation of Mexico City are memorialized by the opening lines of the U. S. Marine Corps hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma…”
  3. In acknowledgment of the Marine officers and NCOs who died in the Battle of Chapultepec, all officers and NCOs have worn a pronounced red stripe on the trousers of the Dress Blue uniform since 1849. It is commonly referred to as the “blood stripe.”
  4. Among the captains and majors who participated in the Mexican American War were the generals commanding both Union and Confederate armies in the American Civil War, including Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, George Picket, James Longstreet, and Thomas Jackson.
  5. The entire account (above) was taken word for word from a work published in 1848 by Grigg, Elliot & Company, publishers, entitled The Mexican War and its Heroes.

Footnotes

[1] In the 18th and early 19th Century, a frigate was a ship of war equivalent in length to a ship of the line, but lightly armored, possessing only 28 guns, faster, and used for patrolling and escorting ships of the line.

[2] A razee is a ship that has undergone modifications of original construct, reducing the number of decks, guns, and ship’s company. HMS Majestic was commissioned in 1785 with 74 guns, razeed in 1813 to become a large frigate with 58 guns.