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.