IT was reserved for the middle states to be the first to rally the drooping spirits of the country, in the war of 1812. While New England held coldly aloof from the contest, and the south as yet had scarcely roused herself for action, New York and Pennsylvania, then as now the two greatest states of the confederacy, came gallantly to the rescue. It was on the soil of New York, and principally by New York troops that the first repulse was given to the British. It was a Pennsylvania General that won the victory. We allude to the defeat of the enemy at Sackett's Harbor, by a combined force of regulars and militia under General Brown.
Jacob Brown, a Major-General in the American army, and perhaps the ablest commander in the war of 1812, was born in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, in the year 1775. His ancestors, for several generations, had been members of the society of Friends. His father was originally a farmer, but having embarked in trade, very soon lost the whole of his property; and his progeny, among them
Jacob, were thrown on the world to seek a subsistence, while still children. This happened when the subject of our memoir was but sixteen. Having an ordinary English education, he resolved to make it useful as a country schoolmaster, and accordingly acted in that capacity at Crosswicks, New Jersey, from his eighteenth to his twenty-first year. At this period the tide of emigration was just beginning to set towards Ohio, and young Brown, eager to improve his fortunes, resolved to move out to that territory. He accordingly went to Cincinnati, and obtaining employment as a surveyor, remained two years in that vicinity; but finding the reality of western life less alluring than he had been led to expect it, he returned to the eastern states. In 1798 he was teaching school in New York. He continued at this, however, but a few months. He next turned his attention to the law, but finally abandoned this also. He now purchased a tract of land in Jefferson county, New York, for he had acquired some property in his various pursuits, and, in 1799, he removed to his new possession, then a wild clearing in the heart of the wilderness.
The district, however, rapidly improved; and with the rise of its fortunes rose those of Brown. Here on this exposed border, he began to show those qualities of mind, which subsequently raised him to the head of the American army, and which would have enrolled his name among the most renowned of military commanders, if a wider sphere had been found for their exercise. Bold, sagacious, brave to a fault; persevering, industrious, full of resources; firm and decided in character; never shrinking from assuming the responsibility of an action which his judgment approved, he was just the man to acquire influence among the rough, but shrewd borderers with whom he was now thrown into contact. He soon took the lead among his fellow-citizens, and was looked up to upon all occasions. In 1809 he was appointed to command a regiment of militia, and in 1811 elevated to the rank of a Brigadier-General. When the war of 1812 broke out, he found himself at the head of a brigade, and with the charge of defending two hundred miles of exposed
frontier. But this novel and responsible position found him full of resources to meet the exigency. On the 4th of October, 1812, at the head of four hundred men, he repulsed the British, eight hundred strong, in an attack on Ogdensburg. His term of service having expired shortly after, he returned home and resumed the plough.
The administration of Mr. Madison, appreciating his services and ability, now endeavored to secure his aid permanently during the war; and accordingly offered him a Colonel's commission in the regular army. This, however, he declined, not from unwillingness to serve, but from a resolution not to take a lower rank than he already held. He felt that he was fitted for great emergencies, and was content patiently to wait until he should be better appreciated. If that never should occur, he was satisfied to remain in his peaceful avocation as a farmer. But never was there a truer saying than that talent always finds its level, or never was it more forcibly exemplified than in the cases of Jackson and Brown. Both were refused the commissions they sought, in the beginning of the conflict; yet both subsequently forced them, as it were, from the country, by their genius for war. Both were emphatically heroes of the people. Both started to life, robust and armed, military commanders full born. Both only needed a wider sphere of action to have become among the most celebrated professors of the military art. With the field that opened itself before the Marshals of Napoleon, Jackson would have rivalled Ney, and Brown surpassed Macdonald.
The residence of Brown was in the neighborhood of Sackett's Harbor, at that time the chief depot for stores on the lake. Here was collected the plunder of York; here were building the vessels destined to annoy the enemy; and here were stowed the munitions of war that had been transported, at great expense, from the Atlantic to the shores of Lake Ontario. Though it was scarcely thought probable that the British would venture to attack this place, the value of the prize rendered it possible that the attempt might be made; and Colonel Backus, who had been left in command of the post, was instructed, in case of any such expedition, to summon General Brown to his assistance. It was not long before the contingency, thus provided for, arrived. To retaliate for the capture of York, Prevost conceived the design of attacking Sackett's Harbor. This idea was adopted during a visit to Kingston, where he heard that General Dearborn had withdrawn most of the garrison to assist in the expedition against Fort George. Accordingly, on the 27th of May, 1813, Prevost began his movement at the head of nearly a thousand men; his troops embarking in small boats, and under convoy of the fleet commanded by Sir
James Yeo. It was his intention to reach Sackett's Harbor in the night, and at daybreak to assault and carry the place by surprise. The winds proved adverse, however, and it was not until ten o'clock on the evening of the 28th that he reached his destination. At daybreak of the 29th he made his attack. Meantime, his fleet had been seen on the lake, and notice promptly carried to the harbor. The guns of the fort gave the alarm to the surrounding country. The people rose. By noon of the 28th, six hundred militia had rallied to the defence of the place; and at their head came Brown, summoned in this emergency, like Cincinnatus, from his plough. An express had found him at his farm, eight miles from the harbor, and instantly mounting, he had hurried to the scene of action, rousing the militia as he came. His every movement marked the man born to command. The crisis found him, cool, ready, inexhaustible. It was one of those emergencies in which a bold and intrepid genius like his, finds its true element, while minds of less power sink under the responsibility.
During the whole of the 28th the Americans were preparing for the attack. Brown, being thoroughly acquainted with the neighborhood, was at no loss to know the point where the enemy would probably land. His dispositions were made accordingly. He placed the militia and volunteers in the first line, and assigned to them the task of meeting the enemy on his disembarkation. Midway between the shore and village, and on ground rendered difficult of approach by an abattis, he arranged the second line, which was composed of regular troops, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Backus. A few artillerists were charged with the custody of the forts, where, in case of a defeat, Brown had prepared to make a last desperate stand. The location of the front line was partially altered, almost at the moment of attack, in consequence of the enemy changing the point of his disembarkation, when he saw the stubborn preparations of the Americans. The troops, however, had full time to take their new position before the enemy could land. Brown himself superintended their line of battle. "Hide yourselves," he said, "as much as possible, and do not fire until you can see the buttons of the enemy. If you are forced to retire, by superior numbers, throw yourselves into the wood, rally, and assail the foe in flank. If you cannot then stop him, retire on the left and rear of Colonel Backus, and wait for further orders. Only be cool and resolute and the day is our own."
He had scarcely delivered these words when the British were seen close at hand, their numerous boats apparently crowded with soldiers. The day was partially clear, with a slight mist hanging around; and the glitter of the enemy's arms, perhaps, magnified his numbers. None of the militia or volunteers had been in battle before; and awe of the British regulars' skill haunted the popular mind; hence, when the front line of the Americans beheld the imposing array of the enemy, it lost its self-possession, and began to fire too soon, and in a desultory manner. At such a crisis it is astonishing how few can infect the whole mass. One or two at first discharged their pieces, and this spread alarm in others, so that, in less than a minute, the whole line had delivered its fire. As might have been expected, the men overshot their assailants, and scarcely one of the enemy was seen to fall. The inefficiency of their fire increased the perturbation of the volunteers; each looked for countenance in his neighbor and found none; a panic was the consequence; and the whole body, breaking ground, took to flight ignominiously. In vain their officers strove to rally them. Once thoroughly frightened, nothing could allay their terror. Forgetful of Brown's orders to collect again in the wood, forgetful of the direction afterwards to gather in the rear of Colonel Backus, forgetful of everything but their own alarm, they hurried frantically onward, some ever throwing away their guns, a mortifying and cowardly spectacle Two companies, however, resisted this general consternation. They were headed by Captains M'Nett and Collins, and gallantly rallied to the fight.
With inexplicable chagrin, Brown saw the flight of the militia and volunteers; but his second line still stood firm, and to this he now devoted all his attention. By the disgraceful retreat of the front line, the position of the regulars, however, was rendered untenable. But this did not disconcert Brown. Falling back, step by step, disputing every inch of ground, he took shelter in some log huts which had been prepared for the winter accommodation of the soldiers, and here prepared to resist the now overpowering numbers of the enemy. This new post he soon rendered impregnable. In vain the British, flushed with their first victory, advanced with loud cheers to the assault. A sharp and well aimed volley checked their steps. Brown did not give them time to recover, before he threw in another volley. At this moment, however, flames were seen rising from the place where the stores were collected; for the officer left in their charge, seeing the flight of the front line, had deemed the day lost, and hastened to execute his orders. Soon dark volumes of pitchy smoke began to roll upwards to the sky, relieved here and there by forky tongues of flame, leaping about in the wildest confusion. Animated by this sight, the British raised a second shout, and rushed forward, under cover of a heavy fire. But the American regulars, with the heroic Backus at their head, stood immoveable. For a few minutes only the result was doubtful. The vollies of the enemy rattled without intermission, and the scanty front of the Americans was enveloped in sheets of fire. Soon the British began to waver. At this moment Backus, while cheering on his men, received a mortal shot, and fell in the arms of victory. Brown, meantime, had hastened to the rear, and succeeded in rallying three or four hundred of the militia, with whom he advanced to cut off the enemy's rear. But the British, alarmed at this demonstration, now began to retire on all sides. Indeed, to have remained longer, a mark for the deadly fire from the block-house and battery, would have been madness, even if their retreat had not been threatened. Accordingly, Prevost drew off his men, and forming them on the east of the hill proceeded immediately after to re-embark. As they hurried to their boats, mortified and enraged at this unexpected result, their sight was cheered by a spectacle, which, in part afforded a grim satisfaction for their disgrace. It was the burning barracks and store-houses. These buildings were now a sheet of flame, and being filled with highly combustible materials, the roar of the conflagration was heard far and near. By that stern music the enemy re-embarked.
The intelligence of this victory was hailed with rapturous applause throughout the Union, and by universal consent Brown rose at once to a first place in the public opinion. The government showed its grateful appreciation of his conduct by creating him a Brigadier. Both friend and foe acknowledged, as if by secret instinct, that a military leader of ability had arisen at last in this country. An opinion which heretofore had been breathed only in whispers, was now boldly proclaimed: it was said that the incompetency of the old Generals had been endured long enough, and that it was full time that abler commanders, fresh from the people, should have their places. From this period, indeed, we may date an improvement in the character of the leaders, and a more daring spirit of enterprise in the management of the war. The days of the Hulls, Wilkinsons, and Dearborns, were nearly over; that of the Browns, Scotts, Jessups, and Jacksons, was approaching. The spirit of the people which had begun to despond, from this hour rallied; enthusiasm took the place of want of confidence; and headed by leaders whom it could love, the army went gallantly from victory to victory. Chippewa and Lundy's Lane followed upon Sackett's Harbor, and the brilliant spectacle closed at New Orleans in a blaze of glory!
Extracted from: Military Hereos of the War 1812 with a narrative of the war. By Charles
J. Peterson, 1849.
Added: 1/12/2001 IE
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