Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from John J. U. Rivardi, 21 March 1799

From John J. U. Rivardi

Niagara [New York] March 21st. 1799.


I was honored yesterday Night with your letters of the 15th.1 Ult. & 1st. Inst. The Post Setting of again this Morning & my being Tormented with the fever will I hope Serve as an Apology for my laconism & for any incoherence which may Slip in my Answer.

Permit me first, Sir, To express my happiness at Seeing myself under the imediate orders of an Officer whom I have allways revered for his abilities & patriotism. I rejoice Sincerely at the Idea that in future My communications will not remain as they have been hither To unnoticed for it really appeared to me a Kind of conflict who Should Sooner be tired; myself of writing, Sending returns &ca or the Person who received them not to answer.

By Next Mail I Shall forward To you all the reports concerning this Garrison also a correct Plan of Detroit unless my health Should absolutely prevent me. The Annexed plan of Niagara2 with the remarks accompanying it has twice been Sent by me To the board of War. As To The discipline of the troops under my comand I have done my utmost for Supporting it & met in consequence with a liberal Share of abuse in Beache’s democratic paper.3 In the present Situation of this Post garrisoned as it is by thirty nine Men Officers, Artificers, Extradutymen included—little can be done. A launce Corporal & three Men is our Guard detail & even that could not be Kept up without difficulty a few days ago the greatest part of that Small aggregate being without any clothing although they had been in that Situation for almost a whole year. A great cause of disorder in the Posts which I have Seen is the irregular payment of the troops —who being Seven or Eight months & Sometimes more without pay cannot procure Number of Small articles essential To Their cleanliness and comfort. They get discouraged—& when they receive at once a large Sum, it is Squandred away in riot without the least advantage but on the contrary with infinite detriment to Them—had every Corps a Military Chest with one or Two Months in advance —Payments might be made even as in Prussia weekly—& there would be a possibility of defraying expenses in case of desertion. Now the Officers are obliged To Take that money from their own Purse. Another inconvenient under which we labour is that the Soldier whose time expires is forced either to go To the Board of war for his Money or To take a certificate of pay due, which he negotiates at considerable loss—these circumstances & the want of funds for recruiting have made us lose a great number of valuable men who would have reinlisted had they had a prospect of being paid & clad regularly. As To the Quarter Master’s department nothing being allowed To The Officer entrusted with it—a refusal of undertaking the trouble & responsibility ensues of course. I have by dint of entreaties & persuasion got the Surgeons mate4 To act in that capacity pro amore Dei but he is horribly Tired of it, as he never received any funds To pay the men employed in that department & the bills incurred with Brittish Merchants for Necessaries indispensable To The garrison—Such as Stationary, Tools &ca. &ca. the want of which has been represented these eighteen months past. All these Evils are doubly felt as we are within Six hundred yards & in habits of friendship with a Garrison of three hundred men completely equiped & regularly paid.5 The Situation of Oswego was Still more deplorable when I received the last information—being all in rags there was no more any parade & the Officer comanding6 wrote to me that he was in a Situation degrading To a Gentleman.

I Shall take the liberty of making one More observation with regard To The Artillery. This is the only Service in the World perhaps except the Brittish were the men are incumbered with long coats. In france where they had them they were always left with the arms when Stacked & vest with Sleeves put on previous To a detachment entering the battery. Coats like those of the Infantry with yellow tapes would in my opinion perfectly answer the purpose. I mention yellow tapes because Such triffling ornaments being denied To The Artillery have within my Knowledge induced numbers To inlist in preference in the Infantry. I Should also recomend for the Artillery long flat bayonets Sharp on both Sides & Short pieces—these bayonets having an astonishing advantage as they answer as Sabres. I am informed that the old English dragrope exercise (which they have abandoned themselves) is resumed by us instead of the French mode of manœuvering with Slings, I can only Say that I am very Sorry for it.

Now Sir, I Shall Take the liberty of Answering your letter of the first of March with the frankness of a Soldier when he knows that he writes To a Man of honor.

I feel with Sincere gratitude the mark of confidence which you are pleased To give me by entrusting To me the care of visiting the different Posts mentioned in your letter—please To excuse the prolixity of what I have To observe on this Subject.

When I was honored with my comission—I was much elated with the trust—hastened To my Regiment where unfortunately I Soon found my Ideas of Service totally overturned—first by the mode of life & Spirit of liberty of the Officers and men—Secondly by the Strange insurrection against Coll. R.7 then considered as an honest man even by his enemies. I remained his only friend & Should have been So had the causes of complaint been greater because discipline is blind & because that affair was conducted in my opinion with as Much indecency as impropriety.8 My Conduct in that business was followed by a Coolness on the Side of the Officers even of my own battalion. Major Burbeck9 at that time Strongly urged To be relieved—it would have been Major Touzard’s10 tour—but I was ordered To Mackinac, as that Officer’s affairs call’d him To The West Indies. I chearfully obeyed & was at considerable expense To move my family—Mrs. R—— having presented me with a Son three Months before. I arrived after a dangerous Journey at Detroit & was preparing To proceed To my destination when Genl. Wilkinson on an application of Major Burbeck To be continued at Mackinac granted the request & thus after much trouble & expense I was left at Fort Lernoult (an appendage of Detroit) at the head of a few Artillerymen transferred To That corps from the disbanded Dragoons &ca. After remaining ten Months during which with all possibile œconomy I Spent double my pay every thing being extravagantly dear & Not enjoying the advantages of Comanding Officers—I asked To be Sent to Niagara as the year’s Comand of Captn. Bruff11 was elapsed (a Term fixed by the then General orders)12 it was granted with reluctance & the letter which I had To deliver To The officer commanding was in Such Terms by what I have learnt Since that I might truly call it Bellerophontic—it exasperated Captn. Bruff who was in it told that he could not resist to my importunities &ca. &ca. however the Captn. like a true democrat Knew how To dissemble—he watched every opportunity To rouse my feelings—finally finding himself deserted by the other Officers—he obtained leave of absence & the first Step he took in Philadelphia was To lodge at the Secretary’s of war charges as absurd as malicious.13 Just at a time when the Secretary in his report had in mass thrown an aspersion on the foreigners in Service by observing that experience had taught how difficult it was To avoid imposition14

That ungenerous expression Which I read before I received Captain Bruffs impertinent Notice15 wounded My feelings To The quick. I have friends in Europe who perhaps think me the only foreigner in the Artillery & who certainly never Shall be informed of Colonel Rochefontaine’s transaction concerning the horses16—it is natural for them to conclude that I am alluded To & whatever value I may Set on my comission—My honor is Still dearer To me. Impressed with that Idea I wrote imediately To The Secretary of War, & To Coll. Pickering whom I know To be My friend.17 I in general used To receive of Mr. McHenry a mere acknowledgement of My letters without any answer—but this time I had not even that to boast of. I Served in the Most despotic of all Armies but I never Saw yet the complaints of an Officer when his honor is attacked & when he represents it in respectfull terms remain unoticed. I transmitted by the Next mail the Original which Captn. Bruff Sent me of the charges exhibited against me, with a pressing request to have the affair investigated & a Notice that I had myself charges18 To bring against my Accuser after he would have made an attempt to Substantiate his against me—but two Months have elapsed and I remain in Statu quo. If the Captain’s charges are deemed frivolous & malicious a reprimand in orders will Satisfy me—if not I wish a board of Inquiry at this Post where all the evidences in my favor are collected. I was hesitating previous To this last Affair whether I Should not resign as I find it impossible To Support an increasing family on my pay. The prospect of a War particularly against a Nation Still reeking with the blood of the Swiss19 & my partiality for the Army as well as for a Country which is become my own were my Motives for not doing it—but now the Most powerfull incitement is that Resignation would be construed into guilt. In these circumstances, Sir, I hope you will not insist on my performing the Journey mentioned in your letter—as other reasons for my begging To decline it I Shall add, that my health which I began To recover when I had the honor of first being introduced to you at my friend Thornton, is again Much impaired by the rambling life which in public Service either as an Engineer or an Officer I have been obliged to Submit to. I nearly died in Virginia of the dysentery comon to the climate & had a yearly relapse ever Since. The Lake fevers have after that much reduced me & having been nearly three years in this Country I had determined To request to be Stationed in the U. Ss. when those charges came which of Course fix me at this Post untill they are examined. An other impediment is my family. I am the only Officer in the army whose wife has no relations in America. I can not possibly except in Actual War Separate myself from her & my Children—particularly as her health is delicate & as She is deprived of the Comforts She has been used To enjoy. An other objection again is that of my fortune which Since the fate of Swisserland is probably annihilated. I have reduced My pecuniary means in an allarming degree by Journey’s the expenses of which were only partialy defrayed—for Instance I was detained with my family twenty days at Fort Erie I charged only the hiring of quarters, but the Article was Struck out of my Account although I charged only twenty dollrs. where I had To pay for my Subsistance &ca. Eighty. Was I in easy circumstances this would not weigh with me but it is not every body who although they may have the will possess also like General Hamilton the power of making large Sacrifices To Their Country.

With regard To The Posts which you mention—I Shall as my health permits give you all the Information I have with regard To Detroit, Niagara & Oswego. General Wilkinson Took all the measures To obtain information To Mackinac where he repaired himself with Officers, Masons &ca. &ca.—he was at Fort Defiance & Should the Documents Not be Sufficient it would be easy To obtain Authentic ones from a Mr. MacNiff20 formerly Assistant Engineer of the Brittish & Now a Magistrate under our Government at Detroit—he is poor & would for a Small consideration perform the tour again if it was necessary.

Before I conclude I Shall observe that the greatest uneasiness prevails among our Brittish Neighbours on account of the hostile intentions of the Northern & Northwestern Indians.21 Sir John Johnson22 is arrived at New Ark on that business which Seems To have originated from Captain Brent’s Selling lands To which he had no claims.23 A Body of Militia is ordered To prepare for encampment.

They are mounting their Cannon at Fort George &ca.—these preparations make me look with encreased Anguish at my thirty odd men placed in a fort which would require three thousand if the outworks were to be Manned. I find that my apology for laconism was perfectly Needless—however necessary for inaccuracies. Permit me to assure you that it is with heartfelt regret that I am induced by unavoidable Necessity To beg To decline the comission entrusted To me in your Second letter. I have been used To obey implicitly without even considering the consequences—however the peculiarity of my Situation will I hope Serve me as an apology. With the Most respectful consideration I have the honor to be

Sir   Your Most Obedient & very Humble Servant

J J U Rivardi
Majr. 1st. Regt. A & E

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

2An undated drawing of Fort Niagara may be found in the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

3This is apparently a reference to the [Philadelphia] Aurora. General Advertiser, which had been founded by Benjamin Franklin Bache in 1794. Although Bache had died on September 10, 1798, the paper, with some interruptions, continued publication and was frequently referred to as “Bache’s paper.”

4Dr. John G. Coffin of Massachusetts was appointed a surgeon’s mate in the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers on May 31, 1794 (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 159, 160). The Executive Journal incorrectly prints Coffin’s first name as “Nathaniel.”

5This is a reference to Fort George, the British post, which was located near Newark (later Niagara, Ontario) and was directly across the Niagara River from Fort Niagara.

6Lieutenant Nanning J. Visscher was the commanding officer at Fort Oswego.

7This is a reference to Stephen Rochefontaine who was appointed lieutenant colonel commandant of the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers on February 25, 1795 (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 173–74), and who was exceedingly unpopular with his subordinate officers (Rochefontaine to Timothy Pickering, February 19, 1796 [ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston]). In 1796 he became involved in a duel with a fellow officer and was brought before a court of inquiry but was exonerated. See Rochefontaine to H, April 23, May 10, 1796.

8At this point Rivardi is not altogether frank. Although he had supported Rochefontaine against the charges made by his fellow officers, on at least one occasion he complained to Pickering concerning Rochefontaine’s behavior (Rivardi to Pickering, August 6, 1796 [ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston]).

9Henry Burbeck, commanding officer at Michilimackinac in 1797, had been appointed a major in the Artillerists and Engineers in 1791.

10Lewis Tousard.

11James Bruff of Maryland had been appointed a captain in the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers on June 2, 1794 (Executive Journal, I description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate (Washington, 1828), I. description ends , 159, 160). This is a reference to Section 21 of a general order which Brigadier General James Wilkinson had issued on May 22, 1797. This order provided in part that “Commanding Officers of posts under the grade of a Field Officer, are to be relieved annually …” (LC, RG 94, Adjutant General’s Office, General Orders, General James Wilkinson, 1797–1808, National Archives).

12On August 3, 1797, Wilkinson issued a general order which provided in part: “… Major Rivardi will avail himself of the first opportunity to repair to Niagara, there to take command. He is to be governed by the orders heretofore given to Captain Bruff, by the minister of War and the commander in chief …” (LC, RG 94, Adjutant General’s Office, General Orders, General James Wilkinson, 1797–1808, National Archives).

13On January 15, 1799, Bruff wrote to James McHenry: “… That Rivardi … when commanding the garrison at Niagara did agrieve me and injure the service, by interfering with & taking upon himself the internal police of the Soldiers then under my immediate command—thereby rendered them independent of their proper police officer, to the prejudice of discipline, & contrary to the practice of armies.

“1st—By excusing soldiers under my command from duty and attendance in parade who were included in the details.

“2d   By detailing soldiers under my command for extra duty out of their turn & without my knowledge.

“3d   By making vexatious transfers from the Infantry to the Artillerists without authority, or the consent of their officers.

“4   By depriving me of my orderly Serjeant.

“5   By exempting a soldiers wife (who drew rations) from the proportion of washing assigned her by her officer, conformable to General orders & the practice of the army.

“6   By hearing & determining disputes & controversies between soldiers in the first resort.

“I also, represent that he has wasted & injured the public property intrusted to his care—

“1th   By having the floors of most of the soldiers barracks torn up dismantled of their doors & windows—put in a state of ruin & rendered useless: to furnish seasoned materials for unnecessary additions & repairs to his quarters— & for furniture.

“2d   By imploying the Artificers about trifling & unnecessary accomodations for himself—while the works & buildings were neglected & going to ruin.

“3d   By ordering rations to Women not imployed in washing for the soldiers out of proportion to the men—contrary to general orders, & not included in the Company returns.” (Two copies, in Bruff’s handwriting, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.)

Bruff’s letter was enclosed in McHenry to H, February 15, 1799, which is listed in the appendix to this volume.

14This is a reference to the following statement in McHenry’s report of December 24, 1798, which John Adams sent to Congress on December 31, 1798: “… it is conceived to be adviseable to endeavor to introduce from abroad, at least one distinguished engineer, and one distinguished officer of artillery.… But in this, as we know from past experience, nothing is more easy than to be imposed upon; nothing more difficult than to avoid imposition, and that therefore, should the measure be sanctioned by a law, it will be requisite to commit the business of procuring such characters to some very judicious hand, under every precaution that can put him upon his guard” (ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Military Affairs, I, 125).

15Bruff to Rivardi, January 15, 1799 (copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress). This letter enclosed a copy of the charges against Rivardi which Bruff had sent to McHenry.

16In 1798 Rochefontaine was dismissed from the service for fraudulent use of horses belonging to the United States Government and for receiving public funds for the maintenance of these horses (Rochefontaine to Pickering, April 27, 30, May 16, 1798 [all ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston]; Pickering to Rochefontaine, May 30, 1798 [ALS, letterpress copy, Massachusetts Historical Society Boston]; Pickering’s undated, untitled opinion on the court of inquiry [AD, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston]).

17Rivardi to Pickering, February 8, 1799 (ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

18Rivardi to McHenry, February 21, 1799 (copy, enclosed in Rivardi to Tobias Lear, February 21, 1799 [ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress], enclosed in Lear to H, March 30, 1799 [listed in the appendix to this volume]). See also Rivardi to Pickering, February 21, 1799 (ALS, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston).

19This is a reference to the establishment of the Helvetic Republic under French protection in June, 1798.

20Patrick MacNiff had been a deputy surveyor for the British in Upper Canada but had been dismissed as incompetent. On September 29, 1796, he was appointed both justice of the peace in Wayne County, Northwest Territory, and surveyor. His commission as surveyor was revoked on August 20, 1798 (Carter, Territorial Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States (Washington, 1934–1952). description ends , III, 454, 455).

21On March 4, 1799, Rivardi wrote to McHenry: “I had from the best Authority … that the upper nations of Indians are very active in making preparations for War Should the French or Spaniards attempt any thing on Canada. In the present Situation of France I do not apprehend any determination of that Kind but I rather Suppose that the ferment existing among the Indians is a consequence of the intrigues of the French emissaries who were with them a year ago …” (ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress).

The “French emissaries” to whom Rivardi is referring were members of an expedition headed by Victor Collot from March to December, 1796, to survey the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as the first step in France’s plan to reconquer Louisiana. Collot, a French major general and former governor of Guadeloupe, had surrendered his command to the British in 1794 and had been paroled to Philadelphia.

22Johnson, the son of Sir William Johnson of New York, was Superintendent General and Inspector General of Indian Affairs in British North America.

23This is a reference to lands bordering the Grand River, which the British ceded on October 25, 1784, to the Mohawk Indians, led by Joseph Brant. This cession was designed to replace the lands in New York which the Mohawks had lost as a result of the tribe’s support of the British during the American Revolution (Charles M. Johnston, The Valley of the Six Nations: A Collection of Documents on the Indian Lands of the Grand River [Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1964], 50–51). The patent granting these lands, dated January 14, 1793, provided that the Indians could not transfer these lands by sale, lease, or gift (Johnston, Valley of Six Nations, 73–74). Brant refused to accept the patent and proceeded to sell some of the lands in question.

Peter Russell, who was the administrator of Upper Canada from 1796 to 1799, in the absence of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, agreed in 1797 to confirm all past sales and leases of these lands and to arrange for future sales. Brant, however, remained dissatisfied with these arrangements.

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