James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Henry Dearborn, 6 April 1812

From Henry Dearborn

April 6th. 1812;

As the principal object of the command, which may be confided to my direction, will probably be the conquest of Lower Canada, it may not be improper for me to Suggest the outlines of what occurs to my mind, in relation to principal points of attack, the probable means of defense, and the necessary force for rendering Success as certain, as the usual exigencies of War will admit; taking into view, the unavoidable, or unfortunate casualties incident to Military operations.

After Securing the Small posts, on the southern Side of the River st Lawrence, the Town & Garrison of Montreal, will be the first important object: Its insular possition, and the width of the River, with a Garrison of regular, and provincial Troops, of uncertain numbers (but probably not less than from, four to eight thousand) will render an approach with undisciplined troops, somewhat difficult, and will of course require, on the part of the assailants,1 a Strong Superiority in point of numbers.

Small Craft, or Boats of different kinds, for transporting the Troops, and Artillery, will be indispensable, and in Sufficient number, to transport Six, or Eight thousand Men, at once, with their Artillery.2

When Montreal Shall have been carried, and Suitable measures taken for disposing of the garrison, and disaffected inhabitants, and for Securing at least a passive, or neutral disposition among the People generally, by Such proclamations, and assurances, of protection of Persons, religion, and property, as the Commanding Officer may be authorised to give; And allso, for procuring Such regular, and certain Supplies as will be necessary; When these objects are accomplished, a forward movement should be made, with a large body of the Army, as far down the River, towards Quebec, as existing circumstances may warrant, for the purpose of establishing a Strong possition for covering the Country, and affording protection to the well disposed Inhabitants, as well as for Securing as great a proportion of the provissions as may be practicable: In the mean time, it might be expedient, to engage as many of the Inhabitants in our service, as should be inclined to enter; and to establish such force on the River, as would afford protection to our Water Communication between Montreal, and the Posts below, and on the River Sorrel.

To afford a reasonable certainty of Success to the expedition, it would, in my opinion require an Army of at least sixteen thousand Men, Rank & File, present and fit for duty; Or in other words, that number of Men actually in the Feild, with a suitable train of Feild Artillery; and in the Park, a sufficient number of 18 pounders, large howitzers, with some Mortars of different sizes. The Boats should mostly be built on Lake Champlain, say, at White hall, and other places nearer to Canada; and materials for the construction of light scows for Artillery, should be procured and transported with the Army to the Bank of the st Lawrence; while the light Boats, should be transported by Land, from st, Johns, or Chambly.

To advance into the immediate vicinity of Quebec, with an intention of carrying the place, by Assault, or Seige, will require a strong force, composed of troops Sufficiently disciplined, and inured to service, to be able to act in open Feild, against regular Troops, and to encounter with firmness, Assaults with the Bayonet; as frequent sorties, from a strong Garrison, must be anticipated.

It may be calculated, that Quebec will have as strong a Garrison, as the extent of its works require, and of course will be vigourously, and obstinately defended; from the nature of its peninsular situation, its particular possition, and works, it would be necessary in case of a Seige, to divide the beseiging Army, into at least, two Bodies; Vizt, One on the heights of Abraham, and the other across the River st Charles, on the possition occupied by the right wing of Montcalms Army in 1759 (previous to the decisive battle.) It would allso be necessary, to detach a body of Troops to the south side of the River, to cover the Country & hold the inhabitants in Check, and to prevent, as far as practicable, any Supplies of Men, or provissions, to the Garrison. Each of the two first mentioned bodies, should be sufficiently strong, for resisting with certainty the whole force of the Garrison; Consequently the beseiging Army, should be at least, in point of numbers, three times as strong as the Garrison.

A temporary Bridge, could be thrown over the st Charles, which would afford a more ready, and certain communication between the troops on the heights of Abraham, and those on the opposite side of the st Charles.

We may calculate on a Garrison of at least six thousand Men, exclusive of Seamen, and the Inhabitants; of course the beseiging Army ought not to be less than 24,000 Men; supplied with a large train of Battering Cannon, and Mortars, and an ample Stock of all kinds of Ammunition, and with at least, two, or three, first rate Engineers, who have had Sufficient practical experience in different seiges: and as we have no Such Engineers, we must endeavour to import such as can be fully relied on.

As the conquest of Upper Canada, will not, I presume, be considered as under the direction of the Commander of the Force, destined against Lower Canada,3 I will only observe on that subject generally, that to render the Conquest certain, and to effect it in the Shortest possible time, it may be well to direct three different Attacks, as nearly as practicable, at the Same time: Vizt. One from Detroit, one from Niagara, and one from the Black River Country; for the two first, I should presume, that 3,000 Men for each, would be sufficient, for the last, I should Suppose 5,000, Men, would be requisite; It will be essential that these different bodies Should understand distinctly, what each, ought to perform, and at what point, or points, their junction Should be formed: and as Soon as the Conquest is Secured, about 2,000 Troops, may be Sufficient for the Several Garrisons, and the remainder might be discharged, after enlisting as many of them as practicable, for a longer term; and the British troops, with such others, as ought not to be allowed to remain in the Province, might be Sent off, to Albany.

I will take the liberty of Suggesting the expediency of sending a small expedition, composed of 3,000 of the Militia of the District of Maine, under a Suitable Commander, to take possession of the Province of New Brunswick; the whole might be effected, in two, or three months, with very little expence, or risk.

Colonel Trescott,4 of Passamaquoddy, is a good Officer, and well accquainted with the Country.

It Should be observed, that in the course of the foregoing observations, such a reinforcement of British troops, as would enable them to take the Feild, with an Army of 8, or 10,000 Men, exclusive of Militia, and of a competent Garrison, at Quebeck, has not been contemplated. It may however be considered as a possible event, and perhaps, not very improbable; for with the addition of only 5, or 6,000 Men, by leaving a Garrison of 1,000 Men in Quebec, an Army of 8, to 10,000 Men (including those at Montreal, and Three Rivers) might take the Feild, with the addition of 5, or 6,000 Militia.

Under such circumstances, Montreal, might be so defended, as to render it impracticable to approach it, with the force above stated. And if contrary to the present expectations, such an additional force should be Sent to Canada, as would enable the enemy to take the Feild, with an Army of 12, or 15,000 Men, exclusive of Militia, it would require a greater force on our side, even for defensive Operations on the immediate borders of Canada, than has been proposed, for an Offensive expedition.

I shall close this hasty Sketch, by observing, that when a declaration of War, can no longer be avoided, but by the Sacrifice of our National honor, and Independance, it will be of infinite importance, that it should be So prosecuted, as to produce a Satisfactory peace, in the shortest time possible; and I confidently presume, that every intelligent man, will agree, that to secure those objects, the only legitimate policy, and economy, of lives and treasure, will be, that of making use of such efficient force, in every offensive operation, as will render success, as certain as ample numbers, judiciously directed, could promise.

Ms (PHi: Daniel Parker Papers); Tr (MeHi). Ms in a clerk’s hand. Tr copied into a manuscript biography by H. A. S. Dearborn, “The Life of Major General Henry Dearborn.” Recipient identified as JM in the Tr.

1The phrase “on the part of the assailants” is written above the line in Dearborn’s hand.

2The phrase “at once, with their Artillery” is in Dearborn’s hand.

3The role of Upper Canada in the preparations for war against Great Britain was at this time the subject of some debate and later of considerable controversy. Michigan territorial governor William Hull, who was visiting Washington in March 1812, feared that the administration would concentrate its military resources on Montreal and Lower Canada at the risk of exposing the northwestern territories of the U.S. to the British forces and their Indian allies in Upper Canada. To prevent the British from attempting to occupy the region below Lake Erie, Hull wrote to Eustis on 6 Mar. 1812, urging the administration to strengthen the defenses of Detroit and to construct a naval force on the lake. He further noted that he had “allways been of the opinion, that we aught to have built as many armed Vessels on the Lakes as would have commanded them.” He was to insist in the aftermath of his ill-fated campaign and subsequent court-martial that it had never been his understanding that the administration expected him to take the offensive against Upper Canada without the assistance of a naval force on Lake Erie. Hull even went so far as to state that a few days after he had been appointed to the command of the Northwest Army on 9 Apr. 1812, he “presented another memorial to the President thro’ the war department in which [he] was explicit as to what might be expected from such a force as [he] was to lead; as to the necessity of reinforcements; of our commanding the Lakes and the necessity of a co-operation in other quarters.” At Hull’s court-martial in 1814 neither the general nor the chief clerk of the War Department was able to produce a copy of this memorial in evidence, despite Eustis’s testimony at the trial that he had “a perfect recollection” of the document (Michigan Historical Collections, 40 [1929]: 362–65, 584–87).

The president’s memory of these transactions appears to have been rather different, and he was later to make statements to the effect that Hull had “misled” the administration into “a reliance authorized by himself” on the Northwest Army’s ability to secure the command of the lakes without the construction of a naval force. JM might have acquired that impression from the concluding section of Hull’s 6 Mar. 1812 letter to Eustis, in which the general had hinted at the possibility, provided Detroit was adequately defended by a “disciplined” force, that the force in question “would prevent a war with the savages, and probably induce the Enimy to abandon the province of Upper Canada, without Opposition.” “The naval force on the Lakes, would in that event, fall into our possession, and we should obtain the command of the waters, with out the expence of building such a force” (JM to John Nicholas, 2 Apr. 1813 [DLC]; Michigan Historical Collections, 40 [1929]: 368).

Throughout March 1812 the president discussed these alternative approaches not only with Eustis and Hull but also with Peter B. Porter, the New York representative chairing the House select committee on foreign relations. Testifying at Hull’s court-martial in 1814, Porter recalled meeting with Hull and JM on two occasions in 1812 to consider strategic issues in the Great Lakes region. He confirmed that Hull had argued in favor of building a naval force on Lake Erie, but he also stated that “at first it was agreed to have one, but afterwards it was agreed to abandon it, doubtless as inexpedient.” One factor which might have persuaded JM that a naval force on Lake Erie was “inexpedient,” however, was Porter’s own argument that such a force would not be necessary for the conquest of Upper Canada. The representative, probably sometime in March or early April 1812, had drafted his own strategic plan, a seven-page memorandum in which he argued that the U.S. should commence the war with “the reduction of Upper Canada … as it would inevitably lead to the submission of Lower Canada” (James G. Forbes, Report of the Trial of Brig. General William Hull [New York, 1814; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 32628], pp. 126–27; [Peter B. Porter], “Relating to the Provinces of upper and Lower Canada,” n.d. [PHi: Daniel Parker Papers]).

Nowhere in this document did Porter maintain that it would be necessary for the U.S. to acquire naval control of any of the Great Lakes before American armies entered Canadian territory. After describing the minimal British forces in Upper Canada and after mentioning that the population of the region was largely of American origin anyway, he claimed that “the possession of Upper Canada, would give to the United States the control of the savages; afford an easy conveyance by the waters that descend towards Montreal, for troops baggage and artillery; and enable them to fall upon lower Canada on the side of the United States and of upper Canada at the same time, without leaving an enemy in the rear to disturb their operations or cut off a retreat.” He even predicted that early successes in the war “would probably incline the Governor of Quebec, to surrender, when he found the greater and more valuable part of the territory conquered.”

Continuing in this vein, Porter suggested the establishment of “a small army of observation” near Lake Champlain, first to prevent Great Britain from reinforcing Upper Canada, then to meet with U.S. forces descending from that region prior to their uniting “at a convenient place above Montreal; which they would probably take without opposition; as it is not fortified nor capable of defence.” “They would be enabled always to Keep the enemy in front; and proceed with perfect ease and security towards Quebec; and in case of delay or disaster retreat on their rear and flanks without molestation; still finding friends and supplies.”

Once these goals had been accomplished, Porter called for the U.S. to guarantee by proclamation the civil and religious rights of the Canadians, offering those who rejected the guarantee the option to relocate in the garrison at Quebec. As for the garrison itself, Porter believed it would be easier to reduce it by starvation than by a direct assault. He doubted that Great Britain could reinforce Quebec by ship, but he nevertheless called for the ship channel to be blocked by “immense rafts of timber chained together and held by Anchors” of the sort that Americans regularly took “over the Lake into the St Lawrence every summer.”

Thereafter, Porter assumed, most of the English and Scottish inhabitants of Lower Canada would throw in their lot with the Americans. The French-speaking Canadians, however, would pose a more difficult problem, as “these hate the English much, and the Americans more than the English.” “They are devoted to their religion and its ministers. They are ignorant of every thing else except their common occupation which is agriculture. They are treated like a conquered people by the English inhabitants; and would join a french army without the exception of one in a hundred. From their entire ignorance and the tranquillity in which they live they are timid and without enterprize; and would probably adhere to that government and party, which would be most likely to prevail. They might be acted upon with most effect by an assurance, ‘that their religion, laws, and language should remain unchanged; and that they should form a separate State.’ Great effect might be produced by an unequivocal declaration, ‘that the Seignieurs should retain their rents only; but that all lots et vents or mutation fines, should be abolished; and every man remain only tenant in free and common soccage, with liberty to the owner and tenant of the soil, to extinguish rent by mutual consent.[’]”

Porter concluded his remarks by calling them “nothing more than general hints; which are the result of actual Knowledge and experience; and form the outline of a plan, of which a man of genius may avail himself to advantage.” It cannot be conclusively established that JM, rather than Dearborn, Eustis, or Hull, was the intended recipient of Porter’s memorandum, but even if he was not, it seems highly likely that the ideas it contained were discussed in the meetings between JM, Hull, and Porter before Hull departed Washington for Ohio, where he took command of the Northwest Army later in the spring of 1812.

4Lemuel Trescott had been appointed collector and inspector at Machias, District of Maine, in November 1807. In November 1811 JM appointed him to the same position at Passamaquoddy. JM also nominated him to be a colonel of infantry in the U.S. Army on 8 Apr. 1812 (Senate Exec. Proceedings description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America (3 vols.; Washington, 1828). description ends , 2:56, 187, 247).

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