James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Henry Dearborn, 13 December 1812

From Henry Dearborn

Albany Decemr. 13th. 1812


I confidently hope that the Campaign that has now closed, has afforded sufficient evidence of the necessary of having a regular Army fully competent for all offensive opperations,1 from fifteen to twenty additional Regiments, ought in my opinnion, to be raised North of the Potomack, what additional force will be necessary to the South, & west, I have found no opinnion. If an adaquate force could be raised in season, the latter part of February, or first of March, would be a favourable time to take possession of Montreal, It would not require a very large force to take possession of that place at that season, but we ought not to enter Canada with an Army that would not at all events be able to hold Montreal and the adjacent Country, against not only what force the Enemy could muster under present circumstancies, but such additional force as may arrive in May or June. I think we ought not to attempt more than we can with certainty accomplish, delay would be a serious evil, but defeat would be a much greater misfortune. I should think it more advisable to act on the defencive the next campaign, than to attempt more than the strength of our regular force would be fully competant to, my having volunteered the foregoing opinnions & remarks may be concidered as officious, but I must rely on the purity of my intentions as my only apology. I fear that the close of our Campaign will occasion some uneasiness, and probably much censure, I must expect my full share of it. I am not intirely satisfied with what has taken place at Niagara,2 but I trust that on more particular information, It will appear that the measures were dictated by sound discretion, but unfortunately, the commanding officer has not been as popular as could have been wished—in relation to myself, I have expressed my sentiments in my last letter to the Secretary of War with frankness and candour.3 It will be eaqually agreably [sic] to me, to imploy such moderate talents as I possess, in the service of my Country, or to be permited to retire to the shade of private life, and remain a mere, but interested, spectator of passing events. With sentiments of the highest respect I am Sir your Humbl. Servt.

H. Dearborn

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.

1Dearborn’s plans to launch a winter campaign against Montreal faltered due to poor road conditions, the unwillingness of some militia companies to cross the Canadian border, and sickness in the camp. Dearborn’s final effort of 1812 was to give the appearance of an excursion into Lower Canada, as a diversion to aid western U.S. troops, and then to retreat into winter quarters. However, even this modest goal could not be reached without incident. While attacking an outpost at Lacolle Mill as part of this operation on 19 Nov. 1812, Col. Zebulon Montgomery Pike reported that his men were so overzealous and undisciplined that “the fire of the volenteers and ours was in a direction to endanger the lives of our own men” (Dearborn to Eustis, 24 Nov. 1812, enclosing Pike to Dearborn, 20 Nov. 1812 [DNA: RG 107, LRRS, D-254:6]).

2On the Niagara Peninsula troops under Brig. Gen. Alexander Smyth had prepared to cross the Niagara River in force from his camp near Buffalo, New York. Smyth believed that 3,000 regulars, volunteers, and militia were ready to make the crossing, the number mentioned in his orders from Dearborn. On 27 Nov. he sent two parties across in advance, one to “capture a guard & destroy a bridge about five miles below Fort Erie” and the other “to take and render useless the Cannon of the enemies Batteries, and pieces of light Artillery.” The first group took prisoners but did not destroy the bridge. The second group destroyed some enemy artillery but then in confusion brought all of the boats back, stranding Capt. William King and his men in Canada. King made the most of the situation, taking captives, destroying batteries, and finding boats to send the prisoners and some of his men across the river before he and his remaining troops were captured. However, this turned out to be the full extent of Smyth’s invasion. On two occasions he called for a general embarkation but could not raise more than 1,500 troops for the crossing. He particularly noted that the number of regular troops was declining rapidly. He and his officers deemed it inexpedient to attempt the crossing under these conditions, and after the second failed embarkation on 1 Dec., Smyth called off the operation altogether, ordering that huts be constructed to house the regulars over the winter (Smyth to Dearborn, 4 Dec. 1812 [DNA: RG 107, LRRS, D-262:6]).

3Dearborn’s 11 Dec. 1812 letter to Eustis, enclosing Smyth’s 4 Dec. report (see n. 2, above), expressed his view that “something like fatality has pervaded our military operations, through the course of this campaign.” Expecting censure for the failure of military operations in the East, he claimed to be happy to yield his command to someone more talented and popular (ibid.).

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