James Madison Papers
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From James Madison to John Armstrong, [29 December] 1813

To John Armstrong

[29 December 1813]

Besides the answer to Genl. McClure, it may be proper to instruct Genl. Wilkinson to say frankly to Prevost that the burning of Newark was the effect of misapprehension in the officer, not an order from the Govt.1 This may be done in terms neither authorizing an inference that the measure exceeds a just retaliation, nor precluding a reflection on the facility with which a perseverance of the Enemy in a system of conflagration may be made reciprocal. A desire to put an end to such an aggravation of the evils of war is a sufficient explanation of the disavowal.

RC (PHi: Daniel Parker Papers); FC (DLC); Tr (DLC, series 3). RC undated; date assigned based on the FC and Tr, which are both dated 29 Dec. 1813. FC headed: “Copy of a Note on Genl. McClure’s letters of the 10. 11. & 13. of Decr. 1813. returned to the Dept. of War.” Tr has a similar heading. Minor differences between the copies have not been noted.

1Brig. Gen. George McClure’s letter to Armstrong of 10 Dec. 1813 reported his withdrawal from Fort George and the burning of Newark “in conformity with the views of your Excellency disclosed to me in a former communication.” Armstrong placed an asterisk after this sentence and in a corresponding note at the foot of the page, wrote: “not true, my letter authorised it only in case it should be necessary to the defence of Fort Geo. In that case the measure would be justifiable” (DNA: RG 107, LRRS, M-257:7; extract printed in ASP, Military Affairs, description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends 1:486). On 11 Dec., McClure wrote that he had just learned that 1,000 militia would be called out to defend the Niagara frontier; he added that he was attempting to recruit Indians to defend Buffalo and the U.S. ships there (ASP, Military Affairs, description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends 1:486). He repeated his concerns about Buffalo on 13 Dec., observing that “the Enemy is much exasperated and will make a descent on this frontier if possible” (DNA: RG 107, LRRS, M-256:[7]; extract printed in ASP, Military Affairs, description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends 1:486).

Armstrong wrote Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson on 6 Jan. 1814, ordering him to disavow McClure’s conduct in burning Newark, and to send Sir George Prevost a copy of Armstrong’s 4 Oct. 1813 instructions to McClure, which stated: “Understanding that the defence of the post Committed to your charge may render it proper to destroy the town of New Ark, you are hereby directed to apprise it’s inhabitants of this circumstance, & to invite them to remove themselves & their effects to some place of greater safety” (DNA: RG 107, LSMA; instructions to McClure printed in ASP, Military Affairs, description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends 1:484). The explanation and disavowal were, of course, too late to prevent the burning of Buffalo, destruction of other settlements, and killing of many inhabitants on the Niagara frontier by the British and their Indian allies, news of which arrived in Washington in early January (Daily National Intelligencer, 4 and 5 Jan. 1814). Armstrong observed to Wilkinson that JM attributed these and other “outrages” to “personal folly or feeling” rather than “a system of policy deliberately weighed & adopted,” and would not order retaliation until he received proof that the reprisals were sanctioned by the British government.

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