Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Isaac A. Coles, 27 August 1814

To Isaac A. Coles

Monticello Aug. 27. 14.

Dear Sir

I thank you for the pamphlet you have been so kind as to send me. altho’ ignorant of the pretences for the opposition you had experienced in your regiment, your friends here, to whom you were best known, never doubted that your conduct had been proper & honorable under every circumstance. they are gratified by the knolege of the facts detailed in this1 pamphlet, as proving specially what they had concluded on the general knolege of your character and conduct thro’ life. it is with real sorrow I see such a spirit of insubordination even in the officers of our army. they have been loud in their complaints of the existence of this spirit among their men; but how can it be otherwise with such an example from their officers? if the privates of the 12th regiment were to declare against duty under the signers of the Memorial2 to the Secretary at war, what could these gentlemen say in reprobation of it? would they retire from their duties because not acceptable to their men? or would they meet a challenge from one of them? yet as the private is to his captain, such is the captain to his colonel. as citizens all are equal; it is commission alone which gives a superiority of rank, & against that superiority the officer may offend as well as the private, & does offend by the same acts. this example leads to an election of officers by the privates, & to a continuance in command during the caprice of the latter.

Your friends here are well. your brother Tucker is on a tour of militia3 duty. we are all on the alert as to the fate of Washington. our last information places the enemy at Benedict, an awkward situation enough for an attack on Washington. it commits them to a land attack, and an Englishman, like a fish, is diselemented when out of water. if their numbers be such only as circumstances indicate, they ought not to be a breakfast for those who may gather round them. ever

affectionately yours

Th: Jefferson

PoC (MHi); at foot of text: “Colo Isaac A. Coles”; endorsed by TJ. Enclosed in TJ to Edward Coles, 25 Aug. 1814.

the pamphlet, an appeal by Coles To the Public (Washington, 1814), includes seventeen documents related to Coles’s defense from charges brought against him by James C. Bronaugh, an army surgeon serving under him in the 12th Infantry Regiment. It begins with a preface by Coles noting that “As it respects the unworthy and dishonourable conduct which has been imputed to me, this rests for the present on nothing better than the infuriated denunciations of Bronaugh, and will be found to have no foundation but the dark and malignant passions to which he has given himself up.” The 21 Aug. 1813 memorial to the secretary at war, the third text in the publication, is signed at Fort George by eighteen officers of the 12th, including Bronaugh, and requests that the secretary of war remove the recently promoted Coles from leadership of the unit and restore Colonel James P. Preston to command. The pamphlet concludes with a letter from Coles to the secretary of war, Washington, 7 July 1814, asking to be arrested and placed on trial, because “He feels that his reputation has greatly suffered in the estimation of many, and until he can again be placed on the ground on which he is conscious that he is entitled to stand, it would be truly painful to him to join his companions in arms. On the justice of his country therefore he throws himself, to which none should appeal in vain, and asks that the proper tribunal may be ordered immediately to pass upon him.”

TJ also received Bronaugh’s printed defense, dated 5 July 1814 (TJ’s copy in DLC; endorsed by him as a letter from Bronaugh received 3 Aug. 1814), which includes an extract from Bronaugh’s letter to Secretary of War John Armstrong, Fort George, 23 Aug. 1813, offering his own version of Coles’s actions and giving Bronaugh’s rationale for resigning his post; stating that Coles is “personally my enemy, and that from the proof already given of the meanness of his disposition, he would leave nothing undone to injure me. I solemnly believe that Col. Coles is a dastardly coward, and cannot reconcile it to my feelings to serve under a man of that character; I am not alone in this belief, many officers of high standing think so also, and do not hesitate to declare it publicly”; two letters from Bronaugh to Coles, Grenadier Island, 25 Oct. 1813, in the second of which he demands “that satisfaction, which, as a gentleman, I am entitled to receive at your hands”; a statement of support for Bronaugh by Captain Roger Jones; Bronaugh’s 25 Oct. public posting of Coles as “a base liar, infamous scoundrel, and coward,” which he pledges to prove “in a court of judicature”; an extract from the army’s general orders, Grenadier Island, 27 Oct. 1813, placing Bronaugh under arrest for challenging his superior officer to a duel; and concluding with General James Wilkinson’s order of the same date, following a court-martial that sentenced Bronaugh to be cashiered from the service but then recommended clemency, that “In consequence of the recommendation of the court, the high professional merits of Dr. Bronaugh, and the calamitous situation of the sick, the punishment is remitted, and the Doctor will resume his sword.”

Coles was eventually exonerated of all charges against him. On 26 July 1815 he published a statement (printed text in DLC; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Monticello”; endorsed by TJ: “Coles Isaac A.”) presenting correspondence related to his court-martial, including the court’s conclusion early in that year that the charges were “unsupported by even a shadow of testimony” and that Coles’s conduct had been “altogether correct and honorable”; a statement from Daniel Parker, the adjutant and inspector general, ordering that “The President of the United States having approved the foregoing sentence of the Court Martial, Colonel Coles is honorably restored to his command. He will resume his sword, and report himself for duty”; and a final exchange between Bronaugh and Coles between 19 and 21 July 1815, which Coles, having been honorably discharged from the service on 15 June, began by offering Bronaugh “the meeting, which, as your commandant, I denied you. I await your answer”; Bronaugh replied on 20 July that “In your note of last evening you state, that as a citizen, you seek me here to offer the meeting, which, as my commandant, you denied me. When I made the demand upon you at Grenadier Island, in Oct. 1813, through my friend, Colonel Jones, you refused me satisfaction, under the pretence that you were not bound to hold yourself responsible for any act that might emanate in your official capacity. This refusal made necessary a course less grateful to my own feelings, but more wounding to your’s; it compelled me to post you, publicly, as a coward, &c. I cannot, therefore, become the challenger, and if we meet at all, it must be on your demand. This will be handed to you by my friend, Major Tillotson. I can receive no communication from you, except through the medium of gentlemen”; and Coles concluded this exchange by stating that “I have ever doubted your readiness to give the meeting, which, when my hands were fettered, you pretended so eagerly to desire. This impression your letter of yesterday has confirmed. I shall not, therefore, indulge your caprice, by changing the form of my note; but if you still persist in declining the offer it contained, shall post you, without delay, in your real character, to the world. I remain at Rhinebeck until to-morrow.”

1TJ here canceled “statement.”

2Manuscript: “Memoal.”

3Manuscript: “milia.”

Index Entries

  • Armstrong, John; as secretary of war search
  • Army, U.S.; court-martial of I. A. Coles search
  • Bronaugh, James C.; and charges against I. A. Coles search
  • Coles, Isaac A.; court-martial of search
  • Coles, Isaac A.; letters to search
  • Coles, Isaac A.; To the Public search
  • Coles, Tucker; militia service of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; military insubordination search
  • Jones, Roger; supports J. C. Bronaugh search
  • Madison, James; and I. A. Coles’s court-martial search
  • Parker, Daniel (of War Department); as adjutant and inspector general search
  • Preston, James; American military commander search
  • Tillotson, John C.; as U.S. army officer search
  • To the Public (I. A. Coles) search
  • War of1812; defense of Washington search
  • Washington (D.C.); defenses of search
  • Wilkinson, James; military order issued by search