Comments on Generals

If the editors of the newspapers of the United States did not hesitate to criticize their President, Senators and Representatives, they certainly did not hesitate to criticize their generals.  If unsuccessful, they were not spared; if successful, something could be found to criticize them for.  The following epigram was reprinted by the Nashville Clarion, on March 30, 1813, from a Federal paper:

“Gen. Hull, has surrendered–Rensellear been defeated,
Great Dearborn and Hopkins and Smith have retreated.
Of these Generals the Greatest is hard to be seen,
But a Greater than either in Gen. Chagrin.

In a similar vein is this from the Cayuga Patriot, reprinted by the Albany Argus of December 16, 1814:  “The campaign is closed!  Several generals are on furlough–some detailed for court martial duty.  General Complaint is less noisy than usual.  General Rebellion it is thought will go into winter quarters at Hartford.  General Frost will soon chain up Sir James L. Yeo’s squadron, and we hope General Government will profit by the occasion.”

By July of 1813, the Baltimore Whig,  as reprinted on July 10, 1813,  by the Carolina Federal Republican, thought all of the Northern Generals should be equally damned:  “During the short space of one year, in which we have been at war, the treacherous or cowardly Hull, the gasconading Smyth, and creeping Dearborn, have all passed in rapid succession before our eyes, and then descended to the ‘tomb of all the Capulets;’ just fixing our attention long enough to discover their incapacity and then vanishing from their high spheres, we hope–forever; were a Chandler and Lewis added to the list we should say–Amen.  The endeavour to fix sediment at higher than its natural station is useless; it my for a time disturb and muddy the surrounding element, but must finally sink.”  The editors, in the case of General Smyth, were generous, in mid-December, 1812, his own men “cried out in his presence to tar and feather him–to ride him on a rail–and some for shooting him.” (Nashville Whig, December 30, 1812)

The outspoken Democratic Press of Philadelphia, as reprinted by the Vermont Mirror on July 28, 1813, agreed, although using different wording:  “What a mortifying series of blunders are here all within a few months.  Disgrace has kibed the heel of disgrace and all in consequence of Treachery, Cowardice or Incapacity in our General Officers.  Yet not one of them has been tried.  Had gen. Hull been shot we should never have been cursed with such a train of General Officers . . . .”

The Canandaigua Repository used both prose and verse to comment on the comings and goings of General Dearborn, as reprinted by the Independent American on August 3, 1813:

“Our army at Fort-George has not yet evacuated t he place.  General Boyd commands at that post–Gen. Dearborn having been condemned by Gen. Lewis, as not ‘fit for service.

‘He comes!  He comes!  the General comes!
Snap your fingers–bite your thumbs!’

Yesterday, about half past 9 A. M Major General Dearborn arrived in this village, fro the army at Fort George; and precisely at half past 10, proceeded on his way to Albany; where, the Intelligencer informs us, he is to wait further orders.

‘He goes!  He goes!  the General goes!
Snap your fingers–shake your toes!'”

This commentary by the Salem Gazette was much reprinted:  “The present War goes much better by water than by land; one reason why our great Army Generals so soon get aground, is, that they draw too muchwater.  The old hulks have been so long high and dry, that they need sweeping before they can be brought into the current of affairs, and work well.”–reprinted by the Commercial Advertiser on October 7, 1813

The following comment by the pro-war Boston Yankee (of October 29, 1813) was a rare item of praise for a U. S. General:  “Major Gen. Harrison is very well entitled to a patent for his new invention of breaking the enemies lines with Mounted Infantry, and deciding the battle in oneminute.  We believe with Gen. Harrison, that there is no instance in military warfare, of mounted infantry charging the enemy, and deciding a battle in so short a time.”

When General Dearborn married, the Massachusetts Spy felt obliged to comment, on November 17, 1813:  “Married, at Boston, Major General Dearborne, of the United States army, to Mrs. Sarah Bowdoin, widow of the Hon. James Bowdoin.  The nation ought to breathe forth its gratitude to the General for this fresh proof of his military skill and the Government to exculpate him from the imputation of sluggishness, as he has besieged and carried the strong holds of Canada and Boston at the same time.”

On December 28, 1813, the Alexandria Gazette republished the following commentary from the U. S. Gazette:  “PUBLIC FESTIVAL.  As our discomfited generals are all returning from their profound campaign, it is proposed, instead of a public dinner, to treat them with a PUBLIC GROANING . . . .  The ‘Babes in the Woods’ may be sung on the occasion; and as the heroes will doubtless attend the theatre, we recommend for their entertainment, ‘Much ado about nothing’and ‘Like Master, Like Man.'”

On January 18, 1814, the Rhode Island American summarized the situation of the various generals:

“Wilkinson is at Waterford (N.Y.) where quarters are preparing for him to smoke out the winter–170 miles from his army–after having “With twice five thousand men, / March’d into Canada, and then march’d out again.”

Hampton is on his way to Detroit, where ‘our red brethren’ in the West begin to assume a hostile attitude.

Izard is at Plattsburg, ‘dangerously ill.’

Hull is at Albany, under arrest, where his trial was to have come on the 3d instant, but suspended for 10 days, because the administration forgot to summon their evidences.

Dearborn is likewise at Albany, President of the above Court Martial.

M’Clure, Harrison, Hopkins and Hall are at or near Buffalo, beset by one General Consternation, finding the British making incursions into our frontiers, and they left by our provident war department, without men or means to defend them.”

The New York Spectator  of May 11, 1814, found something to mock in a letter from General Andrew Jackson:  “In a letter from General Jackson, in which he gives the particulars of his victory over the Indians, and the capture of their fort, he says, ‘having maintained for a  few minutes a very obstinate contest, muzzle to muzzle, through the port-holes, in which many of the enemy’s balls were welded to the bayonets of our muskets, our troops succeeded in gaining possession of the opposite side of the works.”  It is a great pity that this facility in catching bullets on the point of a bayonet should not have been communicated to our heroes in the north.  If Gen. Quixote’s mode of disciplining an army comes into general user, and future detachments are drawn up before stone mills to be shot at by the hour, this southern dexterity, which has excited our admiration, might be very usefully practiced.'”

The reference to “Gen. Quixote” can be explained by these comments from the Connecticut Mirror, reprinted on May 18, 1814 by the New York Spectator:  “The Albany papers contain a letter from Gen. Wilkinson to a friend, dated April 9th, which, in the true Van Bladder style, is apparently intended to forestall the public opinion on the subject of his attack, in imitation of the Knight of La Mancha, on the mill at Lacole.  . . .  If Wilkinson is to be tried and shot, merely because he went to work hap-hazard, and threw away a few lives in attempting to batter downstone walls four feet thick, with pop-guns–who will hereafter do our fighting?”

The United States’ Gazette also took aim at Wilkinson, as here reprinted by the New York Spectator on January 8, 1814:  “What fear we?  the Canadians cry: / What dread have we of these alarms? / For sure no danger now is nigh, / ‘Tis only Wilkinson in arms.”  The Gazette spread a little buckshot at almost all the Generals with this poem, also reprinted in the same issue of the Spectator:                   

Pray Gen. Dearborn be impartial,
When President of a Court Martial,
Since Canada has not been taken;
Say Gen. Hull was much mistaken.
Dearborn himself, as records say,
Mistaken was the self-same way.
And Wilkinson and Hampton too,
And Harrison and all the crew,
Strange to relate, the self-same way,
Have all mist-taking Canada.

A soldier near Fort Erie wrote this on November 5, 1814, after General Izard blew up Fort Erie:  “What will be the fruits of his after-meditation no one here will hazard an opinion, nor do they much care; for after the loss of nearly three thousand men, we are now where we started last June, and should this act be committed at the individual responsibility of the commanding general, his sun is set, never, never to rise, and the sooner he shares the fate of general W. the better for the country.  In all probability there never was any general more unpopular with command than Izard, and I must confess not without good cause.”(Commercial Advertiser, November 25, 1814)

While waiting for the outcome of the Battle of New Orleans, the Boston Daily Advertiser, a Federalist paper, made these snapish remarks:  “Very little is to be expected in battle from men who talk so courageously when the enemy is out of sight.  Jackson’s general order is of a very suspicious character.  He calls his enemy such hard names, it may be relied on he fears him.  The positiveness with which he assures the inhabitants of New-Orleans that they are safe, betrays his insincerity.”(January 16, 1815)

After the conclusion of the war, on August 31, 1815, the New Hampshire Concord Gazettelashed out at almost every general for the same reason:  they turned back.  Here are some examples.  “General Van Ransselaer crossed the Canada line with a body of troops, and he turned back.  . . .  General Smythe afterwards embarked his troops for Canada, but hearing the violent blast of a bugle horn, he turned back.  . . . General Winchester trying to do something to cover himself with glory was most impolitely hurried off to Quebec with 8 or 9 hundred men.  Whether he has turned back yet we have not learnt.  . . .Generals Chandler and Winder were caught napping sometime ago and have gone to visit Gen. Winchester.  They will perhaps return back with him, and Col. Boerstler, who travelled same road will probably bear them company.”

There were some praises for some generals.  The Trenton True American (as reprinted by the Carlisle Gazette on July 2, 1813, came up with this:  “Quaker Generals.  We had a Green Quaker-General in the Revolutionary war, and have a Brown one in this–both True Blues.”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden