The Affair at Odletown
March 30, 1814
The Affair at Odletown
“We have had an affair with the enemy, in which our troops have given him another test of firmness and valor.”–Major General Wilkinson to the Secretary of War, dated March 31, 1814, as printed by the Raleigh Minerva, April 29, 1814
This “affair” caused many to censure General Wilkinson, for, first, entering Canada in spite of orders not to, and secondly for attempting to batter a building with very thick walls with insufficient battering power. The affair is described in a letter “from an officer of the army to the editor [of the Albany Register] dated at Odletown, (lower Canada) March 31st, 1814,” and reprinted by the Ohio Register, May 10, 1814.
To record the events of battles is a task which none but the most accomplished historian or the most experienced soldier can with justice perform; but I have always thought it praiseworthy and honorable to pay the homage of respect to individual bravery, and emblazon to the world the valor and firmness, displayed by troops exposed to hardships and to dangers.
Yesterday morning Maj. General Wilkinson left Champlain, at the head of his division, and arrived here about 1, P. M. The first object of this movement, I understand was the reduction of the enemy’s fortress at the river La Cole, about 4 miles distant from this place.
After the troops had halted here a few minutes to refresh themselves, we proceeded up the road, when our advance, under col. Clark and major Forsyth, was attacked by a strong force of the enemy. Gen. Bissell was ordered to support that point of the action, which he did with spirit, and the enemy were compelled to retire with loss. Maj. Gen. Wilkinson was at this time on the field of action, exposed to the fire of the enemy, and displayed that characteristic fortitude & firmness, which are so peculiar to himself in days of peril and tribulation. We had also the pleasure of witnessing the inefficacy of the Congreve rockets, several of which were thrown by the enemy in and about our column, exploded and proved as harmless as the smoke which issued from them. But permit me, sir, to suggest, that this was a mere skirmish, when compared with the conflict which succeeded it, in our attack upon the enemy’s strong position in the afternoon, at the river La Cole. Their force at that place consisted of about 1500 regulars, which was increased during the action by reinforcements from the Isle aux Noix. Many were posted in a stone building, the walls of which are said to be nearly 4 feet in thickness, and impregnable to every thing but the heaviest artillery; others in a block-house and surrounding buildings, which served to protect them for a time from the impression of our artillery.
We arrived at the river about 4 P. M. with col. Clark and major Forsyth, at the advance guard, who had been considerably exposed to the fire on their flanks in passing through the woods to the river. Captain M’Pherson succeeded the advance with 4 pieces of artillery; this gallant officer was military secretary to Major General Wilkinson but his proud aspiring spirit, could not be appeased until the General permitted him to take the command of the battery.–It was then that Mr. M’Pherson was himself–cool, collected and firm, he stood by his pieces under the most galling and exposed fire of the enemy, until a second shot laid him low; the first shot passed through the fleshy part of his neck–With the intrepidity of a veteran, he tore off his handkerchief, bound it round his wound, and went on with his work of duty. But alas! the next was the unkindest of all, the ball passed through the upper part of his thigh-bone, fractured it, and he was borne from the field, exhorting his remaining officers and men to support the honor of the command, and persevere.–This battery was placed in a strong and commanding position, within about 250 yards of the stone building of the enemy, against which its strongest fire was directed. Lt. Larrabee, an officer of real merit, attached to this battery, had received a ball through his breast, and was taken from the field before the wounded M’Pherson.—The command of this battery, about half past devolved solely upon Lt. Sheldon, who in the early part of the action, manifested the greatest firmness and courage, but now being reduced to 2 men to aid him, his valor and activity were strikingly conspicuous; he was compelled to assist in loading and discharging his pieces with his own hands.
The infantry were formed on the right and left of the artillery, consisting of brigadier gens. Smith and Bissell’s brigades, the former on the right, the latter on the left. Too much cannot be said of the firmness and unabating valor of these in sustaining the heavy and destructive fire of the enemy; and here let me mention once more our beloved and intrepid commander in chief–undismayed and unappalled he stood in the very thick of the battle– “Like mount Atlas–
When storms and tempests thunder at its brow, And oceans break their billows at its feet”
Frequently was he exhorted by his staff to repair beyond the reach of danger, but his uniform reply to the anxious entreaties of his officers was, ‘I will never turn my back upon the enemy,’ expressing at several different times, a determination, in case the enemy should give us an opportunity to make a successful attack in line of battle to lead them to the charge in person. His uniform conduct on the field, the collected and deliberate manner in which his orders were communicated to his aids, and the zeal he evinced for the success of the enterprize, gave the most universal satisfaction to the troops, and inspired a love and confidence which nothing in the world can abate.
In the course of the action, several desperate charges were made by the enemy upon our artillery & the right flank of gen. Bissell’s command, but they soon felt the destructive fury of our fire, and were compelled to retire with the loss (in one charge particularly) of a captain, and leaving 15 dead upon the field.
The advantageous position of the enemy in their strong holds, the inefficacy of 12 and 6 pounders on a stone building of 4 feet thickness, and the utter impossibility of bringing up an 18 through obstructed roads, swamps and forests, induced the commander in chief to order the return of the troops to this place, which order was executed in the most deliberate manner, in the very face of the enemy; who dared not venture from their fortress to pursue or molest us. The army arrived here just about dark, by a gradual and easy march, in fine spirits, and were provided with comfortable quarters for the night. Thus ends the narrative of the events of the day. Our loss may be computed at about 70 men killed and wounded; that of the enemy, if general opinion is a test of truth, must have been more. The action continued from 3 P. M. until half past 5.
The previous account was not an unbiased one, especially in its depiction of General Wilkinson. The next account, from a letter in the Middlebury Columbian Patriot, of April 6, reprinted by the Ohio Register on May 3, 1814, is more dispassionate, although its description of Lieutenant Sheldon is more enthusiastic.
“The important facts communicated are that our army advanced into Odletown on the 30th ult., with the view of attacking the enemy at La Cole mill, that having proceeded about two and a half miles, it was found they had mistaken the road to Montreal for that to the Mill, that on wheeling to regain the road they had missed, they were attacked by a picket of 30 regulars and 100 militia, who were sheltered in a barn. They were soon dispersed by the fire of a piece of light artillery, with the loss of one taken prisoner and three deserted–Our loss was twenty killed & wounded==among the latter Ensign Parker, through the breast. Majors Demard and Totten had their horses shot under them.
The army proceeded by a cross road to La Cole Mill, where they arrived between 3 and 4 P.M. with the light artillery and one 12 pounder; the 18’s being prevented coming up by the badness of the roads. The 12 pounder was opened upon the Mill, which sheltered the enemy with some little effect; they made a sally to take it, with a loss. Captain M’Pherson commanded the piece, and was wounded through both the neck and hip; the latter supposed to be mortal. After his fall, Lieut. Sheldon of the heavy artillery, took the command of the piece. He fought till every man about him was either killed, wounded or driven away. When he loaded and fired the piece himself, discharging it, (the match being gone) with the flash of a musket. He was soon supported by the infantry. The attack continued until after sunset, when no impression being made on the mill, a retreat was ordered to Odletown. The heavy artillery arrived at Champlain that night. Our loss is computed at from 100 to 150 killed and wounded. No officer was killed.”
[The following comment was added by the editor of the Middebury Columbian Patriot.]
“The writer of the letter, of which the foregoing is a brief summary says he was an eye witness to the facts therein stated.”
Later news of two of the leading actors. General Wilkinson was court-martialed, but acquitted. Colonel Macpherson was appointed Consul at Madeira. According to the Boston Centinel,reprinted by the Columbian on November 4, 1815, “This gentleman, we learn, has not entirely recovered from a wound he received in the battle of La Cole mills, where he was particularly distinguished by his skill and valour.”
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.