“Three parts politics, one part war”: May 11, 1814

Guest post by David Curtis Skaggs 

On May 11, 1814 the most successful US Army general so far in the War of 1812 tendered his resignation in a dispute with the secretary of the army. The man many expected to become commander of the misled, disorganized, and unsuccessful soldiers on the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River front had become so discouraged by the secretary’s conduct towards him that he withdrew from military leadership in the midst of a war. Why would Major General William Henry Harrison do this?

From the beginning of his tenure as secretary of war in early 1813, John Armstrong thought the newly-promoted Harrison was “an artificial General—but the West and South, were only to be satisfied by his appointment, and our’s [sic] is, you know, a Government of opinion.” Armstrong, who despised the use of militia troops when, he felt, a much smaller contingent of regulars could do the job, determined to restrain Harrison’s use of militiamen and short-term volunteers in the future. Moreover, Harrison was not his kind of leader. Instead of wearing an elaborately decorated general’s uniform in the field Harrison wore a hunting shirt, not unlike most of his volunteer soldiers. The relationship between Armstrong and Harrison began strained and it never warmed.

In late September 1813 Harrison’s army invaded Canada along the Detroit River and retook Detroit which had surrendered a year earlier. The general decided to purse by land retreating enemy forces. His allocation of troops seems almost deliberately done to incite the dismay and opposition of Secretary of War Armstrong. Harrison’s two regular army infantry brigades remained on both sides of the Detroit River. Harrison took with him only 150 regulars plus about 200 Native Americans in a force numbering near 3,000, most of whom were Kentucky volunteers. For the secretary of war this force distribution was an affront to his emphasis on employing regulars over volunteers whenever possible. Armstrong feared the volunteers lacked the discipline and training necessary for combat with British regulars.

Their victory over outnumbered British and Native American forces at the Battle of the Thames, October 5, 1813 was the first major ground triumph of American forces in the War of 1812. Harrison received accolades as the “Washington of the West” and numerous people thought him destined for the post as the general-in-chief of the Army. But not Secretary Armstrong; he never congratulated Harrison for his victory. Instead he connived with a friendly Philadelphia newspaper publisher to denigrate Harrison’s generalship. He sent Harrison back to the now relatively inactive military region in the Old Northwest and picked younger and more inexperienced generals to command the strategic region to the northeast. A disgusted Army ensign wrote his father that the “people at Washington have got scared at Harrison’s victories. They are afraid a few more might make him President!” He warned that Harrison would not be given an active command and observed in a sarcastic conclusion that the war “from the start as been about three parts politics to one part war.” The young man’s observation appears a very close approximation of attitudes of some at the War Department.

One cannot overestimate the antipathy of many New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians for the seeming monopoly by Virginians of the presidency. Harrison was a native Virginian and he seemed to men like Pennsylvania-born New Yorker Armstrong to be a western reincarnation of the Old Dominion’s control of the White House.

As winter turned to spring in 1814 it became increasingly apparent that Armstrong was not going to utilize Harrison in an active theater of war. When the secretary began issuing orders directly to Harrison’s subordinates without consulting the regional commander, Harrison decided his sense of honor had been compromised. “I believe the Secy of War is not my friend,” he wrote Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby, “and believing him to be a most dangerous man to act under I would immediately retire from the Service.” He submitted his resignation, which Armstrong accepted before immediately nominating Andrew Jackson for the vacancy. In hindsight May 11, 1814, remains a forgotten and yet important turning point in the American prosecution of our second war with Great Britain.

skaggsDavid Curtis Skaggs is the author of  William Henry Harrison and the Conquest of the Ohio Country: Frontier Fighting in the War of 1812. He is professor emeritus of history at Bowling Green State University and the author or coauthor of twelve books, including Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage, and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy; Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy; and A Signal to Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812–1814.