Washington, D.C., the inconvenient city

January 23rd, 2013

The Federal Government moved from Philadelphia to the new city of Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1800. Although the primary office of the War Department moved, some offices, like that of the keeper of military stores, remained in Philadelphia for a time.

Toward the end of July, Jeremiah Condy sent a letter from his home in the District of Columbia to Samuel Hodgdon, who was still in Philadelphia. Condy was a clerk in the Accountant’s Office as well as a practicing lawyer, and he was less than impressed with the new capital city.

In his letter, Condy told Hodgdon “not to come here if you can possibly avoid it”. Washington was unhealthy, with many cases of dysentery and bilious fever. Condy lived in Georgetown, part of the District of Columbia but a separate city from Washington, and while the climate there seemed to be healthier, he still seems to have felt it was worse than Philadelphia.

Moreover, Washington was expensive: “The markets are about one third dearer than in Philad[elphia] when we arrived they were much at the same prices, since then they have advanced about 33 [percent], when Congress comes they will I entertain no doubt be double.” While Washington no longer sees epidemics of dysentery, but new arrivals still complain about the cost of living, not to mention traffic and the weather.

Humphreys versus Fox

January 9th, 2013

A Quaker, Josiah Fox (1763–1847) was a British naval architect who came to the United States in 1793 to examine United States timber for shipbuilding and to teach drafting to American ship designer Jonathan Penrose’s sons. In 1794 he received a job as a draftsman working under Philadelphia Naval Constructor Joshua Humphreys (also a Quaker) and designer of the first six frigates. Fox and Humphreys clashed over design issues, the former believing that Humphreys’  designs were too radical-that Humphrey’s ships were too long in proportion to the beam and that the stem and stern rose too sharply. Eventually these disagreements led to considerable animosity between the two.

Humphreys’ tendency to claim most of the credit for the design of the first six frigates and the subsequent efforts by Humphreys’ son Samuel, also a naval constructor, to undercut Fox’s role in the original six frigate designs  have often obscured the contributions of Fox.  But in this May 1795 letter, obviously before the animosity had peaked, Secretary of War Timothy Pickering notes that Humphreys said the following about Fox: “Mr. Humphreys… thinks that there are few men in this country equally qualified in this line.”  Moreover, in a work entitled The History of the American Sailing Navy, Howard I. Chapelle,  who was an American naval architect  and curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution,  observed that “Fox was far better trained than Humphreys in all respects, and was a far superior draftsman.”

Secret Agent Number 13

December 18th, 2012

James Wilkinson was a soldier and a statesman. Serving in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Wilkinson was also the Commanding General of the United States Army from 1796 to 1798 and again from 1800 to 1812. From 1805 to 1807 Wilkinson served as the first Governor of the Louisiana Territory.

But Wilkinson had a dark secret. Beginning in 1787 he was also a spy for the Spanish Crown. With the intention of bringing western territories under Spanish control and gaining territory for himself as a reward, Wilkinson worked against the U.S. government from within for thirteen years. He conspired with fellow spy Aaron Burr, but gave Burr up to President Thomas Jefferson, avoiding implication himself.

Though not discovered as a spy during his own lifetime, Wilkinson did not escape controversy. He went through several court marshals and ultimately fell from grace after an unsuccessful attack on Montreal during the War of 1812. Wilkinson died in Mexico City in 1825 while attempting to negotiate for land in Texas.

His work as Agent Number 13 was discovered in 1854 by Louisiana historian Charles Gayarre.

To learn more about James Wilkinson see these documents.

The Uncertain Fate of Samuel Ewing

December 4th, 2012

At the end of July 1800, President John Adams signed a warrant for the execution of a deserter. Less than a month later, however, he reversed the decision and cancelled the warrant, although he held off granting a full pardon. What happened?

First, here are the facts of the case as related to Adams. Samuel Ewing deserted in Detroit from Captain Porter’s company in a regiment of Artillerists and Engineers on May 8, 1800. The next evening, he returned to the fort with a loaded musket and threatened to kill anyone who tried to capture him. When Lieutenant Rand approached him, Ewing pointed his musket and attempted to fire but the gun failed.

Secretary of War Samuel Dexter sent the proceedings of the court martial to Adams, remarking that he felt it was best the President confirm the sentence of death. As President, Adams was technically responsible for the decision. Adams replied that the sentence would stand as “the crime of this man is so gross it cannot with safety to the service be pardoned.”

Which begs the question, why did Adams change his mind? On August 8, Dexter had sent Adams an extract of a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Hamtramck, who had presided over the court martial. Hamtramck was concerned that Ewing might be insane: “having deserted on one day, returning on the next, and declaring war against a whole Garrison appears to me to have been the effect of a deranged brain.”

Adams took this suggestion seriously, although he was apparently irritated that no mention of possible insanity was made in the initial report of the court martial. On August 16, Adams canceled the warrant for the execution of Samuel Ewing. “Let the man remain under arrest for the present,” Adams wrote to Dexter, “To pardon him immediately might injure the service.” At this point, Samuel Ewing disappears from our archive, but it seems he was never executed.

The Battleground State of Ohio

November 9th, 2012

Much like this election season, in 1794 Ohio was a battleground state. But in a different way. There American settlers and Native Americans clashed over land rights.

In October of 1794 The Northwest Indian War had been fought for the previous nine years and after the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20 of that year the Chief of the Wyandots sought peace.

In this war native tribes banded together to prevent American settlers from entering their land. These tribes, who called themselves the Western Confederacy, were the Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia. The Ohio lands they sought to defend had been guaranteed to them by the British Empire with the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. But following the American Revolution, the U.S. felt that this treaty was no longer applicable and settlers sought out lands in the Ohio River valley.  American settler’s intrusion into native lands sparked the war in 1785.

It had been a long war and after the loss at Fall Timbers the Wyandots wanted peace. The Wyandot Chief knew that he could not negotiate a full peace without the other native tribes, but wanted a truce all the same. This was a divisive move amongst the natives, but the Wyandots sought to at least guarantee a ceasefire on the land west of the Ohio River until a formal treaty could be drawn up.

Later a full peace would be negotiated with the Treaty of Greenville in August of 1795.  At this time the natives would loose large tracts of land, which include present day Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. But for now the Chief of the Wyandots moved his people west of the Ohio, and waited for peace.

Check out the full document here.

Hazards of Travel

October 25th, 2012

In October 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox and a Mr. Strong were involved in a carriage accident. As Knox explained in a letter to Jeremiah Wadsworth, the coachman took a turn too fast and the carriage overturned. Although the carriage was “much broken,” Knox and Strong luckily walked away with only bruises. “We do not so much repine at our misfortune as we rejoice at escaping greater evils, which we might have sustained” wrote Knox.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, carriage accidents could be dangerous, even deadly. Gouverneur Morris, New York politician and signer of the Constitution, lost his left leg below the knee in a carriage accident in 1780 and wore a peg leg for the rest of his life. In June of 1789 Daniel Huger, a member of Congress of South Carolina, was thrown from his carriage and fractured his leg. It could have been worse, as carriage accidents sometimes resulted in death. Huger might have shared the 1781 fate of a Massachusetts doctor who was thrown from his carriage, run over by it, and died a few days later.

While Knox’ letter appears to be the only one in the Papers of the War Department describing an accident, there are other instances where department carriages broke down. The receipts for General Wilkinson’s trip from Washington to Pittsburgh in December 1800 show his carriage being repaired at least four times, on the 4th, 11th, 15th, and 17th of that month. Poor road conditions contributed to breakdowns, damaging axles and wheels.

Travel by boat was not necessarily any better. In 1791 a boat carrying ammunition struck a rock, and while no one was hurt they had to transfer the supplies to a new boat. Six years later, a group going up the Allegheny River were less fortunate. Their boat sank, dumping some of the cargo into the river and leaving the rest damaged. Travel, whether by land or water, could be hazardous for members of the War Department.

The War Department, the French Five Hundred and Humanitarian Assistance on the Frontier

October 3rd, 2012

Hoping to garner national revenues from the sale of lands, in 1787 the Confederation Congress sold 1.5 million acres for a million dollars to the Ohio Company, a joint stock company made up of former Continental Army officers.   But like the British crown before the Revolution, and the Confederation Congress in the 1780s, the Federalists in the 1790s never quite managed to realize their hopes of an orderly and controlled pattern of settlement in the western lands.  The problem was that most American settlers knew there was no need to pay for land when it was simply there for the taking.  So, perhaps in an effort to find less savvy purchasers, one venture, the Scioto Company,  sent the poet Joel Barlow on a mission to France to try and sell land claims to a group of French artisans anxious to escape the French Revolution. The difficulty, as it turned out, was that the Scioto Company had sold shares in land it did not actually own. In any event, it was too late for the French settlers, who had already arrived in America, (many at the port of Alexandria, Virginia)  and quite anxious to settle on lands described by Barlow as a place of “milk and honey, where fish leaped into one’s arms, grapes grew in abundance and tallow candles could be picked from trees along the Ohio River.”  As it turned out, the settlement, modern day Gallipolis, Ohio (city of the Gauls) was extremely rough country and  far from developed.  In an instance of what we might term today “humanitarian relief”  for the hapless settlers, who apparently  lacked the rudimentary skills and know-how required to tame such wilderness, the War Department dispatched Major John Burnham and a detachment of about 35 men to construct 80 log houses and a number of block houses at the settlement. Ultimately though, disease and hostile Indians killed and scattered the “French five-hundred.” By 1806, there were only a handful remaining.  The Scioto Company collapsed in 1792.  In this document,  Major Burnham, in submitting his resignation, makes  references to the “Scioto business.”

On the Job Market

September 25th, 2012

Many people today can relate to the trials and tribulations of being on the job market during an economic recession. The frustrations that this can cause have to be balanced with an upbeat willingness to sell your skills and appeal to your potential employer.  Samuel Newman found himself in this same situation more than 220 years ago.

Hoping for a political appointment in the War Department, Newman wrote to Secretary of War Henry Knox. Knox received the letter on January 17, 1790. Though serving as a Captain in the US military Newman was still having a difficult time supporting his family. 1790 was a time of economic hardships in the country. Having just adopted the Constitution and still trying to rebuild following the Revolutionary War, the American economy was not strong because there had not been enough stability to foster growth. State taxes were also a huge burden on residents as states attempted to repay their war debts by levying huge taxes. This was especially true in Massachusetts, where Newman lived.

Like any good applicant, Newman opened his letter with flattery. Calling the Secretary “The Honorable Major General” and “honored sir.” But Newman also backs up his compliments with his qualifications. Newman points to his esteemed military service with the Second Regiment. He argues that through this service he has proven his competence. This experience will also cut down on his need for training, as he is already versed in military procedure, making him a great asset to the War Department.

Perhaps Newman’s letter can serve as a rough guide for others on the job-hunt today.  Read the original document here.

Who was Isaac Craig?

September 11th, 2012

There are many letters in the Papers of the War Department written by Major Isaac Craig, Deputy Quarter Master and Military Store Keeper Pittsburgh. He was a conscientious storekeeper, taking the trouble air out goods potentially infected by yellow fever. But who was this efficient Major in Pittsburgh?

Isaac Craig was born in County Down, Ireland, around the year 1742. As a youth he apprenticed as a carpenter, and emigrated to Philadelphia when he was in his early twenties, between 1765–1766. He joined the Marines in 1775 then transferred to the Artillery in 1777; his experiences of the Revolutionary War included the famous crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Brandywine. In April 1780 he was ordered to Fort Pitt, and, with the exception of brief assignments elsewhere, he stayed in that area for the rest of his life.

After the war, Craig went into business with Stephen Bayard. The partners were among the first to purchase lots in the area which became Pittsburgh, setting up a mercantile business near the Fort at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. Craig’s involvement ended in 1788, bought out by Philadelphia partners, and he spent three years living on a farm with his wife and in-laws before he was offered a position with the War Office in 1791.

Isaac Craig’s in-laws also show up in the papers of the War Department. His wife Amelia was the daughter of General John Neville, one of the central figures on the US side during the Whiskey Rebellion. One of the officers at Pittsburgh during the Rebellion was Major Abraham Kirkpatrick, who Craig recommend for the position of Head of Commissary in December 1794. Kirkpatrick was a brother-in-law of General Neville, and therefore Craig’s uncle by marriage. Craig’s own brother-in-law, Presley Neville, was Chief Burgess, or Mayor, of Pittsburgh in 1804.

Issac Craig was not only a War Department official in Pittsburgh. He was one of the earliest residents, connected by marriage to some of its most notable citizens.

A major source for this post was a short biography of Craig written by his son. Neville B. Craig, Sketch of the Life and Services of Isaac Craig, Major in the Fourth (Usually called Proctor’s) Regiment of Artillery, During the Revolutionary War (Pittsburgh: J. S. Davison, 1854).

Governor George Izard

August 29th, 2012

As with many of the rising stars of the new US military found  in this collection    (Meriwether Lewis and Zebulon Pike for example),  George Izard began his storied career in the junior officer ranks of the US Army. Born in Europe in 1776, George Izard’s father was Ralph Izard, a delegate to the Continental Congress and South Carolina Senator.  Young George attended Columbia University and the College of Philadelphia.  At the age of sixteen, he returned to Europe under the care of Thomas Pinckney, Minister to England. While in Europe he received formal  military instruction at academies in England, Germany, and France- where he studied military engineering.  When Izard returned to America, he was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, oversaw the construction of Fort Pinckney, and held command over a regiment of artillerists and engineers until 1800.

In January 1800, Izard became Alexander Hamilton’s aide de camp. Later he accepted a position as secretary to William Loughton Smith, Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal.  During the War of 1812, he once was second in command to wealthy South Carolina plantation owner Wade Hampton.  Promoted to Major General, he received overall command of the Northern Army at Lake Champlain.  Here Izard, finding himself outnumbered and ill-supplied along the Canadian front, elected to pull his troops back into winter quarters in order to prepare for spring operations. Stung by criticism for excessive caution, Izard later published his correspondence with the War Department in order to vindicate his war record.   In 1825, Izard’s  public service career came to a close when he was appointed by President Monroe as Arkansas’s second territorial governor.  Here Governor Izard displayed great talent as an efficient, organized administrator and diplomat.