Podcast Transcript for Stories From Our Collections: Rufus McIntire and the War of 1812

Welcome to "Stories from Our Collections" - exploring the history of New York through items in the collections of the New York State Library. Our first podcast focuses on New York in the War of 1812.

"A heavy cannonading is now heard on the lake - the fleets are undoubtedly engaged - they are so near that I feel the barrack jar very sensibly every discharge.

"I was interrupted when I had written the above. The cannonading continued till sunset - almost a continual roar of cannon - since that not a gun has been heard. The command of the lake is no doubt now decided. The force of each nearly equal - very doubtful which has gained the victory.

This quote is from a letter written by Rufus McIntire, a captain in the Third U.S. Artillery. McIntire was a 28-year-old lawyer in Maine when the War of 1812 broke out. Believing it was a "righteous and necessary war," he enlisted in the U.S. Army. While stationed in New York, he wrote several letters to John Holmes of Alfred, Maine, a friend, and, at the time, a state senator. These thirteen letters, now in the collections of the New York State Library, provide a unique firsthand account of this turbulent time in American history. McIntire wrote the first letter on May 11, 1813, when he and his unit were on their way to a post in upstate New York.

"I am now on the banks of the Mohawk. I left Greenbush yesterday afternoon and, owing to some difficulty with our baggage wagons, we can get no further today. Our destination is Oswego by the way of Utica but [we] shall, I presume, eventually go to Sackets Harbor.

Begun officially on June 18, 1812, when the U.S. declared war on Britain, the War of 12 occurred in part due to lingering tensions from the Revolutionary War. The United States' main grievances were:

  • the limitations the British had imposed on trade,
  • the impressment of American sailors into the British navy, and
  • tacit British support of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who was building a Native American confederacy to stop American settlement in the Illinois and Indiana territories.

Because of its proximity to Canada and its access to water routes to the Great Lakes, by which the United States intended to invade Canada, New York played a significant role in the war. McIntire spent a great deal of time in Sackets Harbor, New York, located at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, which was a major center for U.S. Naval shipbuilding during the war.

"The rigging of the General Pike goes on rapidly – she will soon be ready to sail; till then we shall not venture out on the lake... We are constantly prepared for some desperate attack from the enemy on our fleet; for we know their great object is to destroy a part of it before the General Pike is ready."

The British had their own shipyard across the lake in Kingston, Ontario. Both the U.S. and Britain hoped to claim the advantage on the water, though military engagements also took place on land, as each side attempted to destroy the other's ships before they were completed. McIntire described one such attempt in a letter written from Sackets Harbor on July 5, 1813:

"Last Wednesday Sir James Yeo with about eight hundred men, principally sailors, started from Kingston in boats, with a determination to enter our harbor and destroy some of our shipping in the night at all hazards. The night proved so dark they could not find the way before light, and they therefore landed on a point of land at the mouth of the harbor called Point Peninsula, about 12 miles from our shipping.

"They hauled their boats ashore and covered them with brush and lay concealed on Thursday, with a determination to put their plan in execution that night. But so many of their men deserted, Sir James - thinking, it is presumed, that we had got information, and fearing to trust any longer to the fidelity of his men - returned to Kingston. One of the deserters got to camp just before night on Thursday, which put us on the alert. Early next morning our fleet went out to intercept Sir James but he had made his escape.

On May 29, 1813, British forces under Sir James Yeo and Sir George Prevost attacked Sackets Harbor, but were repelled by U.S. forces. Soon after, Captain McIntire commented on the battle in a letter; although not overly impressed by the tactics of the militia, he admitted they were effective in this instance.

"Some of our recruits, it is true, did not fight with the regularity of old soldiers, but, skulking by companies behind whatever would screen them, they kept up a most destructive fire. This mode of fighting - though it does no great credit to our discipline - completely foiled the enemy; his orders were to fire one or two rounds on our lines and then to charge bayonet, but he found that when he attempted to charge one company they retreated and were covered and protected by others in the rear.

During the months of October and November 1813, Captain McIntire and his men were part of the Saint Lawrence campaign, a two-pronged invasion of Canada aimed at taking Montreal.  McIntire's unit was part of the force that advanced up the St. Lawrence River under the command of Revolutionary War veteran General James Wilkinson. They planned to rendezvous with additional forces coming up from Lake Champlain and then attack Montreal. McIntire initially had great hopes for the campaign, and spoke highly of his commander:

"General Wilkinson, commander at Sacket's Harbor, has infused new spirit into the troops ... He inspired a degree of confidence in every officer and soldier that I never saw equaled. Under him, I am confident the army will not show a want of courage or conduct. He throws a mystery over our army, our manoeuvers and future intentions, that are impenetrable and are highly necessary when so near the enemy, and where everything that can be known is immediately communicated to the enemy.

However, the forces under General Wilkinson never made it to Montreal, or even to their rendezvous with General Hammond's forces. After their defeat on November 11 in the Battle of Crysler's Farm, near the Canadian town of Cornwall, Wilkinson's forces retreated back to New York, thus concluding the unsuccessful Saint Lawrence Campaign. On December 8, 1813, McIntire wrote from the Army's winter quarters at French Mills:

"I wrote you from Grenadier Island at the commencement of our late expedition ... I was then in high hopes of being able to write you from Montreal or some other part of his Majesty's dominion but the campaign has ended without having those hopes realized – we have nothing to do but make ourselves comfortable this winter and try again in the spring.

"Why has the expedition failed? Why was not Kingston and Prescott first reduced? Why did not General Hampton cooperate with the Commander in Chief? I can easily conceive that these and a thousand similar questions are every day asked … It is however understood here that the plan of the expedition was laid by the Secretary of War, and tis said, contrary to the opinion of General Wilkinson. ... Much of the failure of the expedition I think may fairly be attributed to the delay in getting into the St. Lawrence, the causes of which no man had in his control.

The spring of 1814 found Captain McIntire's unit on the move again, this time headed west, to the Niagara frontier, and in March and April he wrote letters reporting on the march west and the state of his men.  He also editorialized on the folly of his superior officers in granting too many leaves of absence.

"Our march averages about twenty miles per day which our men perform with ease. Their health always improves on a march if good quarters are obtained at night.

"Our regiment arrived at this place on the 29th in excellent health tho somewhat fatigued by seventeen days marching - five of the last of which was through mud ankle deep ... Our regiment is waiting for tents, which are expected hourly... probably nothing will be done until our train of Artillery comes up. It left Canandaigua yesterday - Canandaigua is forty nine miles from this place and the roads are so excessively bad that it will not reach this place in less than four days.

"I wish [E. Clark] to join me on the frontier, as well as some others of my company who obtained furloughs.  Colonel Dennis did more mischief at Sackets Harbor last fall in granting furloughs than five recruiting officers could do good in three months.

It is unclear if McIntire's unit ever made it to Fort Niagara, though they did go at least as far west as Batavia, from which one of his letters was written. By May, though, his unit was headed back east, and they were in Oswego on May 6, 1814, when the British raided Fort Oswego, an important point in the American supply route to Sackets Harbor. He described the action in a letter written just three days later, on May 9:

"On the morning of the 6th we again discovered the fleet bearing up under every sail and boats full of men in tow. About 200 [of our] militia had by this time come in and were shown near the tents and in the wood so as to appear as numerous as possible, and our troops in the fort were marched out ... secretly into the woods and made our appearance at the ferry and crossed over one company. This appeared to them a reinforcement.

"When [the fleet] had taken their position... they commenced a most tremendous cannonade from every vessel, aimed at first entirely at our little battery of one 9- and one 4-pounder, but were unable to silence it for more than three hours - and not then till every cartridge was expended, and they had possession of the rear of the fort. Lieutenant Legate at the 4-pounder could not bring his piece to bear on the nearest ship from the battery, and therefore took it out and was entirely exposed ... one ship was not much beyond musket shot. At length Colonel Mitchell discovered by their movements that their intention was to land about one hundred rods north easterly of the fort and ordered us up from the ferry back of the fort into the ditch – This order was promptly obeyed, though we had to cross the plane under a continual shower of round grape shot and some shells. We were sent here not particularly to protect the fort and harbor, but the public property on this river, a principal part of which was at the falls. Colonel Mitchell therefore resolved not to shut himself into the fort but to oppose the enemy at landing, and to fight there as long as possible...

"As the enemy approached ... Colonel Mitchell marched out two companies from the ditch and met them on the shore, exposed to a tremendous shower of grape from the ships directed at his little band of about 100 men. After firing six or seven rounds, he retreated slowly into the ditch, followed by the enemy. We poured in the fire so briskly that they were checked and retired behind some bushes and a ravine, where they were partially covered – they then attempted to flank our right - which would cut off our retreat had they succeeded - but we prevented it by extending our right. A column then advanced to our left, along the shore of the lake, and got possession of the fort, and we were then obliged to retreat - after sustaining the action 36 minutes at close musket shot.

"We were not much over 200 men in the ditch in all, for Captain Boyle’s company was still at the battery, and the guard was still in the fort. To us was opposed 600 of DeWattville's corps, 600 marines, and 250 sailors with two field pieces - 1450 in all - who landed in the first division under Lieutenant General Drummond and Sir James Yeo.

McIntire also wrote about the aftermath of the battle and the retreat, commenting on the loss of personal belongings and the casualties in his company.

"[The enemy] took all our baggage, public and private - we could have saved it, but were afraid of disheartening our men by removing it - choosing rather to sacrifice everything than have our men prove cowards. My waiter brought off a small trunk containing my papers, which is all I saved except what I had on. They left our wounded - All the public property of any value they got was eight pieces of cannon, intended for our fleet - they were sunk, but they found 8 out of 10.

"I had 72 men in my company ... two killed, two sergeants and two privates wounded, three taken prisoner and three missing. Henry Hart, son of Martin Hart, killed - all my brave fellows from your part of the country safe. It is astonishing our loss was so small considering how much we were exposed.

Back at Sackets Harbor, Captain McIntire followed the war in other parts of the country. In a letter written in August 1814, he commented on recent events, including the naval activity along the eastern coast:

"I observe in papers that Eastport is taken and our whole coast threatened by a predatory war. I think that the enemy will not attempt to penetrate the country with 18 or even 30,000 men, but will endeavor to destroy the seaports and shipping. It appears to me that the enemy are determined to pursue this course, rather than to make peace - and have our shipping rival theirs in commerce. A jealousy of us as rivals in commerce has no doubt been the cause of all this depredations and claims upon us, and the same jealousy, I fear, will prevent their making peace at this favorable crisis of their affairs in Europe - and yet our peace party are rejoicing at that very crisis!!

Apparently incensed after hearing about the burning of Washington, D.C., which occurred on August 24, 1814, McIntire wrote in September:

"The incendiary mode of warfare which our pious, honorable and magnanimous enemy have adopted on the seaboard, I hope will be of incalculable benefit to the nation. It will teach our admirers of the forebearing, humane, generous British that their fatal delusion has cost their country dear ... The manner which the enemy make war on the shores of the Chesapeake would almost justify us, on our part, to make it a war of extermination - to sacrifice every man who dares put his foot on our soil! But let it suffice that it will create a national hatred, or at least destroy a too great national partiality, which has unhappily too much and too long prevailed.

As 1814 came to an end, the War of 1812 was also drawing to a close. On Christmas Eve, American and British diplomats signed The Treaty of Ghent. Due to an inability to quickly communicate this information to all the commanders in different parts of the country, however, the Battle of New Orleans was fought in early January 1815, after the treaty was signed. McIntire makes reference to the battle, which was a significant American victory, in his last letter, written on March 4, 1815:

"The Commanding Officer at Kingston had not yet received official information from his own government of the peace, and consequently would not admit our flag officers into the Town when they carried the treaty in ...  Their officers who received the flag treated us with extreme politeness, tho' they were evidently chagrined at the termination of their famous New Orleans expedition. They made but few enquiries respecting the affair, seemed sore on the subject, and the treaty coming immediately after, looked like their receiving the last blow.

McIntire also wrote about the end of the war and his own future, as well as the expectations of his soldiers, upon discharge from the Army:

"Peace, with all her smiling train, having once more taken her abode in the land of Freedom, and my Country seeming no longer to require my feeble services in the tented field, I fondly anticipate the pleasure of soon visiting my connections and friends ... I have it in contemplation to visit the western country, as far as the Indiana or Illinois Territories, and satisfy myself of the prospects there before I return to Maine.

"Soldiers enlisted to serve during war will be soon discharged, but not till they are paid - Those on this station can then return home with nearly 100 dollars in their pockets.

Rufus McIntire returned to Maine after the War of 1812 and resumed his law practice. He was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1820, and then served as a U.S. Congressman from 1826 to 1835. Later, he served as a State Land Agent and as a U.S. Marshall.

 

To learn more about Rufus McIntire and the War of 1812, or to explore other collections related to New York State history, please visit www.nysl.nysed.gov.

The New York State Library, located in Albany, New York, is part of the Office of Cultural Education in the New York State Education Department.

Last Updated: July 10, 2017