Jacob Brown: Forgotten general of 1812

University at Buffalo.

UB historian Arthur Bowler says the U.S. leadership mistakenly thought the Canadians simply would surrender at the sight of American guns. Photo: Niagara Parks Commission

____________
    • Jacob Brown

By BERT GAMBINI

Published: July 19, 2012

Prior to the commemoration of its 200th anniversary, the War of 1812 was a largely forgotten war, according to R. Arthur Bowler, UB professor emeritus of history. Yet despite recent attention, some of the war’s key figures remain obscure, including its most effective field commander, Gen. Jacob Brown.

“It’s always mystified me,” says Bowler. “Brown should have greater recognition.”

There isn’t much in Brown’s pre-military life that would inform his destiny. He was a farmer from Northern New York whose most glowing accomplishment before the war was his success smuggling goods across the St. Lawrence River.

He had served in the local militias, but he had neither significant training as a soldier nor any apparent interest in military leadership. In fact, Brown opposed the war. And his commission in the New York militia was based on both political connections and the fact that a high rank excluded him from participation in military parades, which he found especially distasteful and inconvenient for a frontier farmer.

But John Armstrong, the U.S. secretary of war, was saddled with an incompetent corps of generals who had failed at Detroit, Queenston Heights, Chateauguay and Chrysler’s Farm. He was desperate to make a change.

Bowler says the incompetence so evident in the war’s early years stemmed from a myth born out of the American Revolution.

“There was a belief that victory in the Revolution could be attributed to the local militias—the farmer taking his musket down from over the mantelpiece to defeat the mightiest empire of its time,” Bowler explains. “That wasn’t the case. The Revolutionary War was won by George Washington’s regular troops and by the regular troops sent by France to help the United States.”

Nevertheless, U.S. leadership was caught up in the mythology of the common man’s military might.

“You think these guys would have been smart enough to understand their history,” says Bowler. “But they didn’t. They believed that the Canadians would surrender at the sight of U.S. guns, that victory, as Thomas Jefferson predicted, would be ‘a mere matter of marching.’”

It wasn’t that the Canadians were all that eager to repel the American invaders. In fact, most of the people living in Southern Ontario at the time were not true loyalists, but Americans who settled there after the Revolution because they could get good land for the simple price of an oath of loyalty to George III.

But there was the matter of several thousand British soldiers under General Isaac Brock and by 1814, Armstrong knew his older generals and their old ways could not adequately deal with that reality. He wanted younger generals and new ideas. Brown’s appointment is, however, ironic, considering that the mythology of the fighting farmer contributed to early American failures in the war and Brown himself emerged directly from the farm to lead U.S. troops.

It is, in fact, a double irony. Brown’s command helped perpetuate the myth of the Revolution, while the overall lesson learned from the War of 1812 was that the militia victory was a myth and that America needed a standing, professional army.

Brown also was a paradoxical figure. He was a disciplinarian, yet someone who relied heavily on the advice and counsel of his officers.

“He was not an arrogant commander,” says Bowler. “He never assumed that rank made him right.”

But he was bold, and he often ignored his superiors and their orders if he felt their instructions were outdated and irrelevant.

“Remember that every commander was burdened by slow communication,” says Bowler. “The people in Washington were two months away from knowing what was happening on the spot.”

Brown proceeded based on the circumstances of the moment. He also was aggressive and possessed an ability to visualize an area and quickly conceptualize a plan.

“He had a very modern view of warfare,” notes Bowler. “He had experience as a surveyor and understood the relationship between geography and tactics.”

Brown, in fact, probably had an easier time explaining his disregard for his superior’s orders than in dealing with some of his junior officers, notably Winfried Scott, Eleazer Ripley and Peter Porter.

“These were men with big personalities,” says Bowler. “They wanted to be at the forefront.”

Scott was a bit reckless, with a gift for accomplishing nothing more than amassing a staggering American casualty list. Ripley, meantime, was a brave man with slow feet, who often didn’t act quickly enough.

“Porter was in between the other two,” says Bowler. “He was a half-military, half-civilian figure who could get away with doing things on his own.”

Despite the unfavorable circumstance surrounding his command, Brown won three of the nine major U.S. victories in the war. Even his defeat at Lundy’s Lane is viewed as a tactical victory

Yet, he is still largely ignored by history.

“It’s not just Brown,” Bowler says. “People wanted to forget the war—or at least the very embarrassing details, such as by 1814, New England was considering secession from the union; none of the aims proclaimed by Congress in its declaration of war were achieved; or that American armies invaded Canada (we don’t do that sort of thing, do we?). And even worse, were repulsed!”

Bowler adds that people wanted to remember the War of 1812, simply, albeit inaccurately, as a second Revolutionary War that had the same outcome as the first.

“That’s all people needed to know,” he says.

Two hundred years later, however, people should know that Jacob Brown should be ranked among America’s greatest military commanders.

    • Jacob Brown

Related link

A group of local musicians led by UB alumnus Jonathan Hughes has recorded a collection of songs about the war. Read the story.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published: July 19, 2012

Prior to the commemoration of its 200th anniversary, the War of 1812 was a largely forgotten war, according to R. Arthur Bowler, UB professor emeritus of history. Yet despite recent attention, some of the war’s key figures remain obscure, including its most effective field commander, Gen. Jacob Brown.

“It’s always mystified me,” says Bowler. “Brown should have greater recognition.”

There isn’t much in Brown’s pre-military life that would inform his destiny. He was a farmer from Northern New York whose most glowing accomplishment before the war was his success smuggling goods across the St. Lawrence River.

He had served in the local militias, but he had neither significant training as a soldier nor any apparent interest in military leadership. In fact, Brown opposed the war. And his commission in the New York militia was based on both political connections and the fact that a high rank excluded him from participation in military parades, which he found especially distasteful and inconvenient for a frontier farmer.

But John Armstrong, the U.S. secretary of war, was saddled with an incompetent corps of generals who had failed at Detroit, Queenston Heights, Chateauguay and Chrysler’s Farm. He was desperate to make a change.

Bowler says the incompetence so evident in the war’s early years stemmed from a myth born out of the American Revolution.

“There was a belief that victory in the Revolution could be attributed to the local militias—the farmer taking his musket down from over the mantelpiece to defeat the mightiest empire of its time,” Bowler explains. “That wasn’t the case. The Revolutionary War was won by George Washington’s regular troops and by the regular troops sent by France to help the United States.”

Nevertheless, U.S. leadership was caught up in the mythology of the common man’s military might.

“You think these guys would have been smart enough to understand their history,” says Bowler. “But they didn’t. They believed that the Canadians would surrender at the sight of U.S. guns, that victory, as Thomas Jefferson predicted, would be ‘a mere matter of marching.’”

It wasn’t that the Canadians were all that eager to repel the American invaders. In fact, most of the people living in Southern Ontario at the time were not true loyalists, but Americans who settled there after the Revolution because they could get good land for the simple price of an oath of loyalty to George III.

But there was the matter of several thousand British soldiers under General Isaac Brock and by 1814, Armstrong knew his older generals and their old ways could not adequately deal with that reality. He wanted younger generals and new ideas. Brown’s appointment is, however, ironic, considering that the mythology of the fighting farmer contributed to early American failures in the war and Brown himself emerged directly from the farm to lead U.S. troops.

It is, in fact, a double irony. Brown’s command helped perpetuate the myth of the Revolution, while the overall lesson learned from the War of 1812 was that the militia victory was a myth and that America needed a standing, professional army.

Brown also was a paradoxical figure. He was a disciplinarian, yet someone who relied heavily on the advice and counsel of his officers.

“He was not an arrogant commander,” says Bowler. “He never assumed that rank made him right.”

But he was bold, and he often ignored his superiors and their orders if he felt their instructions were outdated and irrelevant.

“Remember that every commander was burdened by slow communication,” says Bowler. “The people in Washington were two months away from knowing what was happening on the spot.”

Brown proceeded based on the circumstances of the moment. He also was aggressive and possessed an ability to visualize an area and quickly conceptualize a plan.

“He had a very modern view of warfare,” notes Bowler. “He had experience as a surveyor and understood the relationship between geography and tactics.”

Brown, in fact, probably had an easier time explaining his disregard for his superior’s orders than in dealing with some of his junior officers, notably Winfried Scott, Eleazer Ripley and Peter Porter.

“These were men with big personalities,” says Bowler. “They wanted to be at the forefront.”

Scott was a bit reckless, with a gift for accomplishing nothing more than amassing a staggering American casualty list. Ripley, meantime, was a brave man with slow feet, who often didn’t act quickly enough.

“Porter was in between the other two,” says Bowler. “He was a half-military, half-civilian figure who could get away with doing things on his own.”

Despite the unfavorable circumstance surrounding his command, Brown won three of the nine major U.S. victories in the war. Even his defeat at Lundy’s Lane is viewed as a tactical victory

Yet, he is still largely ignored by history.

“It’s not just Brown,” Bowler says. “People wanted to forget the war—or at least the very embarrassing details, such as by 1814, New England was considering secession from the union; none of the aims proclaimed by Congress in its declaration of war were achieved; or that American armies invaded Canada (we don’t do that sort of thing, do we?). And even worse, were repulsed!”

Bowler adds that people wanted to remember the War of 1812, simply, albeit inaccurately, as a second Revolutionary War that had the same outcome as the first.

“That’s all people needed to know,” he says.

Two hundred years later, however, people should know that Jacob Brown should be ranked among America’s greatest military commanders.

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