The Battle of Crysler’s Farm

Memorial to Battle of Crysler's Farm, erected 1895, near Upper Canada Village, Ontario, Canada Photo Credit- D. Gordon E. Robertson
Memorial to Battle of Crysler’s Farm, erected 1895, near Upper Canada Village, Ontario, Canada Photo Credit- D. Gordon E. Robertson

We have talked about the strange career of General James Wilkinson.  He has been mixed up with a Spanish conspiracy to control the “west” after the revolution (Please see this post: ), as well as his involvement the machinations of Aaron Burr after his duel with Alexander Hamilton (Please see this post:  He has even been implicated in the death of Meriweather Lewis (Please see this post: )  The final chapter of this enigmatic figure, features prominently in the saga of the failed American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812.  

No one is really sure how after all his escapades, Wilkinson kept the confidence of those in Washington, including Presidents Jefferson and Madison.  He must have been one hell of a talker or we were just that desperate, because he did.  Wilkinson was put in charge of the northern frontier after General Dearborn was relieved of his command.  No one was very thrilled with this replacement.  One quote was, “Age and fatuity was being replaced by age and imbecility”.

America had tried to invade in the first part of the war, but were held off by the military genius of General Isaac Brock and native leader Tecumseh.  However, Brock was killed was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights and Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames.  General Henry Proctor, who replaced Brock, was not as able a commander.  After the death of Tecumseh, sixty-two native chiefs signed a treaty with the victor of the Battle of the Thames, William Henry Harrison, taking them out of the fray.  This was a prime opportunity of to achieve where they had failed before- taking the fertile land of Canada.

President James Madison sent one army of 7,000 down the St. Lawrence River under Major General James Wilkinson to Montreal and an army of 5,000 across Lake Champlain and up the valley to meet with him at Montreal.  This force was under Major General Wade Hampton of South Carolina.  The two men hated each other with a passion, and actively worked to undermine each other.  They never worked together.  Hampton met a Canadian force at Chateauguay and were decidedly beaten.  They packed up and went home leaving Wilkinson out to dry.  Wilkinson for his part was advancing down the St. Lawrence in the slowest pace possible.  The joke was a log would get to Montreal faster than Wilkinson’s fleet.  To make things worse, Wilkinson began dosing himself with laudanum, a mixture of opium and brandy, to treat his dysentery.  The good General had built up quite an addiction to the stuff, so to treat his illness he upped his dose.  Because of this, he began issuing contradictory orders to his staff and would break into song and tell humorous stories.  It did not help that Wilkinson had never commanded any troops during a battle and expected the very worst.  “In case of misfortune, the army must surrender,” he declared.  So we have a high, treasonous coward in charge of our forces.  What could go wrong?  Just about everything.

Wilkinson's Flotilla Photo Credit- Benson Lossing - The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812
Wilkinson’s Flotilla Photo Credit- Benson Lossing – The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812

On November 11, 1813, the two forces met at Chrysler’s Farm.  Wilkinson did not even bother to show up to lead his troops.  Because of the rain that day, the field of battle was a mud pit and the Americans had to attack through it.  After volley after volley of withering fire, the Americans were driven back.  Wilkinson didn’t have the heart or the stomach to continue despite the fact he outnumbered the British.  The army was not destroyed, Wilkinson was just a coward.  He slunk back down the river to safety.

Hampton simply resigned his commission in disgrace.  Wilkinson was relieved of duty and faced a court martial, but somehow was able to get off again.  He retired to Mexico and died of a drug overdose in 1821.

This battle was quickly forgotten in America, however, in Canada it solidified the national identity of the country.


Star Spangled Banner

One of two surviving copies of the 1814 broadside printing of the "Defence of Fort McHenry", a poem that later became the lyrics of the national anthem of the United States.
One of two surviving copies of the 1814 broadside printing of the “Defence of Fort McHenry”, a poem that later became the lyrics of the national anthem of the United States.

On September 3, 1814, following the Burning of Washington and the Raid on Alexandria, lawyers Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden, They had been sent by President James Madison on a mission to negotiate for the release of Dr. William Beanes, a surgeon who had been captured at the Battle of Bladensburg. On September 7 the pair boarded the British ship, Tonnant, where they dined and secured the prisoner’s release with one condition, they could not go ashore until after the British attacked Baltimore. The men were required to stay because they had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore. After the bombardment, British gunboats attempted to slip past the fort and effect a landing in a cove to the west of it, but they were turned away by fire from nearby Fort Covington. During the rainy night, Key had witnessed the bombardment and observed that the fort’s smaller “storm flag” continued to fly, but once the shell and Congreve rocket barrage had stopped, he would not know how the battle had turned out until dawn. On the morning of September 14, the storm flag had been lowered and the larger flag had been raised. During the bombardment, HMS Erebus provided the “rockets’ red glare”. HMS Meteor provided at least some of the “bombs bursting in air”.

Ironically, the man who created one of the lasting patriotic legacies of the War of 1812 adamantly opposed the conflict at its outset. Key referred to the war as “abominable” and “a lump of wickedness.” However, his opposition to the war softened after the British began to raid nearby Chesapeake Bay communities in 1813 and 1814, and he briefly served in a Georgetown wartime militia. Although Key loathed politics, he was a prominent figure in Washington, D.C. “He was an important player in the early republic,” Leepson says. “He was a very successful and influential lawyer at the highest levels in Washington.” Key ran a thriving law practice, served as a trusted advisor in Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” and was appointed a United States Attorney in 1833.

Key was an amateur poet and not a songwriter, and possibly tone deaf, when he composed his verses. He had also intended them to accompany a popular song of the day. The first broadside of the verses, printed just days after the battle, noted that the words should be sung to the melody of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Key was quite familiar with the tune, having used it to accompany an 1805 poem, which included a reference to a “star-spangled flag,” he had written to honor Barbary War naval heroes Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart. Although Key composed the patriotic lyrics amid a burst of anti-British euphoria, It was ironically an English song composed in 1775 that served as the theme song of the upper-crust Anacreontic Society of London and a popular pub staple.

There is more than one version of the inspiration for the poem; but the differences are minor. One states that Key was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort. Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. At twilight on September 16, he and Skinner were released in Baltimore. He completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and titled it “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Another that when Key scrawled his lyrics on the back of a letter he pulled from his pocket on the morning of September 14, he did not give them any title. Within a week, Key’s verses were printed on broadsides and in Baltimore newspapers under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” In November, a Baltimore music store printed the patriotic song with sheet music for the first time under the more lyrical title “The Star-Spangled Banner”

In addition to a thunderstorm of bombs, a torrent of rain fell on Fort McHenry throughout the night of the Battle of Baltimore. The fort’s 30-by-42-foot garrison flag was so massive that it required 11 men to hoist when dry, and if waterlogged the woollen banner could have weighed upwards of 500 pounds and snapped the flagpole. So as the rain poured down, a smaller storm flag that measured 17-by-25 feet flew in its place. According to some historians, “In the morning they most likely took down the rain-soaked storm flag and hoisted the bigger one, “and that’s the flag Key saw in the morning.”

The 15-star, 15-stripe "Star-Spangled Banner" which inspired the poem
The 15-star, 15-stripe “Star-Spangled Banner” which inspired the poem

Along with “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” was among the prevalent patriotic airs in the aftermath of the War of 1812. During the Civil War, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was an anthem for Union troops, and the song increased in popularity in the ensuing decades, which led to President Woodrow Wilson signing an executive order in 1916 designating it as “the national anthem of the United States” for all military ceremonies. On March 3, 1931, after 40 previous attempts failed, a measure passed Congress and was signed into law that formally designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States.

The version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” traditionally sung on patriotic occasions and at sporting events is only the song’s first verse. All four verses conclude with the same line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” (In 1861, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a fifth verse to support the Union cause in the Civil War and denounce “the traitor that dares to defile the flag of her stars.”).There are more modern allusions to overt racism contained within the verses. According to the historian Robin Blackburn, the words “the hireling and slave” alludes to the fact that the British attackers had many ex-slaves in their ranks, who had been promised liberty and demanded to be placed in the battle line “where they might expect to meet their former masters”.

“O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:

‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

The White House- Why the White House is White

Earliest known photograph of the White House taken ca 1846 by John Plumbe Photo Credit- This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c12293.
Earliest known photograph of the White House taken ca 1846 by John Plumbe Photo Credit- This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c12293.

The symbol of the presidency has been the White House. Originally, called the President’s House or President’s mansion, the site was picked out by George Washington himself and has been the residence of every president since John Adams. The building was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, who won a design competition for the honor. His plans were chosen from nine other proposals submitted, including one submitted anonymously by Thomas Jefferson. The cornerstone was laid October 13, 1792 and legend says is covered with Masonic symbols.

There is a persistent myth as to how it acquired its iconic white coat of paint. Legend says the white paint was added to disguise the burn marks from the British burning of Washington, DC. The White House was attacked during the War of 1812, but it had been white for much longer. The porous sandstone used for the walls was painted with a lime-based whitewash in 1798 to keep it from freezing. This coating was meant to wear off, leaving the cracks and crevices filled. However, the whitewash was never allowed to weather and was reapplied periodically. In 1818, it was painted with white lead paint. The first reference to the building as the “White House” was in a letter from Congressman Abijah Bigelow on March 18,1812 where he said, “There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President’s”.

There was much trouble at the White House at that time. America was about to enter its second war with Britain, the War of 1812. The war drug on for years, and the British were on Washington’s doorstep by 1814. The Americans were defeated at the Battle of Bladensburg and the British moved into Washington DC. The were looking for retaliation for the American sacking of York, present day Toronto, and began looting the capital. The Capitol Building was set ablaze by the troops gathering the furniture into a pile and setting it off with rocket powder. This lit up the Library of Congress as well as the Supreme Court.

Close-up image of burn marks on the walls of the White House. Photo Credit- White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Close-up image of burn marks on the walls of the White House. Photo Credit- White House Collection/White House Historical Association

From there they turned north up Pennsylvania Avenue. They found the house stripped of all the valuables that could be carried by the ingenious first lady, Dolley Madison. Her slave boy, Paul Jennings, was fifteen and gives this eye witness account, “It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected any moment. John Susé (Jean Pierre Sioussat) (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw [McGraw], the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President’s party.” After dinner, the house was burned and fuel was added to the fires to ensure they burned through the night and into the next day. They were only put out by “the storm that saved Washington”, a possible hurricane that swept through the city. Some of the blocks of Virginia sandstone that make up the original walls of the White House are clearly defaced with black scorch marks. They are the indelible stains from the fires of 1814.

The informal nickname of the President’s residence was the White House, however, it did not become official until 1901. Theodore Roosevelt had “White House– Washington” engraved on the stationary. The current design of the White House letterhead can be attributed to his cousin and later president Franklin D Roosevelt.


Sources available on request

Laura Secord

Young Laura Secord Photo Credit- Library and Archive of Canada
Young Laura Secord Photo Credit- Library and Archive of Canada

Like most people in the Northeast, Laura Secord had family and friends on both sides of the war. Her father had fought with the colonists against the British in the American Revolution, but after the war moved to the Upper Canada. Once there, she met James Secord and they married in 1797 and settled in St. Davids then later Queenston.

When war broke out in 1812, James Secord joined the British in the 1st Lincoln militia under Isaac Brock. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights after helping to carry his commander’s body away from the field after his death. Laura brought him home to nurse him. On May 27, 1813, American forces caught Fort George and the Niagara Peninsula fell into American hands. In June, a number of American troops were billeted in the Secord home. I can’t help but find this ironic since this was one of the grievances the Americans brought against King George.

While stationed in the Secord home, Laura overheard a crucial piece of information that the Americans planned to surprise the British garrison at Beaver Dams. She decided to warn the garrison and began her dangerous walk the next morning.

Old Laura Secord- Photo Credit- Wikipedia
Old Laura Secord- Photo Credit- Wikipedia

The garrison was only twelve miles away, but she took a meandering path that took her through St. Davids and Shipman’s Corners, now St. Catharines. Her niece Elizabeth joined her for part of the way, but became exhausted and went home. After walking twenty miles, she came unexpectedly across a Mohawk encampment. The Mohawks were allies of the British and the chief took her to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon, who led the troops at Beaver Dam. Because of her information, the Americans were beaten soundly at the Battle of Beaver Dam on June 24, 1813.

Surprisingly, Laura’s contribution to this victory was not recognized until 1860 when the Prince of Wales heard her story while traveling in Canada. Laura was eighty-five years old and was living in poverty after husband’s death. His award of 100 pounds was the only accolade she received during her lifetime.

Now she’s memorialized in several monuments and a large bust over her gravestone.


Sources available on request