Why were there 3 incompetent commanders in the 1812 invasion of Canada?

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,276
#1
How did they get appointed and promoted? Did Madison mess up in putting the wrong generals in charge and using questionable plans? Was the period of peace before the war responsible for political appointments of generals? Was the rest of the officer corp as bad? Were problems with officers one reason Jefferson started West Point?
 
Jan 2015
38
Arkansas
#3
The officer corps wasn't necessarily all bad, but there was plenty of dead weight and holdovers from the peacetime army like Hull and Wilkinson. There were also a fairshare of political appointments like Morgan Lewis, who was a favorite of Secretary of War Armstrong. It often takes a few years for skilled commanders to emerge in a conflict, and it took that long for the likes of Brown, Scott, Gaines, and Macomb to rise up through the ranks of the officer corps.
 

redcoat

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,782
Stockport Cheshire UK
#4
How did they get appointed and promoted? Did Madison mess up in putting the wrong generals in charge and using questionable plans? Was the period of peace before the war responsible for political appointments of generals? Was the rest of the officer corp as bad? Were problems with officers one reason Jefferson started West Point?
A major problem was the myth of militia.
In the period after the revolutionary war, the role of the militia in the defeat of the British was overplayed to such an extent that many in the US government though that they could take on regular troops in open battle, and that they would have no difficulty in dealing with the small number of British regulars in Canada.
 
Mar 2014
6,636
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
#5
The officer corps wasn't necessarily all bad, but there was plenty of dead weight and holdovers from the peacetime army like Hull and Wilkinson. There were also a fairshare of political appointments like Morgan Lewis, who was a favorite of Secretary of War Armstrong. It often takes a few years for skilled commanders to emerge in a conflict, and it took that long for the likes of Brown, Scott, Gaines, and Macomb to rise up through the ranks of the officer corps.
Hull wasn't a holdover from the peacetime army. He hadn't held any military rank since the revolution. He had been Governor of the Michigan Territory and Indian Agent since 1805. When the new "Army of the Northwest" was formed in 1812, Hull was informed by William Eustis that Madison wished him to take command as Brigadier General. Hull refused, but later accepted when another officer chosen fell ill.

This is Winfield Scott's own description of the US Army officer corps just prior to the war:

"The army of that day, including its general staff, the three old and the nine new regiments, presented no pleasing aspect. The old officers had generally sunk into either sloth, ignorance, or habits of intemperate drinking... Many of the appointments were positively bad, and a majority of the remainder indifferent. Party spirit of that day knew no bounds, and of course was blind to policy. Federalists were almost entirely excluded from selection, though great numbers were eager for the field, and in New England and some other states there were but very few educated Republicans; hence the selections from those communities consisted mostly of coarse and ignorant men. In other states, where there was no lack of educated men in the dominant party, the appointments consisted generally of swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen, and others 'fit for nothing else,' which always turned out utterly unfit for any military purposes whatsoever."
 
May 2013
1,696
Colorado
#6
Throughout the war, commanders were appointed almost exclusively for political reasons. This only began to change in 1814.
The officer corp was purged of many Federalist officers by Jefferson in 1801. Meriwether Lewis, President Jefferson's secretary, was tasked with rating each and every officer, using 11 codes. The codes included their political leanings.

This was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society vol. 124, no. 2 in April 1980. Theodore Crackel had discovered this before then, but Crackel's work wasn't published until 1987. A link from Monticello: http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/meriwether-lewiss-coded-review-officers

Had the officer corp recovered by the War of 1812?
 
Last edited:
Jan 2015
38
Arkansas
#7
Hull wasn't a holdover from the peacetime army. He hadn't held any military rank since the revolution. He had been Governor of the Michigan Territory and Indian Agent since 1805. When the new "Army of the Northwest" was formed in 1812, Hull was informed by William Eustis that Madison wished him to take command as Brigadier General. Hull refused, but later accepted when another officer chosen fell ill.

This is Winfield Scott's own description of the US Army officer corps just prior to the war:

"The army of that day, including its general staff, the three old and the nine new regiments, presented no pleasing aspect. The old officers had generally sunk into either sloth, ignorance, or habits of intemperate drinking... Many of the appointments were positively bad, and a majority of the remainder indifferent. Party spirit of that day knew no bounds, and of course was blind to policy. Federalists were almost entirely excluded from selection, though great numbers were eager for the field, and in New England and some other states there were but very few educated Republicans; hence the selections from those communities consisted mostly of coarse and ignorant men. In other states, where there was no lack of educated men in the dominant party, the appointments consisted generally of swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen, and others 'fit for nothing else,' which always turned out utterly unfit for any military purposes whatsoever."
Thank you. I wrote Hull when I meant Dearborn. :zany: Most of the officer corps who were veterans or had military experience largely dated all the way back to the American Revolutionary War.
 
Jan 2015
38
Arkansas
#8
The officer corp was purged of many Federalist officers by Jefferson in 1801. Meriwether Lewis, President Jefferson's secretary, was tasked with rating each and every officer, using 11 codes. The codes included their political leanings.

This was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society vol. 124, no. 2 in April 1980. Theodore Crackel had discovered this before then, but Crackel's work wasn't published until 1987. A link from Monticello: http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/meriwether-lewiss-coded-review-officers

Had the officer corp had recovered by the War of 1812?
Wouldn't surprise me in the least. The U.S. Army was so politically inudated that it even affected the adoption of a drill regulation set. The army had in 1811 adopted Colonel Alexander Smyth's Edition of the translation and abridgment of the French Reglement of 1791 as a drill manual for infantry use. Smyth was patronized by the initial American Secretary of War William Eustis. When Armstrong replaced Eustis, he instead preferred the drill manual of William Duane (who he patronized). It too was basically a translation of the French Reglement, but it was apparently very complex and many regular officers preferred Smyth's translation to Duane's. In the end, only four U.S Infantry Regiments used Duane's manual despite its official adoption in 1813, though Duane was more popular with militia regiments.
 
Mar 2014
6,636
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
#9
I wrote Hull when I meant Dearborn. :zany:
Dearborn's career confuses me, but I don't think he can be considered a holdover from the peacetime army either. He was discharged from the Continental Army in 1783. Between the wars he holds the position of general of militia - which is to say, did nothing - served as secretary of war for several years before the war, then emerges as the senior US Army General in 1812 just prior to the war.

Anyone else smell some shady doings there?
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,276
#10
Van Rennselear was a lawyer and politician who inherited 800,000 acres of farm land, maybe the most valuable estate in the country. He was a militia general, but had little military experience or training. Hull was governor of the Michigan territory and had been an officer in the Revolutionary War.

What did they expect putting these guys in charge of invasion forces? Whose idea was it? Wasn't Madison responsible for the bad choices. Were they forced to make political appointments?

I understand that it takes a while during the war to find out who the effective generals are. However, why weren't experienced senior officers from the regular army put in charge?