University of Rochester Library Bulletin: James Wadsworth's Call to Arms

Volume II  · February 1947  ·  Number 2
James Wadsworth's Call to Arms

Thirty-nine years after Paul Revere "spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm" that the British were on their way, James Wadsworth performed a similar task in the Genesee country of New York State. For a multitude of reasons the world is as conscious of the first event as it is ignorant of the second. As yet no modern Longfellow has been inspired to describe Wadsworth's exploit in poetical form; no radio writer has discovered the tragedy and drama of his day of anguish -- January 3, 1814. For the time being the story of that hour of history remains the accidental property of the lonely researcher.

Students harbored in American history classes usually associate Paul Revere with the four-legged creature that carried him on his heroic mission and helps even today to give him a glamorous quality. Unfortunate in this respect was scholarly James Wadsworth, who, although he had many horses, chose the more civilized method of the special-delivery letter to communicate his warnings. One of these letters was rushed from his home in Geneseo to Nathaniel Rochester in Dansville, a few miles to the south. A century later this document found its way to the front pages of a biography of Wadsworth's distinguished son, Major-General James S. Wadsworth, written by Henry Greenleaf Pearson and presented as a gift by the author to Arlo Bates. Pearson and Bates were professors of English at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the early years of this century. The two-volume biography, brightened by extra-illustration and Wadsworth's excited message to Colonel Rochester, is now in the Local History Collection of the University Library.

No understanding of this document is possible without reference to the fight for Canada during the War of 1812. Young War Hawk Henry Clay had boasted that the Kentucky militia alone could wrest Montreal and Upper Canada from Britain's grasp, but in the first months of fighting the Americans lost Mackinac, Michigan, and Fort Dearborn. Late in 1812 attention in the north shifted to the Niagara frontier, where the settlers of the hinterland -- among them wealthy farmers like James Wadsworth of Geneseo -- were aroused by events whose outcome would affect their destiny. Poor generalship and the wretched morale of the militia prevented the capture of Queenstown, the first American objective, where James Wadsworth's brother William fought gallantly. Similar circumstances and the spread of disease among hastily organized volunteers accounted for American failures at Buffalo and Sackets Harbor during 1813. By spring the invaders were able to capture Fort George, British stronghold at the mouth of the Niagara River.

Lacking a consistent plan of action, the Americans tried to take Montreal later that year, and Fort George was left without adequate leadership. Brigadier-General George McClure of the New York militia was a commander without great military skill, a strategist resigned to the British recapture of the fort. As his forces retreated they set fire to the British village of Newark, just north of the abandoned position and directly across the river from the American post of Fort Niagara. McClure later blamed this act on ambiguous orders received from the War Department, and he tried to discount charges of cruelty by insisting he had given the residents of Newark twelve hours' warning. But the documents do not seem to justify his argument on either count. One hundred and fifty houses in Newark were destroyed, and four hundred women and children were forced to flee in the bitter cold. The Americans on the other side of the river fired at the refugees, who sought safety and shelter at Queenstown.

The British reply to these deeds was a combination of military maneuvering and harsh retaliation. Accompanied by their Indian allies they easily crossed the Niagara and seized the American fort there. Lewiston was captured and plundered, and it seemed that the entire region lay at the mercy of the enemy. Redskins ravaged the countryside, and the defending militia fled in confusion at nearly every encounter. Youngstown, Manchester, and Tuscarora were burned, and Fort Schlosser was destroyed. The whole frontier was cleared of American homes and American inhabitants. Panic-stricken, McClure called on the militia of Genesee, Niagara, and Chautauqua counties. Two days later he resigned his command to Major-General Amos Hall of Bloomfield, a more successful commander. But 40 per cent of the troops called upon to defend Buffalo deserted, and Hall was forced to move his headquarters to Eleven Mile Creek (Williamsville). The British seized and destroyed Buffalo and Black Rock.

It was at this point, at the beginning of a new year that promised much sorrow, that James Wadsworth, climaxing a feverish correspondence with Governor Tompkins and influential neighbors like Colonel Rochester, decided to send out circulars for the immediate formation of a volunteer corps to defend the Genesee country and drive the British out. It was no accident that this was the man who conceived such a plan. With his brother William he had left the quiet atmosphere of Durham, Connecticut, in the spring of 1790 in order to seek his fortune on the banks of the Genesee. Scion of a distinguished family and a Yale graduate to boot, he had given up opportunities in teaching and in law to cast his lot with the rugged frontiersmen of the wild west. The hazardous journey from the Hudson to the Genesee was followed by the building of a log cabin, establishing friendship with the Indians, clearing the land and planting crops, and settling down to the difficult occupation of farming. In time the Wadsworths became agents for other landowners and were recognized as the most prosperous citizens in the entire district.

James Wadsworth had a love of learning and of graceful living. He believed in popular education, publishing tracts at his own expense and offering gifts to towns that established libraries. His contemporary George Hosmer called him "a good judge of men ... usually absorbed in the cares of business, or some favorite study ... reserved in his deportment; but relaxing, freeing his mind from its burdens, he would exercise fine conversational powers, not unmixed with humor, wit, and gaiety." Historian Orsamus Turner was impressed by his "love of order, system, and regularity."

One scarcely wonders, then, that the circulars he sent on that grim January day in 1814 were imbued with anxiety and desperation, or that the particular letter to Colonel Rochester was scrawled and blotted by a harassed amanuensis, or that the signature betrayed something of a great landlord's distress. The letter, marked "To be shown to any officers on the way," is addressed to Mr. Richardson, "or To any person at his House - To be sent by express to Col. Rochester, Dansville." The messenger may have been either Joseph or Jonathan Richardson, two brothers in the district who decided to transport soldiers to the front lines when the news of the Buffalo disaster reached the Genesee area. "Col. Lawrence" was one of the writer's Geneseo friends. The text follows:

Geneseo 3d. Jany. 1814
9 o'clock a. m.

Col. Lawrence has this moment arrived. He left Eleven mile creek Saturday evening and reports that General Hall had not more than one hundred men with him. - That he came on to Batavia Sunday morning. Headquarters are now at Batavia where our force is inadequate to meet the enemy - a great effort must be made or our headquarters will be soon removed to Avon and thence to Canandaigua. Let Party Spirit be hushed and every man capable of bearing arms repair to the post of danger. Let the ordinance at Onondaga be sent for by express. We must not wait for orders there is now no adequate force to prevent the enemy from marching to the Genesee River. The whole population west of Batavia is at this moment exposed to Indian depredations and massacres. Let all resolute men who will subject themselves to order and discipline (and no others are wanted) from Ontario Seneca Cayuga & Steuben counties march to headquarters without loss of time. Let all teams and waggons be put in requisition to aid and forward on the troops. Let this intelligence which Col. Lawrence reports direct from headquarters be copied and sent on with all possible dispatch - 5,000 Stand of small arms and a good supply of amunition will be at Geneva tonight -

Jas Wadsworth

It would be pleasing perhaps to record that Wadsworth's bold plan was carried out, and that a large citizen army beat back the British invaders as they spread to the Genesee. A few hours after writing the circulars, however, Wadsworth met General Hall on his way to Bloomfield. While not minimizing the threat to the area, the officer took a more optimistic long-range view of the situation and expressed strong opposition to the proposal for volunteers. Forced to abandon his plan, James Wadsworth appealed to Governor Tompkins for support. But a degree of stability prevailed along the frontier within a few days; the British, although they refused to give up Fort Niagara, withdrew across the river.

So James Wadsworth and other frontiersmen of the Genesee country returned to their normal tasks of growing up with the nation and bringing civilization to the frontier settlements. A glance at his battle cry to Colonel Rochester indicates no hardship could have been more severe, no moment more despairing, than the dark days of early 1814.