Monday, August 3, 2015

Entering the Realm of Creative Spelling

I have heard it said that during the time of George Washington, it was considered a mark of intelligence to be able to devise several alternative ways to spell a word. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the names of two of John Jay Jackson's captains in the War of 1812 were not exactly the names listed on his pension papers. We'll take a brief look at one of these captains today—the one with the least surprising spelling variation—and follow with the last of his captains for tomorrow's post.

It had been a fruitless search, looking for the Captain "Birdsell" listed in the Jackson papers. It might have been helpful to have a given name to combine with that misspelled surname, but I didn't. It wasn't until I found an online source for the digitized Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army that I started making headway in my search for all John Jackson's captains.

Even so, I consider it an honest spelling mistake—rather than the poetic contortions of that era's sport of creatively re-engineering the spelling of words and names—when I discovered this captain's actual name. It was only a change of one letter, from "e" to "a" to render Birdsall.

I had had a hint that that might have been my man, when Google led me to some reports of spectacular battles during the War of 1812. The captain mentioned in those reports was a certain Benjamin Birdsall. Once I could access the Francis B. Heitman volume, I was able to confirm my hunch. Birdsall, a New Yorker, was listed in the Register as advancing to captain of the 4th Regiment of Riflemen on March 17, 1814—John Jackson's regiment during the War of 1812.

As captain of the unit in which Jackson was serving, Birdsall was present during or shortly after the Americans' capture of Fort Erie, across the Niagara from New York in "Upper Canada" (Ontario). Since the then-captured British fort was not large enough to accommodate the American troops, work was commenced to extend an earth wall to a hill at the south of the fort, known as Snake Hill. There, they also constructed a gun battery.

In a 1991 book reporting on an archaeological investigation of the old Snake Hill site, Captain Benjamin Birdsall was credited as having led the combined forces of the 1st and 4th regiments of the Riflemen as they manned that area just south of the fort—the artillery area then called Fontaine's Battery—stretching to the next section, manned by a New York Militia regiment.

At the point of attack by the British, lasting a full day on August 13, 1814, and continuing into the night, the battle included significant displays. A Scotland-born Cherokee descendant, John Norton, present at the battle, noted in his journal,
We heard the firing commence at Snake Hill.... We were within a half mile of Fort Erie, when we heard the cracking of musketry and the roar of cannon announce the attack upon it.... As we arrived there, the explosion blew the broken fragments of buildings and works in all directions. [I]t appeared to create a general confusion. 

The 1991 Snake Hill book provided further explanation,
A stray British shot hit a small magazine, creating quite an explosion. This incident convinced the British that more damage was done than actually had been. The artillery fire slackened at about half past midnight and ceased entirely about an hour later, indicating to the garrison the imminent possibility of an assault. Generals Gaines and Ripley put their men on full alert. At about 0200, General Ripley was riding with his aide toward Snake Hill when the British attack there commenced. This lasted for about 20 minutes with an incredible display of defensive fire that made the night as bright as day.

That, however, was just the beginning. In the siege of the fort, itself, what was to follow was more astounding. At one point, British troops pouring into the fort commandeered an American cannon, using it to return fire upon the Americans. In the midst of that confusion, somehow a fire was ignited in the powder magazine below their position. The explosion that followed hurled bits of flesh and debris everywhere, destroying most of the buildings, and even threw a two ton cannon three hundred feet distance.

Reports varied on the number of dead and wounded on both sides, mostly owing to the many missing in the aftermath of the horrific explosion.

As for Jackson's commander, Captain Benjamin Birdsall, history shows us he survived the battle. Whether John Jackson was among those present in the companies formed from the 1st and 4th Regiments of the Riflemen, I have no way of knowing, but it is possible he was there, as well.

According to Heitman's Register, Birdsall was appointed a brevet major, effective the 15th of that same month of battle, for distinguished service in the defense of Fort Erie.

That recognition was not to be long-lived, however. While in command of a military station near Albany, New York, a few years later, he was shot by one of his soldiers, a private named James Hamilton. This was not a matter of friendly fire during field exercises. Hamilton was subsequently tried and executed for murder.

While the War of 1812 may well be "the nation's forgotten conflict," it had also become different things to different people. Witness one long, meandering retrospect on the war from the point of view of upstate New York residents living along the Saint Lawrence River. We certainly can glean from reports concerning Captain John Morris' fellow Indiana Territory neighbors what the war had meant to them.

What we've learned from these few captains under whom my husband's fourth great grandfather once served was an additional point: that these men were not often long-lived. Witness the abrupt closure to Captain Benjamin Birdsall's military career. Perhaps this is the simplest explanation for the long list of captains under whom John Jackson served.

And there is yet one more.  

Above: "Siege and Defence of Fort Erie," from the 1869 Benson J. Lossing book, The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812; in the public domain.


  1. One wonders when an officer is shot by one of his own men. Was he a tyrant? Or was the enlisted man just sick of working such horrible hours in horrible conditions that he just "lost it?"

    1. It may actually have been a third possibility--at least, that's what it seems, after reading the newspaper report of the man's sentencing.


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