Henry Leavenworth

HENRY
LEAVENWORTH:

The Formative Years

By Rich Barbuto

 

The namesake of Fort Leavenworth was a prominent soldier of
the early years of the American republic and his story traces the growth and
westward expansion of the nation.
Henry’s grandfather, Thomas Leavenworth, was a medical
doctor when he immigrated to New England from Britain.  Henry’s father, Jesse, was the colonel of a
Connecticut regiment in the Continental army during the Revolution.  Henry, the youngest of seven children, was
born in 1783, the year that the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the
Revolution.  Henry’s mother, Catherine
Frisbee Leavenworth, had a reputation as a scold and when Henry was still a
lad, his father took him and left his wife and New Haven and settled in
Danville, Vermont.

As a young man, Henry moved to Delhi, New York, in Delaware
County.  He read law in the office of
Erastus Root.  Root was a Revolutionary
veteran and a general in the state militia.
Root was also heavily engaged in politics, serving in both the state
assembly and the U.S. Congress.  Henry
was elected captain of the local militia company and he became involved in
state politics.

In 1805, Henry married Elizabeth Morrison.  The Leavenworth’s had two children, Eunice
and Jesse, but the marriage soon ended in divorce.  In 1810, Henry married seventeen year old
Electa Knapp.  Unfortunately, Electa died
in childbirth.  In 1813, Henry married
Harriet Lovejoy and they had a daughter, Alida.

America was still very much a young country in 1812.  There were now eighteen states and the
population was six million, about twice as large as when America declared
independence from Britain.  The country
was overwhelmingly rural.  Only fifteen
percent of the population lived in communities larger than five hundred people.  Another fifteen percent lived west of the
Appalachians either on the frontier or in communities that had been frontier towns
short years before.
In early 1812, when the situation with Great Britain was
becoming increasingly serious, Congress ordered the expansion of the army.  Ship captains of the Royal Navy were
routinely stopping American vessels on the high seas and removing seamen
accused of being born in the British Empire.
These same British officers were seizing American ships and cargoes trying
to trade with Britain’s enemies.  On the
frontier, American settlers were convinced that British officials in Canada
were encouraging Indian attacks.  As the
army expanded, hundreds of upwardly mobile men sought commissions as
officers.  Henry left a thriving law
practice and was commissioned a captain in a new regiment, the 13th
Infantry.

By the end of 1812, Leavenworth had himself transferred to
the 25th Infantry, a regiment recruited in Connecticut.  It was not uncommon for officers to serve in
regiments that were not recruited in the officer’s state of origin.  Typically, the officers who sought transfer
were searching for better opportunities for advancement.  During early 1813 the regiment served in
Burlington, Vermont on Lake Champlain and later at Sackett’s Harbor in New York
on Lake Ontario but it isn’t clear that Henry was present at these places.  Leavenworth was with his regiment at the
Battle of Stoney Creek in Upper Canada on June 6, 1813.

 

In August 1813, the ever ambitious Henry sought and was
rewarded with a promotion to major.
However, since each infantry regiment was allocated only two majors, he
had to transfer to the 9th Infantry which had a vacancy.  Leavenworth would see considerable combat
with the 9th.  In the late
fall of 1813, the 9th participated in General James Wilkinson’s
ill-fated invasion of Canada.

 

A large American force departed Sackett’s Harbor in boats
and rowed into the St. Lawrence River heading for the key Canadian city of
Montreal.  Half way down the River, the
men were put ashore so that skilled pilots could take the lightened bateau over
the rapids.  At a large clearing on the
land of John Chrysler, a small British force approached the rear of the
American camp and offered battle.

Figure 1 Americans passing through the
Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence

 

Seven thousand American soldiers faced about one thousand
British, Canadians, and allied Indians.
The 9th Infantry was assigned to General Leonard Covington’s
Brigade.   The Americans made repeated
attacks on the British lines.

 

However, clearly the British were better trained.  The British soldiers fired more rapidly and
maneuvered to bring the weight of their fire effectively against the American
ranks.  The American generals were unable
to coordinate the movements of their brigades and the American soldiers fired
haphazardly and without accuracy.  Covington
lost his life leading his men.  At the
end of the day, the small British force had stood its ground and would not be
pushed away by the larger American force.

Figure 3 The Battle of Crysler’s Field

To his great discredit, Wilkinson broke off the attack and
returned his army to New York.  The army
went into winter quarters at French Mills.
The experience of the army at French Mills was akin to that suffered by
Washington’s forces at Valley Forge.
Food arrived late.  The crude huts
hardly kept out the harsh New York winds and snow.  Many officers were allowed to go on leave
while the men froze.  Leavenworth stayed
with his troops.  Henry and many of his
peers saw what should have been obvious to all.
If the American Army was ever to win this war, then American soldiers
were going to have to become more skillful at fighting.  This meant training and more training in
maneuvering and firing.  Henry committed
himself to being first and foremost a trainer so that the debacle at Chrysler’s
Field would not re-occur.

Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane

In the spring of 1814, Henry and the 9th received
orders to march westward for the upcoming campaign season.  Henry didn’t know it at the time but his life
would be forever changed that year.  The
President was slowly getting rid of unsuccessful generals and replacing them
with younger leaders who had proved themselves in combat.  One of these men, Major General Jacob Brown,
has designated to lead a new invasion of Canada.  Another, Brigadier General Winfield Scott,
was given a brigade in Brown’s division.
Major Henry Leavenworth, ranking officer of the 9th at French
Mills, was given command of his regiment for the upcoming campaign.

 

Scott marched his brigade across New York State to the banks
of the Niagara River near Buffalo.  There
he established camp and set up a rigorous training schedule.   The men were in tatters as their uniforms
from the previous year had fallen apart over the winter and spring.  Pay was late and the weather was typically
snowy or rainy.  Leavenworth worked his
men hard over the weeks and, under Scott’s watchful eye and guiding hand,
turned the 9th into a keen fighting machine.
There were a few companies of the 22nd Infantry
in camp without a senior officer.  Scott
attached these companies to the 9th.    With 549 soldiers, Leavenworth’s
consolidated 9th/22nd was the largest battalion in
Scott’s Brigade.   Finally, late in June,
new uniforms arrived.  The British
blockade had effectively cut off many imports and the blue dye used in coloring
American wool infantry uniforms was in short supply.  When the boxes were opened, the soldiers of
Scott’s Brigade saw that theirs would be gray coats worn over white
trousers.  Scott himself was disappointed
but the men were pleased to have any clothing at all.

On the 3rd of July, Leavenworth led his men
across the Niagara River onto the Canadian shore.  Scott’s brigade was in the lead of Brown’s
Division marching north toward the large British camp behind the Chippawa River
which flowed into the larger Niagara.
All day long on the 4th of July the Americans dealt with an
annoying cloud of British skirmishers challenging every step northward.  On the 5th of July, Scott’s
brigade drew up to the British camp on the north side of the Chippawa
River.  Scott gave his men a day of rest
to celebrate the nation’s Independence Day.
However, after supper he ordered the Brigade to drill on the open field
between the two camps.
Henry Leavenworth led his battalion, and the brigade, out of
the American camp and onto the open field.
Unknown to the Americans, the British commander at Chippawa had decided
to challenge the Americans in open combat rather than waiting for them to come
across the River.  He sent three
battalions of regular infantry and a body of Canadian militia and native allies
across the Chippawa directly onto the open plain that the Americans were
entering from the opposite side.  A fight
was now inevitable.

As Leavenworth’s men formed their lines, the British
artillery was sending grape and solid shot into the American ranks.  General Riall, the British commander, noting
the gray uniforms of his adversaries, momentarily thought that this was a
brigade of militia opposing his advance.
However, as the Americans maneuvered sharply into a long steady line,
Riall realized his error and reputedly stated “Those are regulars!”

 

The British advanced quickly but soon came against repeated
volleys of American musketry.  The
British lines stopped to return fire and the two lines exchanged deadly fire
for long moments until the British line cracked and soon small groups of
redcoats withdrew rearward.  Riall,
seeing that it was impossible to maintain his battle line in the face of
extraordinarily accurate fire, ordered a general withdrawal.  For the first time in the war, an American
force had met a British force of similar size on a battlefield which offered no
advantage, and the Americans won.

 

 

Figure 4  Battle of Chippawa

 

This notable victory was not without cost for the combined 9th/22nd
Infantry took 21% casualties.  For his
roll in conducting his battalion, Henry Leavenworth received a brevet promotion
to lieutenant colonel.  In these days,
there were no recognized awards for meritorious service or heroic conduct.  Instead, the President authorized brevet
promotions to outstanding officers.  The
officer wore the symbols of rank of his new position and could take jobs
commensurate with his brevet rank, however, he would not receive the higher
pay.

 

Weeks later, some of Leavenworth’s men were assigned to
picket duty across the Chippawa.  A
picket line was composed of small groups of soldiers spread out around the camp
to give early warning of enemy activity.
Leavenworth was checking his pickets when he learned that a number of
British cavalry had been seen close by.
Leavenworth reported this to General Scott who in turn reported to
General Brown.  Brown did not believe
that there was a large British force anywhere near.  Nonetheless he authorized Scott to take his
brigade forward to investigate.

 

 

By this time, the other companies of the 22nd
Infantry, and their commander, had arrived to join the army.  Thus, Leavenworth’s command consisted only of
the 150 veterans of the 9th Infantry.  Scott led the thousand soldiers of his
brigade northward on a road which paralleled the Niagara River.  The men could see the column of spray from
the great falls as it towered over the trees to their right as they pressed
forward.  Then, as the Americans
approached a wide clearing in the otherwise forested area, they saw a very
large force of British drawn up on a low ridge running at right angles to the
road they were traveling.  The British
line was anchored to Lundy’s Lane, a long dirt road running east-west atop the
ridge.

 

Scott was unwilling to pull back from the larger enemy force
for fear of damaging the confidence of his troops.  He sent Leavenworth to start forming the line
to the west of the road followed by two other battalions.  Scott sent the 25th infantry into
the woods to the right of the road with the task of working closer to the
British lines using the cover of the forest.
Once in line, Scott ordered his men to open fire.

 

 

Figure 5  Scott’s Brigade enters the clearing near
Lundy’s Lane

 

Unfortunately, Scott’s men were still 300 yards away from
the British lines which were on higher ground.
The Americans expended ammunition while inflicting few casualties.  The British artillery, however, firing from
their higher positions, tore gaps in the American lines.  As the minutes stretched into hours,
Leavenworth’s battalion, like the other battalions in the American lines, was
shot to pieces.  Scott was still unwilling
to withdraw but he was also convinced that to advance was even more
foolhardy.  The sun set and the
battlefield grew ever darker.

 

Fortunately, Brown arrived with the rest of his division in
the dark.  Brown attacked with three
fresh regiments and forced the British off the high ground.  Setting up his own lines atop the ridge,
Brown waited for British counterattacks.
He did not have to wait very long.
The British conducted six counterattacks in the dark to regain the ridge
and to recapture their artillery pieces.

 

Meanwhile Scott consolidated the remains of his brigade and
brought them up to the rear of the American lines on the ridge.  Leavenworth was instrumental in getting the
Americans to form an attack column in the dark which Scott led through the
American lines and toward the British.
However, Scott’s plan went astray almost as soon as his truncated
brigade departed the relative safety of the friendly lines.  Scott’s men drew fire not only from the
British firing into the sounds of the advancing troops but also from the
American lines.  It seems that the rest
of Brown’s division was unaware of Scott’s advance and the officers ordered
their men to fire at the noises in front of them.

 

 

Figure 6  Leavenworth leads two counterattacks

 

After marching through a gauntlet of fire – British on their
right and Americans on their left – Scott brought his brigade to safety once
more behind American lines.  Leavenworth,
wounded by this time, was yet the only battalion commander in Scott’s Brigade still
on his feet.  Scott ordered Leavenworth
to prepare the men for yet another attack!
By now, Scott’s Brigade probably had no more than two hundred soldiers
with the colors.  The rest were wounded
or lost on the dark battlefield.

 

In the final hour of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Scott led
his miniscule force once again forward in the hopes of collapsing the British
opposition.  This time his men hardly
closed the gap between the lines when volleys of British fire caused the attack
column to stagger to a halt and then to withdraw without orders.  The famous brigade had done all that could be
expected and then some but had clearly reached the breaking point.  Scott left Leavenworth in charge of the
remaining troops while he reported to Brown.
Within minutes, both Brown and Scott were seriously wounded and
evacuated from the battlefield.

 

After the British withdrew, the Americans marched back to
their camp south of the Chippawa to get water, to draw more ammunition, and to
prepare to continue the fight at sun up.
Of the 150 men of the 9th Infantry that Leavenworth led in to
the fight at Lundy’s Lane, all but 22 were dead or wounded.  The Americans decided not to continue the
battle but to withdraw to Fort Erie, across the Niagara from Buffalo.

 

After the War

 

For his heroism at Lundy’s Lane, Leavenworth received a
second brevet, this time to colonel.
Leavenworth returned to his wife’s side in Delhi to convalesce.  With war’s end in January, 1815, he resumed
his law practice and was elected to the State Assembly.  Leavenworth probably did not expect what
happened next.  Congress ordered that the
wartime army of forty-four infantry regiments be reduced to seven regiments.  A group of generals met to decide which of
the officers would be invited to remain in the service.  Most expected that those selected would be
from the pre-war regular officers but the Secretary of war gave instructions to
pick the best, regardless of time in service.
The President offered Leavenworth the opportunity to remain as a major
with the 2nd Infantry.

 

Henry Leavenworth accepted his new life in the peacetime
army even though it meant leaving the comforts of urban life on the east coast
and serving instead on the frontier.
Promotion was slow in the peacetime army but Leavenworth was well
respected by his men and his superiors.
In 1818, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served in the 5th
Infantry in the garrison at Sackett’s Harbor.
That was the site of the largest American naval base on the Great Lakes
and home to a fleet securing the peace with Britain.  In 1821 the secretary of war transferred
Henry to the 6th Infantry and command of Fort Atkinson, on the upper
Missouri River.

 

Leavenworth learned the Sioux language and personally
negotiated with the plains Indians.
Harriet and Alida were living in St. Louis and Leavenworth wanted them
closer.  He sent a small band of Indians
to escort his wife and daughter to him on the frontier.  Carrying them on a palanquin of furs through
the forests, this unlikely band covered 700 miles in thirty-four days.

 

In 1819 Leavenworth and his men founded Fort Snelling at the
confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  White settlers were penetrating deeper into
native lands and the army was needed to prevent friction.  Some of the friction, however, was between
Indian tribes and in that same year Leavenworth negotiated a peace between the
Sioux and the Chippawa.

 

The Arikara War of 1823 was the first full-scale engagement
between the Plains Indians and the Army.
There had been years of friction between the Arikara and fur
traders.  In June of 1823 a large band of
Arikara attacked a group of fur traders, killing fifteen of them.  Leavenworth organized a force of regulars and
volunteers from among the trappers and headed into Arikara territory.  This force was accompanied by hundreds of
Sioux who hoped to participate in a major battle with their hereditary foes,
the Arikara.

 

Moving up the Missouri River, Leavenworth’s column lost two
keelboats, seven men, and tons of supplies in the dangerous waters.  On 9 August, the column approached the
Arikara village.  Moving well in advance
of the soldiers and fur trappers, the Sioux launched an immediate assault on
the Arikara fighting in front of their palisaded village.  When Leavenworth brought up his soldiers and
volunteers, the Arikara withdrew behind the walls of the palisade.

 

The next day, Leavenworth opened fire with two six pound
guns.  The Sioux had withdrawn from the
fight to observe the Americans.  There were
800 Arikara and Leavenworth had fewer than 300 whites with him.  The Arikara agreed to negotiate with
Leavenworth.  The Sioux departed in
disgust at losing the opportunity to sack the village.  Even the fur traders were livid because
Leavenworth had not assaulted the village to crush Arikara power forever.   Back east, Leavenworth’s negotiated treaty
was commended by President Monroe.

 

In July 25th, 1824, on the tenth anniversary of
the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and Leavenworth’s brevet promotion to colonel, the
Secretary of War awarded Leavenworth with a brevet promotion to brigadier
general.  A year later, Leavenworth was
promoted to colonel and given command of the 3rd Infantry
Regiment.  In 1826 the secretary of war
sent Leavenworth with his regiment to the newly founded Jefferson Barracks near
St. Louis to start up a school for Infantry units.  The following year and while still at
Jefferson Barracks, Leavenworth received orders to travel up the Missouri and
to establish a post on the east side of the river.  Putting his men on keelboats, Leavenworth
rode ahead to reconnoiter a potential site.
Finding unhealthy lowlands on the eastern bank, Leavenworth disobeyed
orders and selected a site on the high ground on the western bank.  The War Department agreed with Leavenworth’s
judgment and officially designated the new post Cantonment Leavenworth.  Leavenworth spent the next several years
overseeing construction of permanent frame and brick buildings: barracks,
officer quarters, warehouses, and a hospital.

 

Figure 7  Leavenworth selects the site of Cantonment Leavenworth

 

In addition to establishing the post, Leavenworth devoted
his time to keeping the peace between natives and whites and between the
Indians themselves.  It was on one such
expedition in 1834 that Leavenworth met his end.  Leavenworth was leading a force of four
hundred dragoons and infantry into Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) when
his party came across a buffalo herd.
Leavenworth was riding hard chasing a buffalo calf when his horse
stepped into a gopher hole, throwing Leavenworth to the ground.  Leavenworth never recovered.  Within days he developed a fever and on 21
July, 1834, just four days short of the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of
Lundy’s Lane, Henry Leavenworth passed away.
Orders promoting him to permanent brigadier general would have gone into
effect on that day.

 

Harriet escorted the body of her husband through
New Orleans and New York City to Delhi.
At every stop along the route, there were public memorial services.  Dignitaries, regular army officers, the local
militia, and the general public gathered to recognize Leavenworth’s
contributions to the nation.  Henry was
interred alongside his second wife, Electa.

Then, in 1902, the bodies of Henry, Electa, and their child
were disinterred at Delhi and reburied at the Fort Leavenworth National
Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Generals
Arthur MacArthur and Frederick Funston were present along with 1500 veterans,
all the regular troops at Fort Leavenworth, and a choir of 200 voices.  Also attending the ceremony were
Leavenworth’s four surviving grand children, all the children of son
Jesse.

Henry’s third wife, Harriet, died in 1865 and is buried in
Newburgh, New York.  His daughter by
Harriet, Alida, was unmarried and passed away in 1839.  Son, Jesse, by his first wife, Elizabeth
Morrison, graduated from West Point in 1830.

About the Author

Rich Barbuto, Vice President
of the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society, is the Deputy Director of the
Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff
College at Fort Leavenworth Kansas.  Rich
is the author of Niagara 1814: America
Invades Canada
, and Long Range Guns,
Close Quarter Combat: the Third U.S. Artillery Regiment in the War of 1812
.

 

 

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