Born in 1804 and educated in Pompey, New York, Handy was drawn early into frontier opportunities and politics. He settled in Indiana. His name appears on the list of admitted attorneys in Jackson County, Indiana, in April, 1827. That same year, he started a newspaper in Salem, The Annotator (it folded in 1828), and married Laura W. Bellows, (who divorced him in 1843).
Handy was an early supporter of Andrew Jackson (POTUS 1829–1837). Handy used his newspaper as a pulpit for Jackson and served as the state chairman of his election committee. Jackson, a master of patronage, rewarded Handy on multiple occasions, starting with the job of the Salem, Indiana, postmaster shortly after Jackson’s victory. Handy later served in the Pension Bureau of the War Department in Washington, DC.
In 1833, Jackson appointed Handy as Assistant Superintendent of the Chicago Harbor. Handy managed construction of the new facility with distinction, while also serving on a committee overseeing the creation of a regional railway. His efforts earned him inclusion in an 1833 book listing five hundred influential Chicagoans. (The book mistakenly lists him as Henry T. Handy.) That year also saw him admitted to practice at the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.
With the end of Jackson’s presidency early in 1837, Handy needed a new challenge. The talk of a possible rebellion in Canada caught his attention.
Handy Becomes Patriot GeneralTo investigate the rumors, Handy visited Toronto in the fall of 1837. He met with Upper Canada reform leader Marshall Bidwell and a fellow named Dufort, a messenger from Lower Canada’s rebel leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau.
The meetings confirmed Handy’s analysis—both colonies verged on rebellion. He returned to Detroit and formed a “war council” of influential citizens. Handy became top general.
General Handy and his war council began to gather troops and weapons in reaction to the Upper Canada rebellion in early December of 1837. Between December 23, 1837, and January 8, 1838, Handy’s troops stole 700 rifles and muskets plus ammunition from state jails and arsenals.
There were no British regular troops in the southwestern area of Upper Canada in January 1838. A few hundred volunteer militiamen, a company of escaped American slaves, and about 100 native warriors comprised the entire defense. The defenders had no cannon and limited arms. The colony’s main defense force was stationed along the Niagara River to confront rebels holding Navy Island. In the event of an invasion in the west, that army needed three or four days to cover the distance.
In General Handy, Upper Canada faced a true threat along the Detroit River. He represented a competent leader, whose army was larger and better equipped than the Canadian defenders. His plan to attack in two places could have worked if his eastern allies had not interfered at the last minute and bungled the attack in comedic style.
Forms Sons of LibertyAfter his invasion failure in January, Handy did not give up. In June of 1838, he began building a new organization in Michigan for the liberation of Canada called the Sons of Liberty. He appointed agents to journey through border states and Upper Canada to form secret lodges and recruit men. Each agent had a pile of blank commissions signed by General Handy or one of his top generals.
In densely populated areas, General Handy’s agents would appoint one man in every square mile to be captain of a lodge. In rural areas, the ratio was a captain for every 10 square miles. Each captain recruited members. Lodges then elected colonels to command larger districts. By the end of June 1838, the Sons of Liberty had formed into 200 companies of 100 men each (or so they said), totaling 20,000 recruits.
General Handy used a network of 100 couriers to communicate with the entire network. Each courier had a specific beat of 10 miles to be covered daily. This way information could be relayed immediately from General Handy to his colonels, and the regions in turn could inform their supreme commander.
One big challenge for General Handy was how to equip 20,000 men for war. He hoped to obtain weapons by the proven method of “liberating” them from the Michigan state arsenal. Among the guards at arsenals and jails were those who had been under his command in the earlier raid or who supported the Patriot cause. By arrangement, someone at the arsenal left the windows unfastened. Miraculously, keys to the magazine at Detroit found their way into the hands of Handy’s second in command. Between the two sites, 15,000 muskets or rifles, 15 cannon and ammunition waited to be taken.
General Handy’s plan was to raid the arsenal and magazine early on July 4, 1838. Thirty men stood ready to remove the weapons to two barges moored near the arsenal. Thus provisioned, the general next intended to mobilize the Sons of Liberty, arm them and attack Upper Canada in multiple locations with an overwhelming force.
History shows that General Handy had a knack for detailed invasion plans. General Handy’s plans for a second invasion on July 4 included a big enough army to quite possibly rout the Canadian defenders, even though their numbers had swelled with hundreds of British regulars. History also shows that General Handy kept having his plans foiled by lesser men.
In the week leading up to July 4, word leaked out about his invasion, and several bands of freelance rebels jumped the gun with unsanctioned forays into Canada between June 25 and 27.
In Michigan, General Hugh Brady, the man in charge of enforcing US neutrality, heard about the raids. His suspicions alerted, he placed trusted guards on the arsenal and magazine. Deprived of weapons on the eve of the July 4th attack, General Handy called it off.
From September 16 to 22, 1838, 160 influential rebel leaders held a convention in Cleveland, Ohio, to pick new leaders for pending invasions of Canada that fall. Surprisingly, the delegates elected Lucius Verus Bierce, a lawyer and brigadier general in the militia from Akron, Ohio, as their commander-in-chief. He beat out General Handy.
Handy bowed out of Patriot affairs for a few months. In December 1838, General Bierce led a disastrous raid on Windsor, Upper Canada. He resigned his command and Handy took charge of the Patriot army in the west once again.
Patriot Cause FadesBut the Patriot cause was finished. Handy and the eastern commander, Donald McLeod, still talked tough but never could manage to launch another invasion. The movement sputtered along for a few years and faded from view by 1842.
Handy—a man with enormous organizing skills who contributed to the early successes of Illinois— never found another cause on which to focus his substantial energy. He died in Bayfield, Michigan, in 1846.