Monday, April 19, 2010

Lester Hoadley: Leads Patriot Capture of Pelee Island

After General Donald McLeod's rout at Fighting Island, the remnants of his army joined another Patriot army forming in Ohio. Under the command of Colonel Edwin D. Bradley, Major Lester Hoadley and Captain Henry Van Rensselaer drilled recruits from Canada, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, preparing them for another assault on Canada--the fifth and largest so far.

Major Lester Hoadley, like thousands of Americans caught up in the freedom-fighting frenzy of the times—perhaps a holdover from the Texas revolution in 1836—Hoadley (March 4, 1794-March 3, 1838) put aside his normal life to enlist in the overthrow of the British in Canada.

Hoadley was raised in Alexandria Bay, New York. He married Sarah Chipmen March 4, 1818, and moved to Utica, New York in 1824. A civil engineer by trade, he was an educated and prosperous man. Hoadley began his Patriot enlistment as an infantry captain during the occupation of Navy Island. From there, he joined the Patriot army's western division, where he was elected major, January 29, 1838, at a meeting of Patriot officers in Conneault, Ohio.

Patriots Swarm and Loot Isolated Island

On February 26, 1838, Hoadley and Bradley led about 400 Patriots from Sandusky, Ohio, to occupy the remote island. They crossed the ice pulling sleds of powder, ammunition, and their limited food and provisions. The Patriot leaders hoped to take all they needed from the island residents.

Map showing location of Pelee Island
What Bradley, Hoadley and the others expected to accomplish militarily by overrunning isolated Pelee Island is not documented. It gave them no tactical advantage. Their foray certainly wasn't meant to liberate Canadians, as they behaved like bandits. (The island's small population fled as the Americans arrived.)

The occupying force army may have numbered as many as 1,000 at some point. Men came and went by sleigh for several days. They stripped the island bare of food stores and livestock, damaged buildings, and looted anything they could carry. When the men weren't running amok, Captain Henry Van Rensselaer set up drills in an attempt to make the men better soldiers.

Henry (July 28, 1806-March 3, 1838) was the son of US Major General Henry K. Van Rensselaer and a first cousin of the Patriot commander Rensselaer Van Rensselaer. Like his older cousin, Henry was a scion of an established, wealthy and respected New York clan. Unlike his timid cousin, Henry was fearless. In the Battle of Pelee Island, Henry stood at the front ranks of his men keeping order and discipline.

British Mount Counterattack

When word of the invasion reached Lt.-Colonel John Maitland at Fort Malden in western Upper Canada, he set out at the head of 500 men and two field cannon to retake the island. He arrived on the shore opposite Pelee Island early on March 3. He sent Captain George Browne with 90 infantry and 20 cavalry to take a position on the south end of the island to prevent a retreat by the Patriots. Maitland arrived at the island's north end, expecting to engage the main Patriot force. They had already fled. As it turned out, they were heading straight towards Browne's troops standing in a long line across the ice.

Browne's men suddenly found themselves facing an estimated 500 Patriots—all eager to escape the British army bearing down behind them. The Patriots came from the forest in a column and formed into a long line under the direction of Major Hoadley and Captain Van Rensselaer. With limited rifles among them, the armed men took the front rank and began firing at Brown's troops. The unarmed men waited to pickup rifles from fallen comrades.

Browne’s men were the first soldiers in Upper Canada to face a Patriot army that did not flee after the first shot. With Van Rensselaer and Hoadley shouting orders and encouragement, the rebels began inflicting clear and persistent damage. The infantry began to drop onto the ice. The cavalry took heavy fire. The first deaths the British military suffered in the Patriot War came during this battle. Much of the claim or blame falls on Van Rensselaer and Hoadley.

Browne's men returned fire but their muskets lacked the range and accuracy of the rebels' modern rifles. Finally, in desperation, Browne ordered his men to fix their bayonets and charge. The untrained rebel soldiers had no experience at close combat. Terrified by the 17-inch blades rushing towards them, they let off one last volley and scattered in every direction over the ice chased by the cavalry.

When Maitland and his men arrived, the battle was over. The British suffered 5 dead and 25 wounded, many severe enough that they were sent back to England as invalids. Lt.-Colonel Maitland, who caught a cold during the liberation of Pelee Island, died in January 18, 1839 after a long illness.

Numbers for the Patriot casualties vary, partly because some wounded died later and did not make the original counts. The best estimate is that 12 Patriots died, including Hoadley and Van Rensselaer. Maitland captured 11 of which one soon died of his wounds. Eighteen wounded escaped back to Ohio. A report on the battle by Maitland incorrectly stated that Colonel Bradley died. Bradley survived and sent a report on the enterprise to McLeod dated March 4, 1838.

The number of casualties at the Battle of Pelee Island shocked the British. Until then, routing the Upper Canada rebels had been a lark. The rebels, trained by Hoadley and Van Rensselaer, showed an understanding of tactics and discipline—they were the most effective fighting force the Patriots had fielded so far.

The defeat on Pelee Island ended sanctioned Patriot military campaigns in the west for nine months but the loss of yet another battle did nothing to dampen rebel enthusiasm and optimism. The Patriot War was far from over.

The captured men waited until the summer of 1839 for trial. In the end just 5 faced the court. Due to differing opinions over how to apply the law, the judge postponed the trial. In March 1840, all Pelee Island prisoners were set free on the condition they leave Canada and never return.
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