Monday, December 13, 2010

Windmill Battle: 6. Trapped Raiders Get Message to General Birge

As the first attack on the windmill petered out on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 13, 1838, snow began to fall, soon shrouding the unclaimed bodies in the no-mans-land of the battlefield. As night approached, Hunter Colonel Nils von Schoultz made two attempts to get a message to General John Birge on the American side of the river.

In the fading light of the short November day, the Hunters found an old boat on the beach. Though leaky, five men (including Daniel George, William Gates, and Aaron Dresser) set off to cross the river in the fading afternoon light with a message for Birge requesting food and medical supplies.

Paddling with boards, the men took advantage of a gap in the gunboat patrols. They were nearing the invisible river border when the steamer Cobourg appeared out of the dusk. Its cannon fired. Geysers erupted near the boat as balls hit the water. George’s men paddled harder. The cannon boomed again. A load of grapeshot caused multiple splashes around the boat. George’s crew paddled for their lives. Witnesses that evening swore the fleeing Hunters were in American waters by that point.

The Cobourg, under the command of Captain Williams Sandom, ignored the border and came within musket range. British marines fired on the boat’s occupants. Musket balls whizzed past their heads. As the big steamer closed in, the Hunters surrendered. They were hauled aboard, searched, and taken to Prescott. Daniel George’s pockets contained receipts from the captain of the United States for towing the two rebel schooners on November 11. The discovery would be his undoing.

Hours later, von Schoultz tried again to get a message to Birge. A young man named Tom Meredith, a Hunter spy in Prescott who joined the raiders the evening before, volunteered to cross the river. He built a narrow raft from fence rails and an old board, and set out to cross 1800 yards of nearing freezing water. Paddling with his arms, he struggled in the cold, snow and darkness. Despite the odds of success, he made it to Ogdensburg and sought out Birge.

Two hours after midnight, Meredith awoke the sleeping general in an Ogdensburg hotel. Meredith, a man reborn, snatched from death and now afraid of nothing, hovered menacingly above Birge demanding he do something.

In response, Birge composed a letter to Bill Johnston.
    November 14, 1838
    Dear Johnston, The fate of the men on the other side of the river is in your hands. Nothing is expected of the British above Prescott; and if you can rally your men and go to Jones’s Mills and kindle some fires, you will save the men and save Canada. Start fires also at Gananoque and the British will think Kingston is being attacked. Do, for God’s sake, rally your men and start immediately.
    J. Ward Birge
With his letter, Birge created a publicly credible but militarily impossible solution to the tragedy unfolding at Newport. Simultaneously, he set up Johnston to become a scapegoat for the Hunter defeat at Newport.

Meredith searched the town all night for Johnston to no avail. Bill later said he spent several days and nights watching the battle from a roof near the harbor.

At some point that night, Hunters stripped the body of British Lieutenant William Johnson of his sword and uniform. Lyman Leach gave Johnson's to Daniel Heustis. The uniform was never recovered. (One of the Hunters later put it on and sauntered through the British lines to safety.)

Later that night, someone or something mutilated Lt. Johnson’s corpse. Canadian sources claim American raiders did the dirty deed. American sources claim hogs wandering the village fed on the body. This is backed up in Heustis’ memoirs. Von Schoultz later claimed he had the pigs shot for the atrocity.

The dwindling force of Hunters huddled around fires fed by a meager supply of firewood—remains of roofs torn off by cannonballs—wagering whether Meredith succeeded, and wondering what daybreak would bring.

Stephen S. Wright, another Hunter raider who published his memoirs, wrote: “The night was lonely—perhaps the loneliest that it ever will be my lot to experience: the wind whistled shrilly through the arms of the old mill, blending with the groans of the stricken and the dying, who lay shelterless in the night's wild storm.”

Further Reading

Next installment of the Battle of the Windmill.
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