Monday, January 10, 2011

Windmill Battle: 8. Trapped Hunters Given One Escape Chance

The morning of Thursday, November 15, 1838, dawned cold and clear. For once, no cannon barrage greeted the dawn. The small steamer Experiment patrolled alone, the other British gunboats being upriver. Desultory sniping from both sides shattered the morning’s rare peace. The day began low key but unfolding events gave the trapped Hunters a brief opportunity to escape.

That morning, prominent American citizens in Ogdensburg, NY, met to discuss ways of rescuing the Hunters trapped across the river. Among them was Colonel William Jenkins Worth, 44, the commander of the American forces trying to enforce the US neutrality laws. He proposed a meeting with Lt.-Colonel Plomer Young, 41, commander of Canadian militia in Prescott. A man who knew Young crossed the river with the invitation. Young agreed and met Worth on board the US ship Telegraph in mid-river.

In order to prevent further bloodshed, Worth proposed to Young that the Hunter’s be allowed to return to America. In turn they would face charges in the US, and American authorities would ensure no further outbreaks along the frontier of northern New York. While Young sympathized with Worth’s position, he explained he would face severe military sanction and probably court martial by letting the enemy escape.

At some point in the conversation, Young told Worth that the big British gunboats were in Kingston, and that the Experiment would soon return to Prescott for maintenance. History does not tell us if Young let this military secret slip inadvertently or by design. Young wished Worth well and departed.

Worth seized the opportunity. He berthed the Telegraph in Ogdensburg and released the ferry steamer Paul Pry from impoundment. He organized a group of volunteer citizens, under the town’s postmaster Preston King, to undertake the actual rescue.

When the Experiment returned to Prescott in mid-afternoon, the Paul Pry steamed out of Ogdensburg and anchored off shore near the besieged windmill. One man, identified only as a Hunters Lodge member, volunteered to go ashore and speak with Colonel Nils von Schoultz.

That man falsely told von Schoultz that he had two choices: he and his men could escape on the Paul Pry or he could accept 600 reinforcements in the morning. Perhaps because of lack of sleep and food or a monumental ego, von Schoultz choose to wait for the phantom reinforcements. Hearing von Schoultz’s decision, postmaster King rowed ashore and pleaded with the Hunter colonel to cast away any notion of fresh troops. In the end, all King received was a promise from von Schoultz to allow the wounded to board the Paul Pry.

King took one wounded man with him back to the steamer while the von Schoultz’s men carried the other wounded to the rocky beach. When the Paul Pry tried to come closer to shore, Canadian militiamen fired on her. The shots alerted Lieutenant William Fowell and he steamed out in the Experiment, her repairs finished ahead of schedule. The Paul Pry fled to US waters.

Gathering clouds began dumping snow and sleet. For three hours Hunters both wounded and well huddled in the foul cold hoping for the return of the Paul Pry.

Stephen S. Wright, in his memoirs, wrote that once it was evident the ship would not return, “Our fortunes grew desperate; the last glimmer of hope went out.” Wright also lamented that, if the wounded had been removed, the remaining Hunters could have broken through the British cordon and escaped.

A few men did escape that night, according to the memoirs of Captain Daniel Heustis. He wrote that two Hunters found a canoe and asked Heustis to go with them. The idealistic Hunter captain refused, saying he could not forsake the many men he brought to the battle. He wished the men well. They found a third volunteer and departed for America only hours ahead of the final battle.

Further Reading

Last installment of the Battle of the Windmill.
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