Col. Cromwell Pearce: Why He Deserved More Credit in the War of 1812

Disappearing officers were a problem in more than one battle. The Willistown resident fought back.

Col. Cromwell Pearce’s gravesite at St. Peter’s Church in Malvern.In the Army, the rank and file grumble about the brass. The brass, in turn, grumbles about itself.

Example: Col. Cromwell Pearce of Willistown—who went off to fight in the War of 1812 and came home to write a foaming, long-forgotten memoir about generals neglecting their troops—took credit for others’ accomplishments and got promoted to cushy Washington desk jobs in the postwar army. By contrast, Cromwell—praised only by his fellow officers and neighbors—went home to become a sheriff, an associate judge and a farmer.

“A list of the officers retained in service has made its appearance,” Pearce wrote to fellow veteran Isaac D. Barnard after returning home in 1815. “If it has been drawn by lot, it could not contain a selection less deserving.”

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Born in what’s now Malvern, Pearce was the son of immigrants from Enniskillen, Ireland. There had been soldiers in the family and, during the French and Indian War, Pearce’s father, Cromwell Sr., served in the Pennsylvania militia. The family owned the farm where British soldiers killed 53 Americans with bayonets in a night attack known by Revolutionary War buffs as the Paoli Massacre.

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“He grew up a stalwart youth, upward of six feet in height and fond of martial training,” recalled his obituary in the Village Record newspaper.

Pearce received little formal education, though he was appointed postmaster in 1802. Mostly, he aimed for a military career. In 1793, Pearce was appointed a captain in the Pennsylvania militia. Then, in 1799, he was first lieutenant in the short-lived 10th U.S. Light Infantry. Eventually, he rose to the rank of major general in the Pennsylvania militia. He was serving in that capacity when the United States declared war against Great Britain.

“Considering his long association with military affairs, as well as the acute lack of experienced officers, Pearce was singularly qualified for a regular Army commission,” observed historian John C. Fredriksen.

In July 1812, he was appointed colonel of the 16th U.S. Infantry, then recruiting and training at Gray’s Ferry.

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After the Revolution, many U.S. settlers had moved west, where they encountered growing Indian resistance. This was especially true in Ohio, where the Shawnee chief Tecumseh led a rebellion in 1811. Politicians were convinced that British authorities in Canada were encouraging the Indians. So, when war was declared, an invasion to seize Quebec and Ontario was a top priority.

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Pearce’s regiment was ordered north in September. By late October, the 16th was among 6,000 regulars and militia at Plattsburgh, N.Y., 63 miles from Montréal.

In mid-November, the army fought some border skirmishes in the snow, got a few men killed on both sides, and called it a year. Most of the troops were marched to a site in the woods south of Plattsburgh and abandoned there by their officers.

“Here commenced the ruinous and disgraceful practice of officers obtaining furloughs immediately on the Army entering winter quarters, in order that they might spend the remainder of the winter in the cities,” Pearce later wrote. Meanwhile, “the troops lay on the bare earth, exposed to the rain and storms.” Sickness spread.

Command fell to Pearce, who superintended construction of barracks. “On the 25th of December, the barracks being finished, the soldiers were comfortably lodged in their quarters,” he wrote. “The sickness began to decrease, and the men resumed their health and spirits.”

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In March 1813, the war shifted west. The United States had built a shipyard at Sackets Harbor, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The goal was to build a fleet with which to seize control of the Great Lakes. But the shipyard had to be protected, so the Army was ordered west. Sackets Harbor is 176 miles from Plattsburgh, and Pearce’s 16th marched through snow three to four feet deep.

“The cold was intense and the soldiers suffered extremely,” wrote Pearce, who arrived with his regiment after an eight-day march. “At this place, shanties—resembling the most indifferent cowsheds—were prepared for the troops. These sheds being perfectly open, were warmed by building large fires in front of them.” Pearce soon had log barracks constructed for his men.

In April, the Army was assigned to capture Toronto—then called York—near the west end of Lake Ontario. Commanding was Gen. Henry Dearborn, a Revolutionary War veteran. Since Independence, Dearborn had served in Congress, as secretary of war and as collector of import duties at Boston. But he was 61 and, in retrospect, probably past his prime. Dearborn was removed the following year and discharged in 1815.

At 6 a.m. on April 27, a U.S. fleet carrying 1,700 soldiers—Pearce and the 16th among them—anchored off the Ontario shore. There, the men climbed into small boats and rowed for a beach with an open adjacent field.

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As they pulled their oars, 900 British regulars, militia and Indians emerged from the woods into that same field. Gradually, the Americans overwhelmed the British forces and closed on York. The city surrendered, but a booby-trapped powder magazine exploded as the Americans approached, killing their commander, Gen. Zebulon Pike. Command fell to Pearce, who moved the troops forward, accepted the surrender of the city, and posted guards. Dearborn rode up later, asked for and received a copy of the terms of surrender, and rode off.

“Gen. Dearborn’s report, after mentioning the death of Gen. Pike, proceeds to state that ‘the outlines of a capitulation were agreed on’ without mentioning when or by whom,” Pearce later wrote. “And we are informed that ‘as soon as Gen. Dearborn learned that Gen. Pike was wounded’ he ‘went on shore’—leaving it to be inferred that Gen. Dearborn assumed the command, the incorrectness of which has been already shown.”

Dearborn’s report, he continued, was written “to conceal” the identities of those who deserved credit. He didn’t suggest Dearborn’s motive.

In 1815, Pearce would refute a published claim that Col. Eleazar Ripley’s command, the 21st U.S. Infantry, had taken York, and that Ripley had urged the troops on after being wounded. “Col. Pearce was in the front; Col. Ripley was with the reserves in the rear,” Pearce wrote.

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A month later, near Niagara Falls, Pearce’s 16th helped capture Fort George, though most of its defenders escaped. Pearce, who had been ill in the hospital, was scornful: “Thus, in the midst of generals with a superior force, two brigades having scarcely fired a shot, the afternoon was trifled away, and the enemy suffered to escape and annoy us the remainder of the season.”

In November, Pearce and the 16th were back at the east end of Lake Ontario, descending the St. Lawrence River to capture Montréal. In the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, the Americans came ashore but were repulsed. They lost 339 men, retreating to the south side of the river.

One account praised Ripley’s 21st as “never in the slightest degree disordered” and claimed that the 9th, 25th and 16th regiments hid behind it during the battle.

“The memoir is doubtlessly the production of some mercenary scribbler, and we assert that the statement is a base and unmitigated falsehood,” wrote Pearce.

The 21st was on the army’s extreme right, Pearce explained, and the 16th was on its left, with an entire brigade between them—and so on.

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As winter descended, the officers again disappeared. The following year saw more unproductive marching and skirmishing. During the winter of 1814-15, the Army was dispersed to winter quarters at sites spread from Buffalo to the Hudson River. Again, the officers disappeared.

At Buffalo, Pearce was in charge. “The lake was completely frozen over, and no impediment remained to prevent the enemy from crossing with all their force,” wrote Pearce.

Supplies included “not a single musket ball cartridge nearer than Batavia” and no meat. Some men had not been paid in nine months. Pearce ordered double rations of bread and whiskey, and assured the men their money was expected. Peace came the following June.

Pearce might have made a career of the Army, but he was not among those asked to stay on. “There were many officers kept in the service who had done honor to themselves and their country,” he said. “But a number were selected more through favoritism than merit.”

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