Monday, July 22, 2013

The Would Be Assassination of Henry Procter

Detroit, shortly after the War of 1812.
These are sad times for Detroit. The decaying industrial city recently fell into bankruptcy and is being dismembered by its creditors. 200 years ago this year was another historic low point for the town. It was under a harsh military occupation from the British Army and the inhabitants were threatened with violence from Indians from the west who camped in the Detroit area to prepare for war with the Americans. I was doing some research on Major General Henry Procter, the British commander in the western Great Lakes, and found this letter which tells the story of a civilian man who fell into bad luck several times during the war:

May it please Your Excellency
Sir,
The subscriber most humbly states that he was an inhabitant of Detroit in the month of august last past when General Hull surrendered that country to His Majesty's Forces, under the command of General Brock, and that he was a Captain of Militia, under the command of Col. Brush and the superintendent of Indian Affairs. That the Indians destroyed my houses, and plundered me of personal property to upwards of twelve thousand dollars. Even then they were not content but sought after me and my family to put us to death. Under these circumstances I was advised to quit the country [the Michigan Territory] for some time, until they could get reconciled; and accordingly finding it necessary I with some  others chartered a vessel and having obtained permission of the Commandant Colonel Procter, sailed for Pennsylvania... Having arrived at Presque Isle I proceeded to the City of Washington to settle accounts, and receive some monies due, but in this I was disappointed at that time, and being in a strange place having little money and few friends, it strongly occurred to me the disagreeable I had left a wife and 5 children in, destitute of means. I therefore resolved to return to the bosom of my family, and accompanied by my little son, traversed the wilderness for Detroit again, until we reached the Miami Rapids [the Maumee River] (during my absence the inhabitants had removed and the settlement was all destroyed and no friends nearer to me than the River Raisin, where my mother and brothers lived). While passing here I fell in with General Winchester and an army, not knowing it was there, on its way to Frenchtown. I proceeded and arrived at my brother's house who lived about a mile higher up the river from where the advance of his army then lay. I still resolved to hasten on to my family; but unfortunately was I situated, for next morning early, this army was attacked by General Procter, beaten, destroyed or all taken prisoners. When the engagement commenced, I did not think myself safe so near and retired to a friend's at a greater distance. Yet after the defeat, I being found in the place, was arrested and made a prisoner of. Although I had no concern whatever with the army, nor in any way connected with it or employed in it. Since that period I have been kept a close prisoner, without even a chance of proving my innocence, which I could have very easily done at that place, but was hurried on to Montreal, and where having under gone an examination before the police officers [meaning staff officers in charge of prisoners, not policemen], I was committed as a prisoner of war, far from my evidences, my family and friends. At the time your excellency was expected to arrive there, I with another was sent off again for this place, under the stigma of having broke my parole, both beneath the character of a man or of an officer. Yet Sir, if you will please grant me a hearing or examination of facts, General Winchester himself and some of his officers, I hear are near to this place, and who can prove my innocence, and that I am not that disgraceful character, or the guilty person with which I stand charged. That Your Excellency taking into view the whole of my conduct and situation, divested of prejudice or partiality, will grant me the investigation or inquiry, by which I may be released from this my most painful disgrace and confinement. That I may be permitted to return by the way of Montreal, to inquire after my afflicted wife and unfortunate children and to find friends to assist me in my forlorn situation. Your Excellency's consideration for me will be ever gratefully remembered, by,
Sir
Your most obedient Servant
Whitmore Knaggs
Quebec Prison
May 24th 1813
(From Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, Vol. 15 pp. 303-304.)

 Whitmore Knaggs, an early settler of the region, served as a guide for General Anthony Wayne's Legion during the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, and then as a captain in the Michigan Territorial Militia during William Hull's campaign. When Hull surrendered, Captain Brush's relief force at Frenchtown, then a composite battalion of Brush's Ohio volunteers and local forces, decided to book it back to Ohio rather than surrender itself as ordered. Captain Knaggs apparently stayed behind, but points out that he was neither formally captured or paroled. He went back to Washington to collect on some old debts, to recoup his losses. But when this didn't work out, he traveled back to Michigan and got caught up in the disastrous expedition of James Winchester's column. Later, he was released after being held as what we would now call an enemy combatant. The situation of many people caught up in the British prisoner of war system during the War of 1812 was eerily similar to the system of military prisons now maintained by  the United States for the war on terror.  

Knaggs was particularly unlucky because, at this point in the war the British government was threatening to execute former British subjects captured serving in the US forces-- even if they were considered naturalized American citizens by the American government. In response, the US government ordered British officer prisoners held in close confinement, and that it would shoot a British officer for every American executed by the British. The British, faced with trading the life of poor Irishmen for one of their upper class commissioned officers, never followed through with their threats, but the stalemate locked up the prisoner exchange system in a similar way to the situation that occurred during the American Civil War (when the Confederate government declared it would execute any black man found fighting for the Union, and the United States in turn halted prisoner exchanges). The penalty for a soldier recaptured while fighting under a parole could be death, but many officers like Winfield Scott rejoined the ranks anyway. During General Harrison's campaign in Canada late in 1813, he had to hold back two brigades of regular soldiers, partly because there were so many un-exchanged men in the ranks.

Knagg's family did alright, however, surviving the war to become a prominent Detroit family. Whitmore himself was released and was employed by the US government as an Indian interpreter during treaty negotiations that surrendered most of the remaining Indian lands in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio to white settlement. But during the war, his son almost created an incident which would have changed the course of history:

George had a natural hatred of the British, and it was suggested that he slay the British general by shooting him as he passed along the road in front of the house. He was a good shot with a rifle, and with a boy's logic identified Proctor with the imprisonment of his father, and the damaging of the family home. Gen. Proctor had headquarters both at Fort Lernoult, afterward Fort Shelby, in Detroit, and Fort Malden, at Amherstburg, Canada, 18 miles below on the opposite side of the Detroit river, and visited both fortresses frequently. Sometimes ge was accompanied by mounted officers of his staff, and at other times he rode quite alone from Detroit to a point in Spring Wells township, where there was a ferry boat on which he crossed the river. Whether George originated the idea or adopted the suggestion of French farmers living near by, is not known, but he took steps to carry it out. He erected a barricade of boards and fence rails on the side of the road, and practiced shooting therefrom at a mark for several days. Some of the neighboring boys became curious over his actions, and he imparted his plan to them with juvenile frankness. The news was carried to his mother, who summoned him before her forthwith, and sternly commanded him to desist.
"Do you know what will happen if you shoot Proctor?" she demanded.
"Oh, yes," said George, eagerly. "Mr --- and Mr --- and Mr --- (mentioning the names of several French farmers nearby) told me that it would be a fine thing to do, as Proctor is a bad, cruel man, who keeps my father in prison, and they all said that when I shot him they would carry me to Gen. Harrison's army, where the Britishers couldn't catch me."
"My son," said his mother, "if you shoot Proctor, they will shoot your father, and they would put us all in prison. Don't you do it, my boy."
"All right, I won't," said George, "but, mother," he added, regretfully, "I could have popped him ever so easy."
(from  Robert B. Ross, History of the Knaggs Family)