Friday, May 7, 2021

A Man of Tried Courage, Patriotism, and Fidelity: Major Thomas Maxwell and the War of 1812

 On July 7, 1818 Colonel Joseph L Smith, commanding officer of the 3rd Infantry Regiment and of Detroit, wrote to Daniel Parker, the Adjutant and Inspector General of the Army at Washington, D.C., regarding an aged man who was setting off on a journey back east: “Sir, Major Thompson Maxwell who has been on duty at this place for the last two or three years in the capacity of principle barrack master is about to visit- walking, too…” The man he spoke of claimed to have been a survivor of at least four wars: the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-1766), the American Revolution (1775-1783), and the War of 1812 (1812-1815). He had fought as one of Roger’s Rangers; had been one of the disguised Sons of Liberty who participated in the Boston Tea Party; had been a captain in the Massachusetts militia during Shay’s Rebellion in 1787.

            Whether Maxwell was present at all these events is not undisputed by historians. One recent web article calls him “the Forrest Gump of the American Revolution” ( accessed 5/5/2021). However, what is easier to verify is his service during the War of 1812, which is verified by both primary and secondary sources. Most of the latter remark on his presence with William Hull’s army when it marched to Detroit. However, in the aftermath of Hull’s surrender of Detroit, a local mob singled out Thomas Maxwell for reprisal and burned his house down. Homeless and destitute, in his 60s, Maxwell remained with the American army throughout the rest of the war.

            In 1800, Maxwell and his family had moved to Ohio and settled in Butler County, north of Cincinnati. Maxwell made a living, apparently, by driving hogs overland to Detroit, and from this and his service during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War—during which he had been to Detroit and Mackinac, he had a good knowledge of the wilderness between the Ohio settlements and the Michigan Territory. During Hull’s campaign he made a lifelong friendship with Lt. Colonel James Miller of the 4th Infantry Regiment. When Colonel Miller led an American force south from Detroit to try and break open the supply lines to Frenchtown, Thompson Maxwell volunteered to serve as chief scout, and went on horseback ahead of the column. A few days before, another American column had been ambushed and several scouts had been killed and mutilated. Maxwell himself claimed to have survived the infamous Battle of Bloody Run in July 1763 which had occurred only a few miles away outside Detroit. This time, there was another, stronger ambush which would be called the Battle of Maguagon, but Maxwell survived, and the Americans counter-attacked and won the day.

            However, in the wake of William Hull’s surrender of Detroit, Thompson Maxwell had to give up his horse, bridle and saddle to the enemy. He was paroled with most of the other Ohio volunteers and dropped off in Cleveland to make his way home as best as he could. His homecoming was a sour one. Another Ohio officer, a Captain Robertson who had been accused of cowardice during a skirmish near the Au Canard River during the campaign apparently sought to deflect his role in the defeat and got together a mob to attack him. Maxwell and his family escaped the mob, but they burned his house and most of his possessions. The Major’s reputation with the senior officers of the army was such that he was able to get letters of introduction from Colonels Lewis Cass, James Finley, Duncan McArthur, Major Thomas Van Horne, and Colonel Miller recommending him to Major General William Henry Harrison for service: “We can safely recommend him to any employment which requires firmness and perseverance.” (Harrison Papers).

            Major Maxwell had an aura of experience which awed younger officers. Lieutenant Joseph H Larwill encountered him on February 1, 1813 at the Northwestern Army’s camp on the Portage River: “He was one of those who was taken at Fort Edward, fought at Detroit and Bloody Knife when attacked by the noted Indian Pontiac, was through the most difficult scenes of the Revolutionary War and distinguished himself at Brownstown and in Hull’s Campaign. He is too feeble to stand the fatigues of a march but his breast burns with love of country and is desirous of rendering all the service that lies in his power, cares not the situation he may be placed in.”

            Maxwell served on General Harrison’s staff as a civilian guide through the early months of 1813 and was present during the construction of Fort Meigs. However, after the Battle of Frenchtown in January 1813, during which some local militiamen who had been involved in Hull’s campaign were captured again, there was fear that volunteers who might be captured again before being officially exchanged would be sent to Quebec and hung for breaking their parole. This apparently nearly happened to another scout named Whitmore Knaggs, who was captured a second time by Indians but let go. Maxwell returned to Butler County on February 25, 1813 only to find that his second wife had died 20 days beforehand.

Maxwell stayed with his son, until three days later when an anonymous note appeared at the house: “if you secret Maxwell another night, your home will share the same fate with his.”  After that, Thompson Maxwell stayed with other friends, travelled to Cincinnati, and was hosted for a while by Duncan McArthur in Chillicothe before trekking back to Cleveland where the commanding officer was another friend from Hull’s army: Major Thomas Jesup. From Cleveland Maxwell rejoined the American Army at Fort George, and remained with it as a volunteer throughout 1813 and 1814.

By 1814 both Major Thomas Jesup and Colonel James Miller had assumed command of regiments in the Left Division commanded by Major General Jacob Brown (Jesup commanded the famous 25th Infantry in Winfield Scott’s Brigade, and Miller commanded the 21st Infantry in Eleazar Ripley’s Brigade.) Major Maxwell seems to have served alongside them as a forage master until the siege of Fort Erie, when he was captured somewhere in Upper Canada outside the American perimeter of the fort. There is another element of serendipity here too, since the dragoons who captured him were led by Major Peter L. Chambers of the 41st Regiment of Foot. Chambers might have recognized Maxwell from the surrender of Detroit, and had served with the British forces in the Northwest before being captured himself at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

Thompson Maxwell again lost his horse, his hat and spurs, and was left with nothing but a handkerchief to wear on his head as he was marched into captivity. The prisoners were made to walk 60 miles to Kingston. On a stop at Hamilton, they were forced to stay in a small room, “the stench was so bad and I feeble, that I came back to the door and leaned against the side of it.” The captain of the guard ordered him to go back in, despite Maxwell’s protest that he was sick. In response, the officer ordered the sentry to force him back into the room with the point of a bayonet. “At this moment Major Rogers (the commissary of prisoners) came along and asked what was the matter.” When Maxwell told him his name, Rogers recognized him as a man his father had mentioned having served with during the French and Indian War:

“Major R. gave the Captain d----, and said to me “Come along with me!” He was put up in a house, given a clean shirt and a blanket coat, and sent to Kingston on a horse. In Kingston he was well treated, but in late October he was transferred to Montreal in an open boat, and was placed under close confinement until March 1815. Several months after the war ended, he was returned to the territory of the United States at Sackett’s Harbor, New York. There he met General Jacob Brown, who had commanded the army at Fort Erie. General Brown gave him $60 and sent him on to Buffalo, where he was able to collect $375 in back pay.

After the War of 1812, Maxwell secured a position as Barracks Master at the US Army post at Detroit. In 1818, when Colonel Smith wrote his letter to the Adjutant General, Maxwell made his way (riding, not walking) overland from Detroit to New Hampshire, where he visited his old friend General Miller, who would be appointed to serve as the first governor of the Arkansas Territory. While staying with Miller, Major Maxwell dictated his life story, which was transcribed by the General's secretary Lt. Allanson. This unpublished memoir, with parts such as the Battle of Maguagon left out "to be filled in later" by Miller, who had also been present. As a result there are many gaps in the narrative concerning Maxwell's part in the 1812 and 1814 campaigns. Returning to Michigan, after his retirement Maxwell lived in a cottage outside town, and passed away aged 90. He is buried in the Wallaceville Cemetery, in Dearborn Heights, Michigan.


“The Narrative of Major Thompson Maxwell,” Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 7 no. 3 (June 1865).

Letter of Colonel Joseph L. Smith to General Daniel Parker, 7 July 1818 (National Archives: Letters Received by the Adjutant General)

James L. Barton, Address on the Early Reminiscences of Western New York and the Lake Country… Buffalo: Steam Press of Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1848.

Find A Grave: Thompson Maxwell

( accessed 5/7/2021

            New England Historical Society “Major Thompson Maxwell, Forrest Gump of the American Revolution" ( accessed 5/7/2021)

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