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Soon after his return in 1798, he removed to the city of New York, and was again induced, by the solicitation of his friends, to take charge of a school for a few months. But the cultivation of his mind, and the preparation of its powers for future action, were still the principal objects of his exertions; and at that excited period in the political history of the country, an ample theatre for improvement was presented to him in the discussion of the great topics of public interest on which parties were divided. He did not fail to convert the occasion to his use. He took a prominent part in political debates, and the press exhibited frequent essays from his pen, which attracted no inconsiderable share of the public attention. During his residence in New York, he commenced the study of the law, but soon abandoned it as uncongenial with his disposition for active and adventurous pursuits. An opportunity being presented to him to make a purchase of land on the borders of Lake Ontario and the river St. Lawrence, in that part of the state of New York which is now the county of Jefferson, he established himself upon it while it was wholly uncultivated, and built the first human habitation within thirty miles of the lake. Under his direction the new settlement soon became flourishing and extensive; and to the influence, which he subsequently acquired with the legislature of the state in various public situations, which he filled, the county of Jefferson owes much of its early prosperity and wealth. Immediately after effecting some necessary improvements, he removed his parents to his new abode: he established them near him, and to the close of his life he devoted himself to their happiness and comfort.
The active and enterprising spirit, by which General Brown was distinguished in his youth, was chastised by repeated discouragements. But his energy never for a moment forsook him; his first and last acts bear the same impression of fearlessness and resolution. His early life was a scene of constant trial. He was thrown, when a mere youth, upon his own resources; and his powers were tasked to the utmost in providing simultaneously for his education and his subsistence. Bnt every obstacle was overcome by the same firmness and perseverance, which, in the progress of his military career, enabled him to triumph over difficulties far more trying and formidable.
In 1809, he was appointed a colonel in the militia ; and in the following year he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
At the declaration of war in 1812, he was selected to defend the eastern frontier of Lake Ontario and the southern shore of the river St. Lawrence, a line extending from Oswego to Lake St. Francis, and nearly two hundred miles in length. The duty imposed on him was, from the exposed condition of the frontier, highly responsible and delicate; and from the inadequate means at his disposal, it was also both embarrassing and vexatious. It was, however, discharged with his characteristic promptitude and vigor; the vulnerable points were put in the best possible state of defence; and on the 4th of October, he succeeded in repelling an attack made upon him at Ogdensburg, where he had fixed his head quarters, by a British force far superior to his own in numbers. In this affair, the enemy lost several men in killed and wounded, while on his own side, no one sustained the least injury.
The term for which he was called into service having soon afterwards expired, he returned to his civil pursuits at Brownville. But his capacity for war had attracted the attention of the government, and the command of a regiment in the regular army was immediately tendered to him. The offer, however, from a determination on his own part to submit to no sacrifice of rank, was declined.
In the spring of 1813, the regular forces having been almost wholly withdrawn from Sackett's Harbor, to act in the reduction of Little York and Fort George, in Upper Canada, a demonstration against that post was made by a British force from Kingston, under the command of Sir George Prevost, and Sir James Yeo. Colonel Backus of the dragoons, who had been left at Sackett's Harbor with about four hundred regular troops, having been but a few days on the frontier, and being unacquainted with its localities, immediately despatched a message to General Brown, who resided within eight miles of the post, requesting him, in a noble spirit of disinterestedness, to come and take the command, and to bring with him as large a body of the militia, as he could assemble. To this request, alike honorable to both parties, an immediate assent was given. Colonel Backus was promptly reinforced by several hundred men of General Brown's brigade, and their united forces were disposed by the general with admirable skill and judgment. The attack of the enemy was fierce, and for a time successful; but after a series of skilful and spirited movements on the part of General Brown, and a most gallant and resolute resistance by the regular troops, the British forces were completely vanquished, and retreated precipitately to their boats. The British loss was about four hundred and fifty, while that of the American force was only one hundred and fiftysix. Among the slain was the brave and chivalrous Backus, who fell, animating the courage of his men by gallant exhibitions of his own.
General Brown again retired to his rural abode and occupations, and in the month of August ensuing, he was appointed a brigadiergeneral in the regular army. He descended the St. Lawrence in the fall of the same year, on the expedition against Montreal, which was frustrated by a want of concert and coöperation between the commanding generals of the two divisions of the northern army.
Early in 1814, General BROWN was promoted to the rank of major-general, and was placed in command of the northern division of the army at French Mills. The military reputation of the country was at this period exceedingly depressed. The principal enterprises, in which our forces were embarked during the latter part of the year 1813, had proved abortive; and a strong feeling of disappointment had taken possession of the public mind-a feeling rendered more acute by the confident hopes, with which they had been undertaken. The officers of the army were deeply chagrined, both on account of the ill success attending the expeditions referred to, and the unfavorable impression which prevailed with regard to their military capacity. General Brown labored during the winter, to inspire his subordinates with a resolution to retrieve the reputation of the army; he had the good fortune to gain their confidence, and, with the aid of many spirited and efficient coadjutors, he succeeded not only in renewing the spirit of the northern army, but in uniting to it that mechanical discipline, which was indispensable to give it effect. To these exertions are to be ascribed the brilliant triumphs, which he subsequently achieved.
In the spring of 1814, he marched his division from French Mills to Sackett's Harbor, and thence to Buffalo, and after executing a few necessary preparations, he crossed the Niagara river and carried Fort Erie, which surrendered without any resistance.
On the 5th of July, General Brown fought the battle of Chippewa, the first in that series of distinguished successes, which have so eminently contributed to exalt our military character. The British forces had made a rapid advance from the Chippewa with the hope of finding the American commander unprepared for their reception, and were hardly formed in line, when General Scott was ordered to make an attack with the first brigade. The combat was maintained with great gallantry on both sides in the open field, where victory must necessarily turn on superior bravery or skill. After a brief, but sanguinary conflict, and before the second brigade under General Ripley could be brought into the field, the whole British force was routed, and retired precipitately under cover of their works on the Chippewa creek, which alone secured them from total destruction.
On the evening of the 25th of July, the two armies again met at Niagara, in the immediate vicinity of the falls. General BROWN had sent forward General Scott with his brigade to divert the enemy from the design of crossing to the opposite side of the strait, for the purpose of seizing upon the depot of the American army, and thus cutting off their supplies of munitions and subsistence. The moment General Scott came in sight of the enemy, he made an attack, and despatched intelligence to General Brown, who was in a few minutes on the field, followed by General Ripley's brigade. The combat now became obstinate and bloody beyond all parallel. It was fought like the battle of Chippewa, in the open field, but with advantages on the part of the enemy, against which nothing but superior courage and skilfulness in evolution could have prevailed. Here, as at Chippewa, the American army was completely victorious. The enemy had chosen his own ground; he was attacked in a commanding position, which he had occupied with superior numbers, and which was sheltered by a height elevated above the surrounding country, and garnished with artillery. From this position he was driven at the point of the bayonet, his cannon captured, and his forces completely put to rout. After this discomfiture, he was reinforced by fresh troops from Fort George and Queenston, and made three unsuccessful attempts to regain possession of the height by charging the American line. The two last charges were among the most desperate in the annals of warfare. They were decided entirely by the bayonet, and the result is the best evidence of the firmness and spirit, which animated the contending parties.
The skill evinced by General Brown in meeting all the fluctuations of the battle with such movements as were necessary to counteract the advantages of his opponents, and to give effect to his own; the coolness, with which he executed his plans; and the spirit of self-devotion, in which he maintained his position at the head of his troops until the victory was complete, although he had received two severe wounds, and was so much exhausted by the loss of blood, that he was supported on his horse by the members of his military family; have given him a high and enviable rank in the military history of his country.
It was not until the 2d of September that he was sufficiently recovered from his wounds to resume the command of the army. It
was then enclosed within the walls of Fort Erie, environed by superior numbers, worn down by a long and harrassing siege, destitute of necessaries as well as comforts, deficient in munitions of war, and abandoned, as it were, to its own efforts. The enemy's force amounted nearly to four thousand men, while the American army did not exceed half that number. With this inferior force, enfeebled by laborious service, General BROWN, after having executed all his preparations with profound secresy, made a sortie on the 17th September, at midday, drove the besiegers from their entrenchments, and either destroyed or rendered their works totally unserviceable. The loss of the enemy was one thousand, and that of the American army five hundred. On the 21st, the enemy abandoned his position, and retired beyond the Chippewa. Thus was executed one of the most brilliant achievements of the war, and it may be said to have crowned the other successes on the Niagara frontier, in which there had been a successive display of firmness, intrepidity and persevering resolution, with an instance of boldness as spirited as any to be found on the records of modern warfare.
General Brown was eminently qualified to excel in the military profession. With a constitutional insensibility to fear, he united a moral courage, which was equally proof against surprise or intimidation. Responsibility he never feared; he was always ready to meet any emergency however remotely connected with the discharge of his duty to his country, or to himself; nor could any obstacle, however formidable, deter him from the execution of his objects. Indeed, it was on the most trying occasions, that he appeared to the best advantage; when dangers were greatest, his coolness and resolution were most conspicuous. With all the energy and vigor which distinguished his plans, they were never rash or imprudent; he never embarked in an enterprise without fortifying it with such means of achievement, as might, with skilful management and unshaken firmness, be safely relied on, as adequate to the execution of his object.
It is worthy of remark, that General Brown never failed in any enterprise which he conducted himself, or which he caused to be executed under the direction of others. Every partisan movement undertaken by his orders, by officers chosen by himself, was successful. He was, in truth, not less remarkable for the sagacity with which he selected the individuals best calculated for the particular service to be performed, than for the promptness with which he always resolved on the right course of action in different emergencies.