Porter, Peter Buell

Peter Buell Porter, politician, “War Hawk,” and soldier (b at Salisbury, Conn, 14 Aug 1773; d at Niagara Falls, Niagara County, 20 Mar 1844). Peter Porter was a critical voice for America’s declaration of war with Britain in the War of 1812. He served with distinction during the conflict, being one of a handful of politicians who matched their words with personal deeds in the face of danger. Following the courage of his convictions earned Porter praise that followed him after the war, when he eventually became Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams.

Voices for War

Porter trained in law at Yale, became an early supporter of James Madison and was soon elected to Congress, and established a career in commercial trade. While in Washington, he became a colleague of Henry Clay, the Kentucky Congressman whose vocal call for military action against British actions on American sailors and trades made him the leading voice of the “War Hawks” in government. Both Porter and Clay were disgusted with British impressments of American sailors and what they believed to be a weak and complacent diplomacy from both President Thomas Jefferson and his successor, James Madison. The solution, they believed, was a swift and crushing military defeat of British forces in Canada that would not only send a signal to London that the US would not be challenged on the seas or in trade, but would also provide the means for the US to fulfill its “manifest destiny” of hegemony over North America. Clay, Porter, and others pressured Madison to end the discussion and take up arms. Madison finally agreed with the vocal War Hawks and in the summer of 1812 the young republic was again at war with Britain.

War of 1812

But Porter, unlike many others, was all too well aware of America’s unpreparedness for a sustained military effort in the rugged terrain between the US and Canada. He pushed for greater numbers of soldiers and supplies. Most of his efforts had no impact on the government, so Porter switched tactics and hats: he offered his experience in commercial trade to the military, and became assistant quartermaster general with the rank of brigadier general in the New York militia.

At the battle of Black Rock, Porter served under the command of General Alexander Smyth. Porter was enraged at the general’s poor handing of the battle and general incompetence in invading Canada. He took his opinion to the press, branding Smyth a coward in public. Furious, General Smyth countered that Porter was no better than an opportunist who joined the military for fat trade contracts and graft. The fight was on, literally. The men agreed to a duel with pistols at the Niagara River. Each man took his twenty paces, turned, and fired . . . and missed.

After the duel, Porter focused on recruitment, where his efforts helped raise men who eventually served in Winfield Scott’s army, which campaigned through 1814 on the Niagara front, including a daring and successful attempt to recruit members of the Iroquois nation to fight on the American side against the British and Canadians. He orchestrated a meeting with Seneca leader Red Jacket, who agreed to ride with 500 warriors to serve under an American flag and Porter’s command. With forces raised, Porter set out to prove he wasn’t just in the war for money. He led the Americans and Native Americans in the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane, though they met their greatest success with the siege of Fort Erie, where the British were forced to withdraw. Porter was repaid for these efforts with a Congressional gold medal.

Porter’s Political Career

At war’s end, Porter held the office of Secretary of State and, later, Secretary of War, though his achievements in these posts never matched his tireless and risky efforts in war. Smart, efficient and bold, Porter earned a reputation as a good officer who didn’t suffer fools gladly, be they older or outrank him, but proved himself when it counted the most: with victories on the battlefield.

Author: Jason Ridler

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