Dearborn, Henry

Henry Dearborn, doctor, soldier, politician, military figure in the War of 1812 (b at North Hampton, New Hampshire, 1751; d at Roxbury, Massachusetts, 6 June 1829). Dearborn studied medicine and began a practice in Nottingham Square, New Hampshire. He fought in the American Revolution and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Dearborn was discharged in 1783, moved to Maine (then part of Massachusetts) and in 1787 was appointed a major general of militia. He served in Congress from 1792 to 1797 as a Republican supporting Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, with Jefferson appointing him secretary of war in 1801. Dearborn supported Jefferson’s reduction of the army and tried to make it truly republican by drawing officers from all classes and making it less hierarchical. He supported the policy of “civilization and assimilation” of Aboriginal peoples, and along with his agents, used manipulation and force when persuasion failed. His efforts to reform the militia were unsuccessful, but as a political reward for his efforts he was appointed collector of customs of Boston in 1809.

Dearborn in the War of 1812

In 1812 President Madison appointed Dearborn senior major general of the US Army, and put him in charge of the northeastern sector from Niagara to the New England coast. Dearborn established his headquarters at Greenbush, across the Hudson River from Albany, but spent weeks away in Boston strengthening coastal defenses and trying to persuade New England governors to allow their militia to be used in an invasion of Canada. He did not succeed and the result was that he launched no major offensive against Lower Canada.

His leadership improved slightly in 1813, but instead of putting the main effort along the Lake Champlain route to attack Montréal or Québec City, American forces were scattered to the west. He commanded the successful attacks on York, the capital of Upper Canada, and on Fort George, but neither victory produced decisive results. Dearborn suffered repeatedly from illness and was relieved of his command in July 1813. He sat on General Hull’s court martial which he probably should not have done because his inaction in the summer of 1812 had meant that Isaac Brock could concentrate on attacking Detroit without worrying about an invasion of Lower Canada.

Dearborn was honorably discharged from the army in 1815 and remained active in politics in Massachusetts. Madison had nominated him for secretary of war, but after intense protest at the nomination Madison withdrew it. In 1822 President James Monroe sent him as minister to Portugal, a post which he held until 1824. He returned at his own request and retired to Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Dearborn was more effective as a follower than as a leader. His biographer concludes that he was moderately successful, “the near total failure of his military command in the War of 1812 being the notable exception.”

Author: Wes Turner

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