Through the Lens of a Kentucky Soldier: Rezin Gist and the War of 1812

 By Danielle Moore, Public History Center Fellow, Christopher Newport University, Class of 2016
 Editor: Dr. Sheri Shuck-Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director, Public History Center, Christopher Newport University

Rezin Gist was born on August 25, 1787, in Baltimore County, Maryland, and eventually moved to Bourbon, County Kentucky. There, Gist married a woman named Rachel Dawson in 1812 who eventually bore four daughters with him. When the War of 1812 erupted, Gist enlisted into the army where he served as a 1st Lieutenant in the 28th United States Infantry. Under command of General William Henry Harrison, Gist moved along the frontier to fight against the British and garner control of the northern waterways. He ultimately survived the war, dying in his home state on June 11, 1834. While Rezin Gist was just an ordinary soldier, his letters preserved and transcribed by the Mariners’ Museum Library provide a specific lens into the War of 1812, and ultimately highlight the various wartime events that led to a hard-fought American victory.[1] Gist left behind detailed accounts regarding the Siege at Fort Meigs, the capsizing of the schooner, Chippewa, and the movement across Detroit to regain American control of the northern waterway Lake Erie. This exhibit focuses on Gist and some of the battles he fought, and his contributions throughout the War of 1812.

A Blurry Episode of American History

The War of 1812 often constitutes a forgettable part of American history; accounts like Gist’s allow both historians and the public to better remember such an important factor of our nation’s early history. Many Americans can recall general information about the American Revolution or the Civil War, but questions regarding the American-British conflict at the beginning of the nineteenth-century typically produce confused looks or blank stares. Why is this so? Perhaps it is the murky origins of the War of 1812, or that it is often lost in the larger conflict of the Napoleonic Wars, that leave it a conflict clouded in obscurity.

Despite this conjecture, the very foundation of the United States drastically changed as a result of the War of 1812. With Great Britain embroiled in a war with France, later shipping regulations imposed by both countries hurt American interests. France controlled the land while the British controlled the sea, so shipments arriving to the United States were deeply affected and the American economy continuously suffered. To make matters worse, Great Britain started impressing American commercial seamen into the Royal Navy, claiming that, “they were simply reclaiming deserters who had abandoned the king and country.”[2]

Relations between American Indians and white Americans fared no better: white colonists continued to flood into the frontier and take over native lands in the coveted Ohio Valley. Indian leaders, specifically Tenskwatawa (the Shawnee Prophet) and his brother Tecumseh, organized and led various battles against their unwelcomed neighbors. The Americans blamed much of this conflict on the British, and figured expelling that nation’s presence from Canada would solve the frontier issue and allow for mass white American expansionism. By 1812, warmongers dominated Congress and easily passed a war declaration on June 18. A great naval war would ensue, and a blurry episode of American history had officially begun.[3]

A Naval War

The War of 1812, undoubtedly, was a naval war from the very onset. As commercial trade issues between Great Britain and the United States significantly affected the tensions between the two nations, power over the seas encapsulated the war that soon followed. Great Britain and France found themselves embroiled in commercial blockades against the other. The U.S. continued to trade with France, incensing the British who still felt some sort of mercantile control over its former colony. This led to the British overexertion of legal powers and the eventual large-scale impressment of American seamen; these factors constituted the most direct causes of the War of 1812. More importantly, the Royal Navy of Great Britain was an absolute powerhouse in terms of maritime strength. As a new nation, the United States had a lot to prove to effectively compete against its former mother country with such an infant naval force. At the height of the conflict, Great Britain settled its forces into Canadian waterways, whereupon control of Canada became a wartime goal for the United States. Much of this war, therefore, was to be fought at sea, and the Americans had a long fight ahead.

Luckily for the United States, years of traditional training and mass commercial trading groomed many men for successful naval careers and aptitudes. The long wars between European nations forced American traders to remain wary of privateering at sea, and many soldiers from the 1812 conflict long recalled the piracy components of the American Revolution. And as the British impressed American men into service, these same men learned British naval ways further; Americans able to escape British impressment almost always returned to the United States to serve its own navy.

In regards to the United States’ actual naval strength, it held its own in some ways, in comparison to the Royal Navy. By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy increased by three or fourfold. It also held sizeable vessels, but only armaments were comparable to those of the British; in 1812, the U.S. boasted sixteen ships with long and short guns ranging from forty-four to twelve a piece; the British fleet consisted of two-hundred-nineteen ships with an average of seventy-four guns on each ship. Luckily for the United States, many of these British ships were occupied with French forces, so the numbers game ended up a little less uneven. In general, American ships did sport better-suited and larger guns, which served as an advantage over the British fleet. The American Navy, however, still struggled in other areas against the British besides its number of vessels. American foundries, or metal castings, did not hold up as well as those of the British. As a result, American guns were more likely to burst and their shots failed more often. Even worse, the British Navy generally outnumbered its American foe, which continuously challenged the U.S. at sea.

While much of the War of 1812 took place on the Atlantic and other U.S.-Canadian waterways, the war still existed on the land, too. In the case of Rezin Gist, much of the soldier’s accounts depict such land battles or events. One must not forget, however, how vital the U.S. Navy was in securing an American victory. Greatly outnumbered by both ships and men, the United States secured important victories on Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and in the Chesapeake region. Privateering also suited the American Navy well, with five hundred America ships preying upon British seamen during the war. American privateers captured over a thousand British merchants, which ultimately damaged the commercial interests of Great Britain even further.

By the time the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, neither side wished to concede much and seemingly halted fighting out of mere exhaustion. Maritime rights were upheld and all territories before hostilities stood the same. The American side still felt an immense sense of victory, as its original naval inferiority later produced an unexpected sense of superiority in the larger world. According to historians David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, “the Royal Navy certainly developed a grudging respect for the U.S. Navy, [and the world] accorded U.S. envoys a greater deference than they had enjoyed before the war.”[4] Ultimately, the War of 1812 jumpstarted the great history of the U.S. Navy, widened commercial ties throughout the world, and supported American expansion. While the war might fall into a forgotten section of an average history class, it drastically altered the course of American history. The Gist letters are but one example of how we can examine the war’s historical importance and at the same time highlight these forgotten smaller events and figures. [5]

A Prelude to the Siege at Fort Meigs

Before the following episode occurred, where Gist fought is not exactly clear.  His letters, nonetheless, eventually shed light to the challenging event of the Siege at Fort Meigs and reflect some of the general fears felt among American soldiers. The war had already entered its second year by the time of this siege, and with continued fighting for control of the waterways connecting the United States and Canada, the stage was set for the Siege at Fort Meigs.

After an initial battle at Frenchtown along the Raisin River in Michigan in 1813, one of Harrison’s main commanders, Brigadier General James Winchester, felt victorious enough to settle in for the night. Winchester, inadvertently, left the right side of his flank entirely exposed and with no safeguards despite rumblings of a British counterattack. Before sunrise the next morning, Winchester awoke to cannon shots. The general was forced to surrender his remaining Kentucky troops and end the prospect of a continued battle on the site altogether.

Nearby, four hundred Kentucky riflemen heard of their forced surrender. Upon the reading of Winchester’s order, the men demonstrated their disdain, cursing and weeping when they finally agreed to surrender upon a British promise to take care of the wounded and let the others leave safely. As the riflemen finished yielding their weaponry, British soldiers remarked that they “had never seen such a sorry crew.”[6] To make matters worse, these men were horrifyingly dirty with few clothes to protect them in the harsh Michigan climate, which certainly added to their sorrowful perception; among that crew, undoubtedly, stood men who fought alongside Rezin Gist, who would later write about the subsequent fighting in a letter to his wife. Gist, nonetheless, later met up with these men as they marched towards Harrison’s rear battalion by Lake Erie. Meanwhile, the British left behind the wounded Kentuckians. Disgruntled Indian troops under Chief Roundhead (a Wyandot leader would die shortly with Tecumseh and his cause) later scalped, burned alive, or beheaded these remaining individuals. Gist, and the riflemen who would soon join him northwest, luckily escaped such carnage alive. [7]

The Fort Meigs Fiasco

While Kentucky riflemen like Rezin Gist managed to leave the Raisin River relatively unscathed, they had another story coming for them when they finally reached General Harrison’s rear troops in northern Ohio. Dispatched to regain American control over Lake Erie, General Harrison focused his sights on an area by the Maumee River in Ohio. There, Harrison ordered the construction of Fort Meigs after acquiring an additional few thousand Kentucky soldiers. General Harrison gravely feared British attack and fought for additional provisions in the construction of Fort Meigs, but Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. deemed his cries “artificial alarms.”[8]

Armstrong’s musings proved untrue when British commander General Henry Procter led 2,400 men to attack Fort Meigs on April 30, 1813. Thanks to Harrison’s earlier inclinations, the fort was fairly well prepared, and the Americans had an additional 1,400 men on the way. When the reinforcements finally arrived under General Green Clay, however, the British had committed an effective siege; Rezin Gist was among those fighting off British prowess.

Generals Harrison and Clay soon formulated a plan of action. The men decided that under Lt. Col. William Dudley, about 800 men “would land on the north bank of the Maumee… spike the guns that were bombarding the fort; and then retreat across the river to the safety of the fort.”[9] Dudley led his men into action; successfully disarming British guns, the men decided not to withdraw back to Fort Meigs despite official orders. Instead, Dudley’s men pursued British troops into the woods whereupon they faced a counterattack. This costly error caused the deaths of 600 of Dudley’s men, including Dudley himself. Procter later decided to end the siege, mostly due to the difficult terrain and poor weather, leaving Fort Meigs with a victory for the British and an embarrassment for Harrison’s already battered troops.

Gist explained the siege at Fort Meigs in an impassioned letter to his wife. The soldier writes of the harsh Ohio lands, explaining the utter isolation of the area far from any other settlements. Gist also writes about hostile Indians surrounding the fort that undoubtedly supported the British cause under Tecumseh. A general air of discomfort emanates throughout this letter to Gist’s wife, Rachel, to whom he laments of his inability to communicate. With the troubling factors at stake, Gist’s lot clearly grows no better after the Siege of Fort Meigs. He explains the disheartening losses experienced on the American side, specifically naming the “misconduct” conducted by Col. Dudley that led to so many American deaths. The heavy fire and bloodshed during the siege is clear in Gist’s writings. He later attempts to comfort his wife by explaining the British and Indian retreat and of his good health. While the soldier ends this letter with an afterthought of near danger, Gist contends that a bullet never hit him, but only got close to doing so. Rezin Gist escaped imminent danger and accomplished a feat that many of his Kentucky brethren never could after the events in the spring of 1813—the opportunity to continue fighting for the American cause during the War of 1812.[10]

After the Siege and the Battle of the Thames

Just two months after the May siege at Fort Meigs, Secretary Armstrong reconsidered the campaign in the West. Armstrong soon decided that in order to successfully drive the British out of the upper Midwest, they would need to invade Canada. Secretary Armstrong feverously worked to recruit more men from Kentucky; Procter, however, laid siege on Fort Meigs for a second time in July. With over a half of Harrison’s men lost at Fort Meigs, the U.S. needed to act quickly and aggressively against its foreign foe.

Sooner rather than later, the U.S. did just that. Harrison and other American associates began scheming with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry about potential next moves for the American side. Taking control over Lake Erie became a clear move, and Perry was assigned to construct a number of boats to use in the fight against the British. By September 9, 1813, the Americans and British spotted each other on Lake Erie and engaged in battle. On the next day, Perry successfully destroyed the British fleet after a hard-fought battle; Perry steered the USS Niagara into British Captain Robert Barclay’s fleet, fired from both batteries, and forced the British to admit their defeat and relinquish Lake Erie.

Perry’s victory was a stunning and pivotal defeat. The British lost control over the Northwest frontier and consequently strengthened the American cause. The Battle of Lake Erie further demonstrated a synergy between the fight on land and at sea, and also Perry’s incredible ability to raise a naval fleet strong enough to defeat the Royal Navy. This battle, nonetheless, spawned the subsequent Battle of Thames and hastened the British evacuation from Detroit, Fort Malden, and vital connections in Lower Canada. Gist was under Harrison’s command during the British evacuation of Detroit, and subsequently contributed to these continued American successes.[11]

The British army soon moved up the Thames River in Upper Canada after the Americans’ stunning victory at Lake Erie. Tensions between Chief Tecumseh and General Procter were increasing as American strength grew in the Northwest. Thus, many of the Indian soldiers abandoned the British army and returned home. Proctor, nonetheless, stood ground with Tecumseh at the site.

Meanwhile, Harrison ventured alongside his Kentucky infantrymen and later the Ohio regiments towards the British; Gist, perhaps, stood alongside these battalions. A battle soon commenced with the Americans pounding through British lines. The British and their Indian allies placed themselves in lines about fifty miles east of Detroit at Moraviantown; 3,000 of Harrison’s men, however, came storming through these lines whilst chanting “Remember the Raisin.”[12] The British soon surrendered to the barraging, while American Indian troops stood their ground until they soon learned that Tecumseh had died. This additional defeat marked another massive blow for the British. The British officially abandoned the Old Northwest, and the American Indian dreams of reclaiming their stolen lands all but died. The war, most seemingly, existed firmly on the American side.[13]

The Sinking Schooner

Shortly after the events at Thames, Rezin Gist journeyed along the Northwestern frontier to continue Harrison’s attack. On October 9, 1813, however, the schooner on which Gist sailed, the Chippewa, wrecked. The Chippewa, once belonged to the British; Perry secured it after the Battle of Lake Erie. Nevertheless, Gist clearly details the harrowing events of the schooner’s shipwreck; “overtaken by a violent storm,” Gist and his fellow soldiers managed to save themselves by “[throwing] overboard great parts of the baggage.”[14] As Gist describes the schooner being terribly damaged by the storm, the quick thinking and actions of the crew prevented further disaster, and the ship eventually landed ashore.

The letter detailing this event clearly reflects such heroics, but also demonstrates the danger of the situation. Throughout his letter, Gist remarks upon his innate fear during the sinking of the schooner. He continuously tells his wife of his love and admiration for her, and worries that she will fear of his death upon learning of the sunken vessel. Gist offers “thanks to the Almighty” for his luck, and further mentions his dispatch to General Harrison for additional provisions and another ship to reach the regiment’s desired destination.[15] Gist again expresses his fears regarding the Chippewa’s shipwreck in a letter dated October 24, 1813, informing his friend Asa that he is indeed safe despite any potential news at home in Kentucky. He ends this letter by telling his friend that the United States has its sights set on Upper Canada, and that in due time, “that place will be shortly attacked.”[16] Ultimately, this particular letter highlights the continuing danger for the troops on the Northwest frontier. Gist and men like him fighting under Harrison may have been winning the fight against the British, but were in imminent danger while doing so. By October, nonetheless, Upper Canada clearly stood as one of the main goals of the American cause, and Gist would continue to record his movements deep into the Niagara River region.[17]

Gist’s Last Letter and McClure’s Infamous Burning

By the middle of 1813, American forces maintained moderate control over the waters and lands surrounding the Niagara River. In October of that same year, as Gist continued to claim his survival to his wife in the last two letters of the collection, Harrison’s Kentucky troops marched towards Buffalo to join up with Brigadier General George McClure’s New York Militia. Gist writes that he is journeying towards Canada in order to guard over some British prisoners, undoubtedly captured during the fighting at Lake Erie. Gist further mentions that Proctor may stage a defense at Burlington Heights, which Brig. General McClure seemed to already believe at the time. McClure was eventually able to convince Harrison to send a force against the British at Burlington Heights.

While a variation of this plan did not happen until November, Gist’s musings on the subject demonstrate the scheming of McClure and Harrison. Such scheming proved somewhat inefficient, as the Americans did not have enough men to fight off imminent British attack in December, and McClure infamously burned down the city of Newark in a desperate act of defense. As the war rattled on for another two years after these events, Gist’s exact whereabouts remain unclear. As he entered into Canada to push back British forces, he must have helped lead the war to its end in 1815, as Gist died in his home state in 1834.[18]

While the War of 1812 ended in a virtual stalemate yet an apparent American victory in 1815, documents such as Rezin Gist’s letters continue to shed light on the significance of this relatively obscure war. Gist played a part in many significant campaigns in the Northwest frontier and served alongside General William Henry Harrison to secure the war’s end. Intensely fought on both land and sea, the War of 1812 deserves continuous research and recognition, especially through the lens of its soldiers, with the preservation and examination of letters like those of Rezin Gist.

Notes

[1] Jean Muir Dorsey and Maxwell Jay Dorsey, Christopher Gist of Maryland and Some of Descendants, 1679-1957 (Chicago: John S. Swift Company, Inc., 1958).

[2] David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, The War of 1812 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), 2.  

[3] Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, i-6.

[4] Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, 13.

[5] Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812: The History of the United States Navy During the Last War with Great Britain, To Which is Appended an Account of The Battle of New Orleans (New York: The Reviews of Reviews Company, 1882), 27-104; Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, 6-8.

[6] A.J. Langguth, Union 1812 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 240.

[7] Langguth, Union 1812, 238-241

[8] C. Edward Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 88.

[9] Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, 88.

[10] Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, 94-95; Langguth, Union 1812, 242-243.

[11] Langguth, Union 1812, 244-263; Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, 77-79,156-158; Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, 91-92.

[12] Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, 79.

[13] Heidler and Heidler, The War of 1812, 77-96; Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, 92-93.

[14] Letters.

[15] Letters.

[16] Letters.

[17] Langguth, Union 1812, 255.

[18] Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, 109-111.

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