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There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.

-- Napoleon Bonaparte

War of 1812I was born in Pittsford, Otsego County, New York, on the 24th of September 1799. I am the son of Joseph Hanks, whose father's name was William, who lived in the green mountains of Vermont, and whose progenitors emigrated from Holland. My mother's maiden name was Anna Frary and her descent is traced to "the pilgrims".
In 1810, on account of my repeated solicitations, and most likely because my kind father was willing to indulge my wishes, he consented and I was removed to an adjoining town, where I learned to beat the drum. The reason of my choice of this in preference to another instrument were: I thought it produced the most pleasing noise; I knew that the drummer occupied a conspicuous station in the ranks of a regiment, and that a boy not older than myself, being a good performer, was looked on as a prodigy.

In 1813, a sergeant of the United States Army, under the authority of the government, made his appearance in Pawlet, beating up for recruits, offering twenty dollars bounty (advance pay) and 160 acres of land, to any who would enlist for either five years, or during the war. My youthful mind was fired with ardour in anticipation of a soldier's career; the pomp and splendour of a military life were vividly portrayed in my foolish imagination, and produced a desire to engage in the service, which was not to be relinquished. I wanted only a few months of fourteen years of age, and yet, young as I was, the officer had no objection to me as a musician; nay, he seemed quite desirous of securing me. Probably he would have refused to give me a place in the ranks as a private, under the burthens of a heavy musket.

My father consented to abandon me to vicissitudes, and vices, and dangers of a life of war, for an uncertain length of time; it might be only a few months, or it might continue for many years.

My excellent and affectionate mother had hitherto concealed her anxiety for my welfare, and the pain she felt in anticipation of her bereavement in the loss of her oldest son; for she has since informed me that she would rather have seen me decently buried than go into the army. When previously consulted by my father concerning my enlistment, she remonstrated but to no purpose. And now it was too late!

On the 20th of April, we marched for Burlington, and arrived in four or five days, during which I had a slight foretaste of the fare I was to enjoy in future. Now was the first time I had ever slept on any thing harder than feathers, neither had I eaten any kind of meat unless it was previously well cooked. I now devoured raw pork with greediness and was obliged to sleep, sometimes on hay in a barn, and sometimes on the "soft side of a pine board", as we used to say. When we arrived at camp, our provisions were exhausted, our feet blistered, our spirits low and dejected.

I had not been here long, when I witnessed an awful punishment, inflicted on a soldier, for the crime of desertion. His sentence was to have one hundred stripes on his back by the method styled "running the gauntlet", and then to wear the ball and chain at hard labour for the term of five years. Two ranks of men (fifty in each), struck the offender one stroke on his naked back with a green switch as he passed along between them.

Soldiers, with bayonets pointed at him preceded and followed so that the poor wretch could neither run nor escape, but was compelled to bear his torture without remedy. The blood ran down his back in streams, which was entirely divested of its integument and presented a spectacle to melt the heart of a stone. A cannon ball, weighing twenty-four pounds, was attached to his ankle by an iron chain about eight or ten feet in length, and he was removed to the guard house to be in readiness to commence his five years' task.

It was a scene of great interest to witness the violent destruction of life for the crime of desertion. Two men were hung for desertion in June. They were both placed on the gallows together. When the executioner cut the rope which held the drop, they both fell, one to rise no more, the other, to the ground. The rope broke above his head. He seemed but little hurt. He stood upon his feet, on terra firma, while his companion swung in view, struggling in the agonies of death.

A deep groan of horror burst involuntarily from the surrounding thousands of their fellows in arms who had been drawn up to witness the wages of insubordination. They hoped, however, that the living man would now be pardoned, as Providence seemed to have so signally interposed in his behalf. But our hopes were disappointed. At the command of an officer, Jack Ketch tied the fatal knot around the miserable fellow's throat, threw the other end of it over the top of the gallows, and with the assistance of another or two persons, drew him up high enough to choke him to death. We were compelled to remain upon the ground until life was extinct, a period of twenty or thirty minutes.

One farmer, near our encampment, had still in the ground a number of hundreds of bushels of potatoes. The owner was offered fifty cents a bushel for them, if he would dispose of as may as were wanted for that price. In refusing this proposition, he added that he "could get a dollar a bushel for them in Kingston".

It was soon noised around in the Camp that an American farmer was intending to supply provisions to the enemy and before the next morning it was decided to relieve him of the trouble and expense of digging his potatoes and of transporting them to market. The Soldiers had relieved him of the burden, and when he applied to the officers to remunerate him for his loss, they gave him no encouragement, or consolation, and he retired, lamenting his unwise decision, which had resulted so unfortunately for him.

In the first days of November, General Wilkinson being prepared, the army embarked in bateaux, and set out for Montreal (...) and passed on to Williamsburg, or "Chrysler's field" on the Canadian side. We arrived here on the 10th of November and went ashore and built fires of the rail fences. It was very cold and sleeting all night. I remember well that I had at that time a leather cap, and kept it on my head while I slept. Before morning I had, in trying to keep warm, changed my position with relation to the fire, and placed both my head and feet in such close contact with it repeatedly that my cap and shoes were burnt so badly as to be nearly valueless.

On the 11th the battle was fought at this place. It commenced about 10 A.M. and continued until 4 P.M., six hours, when we retreated to our boats and rowed down a few miles and landed on the American shore and camped for the night. In this battle we lost General Covington and several other officers, and some two hundred men killed and wounded; but it is difficult to say which had the advantage, on the whole.

After this we proceeded up nine miles to "French Mills". Winter had now set in, and being in forty-five degrees north latitude there was no hope of being able to prosecute the campaign further and we took up our winter quarters in this dreary spot.

We pitched out tents, spread hemlock boughs for our beds, built temporary fireplaces of stones and clay mortar and made ourselves as comfortable as the nature of the case would admit. The snow was soon four feet deep and the cold excessive. By the middle of January the barracks were completed, and we commenced occupying them. The first job of tailoring I ever performed was here. I had two blankets, and cut and made a pair of pantaloons out of one of them; as I needed the latter article much more than the former. Oh! what a pair of breeches!

After remaining in our barracks till about the middle of February 1814, we were ordered to march to Buffalo so as to be ready for the campaign in that quarter early in the summer. We continued here until July under the command of Major General Jacob Brown. Captains drilled their companies from 11 to 12. And at 1 or 2 o'clock P.M., the whole brigade, with all its officers, musicians and privates, under the command of General Winfield Scott, the most thorough disciplinarian I ever saw, were drilled from three to four hours. These exercises, continued daily for more than two months, could not fail to make us well acquainted with our business as soldiers and fit us for the contests which were expected during the summer in the enemy's country.

During the time we remained at Buffalo, five men were sentenced to be publicly shot for the offence of desertion. They were dressed in white robes with white caps upon their heads, and a red target fastened over the heart. The army was drawn up into a hollow square to witness the example that was about to be made of their comrades who had proved recreant to the regulations of the service. Five graves were dug in a row, five coffins placed near them, also in a line, with distance between coffins and graves to enable the criminals to kneel between them. About twelve men were assigned to the execution of each offender. Their guns were loaded by officers, and they were not permitted to examine them afterwards until they had fired.

All things being in readiness, the chaplain made a prayer, the caps were pulled down over the eyes of the poor culprits, and the word of command given: "Ready! Aim! Fire!" They all fell! Some into their graves, some over their coffins. One struggled faintly and the commanding officer ordered a sergeant to approach and end his misery. He obeyed by putting the muzzle of his piece within a yard of his head, and discharging it. This quieted him perfectly!

At this time one of the condemned slowly arose from his recumbent position to his knees and was assisted to his feet. His first remark was, "By God, I thought I was dead". In consequence of his youth and the peculiar circumstances of his case, he had been reprieved, but the fact was not communicated to him until this moment. He had anticipated execution with his comrades, and when the report of the guns took place, he fell with them, though not a ball touched him. The platoon assigned to him had guns given to them which were not charged, or at least had nothing but powder in them.

We heard the firing commence, and saw some of the cavalry returning wounded, and heard the savage yell of the British Indians. I remember, a trumpeter was riding back, furiously, wounded, with the blood streaming, profusely down his temples & cheeks. As I was also a musician, I felt much alarmed for my own safety, not knowing but I would be in as bad or a worse situation in a few minutes. There was no stopping, nor escape, into battle we must go.

A rail fence divided the field from the wood. Over this fence the soldiers were obliged to climb to obtain their places in the line. Many of them were shot and fell from the top of the fence, killed and wounded. While sitting on the fence for a single instant, ready to jump off into the open lot, a charge of grape shot rattled around me with terrible threatening to my personal safety. They cut the branches of trees over my head, and on my right hand and on my left; also splintered the rails on either side and under my feet but not so much as the hair of my head was hurt! A thousand times have I reflected on this incident as the most wonderful Providential preservation from instant death; though I suppose I have been in as great danger many times, but never so evident to myself as in this instance.

It is thought by many that, as musicians are placed in the rear of the line, they are in consequence in less danger than the private soldiers who constitute the line. But, as the musicians are placed in the rear of the colours, in the centre of the regiment or battalion, and as the aim of enemies respectively is mainly to shoot down the flags, and as the falling or striking of a flag is a signal of surrender; it seems to me that musicians thus situated are in equal danger with any other portion of the army.

During this engagement, nine different persons were shot down, under [our] flag, successively. At last, this Sergeant Festus Thompson took it and threw its folds to the breeze. He was wounded in the hip, and the staff was severed into splinters in his hand. But he again grasped it by the stump, and waved it triumphantly over his own and his fellow soldiers’ heads, until the close of the battle.

After many such incidents occurred; after hundreds on both sides had yielded up their life blood as a sacrifice upon the altar of their country’s honour; after multitudes had been disabled by their wounds, whose sighs and groans, and urgent entreaties for assistance had been spent in vain upon the "desert air", but were smothered by the clangour of arms; this memorable battle closed, by apparent consent and desire of both armies. They retreated from the scene at the same time, weary and exhausted. It has often been called a "drawn game", as it was difficult to decide which inflicted or received the greatest amount of injury.

The Americans soon returned to Fort Erie, and began to strengthen and add to the fortifications. In a few days the enemy followed us up the river and planted himself about 300 yards north of the fort and began to intrench, and commenced a cannonade. Meanwhile, some of their men deserted from them and came to us, by whom we learned that Colonel Drummond, who had the command, had determined to attack us on the night of the 15th of August [1814]. Preparations were immediately made for their reception, and every man was ordered, on that night, to sleep on their arms.

The night was rainy and extremely dark; and as anticipated, the attack commenced at two in the morning. The enemy came with bayonets, scaling ladders, hand grenades and faggots. Every one of them was supplied with an extra half-pint of rum for the strengthening and whetting up his courage; to make him fierce and brave in the attack and reckless of danger to himself. Their main force was directed against the old fort. Into this, about two to three hundred of them succeeded in climbing by means of their ladders notwithstanding several of our cannon and plenty of musketry were employed in demolishing them. The voice of Colonel Drummond was distinctly heard: "Give the damned Yankees no quarter!" He was soon shot through the heart.

In ten or fifteen minutes after they took possession of the bastion, and while they were bringing some of its guns to bear upon our 9th regiment and raking them from one end to the other, as they lay along the short embankment from the fort to the river, an awful explosion occurred which blew up the bastion; sent, in a moment, near two hundred of our enemies into eternity; caused the remainder to retreat with terror to their camp; and closed the contest for the present.

This explosion occurred just before daylight. During the forenoon, I inspected the awful scene. I counted 196 bodies lying in the ditch and about the fort; most of them dead; some dying. Their faces and hands were burned black, many of them were horribly mutilated. Here an there were legs, arms and heads lying in confusion, separated by the concussion from the trunks to which they had long been attached. One trunk I observed, deprived of all its limbs and head.

A large hole was dug outside the fort and these bodies thrown in and buried before night. The enemy was so devoid of humanity that they fired on us, while we were engaged in this melancholy service.

As there were no regular barbers attached to the army, the soldiers used to shave themselves, and each other. One morning several were shaving in succession, near a parapet. Sergeant Wait sat down facing the enemy, and Corporal Reed began to perform the operation of removing the beard from his face, when a cannon ball took the Corporal's right hand, and the Sergeant's head; throwing blood, brains, hair, fragments of flesh and bones, upon a tent near them, and upon the clothing of several spectators of the horrible scene. The razor also disappeared and no vestige of it was ever seen afterwards. The Corporal went to the hospital and had his arm amputated, and a few men rolled up the Sergeant's body in his blanket, carried it out and buried it. Probably less than twenty minutes transpired between the time he sat down to be shaved and the time he was reposing in the home of the soldier's grave.

I can never forget another man who was killed in an instant while apprehending little or no danger. He was a very large and tall soldier, upwards of six feet. He was reclining on his knapsack, supporting his head with his right hand and elbow, when a 10 1/2 inch shell exploded fifty or sixty feet above our heads. A large piece of it fell upon the centre of his body, and cut him in two, as effectually and as instantaneously as ever the axe of the guillotine severed the head of one of its victims. In a few moments, he too was wrapped up in his blanket, carried out and buried.

Cannon balls would sometimes pass so near that we were almost knocked over by the pressure they produced upon the air. When this happened, and we were not hurt, we exclaimed "that went as swift as any goose egg!" This expression, I believe, was first uttered by one of the officers and reiterated a thousand times by the privates and musicians. It is singular that we could be so reckless in the midst of danger; but so it was.

In February, 1815, the news of peace reached us. As I had enlisted for "during the war", of course, my enlistment now expired. All the soldiers rejoiced, but none so heartily as the "during the war's men". An extra gill of whiskey was furnished to all, wherewith to make merry. I drank mine so that I might feel good. Only once, before now, had I drank a gill at one draught, and that was for the purpose to trying my mettle. I drew a ration of whiskey [a gill, or four ounces], every day, but with these two exceptions, never drank it.

There was an old soldier by the name of Jemmy Thompson, who had liking for both me and my whiskey. He was naturally a kind and affectionate man, and enjoyed much pleasure in being benevolent. He took me under his charge soon after I entered the service, and always drank my ration of whiskey, for which he remunerated me, in washing my clothes, cooking my victuals with his, furnishing an extra blanket, and hooking anything we wanted that he could get his hands on; besides exercising something like a general supervision over all my affairs.

I have often wondered why I did not consume my daily allowance of intoxication liquor and become a drunkard. But I had no love for the "fire water", and never considered it a bad bargain that Jemmy Thompson disposed of it at his pleasure. If I had habitually used it myself, I should have formed an uncontrollable appetite which would, long since, have laid me in the grave.

During my term of service, I was preserved from sickness in a remarkable manner, having had only two weeks' illness within the twenty-six months I was in the army, and so slight, that I was able to walk about the whole time. I endured many privations and hardships, at various times sleeping out in the open air in all kinds of weather, in rain, sleet and snow; in the woods and open fields; often weary and exhausted with marches for weeks together; sometimes being so hungry and to be willing, eagerly to devour turnip peelings floating in dirty water of a ferry boat; and on one occasion to eat what was decided to be "horse beef". On the night of the 2nd and 3rd of July 1814, when we crossed over from Black Rock to Fort Erie, I became so tired and sleepy that I slept, while marching and standing still.

On the 23rd of May 1815 I was honourably discharged from the army, and returned home in safety to my parents.


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