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Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

Thomas Hamilton, First Infantry

by Thomas G. ShawDavid M. Grabitske

Much of what is known of Thomas Hamilton is revealed in his military service record. He was born in New York state in 1782. Joining the army as a private in the First Infantry on June 2, 1802, he served in the ranks, some of the time as a sergeant, until he was commissioned an ensign, March 6, 1806.1 He was promoted second lieutenant June 1, 1807, and first lieutenant on December 15, 1808. Since the First was headquartered at Fort Bellefontaine, north of Saint Louis, on the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri, it is likely that he served such western posts as Massac, Clark and perhaps even Bellefontaine.

Hamilton served at Fort Dearborn by 1810 when he became involved in the dispute over the sutler's post. He and his father-in-law, Major John Whistler,2 supported post surgeon Dr. Cooper who already possessed the monopoly, against the would-be sutler, John Kinzie. The situation escalated when Hamilton challenged Kinzie to a duel, and Whistler wrote letters to War Department. The result was Hamilton was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and then sent to Fort Madison. Whistler was sent to the Detroit garrison and Kinzie was left at Dearborn.

Thomas Hamilton was in command of Fort Madison at the outbreak of the War of 1812. The woes of Fort Madison were much the same as other frontier posts during the war. Madison was intermittently supplied from Saint Louis, and the army failed to provide adequate reinforcements. Thus, facing the overwhelming numbers of Sac and Fox warriors under Black Hawk who invested the fort during 1812-1813, Hamilton burned Fort Madison in the autumn of 1813. There is some debate as to the exact date.

The following spring, Hamilton, promoted Captain on February 21, 1814, and the First were assigned to Eleazar Wheelock Ripley's Second Brigade in the Left Division for duty on the Niagara. Unfortunately, Hamilton missed an opportunity for distinction at Lundy's Lane as his company was still in New York on the night of July 25. By the 28th, his company rejoined its regiment at a piquet above Fort Erie. Hamilton again missed distinction during the October 20th sortie due to illness. However, Hamilton and his company may have participated at Conjocta Creek on August 3.3 The First Infantry was moved to Sackett's Harbor late in November and combined with the remnants of Major George Brooke's Twenty-First Regiment during the winter.

With the announcement of peace, the army's reorganization relieved Hamilton from duty as of June 1815. However, Captain Hamilton was recommissioned May 17, 1816, in the Sixth Infantry. During the intervening eleven months, the Hamiltons may have lived either in Saint Louis or in Ohio. It is possible that Hamilton acquired his drinking habit during this time, a time of a post war down turn in the economy of both the nation and his family. In the summer of 1819, the Sixth and Rifle Regiments began Henry Atkinson's Yellowstone Expedition, but halted at Council Bluffs on the Missouri at the onset of winter. The government subsequently stripped the expedition's funding, resulting in the construction of Fort Atkinson near present day Omaha, Nebraska.

The Hamiltons remained at Atkinson until 1823 when the captain was transferred to the Fifth Infantry, which was constructing Fort Saint Anthony on the Saint Peter's River. Upon arrival, shortly before navigation ceased on the Mississippi, Hamilton was given command of Company B, the Light Company. Evidently his transfer was a last effort to reform his alcoholic tendencies, according to a letter in Colonel Josiah Snelling's diary. Snelling indicated some affinity for Hamilton, perhaps a result of their common experience in the Left Division.4

On February 21, 1824, Hamilton received a major's brevet for ten years' faithful service in grade without promotion. Brevet Major Hamilton's company remained at Fort Snelling continuously until July 1827, when it accompanied Col. Snelling's reoccupation of Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien during the Winnebago Conflict. Hamilton never was granted a furlough, and as he and his company went with Snelling to and from Fort Crawford, it is clear that he was meant to remain under the watchful eye of Snelling. Despite this, Hamilton's difficulty with alcoholism continued. It was noted in Colonel George Croghan's report, and it affected Hamilton's performance on the Winnebago campaign when he allowed the command of his company to devolve on his son-in-law, 2nd Lt. St. Clair Denny.5 As a result, Snelling graciously offered a year's furlough if Hamilton would resign, instead of being cashiered immediately from the army.

Hamilton accepted Snelling's offer and departed Fort Snelling in September. His family lived in Saint Louis, from which Hamilton petitioned for a sutlership in 1828. He hoped to acquire the late Captain George Gooding's post at Fort Armstrong to alleviate his financial position. What became of the Hamilton family after this, until his death in 1833, is unknown. Thomas and Kathryn Hamilton had at least two children: James W. and Caroline. Not much is known of either one. James was born in Arkansas, and appointed a West Point Cadet from Missouri in the 1820s. He was commissioned First Lieutenant in the Mounted Rangers in 1832. He served as regimental adjutant in the Regiment of Dragoons, 1834-35, but was cashiered in 1835. He was granted a second commission in June 1836 in the Second Dragoons, and died November 26, 1837. Caroline was born in 1811, probably at Fort Madison. She married St. Clair Denny, a junior officer in her father's company. There may have been other children, but these are lost to history.

Thomas Hamilton served in the United States Army for twenty-eight years. While his service in the defense of Fort Madison was creditable, Hamilton missed his opportunity to be noticed during the Niagara Campaign. Despite his brief dismissal, his steady rise from private soldier to company commander in an "old army" regiment suggests a man and an officer of some talent. Such a career, rare today, was equally rare in the 19th century. He survived the reductions in 1821 and continued to serve until 1828, but his alcoholism destroyed his ambition and career.

  1. Ensign was the lowest commissioned rank in United States Army until it was abolished at the conclusion of the War of 1812.
  2. Major Whistler was a British veteran of the War for Independence and a militia officer during Arthur St. Clair's 1791 Ohio Campaign. He was the builder of Fort Dearborn, which later became Chicago, and the third Fort Wayne in 1815. Hamilton married Kathryn Whistler.
  3. Conjocta Creek was a two hour fight between Lt. Col. John Tucker's 580 men of the 41st Foot raiding New York to cut American supply lines to Fort Erie in Canada, and Major Lodowick Morgan's 300-man battalion of the First Rifle Regiment. According to David Bennett, there may be some evidence that Hamilton's company of the First Regiment was also present. For an account of the fight see: Donald E. Graves, The Battle of Lundy's Lane: On the Niagara in 1814 page 190.
  4. Snelling was the Inspector General for the Left Division. They also shared the distinction of having risen from the ranks. Fort Saint Anthony was rechristened Fort Snelling in 1825.
  5. St. Clair Denny, born in 1800, was named for Arthur St. Clair. Denny's father, Ebenezar, was St. Clair's adjutant on the disastrous 1791 Ohio Campaign.

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