June 13, 2004

"Death, Hell, or Canada"

1812 saw the closest approach of war to Dryden since the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign during the Revolutionary War, and this time Dryden residents participated. George Goodrich tells what little is known of who participated and where, and what "Death, Hell, or Canada" might be.

Chapter X.

The War of 1812.

In the minds of the great mass of people of the present age, the importance of our war with Great Britain, known as the War of 1812, is overshadowed and lost sight of in view of the War of the Revolution which preceded it by about thirty-five years. It is not so regarded by the careful student of history. The earlier war made our country free, but it required the latter to make us really independent and respected as a nation. The latter war also did much to strengthen the bond of union between the colonies and to make of us a nation rather than a mere confederation of states.

Our ancestors were poorly prepared for either conflict with the mother country, supplied as she was with powerful armamentsand standing armies, and it was only the necessities of the occasion which seemed to suddenly call forth and develop in them the courage and heroism which enabled them to succeed. History affords but few instances where an inferior number of untrained men, called suddenly and unexpectedly to arms, have overwhelmingly defeated trained soldiers, as Jackson did with his hasty recruits at New Orleans; and we are not required to look so far away from home for instances of the same character. On the Niagara frontier in 1814 ("on the lines," as it was termed in those days,) General (the Colonel) Winfield Scott and his brave followers, usually opposed to superior numbers of the enemy, performed feats of military strategy and heroism, in the battles of Landy's Lane and Chippewa, which forced from the unwilling British officers exclamations of wonder and admiration, and cannot be read by us to-day without arousing pride within us, that we are among the descendants of such heroes. As we read of these instances we can hardly realized that they are not the events of some far-off country, belonging to some remote period of time, while they actually did occur within the present century and within five hours ride by rail from where we now live. With the exception of skirmishes with the Indians, and some events of the same character near Oswego, this is the nearest that war ever came, and we trust it is the nearest it ever will come, to our doors. How many of us realize that the company of Dryden militia which went out to "the line" under Captain (afterwards Major) Peleg Ellis, in July, 1812, were taken prisoners together with Colonel Winfield Scott at the battle of Queenston, which proved to be the Bunker Hill or Bull Run of that war, but was followed by hard earned victories which in the end placed the balance largely in our favor and secured a triumphant result?

It is to be regretted that we - and especially our young people - in choosing our reading matter, select descriptions of incidents far removed from us in time and space, or more often amuse ourselves by reading the alluring inventions of fiction; and then, when we chance to visit Niagara Falls and see on the opposite shore the imposing and magnifent Brock monument, 194 feet high, constructed of Niagara limestone and erected on Queenston Heights, the most prominent landmark as seen from Lewiston on the American side, we are compelled to remain silent or expose our ignorance by asking what that imposing column was designed to commemorate. If my readers will obtain from the Southworth Library, or elsewhere, "Lossing's Field Book of the War of 1812," a large and interesting volume, devoted to the description and illustrating the leading events of this war, they will find that the perusal of it will well repay their effort and enable them to repel to some extent at least the charge that Americans are woefully ignorant of their own history. They will find in it a reference to Colonel (afterwards General) Bloom, of our adjoining town of Lansing, and afterwards sheriff of Tompkins county, and to the regiment (which included the first Dryden company) which he led at Queenston, where he was wounded. We are indebted to researches of Charles F. Mulks, of Ithaca, for the information that Aaron Cass, one of the Dryden company from near Ellis Hollow, was struck on the head by a British cannon ball and instantly killed while the regiment was crossing the Niagara river in boats to take part in the battle of Queenston. Cass had been a distinguished soldier of the Revolution from Connecticut, was a brother-in-law of Aaron Bull, and settled in Ellis Hollow in 1804. Other soldiers of the Dryden company were Aaron Genung, from near Varna; Arthur and Stephen B. June, Marcus Palmerton, Jonathan Luce, George McCutcheon and Peter Snyder. With the exception of the statement that Judge John Ellis afterwards went out to "the lines" with the second Dryden company of militia, leaving but fourteen able-bodied men in the township, these are all of the recorded facts which we are able to give concerning Dryden's participation in the War of 1812. It is regretted that the accounts of Dryden's volunteers of that date are so meager, and it reminds us of the necessity of committing to a written record the achievements of the Dryden soldiers in the War of the Rebellion, before all of them shall have passed away, or they, too, will be lost to local history.

We are fortunately able to give from the relation of Thomas J. McElheny, whose mother was a niece of Major Ellis, an incident of the battle of Queenston which he has often heard his great-uncle relate, and which is as follows: As the Dryden company were crossing the Niagara river to the Canada side, Stephen B. June, impressed with the importance of the occasion and boiling over with the true martial spirit, arose in his boat and swinging his hat defiantly called out as the watchwords of the expedition: "Death, Hell, or Canada." This was early in the morning of the day when everything was hopeful and few of the enemy were in sight. The battle of the morning was successful. A landing on the Canada shore was effected, the Queenston Heights were gallantly scaled and captured and the Commanding General Brock of the enemy was mortally wounded in the conflict. But in the afternoon the reinforcements of the enemy arrived in overwhelming numbers, while the help expected from the American side failed to appear, and after a brave but hopeless effort at resistance, the whole American force, including Colonel Scott and Captain Ellis with their followers, were taken prisoners. Not seeing his townsman, Stephen B. June, among the prisoners, Captain Ellis went back on the battle field to look him up, and after searching found him very severely wounded by a ball which had entered his mouth and passed out of the back of his neck, just below the base of the skull, fortunately missing the spinal cord. Finding that June was alive and still conscious, although fearfully wounded, Captain Ellis asked him which it was now, "Death, Hell, or Canada," to which the wounded soldier feebly but firmly replied: "I can't tell quite yet, Captain, which it is, but when the British bullet struck me I thought I had them all three at once." June lived to return home and, if we are not mistaken, some of his family descendants are still inhabitants of the town.

Since writing the above we learn that Geo. R. Burchell, Esq., of Dryden, is a great-nephew of that same Stephen B. June, although the most of that family have removed to Alleghany county and further west. The original commission of Major Ellis as captain, issued to him February 11, 1811, by Daniel D. Tompkins, the governor of the state, is one of the relics which were on exhibition at Dryden's Centennial Celebration.

Goodrich, George B. The Centennial History of the Town of Dryden, 1797-1897. Dryden: Dryden Herald Steam Printing House, 1898. Reprinted 1993 by the Dryden Historical Society. Pages 30-33.

(The Dryden Historical Society, which sells this book, may be reached at 607-844-9209.)

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