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Henry Dearborn – Soldier, Politician, Cabinet Secretary, Diplomat

Today, unless one was born and raised in the Old Northwest Territories (particularly Michigan) or New Hampshire, you may not have ever heard of Henry Dearborn, and it is even less likely that you know about his accomplishments. However, this man was well known in the early years of the United States, having served under Benedict Arnold and later as a part of George Washington’s staff in Virginia during the American Revolution. He served in the US House as a Representative from Massachusetts, The Senior Officer of the United States Army during the war of 1812, and later as the United States Minister to Portugal under President Monroe. He also holds the record as the longest serving Secretary of War in US history, having served for 9 years. Fort Dearborn in Illinois, Dearborn County in Indiana, the Dearborn River in Montana, and the City of Dearborn Michigan were all named after him.

Early Life

Henry Dearborn was born February 23, 1751, to Simon Dearborn and Sarah Marston in North Hampton in the Province of New Hampshire. Henry spent much of his youth in Epping, where he attended public schools. He grew up as an athletic boy, notably strong and a champion wrestler. Dearborn studied medicine under Dr. Hall Jackson of Portsmouth. He married his first wife, Mary Bartlett, in 1771 and, the following year, entered practice as a physician on the square in Nottingham, New Hampshire.

John Stark
John Stark

When the Revolutionary war began, at age twenty-three, he organized and led a local militia troop of sixty men to the Boston area, where he fought on June 17, 1775, at the Battle of Bunker Hill as a captain in Colonel John Stark's 1st New Hampshire Regiment. In September 1775, Dearborn volunteered to serve under Colonel Benedict Arnold during the difficult American expedition to Quebec. Later Dearborn would record in his Revolutionary War journal their overall situation and condition:

"We were small indeed to think of entering a place like Quebec. But being now almost out of provisions we were sure to die if we attempted to return back and we could be in no worse situation if we proceeded on our rout."

On the final leg of the march, Dearborn was taken seriously ill with fever, forcing him to remain behind in a cottage on the Chaudière River. Later he rejoined the combined forces of Arnold and Gen. Richard Montgomery in time to take part in the assault on Quebec. Dearborn's journal is an important record for that campaign. During the march he and Aaron Burr became companions. Along with several other officers, Dearborn was captured on December 31, 1775, during the Battle of Quebec, and detained for a year. He was released on parole in May 1776, but he was not exchanged until March 1777.

Battle of Freeman's Farm
Battle of Freeman's Farm

After fighting at Ticonderoga in July 1777, Dearborn was appointed major in the regiment commanded by Alexander Scammell. In September 1777, Dearborn was transferred to the 1st New Hampshire Regiment, under Colonel Joseph Cilley, where he took part in the Saratoga campaign against Burgoyne at Freeman's Farm. The first battle was largely fought by troops from New Hampshire, Dearborn's home state. The New Hampshire brigade under General Poor and a detachment of infantry under Major Dearborn, numbering about three hundred, along with detachments of other militia, and Whitcomb's Rangers, co-operated with Morgan in the repulse of Fraser's attack. The cautious General Horatio Gates reluctantly ordered a reconnaissance force consisting of Daniel Morgan's Provisional Rifle Corps and Dearborn's light infantry to scout out the Bemis Heights area. Gates later noted Dearborn's marked ability as a soldier and officer in his report.

Thereafter Dearborn joined General George Washington's main Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, as a lieutenant colonel, where he spent the winter of 1777–1778. Dearborn fought at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, the final major battle of the Northern Theatre, in 1778, following the British evacuation of Philadelphia to concentrate at New York City. In the summer of 1779, he accompanied Major General John Sullivan on the Sullivan Expedition against the Iroquois in upstate New York and in the Battle of Newtown against the Six Nations, thereafter, laying waste to the Genesee Valley and the various regions around the Finger Lakes. During the winter of 1778–1779, he was encamped at what is now Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, Connecticut. In 1780, Dearborn married his second wife, Dorcas Marble.

The Surrender at Yorktown
The Surrender at Yorktown

Dearborn rejoined General Washington's staff in 1781 as deputy quartermaster general and commanded the 1st New Hampshire at the siege of Yorktown with the rank of colonel and was present when Cornwallis surrendered in October of that year. In June 1783, Dearborn received his discharge from the Continental Army and settled in Gardiner, Maine, where he became Major General of the Maine militia. Washington appointed him marshal of the District of Maine. Dearborn served in the U.S. House of Representatives from the District of Maine (still a part of the State of Massachusetts), 1793 to 1797.

Post-Revolutionary Life

Dearborn was commissioned as a brigadier general in the Massachusetts Militia in 1787 and was promoted to major general in 1789. The same year the U.S. Marshal Service was created by the first Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789. U.S. Marshals were placed in each federal judicial district and were given broad authority to support the federal courts and to carry out all lawful orders issued by judges, Congress, and the President. Early duties of U.S. Marshals included taking the census, distributing presidential proclamations, protecting the borders, and making arrests. Dearborn was appointed as the first U.S. Marshal for the District of Maine under the new Constitution of 1787 by President Washington on April 19, 1789. Dearborn held that appointment until 1793 when he was elected to the US House of Representatives as a Democratic-Republican, serving two terms from 1793 to 1797.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Dearborn Secretary of War, a post he held for eight years until March 7, 1809. In this position, Dearborn advised Jefferson in matters of military personnel when Jefferson was formulating the Military Peace Establishment Act in 1800-01. This act outlined a new set of laws and limits for the military and led to the founding of a national military academy at West Point. In April 1801, Dearborn asked George Baron, an Englishman who was Dearborn's friend from Maine, to be the mathematics instructor at the academy. Dearborn also offered the superintendency of the school to Jonathan Williams, who had translated into English some European treatises on artillery and fortification.

During the 1801 and 1802 period, Dearborn and Jefferson corresponded often, discussing various political and military matters. Notable among them was Dearborn's report of May 12, 1801 on the War Department, which included information on a number of areas such as: Fortifications, Public Buildings, Military Stores (inventory and storage), Quartermaster’s Department, Public Armories (Springfield and Harper’s Ferry), the Manufacture of Cannon, Indian Affairs (Indian Annuities, Indian Agents, Presents for Treaty Negotiations), State of the Army, and progress on distribution of military bounty lands. Additionally, as though he were clairvoyant and could see the future, Dearborn sent a recommendation to Jefferson for,

"designating the boundary line between the United States, and the adjacent British possessions, in such manner as may prevent any disputes in future..."

In 1805, while events in the Burr conspiracy were beginning to unfold, Aaron Burr and Louisiana Territory governor James Wilkinson were allegedly planning war with Mexico, with the aim of establishing a secessionist state in the Southwest in the process. Hoping to incite war with Spain, Wilkinson in a letter to Secretary of War Dearborn urged him to attack Western Spanish Florida from Baton Rouge. Prompted by prevailing rumors of war, Dearborn ordered him to send three companies of troops to Fort Adams in Western Florida as a precaution.

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

The prospect of war in turn was used by Wilkinson to justify sending an exploratory military expedition into the Southwest to find a route that would be used to supply a war effort at the U.S.-Spanish-Mexican border. In May, Dearborn ordered Wilkinson to the Orleans territory, directing his general to,

"repel any invasion of the United States east of the Sabine River or north or west of the bounds of what has been called West Florida..."

Dearborn further maintained that any such movements across these borders would constitute "an actual invasion of our territorial rights".

This was the opportunity both Burr and Wilkinson were hoping for, thinking that Spanish officials were on edge over the prospect of confrontation with the U.S. and could easily be provoked into war. However, when Wilkinson, had asked Dearborn to send an exploratory military expedition into the Southwest, Dearborn warned his top general that "your name has very frequently been mentioned with Burr's." This caused Wilkinson to cool quickly to Burr’s conspiracy. Shortly thereafter Burr was arrested for treason.

Finally, during his tenure as Secretary of War, Dearborn advised Jefferson on forming a policy on Native Americans, the goal being to establish a western boundary by procuring lands along the Mississippi River.

With the end of the Jefferson Administration, Dearborn gave his resignation as Secretary of War, allowing the new President Madison to choose his own cabinet officers. Rather than allowing him to retire to private life, President Madison appointed Dearborn to the position of Collector for the Port of Boston. In this role, Dearborn’s responsibilities involved supervising and administering all activities involved with customs duty collection for all material entering the Port of Boston. This included not only his staff in the port itself but also the direction of the US Revenue Cuter Service (USRCS) personnel assigned to the port. The specific duties assigned to the Collector were laid out in laws and were added to as time went on. The original duties as laid out in the original law that created the US Revenue Service were as follows:

“At such of the ports to which there shall be appointed a collector, naval officer and surveyor, it shall be the duty of the collector to receive all reports, manifests and documents made or exhibited to him by the master or commander of any ship or vessel, conformably to the regulations prescribed by this act, to make due entry and record in books to be kept for that purpose, all such manifests and the packages, marks and numbers contained therein; to receive the entry of all ships and vessels, and of all the goods, wares and merchandise imported in such ships or vessels, together with the original invoices thereof; to estimate the duties payable thereon, and to endorse the same on each entry; to receive all monies paid for duties, and to take all bonds for securing the payment of duties; to grant all permits for the unloading and delivery of goods, to employ proper persons as weighers, gaugers, measurers and inspectors at the several ports within his district, together with such persons as shall be necessary to serve in the boats which may be provided for securing the collection of the revenue to provide at the public expense, and with the approbation of the principal officer of the treasury department, store-houses for the safe keeping of goods, together with such scales, weights and measures as shall be deemed necessary, and to perform all other duties which shall be assigned to him bv law.”

Dearborn held this position until January 27, 1812, when he was appointed as the Commanding General of the United States Army.

War of 1812

Once the War of 1812 began, President Madison gave Dearborn, who had Madison’s favor as a Revolutionary War veteran, command of the northeast sector. This sector spanned from the Niagara River in the west, to the New England Coast. Because of Dearborn’s service as Secretary of War under Jefferson and his part in drafting the Military Peace Establishment Act, which removed many Federalist officers from the Army and Navy, his appointment was not popular with most northern Federalists. At age 61, he was overweight, slow, and insecure and did not inspire confidence among the men under his command.

Secretary of War William Eustis
Secretary of War William Eustis

Secretary of War William Eustis directed Dearborn to embark for Albany, NY to plan and make preparation for an invasion of Montreal. Dearborn however, argued that he needed to go to New England first to secure militia for defending the New England coast, in order to free up the regular troops in New England for campaign against Canada. Dearborn’s plans were frustrated however, by New England’s Federalist governors refusing to supply militia for coastal defense. As a result, Dearborn left for Albany, in late July 1812, taking the regulars and leaving the coast almost defenseless against any British coastal attacks.

In early August, General William Hull was expecting a diversionary attack by Dearborn in the Niagara area. Dearborn, however, was still at his headquarters just outside of Albany, and was having great difficulty amassing troops for the coming offensive in Canada. It was at this point that George Prévost sent British Colonel Edward Baynes to negotiate a temporary armistice with Dearborn which the overly cautious Dearborn jumped at. Learning that Lord Liverpool was giving the American government time to respond and, lacking the means to adequately engage the British in Canada, Dearborn, who was not eager for battle, welcomed the delay, and rushed news of the armistice to Madison for approval. At the same time, Dearborn gave orders to General Van Rensselaer to avoid any engagements along the Niagara. The truce, however, was short-lived when on August 15 Madison repudiated Dearborn's agreement and orders were issued to renew the offensive.

William Hull
William Hull

Dearborn prepared ambitious plans for simultaneous assaults on Montreal, Kingston, Fort Niagara, and Amherstburg, but they did not work well on execution. A half-hearted advance into Lower Canada in November 1812 simply collapsed after a very minor engagement at the Battle of Lacolle Mills. Some believe that Dearborn also did not move quickly enough to provide sufficient troops to defend Detroit. Hull, without firing a shot, surrendered the city to British General Isaac Brock. Hull was court-martialed, with Dearborn heading the court martial, and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted by President Monroe.

On April 27, 1813, American forces on Lake Ontario under Dearborn and Commodore Isaac Chauncey gained success at the Battle of York, occupying the town for several days and capturing many guns and stores. Thereafter the American army was transported across the lake in Chauncey's ships to Fort Niagara. Dearborn assembled 4,500 troops at Fort Niagara and planned to attack Fort George next. Dearborn entrusted the attack to Colonel Winfield Scott, but his army required rest and reorganization. Since no preparations had been made to accommodate the troops at Fort Niagara, they suffered considerable shortages and privations for several days. Although Dearborn had minor successes at the capture of York (now Toronto) in April 1813, and Fort George in May 1813, his command was, for the most part, ineffective.

Dearborn was recalled from the frontier on July 6, 1813, and reassigned to an administrative command in New York City for the rest of the war. Dearborn was honorably discharged from the Army on June 15, 1815.

Political Life After the War

Dearborn ran for Governor of Massachusetts in 1818 against incumbent John Brooks. Because Dearborn was a Democratic-Republican in a predominantly Federalist state, he needed favorable press to help his campaign. Dearborn accepted an offer from Charles Miner, the editor of The Port Folio, a Philadelphia political magazine, asking him to verify and edit a British soldier's map depicting the Battle of Bunker Hill. Dearborn saw this as a chance to win public favor and seized the opportunity. However, his efforts backfired when he also wrote a "correct account" of the battle in the article, which was reprinted in 1818, accusing Israel Putnam of inaction and cowardly leadership during the battle, which sparked a major and long-lasting controversy among veterans of the war and various historians.

President James Madison nominated Dearborn for reappointment as Secretary of War in 1815, however, the Senate rejected the nomination based on fierce criticism over Dearborn's performance during the War of 1812. Faced with this, Madison withdrew the nomination. Dearborn was later appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal by President James Monroe and served from May 7, 1822, until June 30, 1824, when, by his own request, he was recalled. He retired to his home in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he died five years later, on June 6, 1829.

We hope you enjoyed today's post on another "forgotten" early leader, Henry Dearborn. We hope this article will encourage you to learn more about this influential leader of early America. Please join us again next time when we will take up a summer subject and look at picnics - their history and when they actually became popular in the United States.

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Bell, W. G. (1992). Secretaries of War and Secretaries of the Army, Portraits and Biographical sketches. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army.

Bell, W. G. (1999). Commanding Generals and Chiefs of Staff, 1775-1995. Washington, DC: Center for Military History, United States Army.

Dearborn, H. (1801, May 12). Henry Dearborn’s Report on the War Department, [12 May 1801]. Retrieved July 3, 2023, from Founders Online:

Dearborn, H. (1887). Journals of Henry Dearborn, 1776-1783. Cambridge, MA: J. Wilson & Son.

Dearborn, H. A. (2015). Sketch of the life of Maj. Gen. H. Dearborn; his account of the battle of Bunker-Hill, testimony in support of it, and the remarks of various writers, on that event, / arranged by Henry A.S. Dearborn, in Jan. 1820 : manuscript. New York, NY: The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Heath, W., Lee, H., Wilkinson, J., & Dearborn, H. (1831). History of the Battle of Breed's Hill. Saco, ME.: William J. Cordon.

Unknown. (1817). Massachusetts election! : first Monday in April next ; American nomination, Major-General Henry Dearborn for governor, Hon. William King for Lieut. Governor. Boston, MA: Printed at the Office of "The Yankee".


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