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Profit vs. Patriotism in 1813
by Dr. Gary M. Gibson
Hungry soldiers don’t fight well. Starving soldiers don’t fight at all. That was the problem for the British army in Upper Canada during the War of 1812 – they were dependent on food supplies provided by the citizens on the American side of the St. Lawrence River. That was treason of course, but this fact did not stop the cross-river traffic in beef, flour and other foodstuffs for which the British paid premium prices.
At Sackets Harbor, Colonel Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) had heard one too many reports about this illegal smuggling and decided to do something about it. On March 25, 1813, Pike ordered First Lieutenant Loring Austin and a detachment of soldiers to Ogdensburg to “seize on and make prisoners of any persons … engaged in treasonable practices.” On April 8, Lt. Austin reported to Pike that he had arrested nine men for smuggling and was sending them to Sackets Harbor. That’s when the fun began.
The next day Lt. Austin and his second in command Lt. George R. Wells were arrested by the civil authorities at Ogdensburg, charged with “trespass and false imprisonment,” and held under $12,000 bail, which the men naturally could not pay.
A day later things got worse. Lts. Austin and Wells learned that damages would be sought against each of them to the amount of $5,000 for each citizen they had arrested, or a total of $90,000. Furthermore, until the case came to trial, the lieutenants would be imprisoned with bail now set at $180,000. At that time a first lieutenant was paid $30 per month. Austin immediately wrote to Col. Pike pleading for help.
Pike, realizing that he had stepped into a legal morass, turned the alleged smugglers over to the civil authorities where they were “discharged for want of evidence.” That, however, did not get Austin and Wells out of jail. It did bring the matter to the attention of the newspapers. A paper in Canandaigua NY commented that “it would seem that the war is carrying on against our own citizens.” The Hudson NY paper was more outspoken with the headline: “The rights of the citizens of the state of New York trampled under foot and the Constitution violated by the military officers of the United States.”
Austin and Wells were found guilty and assessed $13,685 in damages – still a huge sum to pay – and released. The matter was finally resolved by a private act of Congress authorizing the government to pay the claims against both men – but not until April 1818. These days federal law would prevent such a situation from ever occurring.