War of 1812people

Alexander Smyth


Alexander Smyth (1765 - 1830), was born in Ireland but emigrated to Virginia with his family when he was a young boy. Smyth studied law and later became a member of the state senate. After receiving a colonelcy in the American army in 1808, he was appointed as inspector general for the army by William Eustis, the acting war secretary.

It was surprising appointment since Smyth's experience overseeing a large army was limited to the translation he made of French military guidelines. Predictably, Smyth spent little time organizing or disciplining the army. He hoped instead to distinguish himself as a field command, and he eventually convinced Eustis to send him to the Niagara frontier.

Smyth was stationed at Buffalo in September of 1812, only to find he was outranked by a militia commander, Stephen Van Rensellaer. General Smyth was contemptuous of Van Rensellaer's command and gave him no support during the attack on Queenston Heights. Surprisingly, it was Smyth who took over from the disgraced General Van Rensellaer as commander of the Niagara campaign.

Smyth was probably a worse commander than Van Rensellaer. His men had virtually no respect for him. Smyth boasted constantly about crossing the Niagara River taking Fort Erie, thereby redeeming America's reputation after the debacle in Queenston. But with 4500 at his disposal in November, his vague planning and lack of military skill botched the invasion. His men were on the verge of rebellion and even made attempts on his life.

Peter B. Porter publicly denounced Smyth after this disgrace and even challenged him to a duel. Madison later remarked that Smyth's "talent for military command was... equally mistaken by himself and by his friends." Perhaps the most cutting insult came when Congress actually abolished Smyth's position in March of 1813. Smyth returned to Virginia and was eventually dropped from the army rolls. He continued to practice law and went on to serve six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.