A Review of Documents Pertaining to Colonel Isaac Clark, Discipline in the War of 1812, and Analysis of Education and Connections in Prosecution of Charges of Treason and Desertion

A Review of Documents Pertaining to Colonel Isaac Clark, Discipline in the War of 1812, and Analysis of Education and Connections in Prosecution of Charges of Treason and Desertion

Paul Andreas Fischer


Charlie Briggs

A Review of Documents Pertaining to Colonel Isaac Clark, Discipline in the War of 1812, and Analysis of Education and Connections in Prosecution of Charges of Treason and Desertion

The topics of treason and desertion are of particular interest during the War of 1812, and to military history since the origination of organized warfare. While at first these seem to have little in common other than the method by which they are carried out, through a court martial issued by a commanding officer, at the time approved by a general or special tribunal, there is often much more which connects these sentences than would be normally appreciated. Examination of documents from Colonel Isaac Clark and secondary sources reveal a personal understanding of American law and military procedure, one that may have been both important in his time as well as in modern understanding of the legal and political structures which govern today’s society. Isaac Clark demonstrated a personal growth in his career as an errant soldier and later as a commanding officer of soldiers in the United States Military in his exploration of his new nation and the Constitution; personal documents display both an ignorance luckily tempered by mercy which nearly cost eight of his soldiers their lives unnecessarily as well as an intuitive grasp and understanding of the basic tenets and principles which were not commonly accepted in America until the 1960s when properly contextualized. The charges leveled against Isaac Clark demonstrated experiential growth in which a mishap set precedent for a fundamental and unique interpretation of the Bill of Rights contained within the Constitution, that the right to remain silent implicitly connotes to a right to know the reason for one’s arrest.

Generally soldiers by this time period were disciplined in minor matters by use of the lash, though the War of 1812 saw the right of a commanding officer to use the instrument on soldiers ended as America sought greater recruitment in the newly founded army (Stagg, 541). While the expansion of military operations proved to be quite successful from a corp of permanent officers (Buchanan, lecture), this may not have been enough to withstand a legitimate invasion carried out in earnest. Without this rudimentary, though brutal, method of discipline, volunteers deserted at a greater rate than during previous invasions or even in comparative military operations, and military leaders used harsher forms of punishment, including the noose, as a form of protest (Stagg, 568). Of the soldiers enlisted in the War of 1812, one in eight deserted at one point, of whom one fifth received punishment (544). That is a percentage which correlates closely to those killed in the line of duty over the course of the war, and represents a statistically significant increase on the former statistic, though its importance should not be exaggerated as only around ten percent of these were actually executed or awaiting execution at the end of the war.

Isaac Clark’s first run-in with military procedures had been as a young man during the American Revolution. While interrogating a British officer with Ethan Allen, he shot the officer in the heart against orders to shoot after Ethan Allen had shot the officer in the hand (ICP, 1). This may have been an action in the heat of the moment, and charges were never pressed. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career was not what was done in battle, fighting skirmishes and leading an anti-smuggling unit but as a leader, defending his credentials, connections, and actions against rash and unscrupulous accusations, ones that turned out to be apparently unfounded.

The topic of desertion only arises with interest to the colonel in 1813, after the outbreak of war with England. He understood that the need to impress discipline in the ranks without a paddle, for whiplashing, could only be accomplished with the use or threat of a noose. That was likely a classical inflammatory response to a quite limited conciliatory measure for soldiers at the time, and cannot be considered a manner of sadism or hatred for his own men, as there is evidence that with medical advice certain conscripts were allowed to have another man stand in their place under his command (ICP, 41). The men responded to the accusations, despite one who may have been illiterate, with a written appeal for mercy, acknowledgement of their own guilt, and the company’s rectitude in their sentencing (48). As an act of civil disobedience, among many others, the use of corporal punishment by commanding officers in retaliation to losing their preferred method of discipline may have created genuinely negative concepts which ran throughout and beyond the military mobilization which occurred. It is important to remember that Isaac Clark did not lose his sword until 1815 and was likely a candidate for Brigadier General as late as 1812, according to a letter from Senator Jonathon Robinson.

Eight men were charged with desertion, and though it is not specified that supplies were stolen or, worse still, sold to the British, it is possible that this was the case. Such an incident was often worse than “changing colors” both in terms of danger and generally in severity of punishment. A unit could be endangered and left without ammunition, supplies, or even food and with long periods of time between communications, this was still long before the establishment of the Pony Express or efficient federal lines of communication, which could spell termination for units or even foil offensive operations. Of course, the greatest danger from such behaviour was recidivism, though such bounty jumping was relatively rare, and spread of desertion among new recruits. In reprimand, it is made very clear that soldiers could face death if not for the mercy offered in the officer’s clemency.

Not all cases of desertion were so malevolent in nature, however. Royal Dick was a New England black man in the 4th Infantry Regiment who was charged with desertion after leaving due to being teased by fellow soldiers, and sentenced to losing pay as well as having his ears cropped, though “the commanding general approved the sentence, but remitted the cropping of the ears” (Stagg, 551). The two incidents of Colonel Isaac Clark’s own transgressions of the law during war-time in the heat of interrogation and his reprimand of a similarly misguided band of soldiers are a fascinating insight into the development of an American military officer, but with the conclusion of the War of 1812 a new development takes place. Arrested for reasons unidentified, though it can be assumed this was no “marching order violation” and could well have been treasonous in nature, what is astounding about the particular case is the appeal of his reprimand. This document does not take responsibility for wrongdoing, but merely criticizes the manner of the colonel’s arrest (ICP, 61).

As an officer, to be charged with desertion would not have been likely, and it is instead the probability that the charges were treasonous in nature. This should not be taken to mean particularly threatening or dangerous, and probably differed quite significantly from the attempted surrender of West Point by Benedict Arnold during Clark’s previous combat service (Wright, 34) which was unsuccessful but foreshadowed a looming British invasion in the Northeast rather than in the South, as might have been expected. An example of how such an incident might be prosecuted for a man without education or connections can be seen in Irish-born Private Mitchell, who was charged with mutinous behaviour after talking back to an officer with expletives and was sentenced to be shot and fined three dollars, a sentence which was carried out after review in Washington (Stagg, 556).

In this defense, a potentially momentous event has transpired. Prosecution of officers was extremely rare during the War of 1812, and even more rare afterwards, though many deserters were freed in 1815 after being cleared by cessation of the war. Isaac Clark was never given a reason for his arrest, which for American civilians was officially codified in 1966 with the Miranda Rights as improper interrogation techniques implicit in the Fifth Amendment: without the knowledge one is under arrest and on what charges, there is no possibility of remaining silent or awaiting a proper legal counsel. The case in point is shown to be intrinsically constitutional in nature, though without evidence of such respect being placed in civilian cases until a century and a half later, this may not have been a defense frequently recognized in the United States in these early formative years.


Buchanan, Andrew. “Military History of the United States.” Lecture at the University of Vermont. (2013).

Clark, Isaac. 1, 40, 41, 48, 61, 6a3, 73. “Isaac Clark Papers 1781-1821.” Isaac Clark Papers, Special Collections, University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library, Burlington, Vermont.

Stagg, J. C. A. 2014. “Freedom and Subordination: Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812.” Journal Of Military History 78, no. 2: 537-574. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2015).

United States. Army. Regulations for the order and discipline of the troops of the United States. Part 1. Philadelphia, PA. Charles Cist.

Wright, Esmond. “Benedict Arnold and the Loyalists.” History Today 36 (1986): 29.

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