Henry Dearborn

Painting of Henry Dearborn
Henry Dearborn by Charles Wilson Peale circa 1797

Independence NHP

Born in 1751 in North Hampton, New Hampshire, Henry Dearborn was practicing medicine when he learned of the Battle of Lexington in 1775. He enlisted a company of men and became a Captain in the 1st New Hampshire regiment taking part in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Shortly after he joined the force led by Benedict Arnold to march on Quebec. Captain Dearborn’s company participated in the unsuccessful attack on Quebec on December 31, 1775 where he was captured by the British.

Dearborn returned to New Hampshire on parole in July 1776 upon his promise not to serve again until officially exchanged for a captured British officer. In the spring of 1777, he was exchanged and returned to duty as the Major of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment which he joined at Fort Ticonderoga. This post was evacuated in early July as the British Army from Canada under John Burgoyne began to encircle the fort and nearby Mount Independence. The 3rd New Hampshire retreated with the American army ending up at Stillwater, New York in August 1777.

Major Dearborn was placed in command of the 300-man elite light infantry, the first time the Continental Army had formed such a unit drawing smaller, younger men capable of moving rapidly through broken terrain from the Northern Army’s New England Continental regiments. His appointment to lead the musket and bayonet armed light infantry recognized the combat experience and prowess of this veteran leader. The light infantry was brigaded together with 400 riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan in order to provide close-in defense for the riflemen armed with accurate, but slow firing rifles most of which were without bayonets.

On the fateful day of September 19, 1777, the British advanced toward the American fortifications. Their center column was detected moving toward Freeman’s Farm (Stop 6 on the tour road) and General Arnold sent Morgan and Dearborn to meet the enemy, the first troops committed to this battle. (Note: You can #FollowTheirFootsteps walk part of the path taken by the Morgan’s and Dearborn’s men that day by parking at Stop 4 and following the signs to Stop 6). The Battle of Freeman’s Farm was an intense, long struggle (at nearly 8 hours one of the longest land battles of the war) with charges and counter charges and Major Dearborn was present the entire time. The battle was a tactical British victory but a strategic failure since British progress to Albany was still blocked.

Dearborn laconically summarized this day in his Journal (original spelling) which in part says:

… Now about 2 O Clock P.M. when a Heavy fire Commenced on both Sides, which Continued until Dark. The Enimy Brought almost their whole force against us ... But we who had Something more at Stake than fighting for six Pence Pr Day kept our ground til Night… among the Dead was …, the Loss of those Brave men are very greatly Lamented in the Army. But as it was a Debt that they & Every one owe their Country. I Beleave they Paid it with Cherefullness....

This passage speaks strongly to his patriotism and readiness to sacrifice his life for his country.

At the outset of the 2nd Battle of Saratoga on October 7, 1777 the combined Morgan and Dearborn force attacked the right flank of the British reconnaissance force in the western wheatfield (west of Stop 5 on the tour road). Facing overwhelming numbers, the British were quickly routed and retreated into their strongest fortification, the Light Infantry Redoubt (Stop 6 on the tour road). This position could not be carried by the Americans who had more success in assaulting Breymann’s fortified camp (Stop 7 on the tour road). Here Morgan and Dearborn gathered in front behind a large hill and joined the assault led by Benedict Arnold who entered the camp from the rear leading to its immediate capture. The loss of this key flank position of the British defensive line made their position untenable and the British began their retreat to Canada but only getting as far as present day Schuylerville where after a siege they were forced to surrender. The riflemen and light infantry were involved in the pursuit and siege of the British army which ended the Saratoga campaign.

Following Saratoga, Dearborn joined the main army under George Washington, wintered at Valley Forge, and fought in the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. In 1779 he served under General Sullivan in the expedition against the British-allied Haudenosaunee nations in Western New York. In 1780 he was with the Army of New Jersey and in 1781 at the siege at Yorktown and surrender of the British Army under General Cornwallis. Dearborn was honorably discharged in 1783 with the rank of lieutenant colonel at the age of 32 having served 8 years.

Subsequently Henry Dearborn was appointed as the US Marshall for the District of Maine, a Major General in the Massachusetts militia, and, in 1794, elected to Congress. In 1801 he became the Secretary at War under Thomas Jefferson. Dearborn, Michigan is named after him.

In the lead up to the War of 1812 President Madison appointed him to be the Senior Major General of the Army. Dearborn served in this capacity until July 1813. Henry Dearborn died in 1829.

Last updated: September 27, 2020

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