Major General Henry Smith: Warrior and Waterworks Engineer-Part I

Major General Henry Smith:  Warrior and Waterworks Engineer

Part I.


Besides his valuable contributions to United States history, General Henry Warren Smith and his family expanded the scope and impact Michigan state and Monroe history. He served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1837-1840 and as Monroe’s mayor in 1846. He forged distinguished military and maritime careers and was a devoted husband to his wife Elvira Foster Smith and their seven children.

Henry Smith’s family historical and military tradition stretches back to when his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. His father, Dr. Warren Smith, established himself as a merchant and a druggist in the village of Stillwater in Saratoga County, New York. Born on September 25, 1798, Henry was one of the sons of Dr. Smith and his wife Pamela Rowe Smith. He quickly absorbed the Revolutionary spirit of his hometown that had lingered in the air long after Great Britain and the United States had signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the actual fighting.  [1]

The necessity of fighting the War of 1812 to maintain United States independence from Great Britain added to the martial spirit of Henry Smith. Acting on this spirit of independence, Henry Smith entered West Point on May 28, 1813. According to some accounts, Henry graduated from West Point in 1815, while Henry’s son Winfield wrote in a biography of his father that Henry graduated from West Point in 1816. Although he was assigned to the artillery, he preferred the infantry and succeeded in securing an assignment to the 2nd Infantry.[2]

Along with Henry’s graduation came a promotion to Third Lieutenant, Artillery Corps and an assignment as Quartermaster of the garrison at Greenbush, New York. Third Lieutenant Smith remained at Greenbush from 1816-1819, and enjoyed another promotion to Second Lieutenant, 2nd Infantry on June 17, 1816, and later joining the Sixth Infantry. Henry was assigned to Quartermaster duty at Sackett’s Harbor, New York in 1819-1820 and at Plattsburg, New York from 1820-1822. He served at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, and later Fort Columbus, Governor’s Island.

Lt. Henry Smith Fights a Duel at Plattsburg

Between 1820 and 1822 while he was stationed at Plattsburg, New York, Lt. Henry Smith and some fellow officers hosted a ball and he had an unfortunate encounter with a gentleman from Montreal. Lt. Smith’s son Winfield told the story of his father’s encounter with the gentleman from Montreal in a biographical sketch of his father. Lt. Smith found it necessary to oust one of the guests for improper behavior and the guest, presumably the same gentleman from Montreal, challenged him to a duel.  Lt. Smith refused to accept the challenge because he said the challenger was not a gentleman.

However, according to Winfield Smith, his father did accept the challenge of a Canadian gentleman and a friend, who felt quite apprehensive about the duel because Lt. Smith had the reputation of being an excellent shot. After several weeks had passed the duel finally took place. The Canadian gentleman knew that taking the first shot would be his only hope of survival. He took the first shot and Lt. Smith held his fire. After his Canadian friend’s first shot passed through his fur cap, Lt Smith fired into the air. The Canadian rushed up to him, thanking him for his generosity and declaring that Lt. Smith had saved his life. They were warm friends for the rest of their lives.[3]

Army Posts and Aide-De-Camp to General Winfield Scott

Americans, French, British, and Native Americans had struggled for centuries to control the vast Great Lakes region, and after the War of 1812, the United States War Department established several forts along the Great Lakes, including Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Fort Brady in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to discourage British incursions from Canada. Lt. Henry Smith joined the ranks of soldiers assigned to protect the territorial integrity of the young United States. After he completed an assignment at Sackett’s Harbor in the early part of 1822, he moved on to Quartermaster duties at Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1822-1823, he served at Fort Brady in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and in 1823, he moved on to Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1823, Lt. Smith received an assignment as Aide-de-Camp to Major-General Winfield Scott, a tour that would last from July 12, 1823 to April 17,1826.

As his Aide-de-Camp, Lt. Smith traveled across a large part of the United States with Major-General Scott, including Ft. Snelling, then the extreme northwestern military post, located between present day Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. General Scott, Lt. Smith, and company found travel in those days before widespread and connecting railroads to be slow and time consuming, with steamboats that could navigate the lakes and rivers the best means of traveling from one point to another.

Slow motion travel as well as his official duties enabled Lt. Smith to get to know General Scott well, and to admire and emulate him in his professional and personal life. Lt. Smith’s career and his soldierly conduct compares with contemporary standards and with those of General Scott, his mentor. According to General Scott’s biographers, Timothy Johnson, and John D. Eisenhower, General Winfield Scott in some ways lived up to his nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers,” by insisting on the European style of military pomp and ceremony in his military and civilian relationships.  In their biographies they explore the negative aspects of his personality, including his vanity and arrogance.

Biographer Timothy Johnson emphasized that historians have overlooked General Scott’s contributions to American history and the American military. Professor Johnson summarized some of General Scott’s contributions to American history and the American military by pointed out that in 1821, General Scott wrote General Regulations for the Army, the first comprehensive and systematic set of standards covering all aspects of the life of a soldier. He wrote an infantry tactical annual and periodically updated it.

Drawing on his knowledge of military history and his admiration of the European .military tradition, General Scott strived to mold the American army in its image. General Scott shaped the professionalism and tradition of the United States Army by his codification of army life and tireless advocacy of Army education and training. His dedication and devotion to the Army lasted throughout his Army career. He served as Commanding General of the United States Army for 20 years, longer than anyone else who held the office and he was also instrumental in developing the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Both of General Scott’s biographers credit him with training the generation of Union generals who successfully fought the Civil War, while citing the irony that he received little historical credit for his military accomplishments or the Union implementation of his Anaconda Plan to blockade Southern ports and advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two parts.

Lt. Smith’s military career and his personal conduct as a soldier display the same discipline and devotion to duty as his commanding officer, General Winfield Scott. In his personal life, Lt. Smith expressed his regard for General Scott by naming his first son Winfield, a name carried on as a family tradition.[4]

The Lieutenant Marries the Judge’s Daughter


Like her husband, Elvira Lorraine Foster was a New York native, the elder daughter of prominent Watertown Judge Jabez Foster and his wife Hannah Hungerford Foster. Elvira, born in 1804, and her sister Evelina born in 1806 survived to grow up and marry, but his two sons, both named Ambrose Sylvester, died in early childhood.

Elvira married Lt. Henry Smith in July 1826, the same year her mother Hannah died. The Columbian Centinel of August 2, 1826 noted that Lt. Lt. Henry Smith of the U.S. Army married Elvira Lorraine Foster in Watertown, New York. The newly-weds immediately departed for Lt. Smith’s post at Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

A little over a year later on August 26, 1827, their son Winfield was born at Fort Howard, and two years later their daughter Harriette was born in Watertown, New York. Elvira Pamelia Smith was born in 1831 in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Their last four children, Katherine Lydia, Evaline, Josephine, and William were born in Monroe.[5]

Newly-Weds at Fort Howard


Fort Howard from the Fox River – Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after their marriage in Watertown, New York, Henry and Elvira Smith left Sacket’s Harbor, New York, traveling to Lewiston, Buffalo, and Detroit on their way to Fort Howard at Green Bay, Wisconsin. In his biography of his father, their son Winfield said that they made the last leg of the journey by schooner and that part of the trip took them nearly three weeks before they arrived at Fort Howard. When they arrived at Fort Howard, they discovered that the barracks were being constructed and they had no comfortable accommodations. Then, according to Winfield Smith’s biography, the Fort surgeon offered them his quarters which they occupied for several weeks.

Fort Howard in Green Bay was just ten years old when Lt. Smith and his wife Elvira arrived there in August 1826. In 1816, the United States government had appropriated $219,000 for the military to build at fort on the Fox River to protect the region from Native American and British influence and incursions. Soldiers provided the labor to build the fort, which the government named Fort Howard in memory of Army General Benjamin Howard who served in Illinois, Illinois and the western territory during the War of 1812 and died before the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. The United States government considered Fort Howard more important than the new Fort Dearborn at Chicago.[6]

In 1821, Colonel Ninian Pinkney, who succeeded General Joseph Lee Smith as commander of the garrison at Fort Howard, came to Green Bay with his troops on the very first steam boat, the Walk in the Water which was a small vessel with side paddle wheels. During Colonel Pinkney’s command, the United States Government signed the first treaties to purchase land from the Winnebago and Menominee Indians in the region and the treaty negotiations took place against a backdrop of violence in the region. On August 9, 1821, a party of Indians fired on William Whistler, Captain of the Third Infantry Regiment and future commander of Fort Howard when Lt. and Mrs. Smith were there, as he and his men were crossing Lake Winnebago. Someone told him that the Indians oversaw the passage through the lake, and they required all boats to stop for their inspection. Colonel Whistler didn’t want to argue with the Indians so he ordered his men to move on to Fort Howard. He wasn’t surprised at the frequent violent incidents because Fort Howard stood in a wild, sparsely settled country. The Indians killed several Americans, including Dr. William S. Madison, surgeon of the troops at Fort Howard.[7]

On December 27, 1821, Michigan Governor Lewis Cass wrote Secretary of War John C. Calhoun from Detroit citing some Indian statistics. He said that the number of Indians in the Green Bay area totaled 1,600, broken down into 500 Menominees, 800 Winnebagoes, and 300 Chippewas, Ottawas, Potawatomies and Sacs.[8]

Although violent Indians and soldiers both caused some problems, the garrison at Fort Howard just participated in two wars in the early 1800s- the Winnebago War of 1827 and the Black Hawk War of 1832. As well as being a protective presence, Fort Howard played a more important peacetime role in the social and industrial life of Green Bay and the region.

General Hugh Brady, commander of Fort Howard in early 1826, had proven his bravery in the War of 1812 battles of Chippewa and Niagara, suffering a wound at Niagara that left him permanently lame. He thoroughly enjoyed the balls held at Fort Howard and always attended them in full military uniform with silver spurs on his boots. The most popular dances at the fort were called country dances. The men would stand on one side of the room and the ladies on the other, combining to make a total of 15 or 20 couples. They danced to songs like “Two Sisters,” “Cheat the Lady,” “Money Musk,” and “Two Dollars in My Pocket.”

When Major William Whistler assumed command of Fort Howard at the close of 1826, his large family of attractive daughters continued the dancing and other fun social functions. Major Whistler, the uncle of American artist James Whistler, had been associated with Fort Howard longer than any other officer and although he liked to dance, he imposed such strict discipline on the garrison at the fort and on the community across the Fox River that it remained imprinted in the behavior of his soldiers long after their time at Fort Howard.

The United States Inspector of Fortifications reported the condition of Fort Howard as of July 27, 1826, to the War Department. He turned in his report just before General Brady turned over the command of Fort Howard to Major Whistler and just a few weeks before Lt. Smith and his new wife Elvira arrived.

Brigadier General Brady, Commanding

Four Companies, 2nd Infantry

Company E, Captain Boynton, 2nd

Lieutenant Bloodgood, Commanding

Company F, Captain Stanniford

Company G, Captain Boardman

Brevet Major Commanding

Company H, Captain Ransom

Appearance of the Battalion Under Arms fine——with the exception of Captain Ransom’s Company H., in which are seen five or six men unfitted for frontier service, in age and apparent feebleness——they are on perhaps their fourth or fifth enlistment.

Neither arm rack nor barracks conformed to regulations. The quarters of each company badly distributed and arranged, not one like another. Mess rooms in the lower story, bunks above stairs in most cases, in same on the lower floor. Arm racks badly made and not alike. The muskets in some rooms are found on one side of the house, cartridge boxes on the other, and in almost every case in the mess instead of the sleeping rooms.

Hospital——a proper system seems to prevail throughout. Fault may be found with the building itself, which certainly does not afford as comfortable quarters as might be obtained were the present arrangements of the rooms so changed as to give more space to the wards and less to the medical director. General Brady speaks of removing the buildings which I think advisable, as he can in rebuilding it not only make a better distribution of apartments but place it sufficiently near the fort to allow the sick to reach it with convenience and to have the patients so immediately under the eye of the sentinels as to deter them from straying as they are now apt to do.  Cases in hospital chiefly of Influenza which has been epidemic for several weeks past. The sick report is however, daily diminishing and has been reduced within the last two weeks from 60 or 80 to 15.[9]

When Lt. Henry Smith and his new wife arrived at Fort Howard to take over as new Quartermaster, an assignment that also featured his promotion to captain, the newly-weds discovered that their rooms were not ready and there were no other suitable accommodations available.  Their son Winfield in his biography of his father noted that the barracks were still being built and that his parents would have fared badly but for the hospitality of the Fort’s surgeon in his “little quarters”, where they remained for several weeks.[10]

The hospitable Army Surgeon who donated his quarters might have been Dr. William Beaumont who practiced at Fort Howard during 1826 and 1827. A native of Lebanon, Connecticut, he at first taught school in New York and later moved to St. Albans, Vermont where he completed an apprenticeship with Dr. Truman Powell. The Third Medical Society of the State of Vermont in Burlington examined his medical knowledge and recommended him as a competent and safe doctor.

During the War of 1812, Dr. Beaumont served in the U.S. Army as a surgeon, and fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh, New York. After the war, he established a private practice in Plattsburgh, but by 1820 he had reenlisted in the Army and he was assigned to Fort Mackinac.

On June 6, 1822, Alexis St. Martin, a young Canadian who worked for the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island suffered a shotgun wound that injured his ribs and stomach. Although Dr. Beaumont performed skillful surgery and provided Alexis St. Martin excellent care, he predicted that the wound would be fatal.

Dr. Beaumont predicted incorrectly. Alexis St. Martin recovered, but with a permanent hole in his stomach that never completely healed. Alexis could no longer work for the American Fur Company, so the authorities threatened to send him back to Canada. Dr. Beaumont took Alexis St. Martin into his own house and supported him for several years. While caring for his patient, Dr. Beaumont also used him to make pioneering observations about human digestion by studying how he digested various foods through the hole in his stomach. Dr. Beaumont’s observations and chemical analyses of gastric juices laid the foundations for his 1833 book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion and for the modern science of gastroenterology.

After a transfer and a two- year stint at Fort Niagara, New York and the return of Alexis St. Martin to Canada, in 1826, President John Quincy Adams promoted Dr. Beaumont to the rank of surgeon. He served at Fort Howard in 1826 and 1827, and in 1828 he was transferred to St. Louis, Missouri. Captain and Mrs. Smith remained in Fort Howard for four years, 1826-1830, before they, too, were transferred, this time to frontier duty at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Captain Smith would fight in the Toledo War, the Patriot War, and the Black Hawk War before the Army assigned him to build civilian waterworks in Michigan and Ohio, he would fill various political offices in Michigan, and he and his wife Elvira would have six more children and build a mansion in Monroe, Michigan for all of them to enjoy.

(Continued  in Part II) 


[1] History of Saratoga County, New York. Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, 1878. History of the Villages and Towns of Saratoga County, Stillwater, Part I.   p. 349

[2] Henry is listed in the Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N. Y. ” by George Washington Cullum, published 1891, as graduating with the class of 1815. Henry’s son, Winfield cites his graduation date as 1816 in a biography of his father in the History of Monroe County by Talcott Wing. Cullum’s Register, Class of 1815.,  History of Monroe County, Michigan. Talcott Wing.

[3] Biography of Major Henry Smith, written by his son Winfield Smith.  History of Monroe County Michigan, p. 298.

[4] Timothy Johnson. Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory (Modern War Studies (Lawrence Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2015.)

John D. Eisenhower. Agent of Destiny:  The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott, Norman Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999

[5] Winfield Smith died in London on November 8, 1899l Elvira Parmelia Smith Goodale died on November 13, 1878, and she is buried in Brookside Cemetery, Watertown, New York. Katherine Lydia died as a young child and she is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Monroe. Henry’s brother Joseph Rowe Smith, Sr. also enjoyed a distinguished military career and he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Monroe. Joseph’s son Henry Smith oversaw the arrest and imprisonment of the conspirators in the Abraham Lincoln assassination.

[6] Barton L Parker, “The History and location of Fort. Howard, Green Bay Historical Bulletin (Green Bay, Wisconsin-Green Bay Historical Society, 1929, Volume 5, No. 4, Page 8, quoted from manuscript in the library of Congress, Me Arthur Papers; Preserved in the files of the War Department, Army Reports, reprinted from a copy in the Kellogg Public Library Green Bay, Wisconsin from a photostat copy in the Burton Historical Collections.

[7] “The Fur Trade in Wisconsin, 1812-1825,” (Wisconsin Historical Collections (Madison. State Historical Society, 1911) XX, 139.

[8]Ibid, p. 237.

[9] War Department, Army Files, Photostats in Burton Historical Library, Detroit; A History of Fort Howard, James Edward Kramer, Master’s Thesis, University of Arizona, 1956.

[10] Talcott E. Wing. History of Monroe County, Michigan.p. 336.

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