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‘Whispers in the Dark' sheds light on casualties from War of 1812

Times Staff Writer
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It was a bad day and a good day for Sgt. Samuel Linnell of Pamelia.

“Wounded — hit with the breech of gun in back of head by an Indian — the Indians also tried to remove his testicles by tomahawk.”

Sgt. Linnell survived that attack from the Second Battle of Sackets Harbor on May 29, 1813, and so did that bit of War of 1812 legacy, thanks to history buff and genealogist Jack Bilow of Plattsburgh, Franklin County, who recorded it and the sacrifices of thousands of others in a new book.

Mr. Bilow, a retired state corrections officer, is the author of “A War of 1812 Death Register — Whispers in the Dark.” The 520-page self-published reference book, heavy as a brick and with a hefty $50 price tag, was a labor of love for Mr. Bilow. He spent seven years working on it with a combined 24 weeks at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“I remember when I started genealogy and I looked at these books with names and dates and I'd go, ‘What kind of crackpot would do that?'” Mr. Bilow said in a phone interview from his Plattsburgh home. “And here I am; the crackpot who would do that.”

There are more than 20,000 names in the book; the majority individuals whose names were forgotten until dug up and compiled by Mr. Bilow.

“Until now, their names were only known to God and their families who are long deceased, their sacrifices forgotten,” Mr. Bilow writes in the book's preface. “When you give your life for your country is it any less important because it is 200 years later?”

“Whispers in the Dark” covers only the militia from the states of New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania, with most serving and dying along the border of Canada and the U.S. The book has a special section on the Battle of Plattsburgh, which occurred Sept. 11, 1814, when a strike force of British ships and troops from Canada was defeated by U.S. forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb.

Along with names, the book includes the individuals' regiment, hometown and heirs, when available. In some cases, like the one of Sgt. Linnell, the data briefly describe wounds.

Among the data at the National Archives that proved valuable to Mr. Bilow were veterans' “half-pay pension records,” muster rolls and death registers from company books. “Whispers in the Dark,” indexed by town, lists soldiers who were killed in action, captured, wounded or died from other causes. Mr. Bilow recorded the names of 10 War of 1812 soldiers who died in Watertown, apparently from either wounds or sickness.

But it was the casualties at Sackets Harbor that astounded Mr. Bilow.

“Sackets Harbor really surprised me by the numbers. It's overwhelming,” Mr. Bilow said. “More people died at Sackets Harbor than at any other place in the War of 1812.”

He said names from Sackets Harbor take up the most pages of his book: about 1,700 from the Sackets Harbor and Brownville area. He also recorded approximately 200 deaths in what was then called Brownsville, now Brownville, which he said contained a hospital.

“When you are in Sackets Harbor, wherever you walk, you must be walking over a dead body,” Mr. Bilow said. “Keep in mind, I probably didn't get them all, so there's probably more than that buried out there.”

Sackets Harbor was the American military's Lake Ontario headquarters during the War of 1812.

The Second Battle of Sackets Harbor is among the 20 most significant battles of the War of 1812, according to the National Park Service. In it, Lt. Col. Electus Backus and Gen. Jacob Brown led a 750-man defense against an invading force double in strength. That British-Canadian force attempted to destroy the Sackets Harbor shipyard but was repulsed by American regulars and militia.

But the loss of supplies and the damage to the nearly completed USS Pike at the battle ended the U.S. dream of a conquest of Canada and helped establish the international border that exists today. Repairs needed on the Pike delayed the attack on Kingston, allowing the British defenders time to gain reinforcements. Unable to gain control of Lake Ontario or capture Kingston, the U.S. Army was unable to strike deeper into Canada.

British casualties were 50 killed and 211 wounded. American casualties were about 50 killed, 84 wounded and 36 missing.

“Our loss is not numerous, but serious from the great worth of those who have fallen,” Gen. Brown wrote after the battle.

The first Sackets Harbor battle was July 19, 1812. The United States was still moving troops into the area when the British caught wind of the soldiers amassing and decided to attack while they still had an advantage. According to information included in Franklin B. Hough's “History of Jefferson County,” Harry F. Landon's “History of the North Country” and Times files, an American cruiser, the Oneida, spotted a fleet of five British frigates approaching on July 19 and returned to shore to sound an alarm. The Oneida anchored so that one broadside faced the lake while its guns on the opposite side were taken ashore. The ship and American batteries fought off the attack.

The Feb. 22, 1813, battle at Ogdensburgh (as it was spelled at the time) is also noted in Mr. Bilow's book, with many soldiers captured and “sent to Montreal.” In that battle, the British surprised American troops headed by Benjamin Forsyth by charging across the icy St. Lawrence River from Prescott, Ontario, to take Fort La Presentation and the village.

His book, Mr. Bilow said, is more than a reference work.

“What it deals with is people,” he said. “There's a lot of people who do genealogy and have no idea they have an ancestor who served in the War of 1812. I think the book is also good for historians because they know now what regiments participated where.”

He noted there have been books written on the battles of Sackets Harbor and Plattsburgh. “But no one has dealt with the individuals,” he said. “To me, it's a little bit more important to deal with that because when you get done with a battle it looks like two generals duked it out. In the meantime, you have two-or-three-hundred casualties who are given no credit.”

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Mr. Bilow, a 1969 graduate of Chateaguay High School and a 1971 graduate of Canton ATC, has been doing genealogy research for about 40 years. His grandmother, Lizzie Parmeter, Chateaugay, who died in 1991, was the first to pique his interest in the hobby. In 1985 he published the book “Chateaugay and the War of 1812.” In that Oct. 1, 1813, skirmish, Lt. William Nash and a private whose name eluded Mr. Bilow were killed.

“After I did the book, I wanted to know who the unknown private was,” Mr. Bilow said.

Eventually, he went to the National Archives and discovered the private's name: Dennis Lane of the 34th U.S. Infantry from Maine.

From that research, Mr. Bilow became interested in other battles.

“It became an obsession,” he said.

The result of the obsession, his latest book, focused on “the front” of the War of 1812, which was along the U.S.-Canadian border.

Mr. Bilow doesn't expect to make money on the book. He's sold about 125 copies of it, mainly to libraries.

But he admits “Whispers in the Dark” could not possibly be a complete collection of those who were wounded or who died along the border in the War of 1812.

“My book is never going to be complete,” he said. “Some records are missing and the National Archives don't have everything.”

But Mr. Bilow worries about some records the National Archives do have.

“Since I started this, they have restricted the use of muster rolls,” he said. “They are worrying about wear and tear, but a lot of these records are dry-rotting. So no one will be able to use them at all. Someone should be working with these records diligently to save them.”

Want to Buy the book?
WHAT: To order a copy of “A War of 1812 Death Register: Whispers in the Dark,” write to Mr. Bilow at 8 Grave Ave., Plattsburgh NY 12901. The price is $50 plus $5 for shipping and handling.OF NOTE: Mr. Bilow is available to give lectures in Northern New York on the War of 1812. He can be contacted via email at jbilow33@hotmail.com.
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