"If the British put themselves before your forts, giv[e] them nothing but red hot balls & plenty of them."

    John Armstrong Collection of Nine Letters, all are signed (two are secretarially signed) and dated between October 1812 and August 1813. Eight of the letters were written while Armstrong was serving as President James Madison's secretary of war; all concern the eastern American coastal defense against British invasion.

    Prior to the War of 1812, John Armstrong, Jr. (1758-1843) served his country as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. senator, and a diplomat. At the outset of the War of 1812, he was appointed a brigadier general and assigned the difficult task of leading the defense of New York Harbor. In January 1813, President Madison appointed him his war secretary. Following the August 1814 burning of Washington's public buildings by British forces-one of the most humiliating events in U.S. history-Armstrong resigned amidst blame for failing to defend the capital against the invasion.

    All of Secretary of War Armstrong's letters are one page; six of the letters are written to Brigadier General Henry Burbeck, who was stationed on Governor's Island (and later at New London, Connecticut) and was "commanding in the Harbour of New York [February 1, 1813, letter]." In the October 12, 1812, letter, Armstrong informs Burbeck about ordnance shortages at Newport ("deficiency of 50bls of powder, 400 shot for 24 pounders and 200 for 18 pounders . . .") and notifies him of requests from the Commissary General of Ordnance, Colonel Decius Wadsworth. On February 1, 1813 (secretarially signed), the war secretary instructs "Mr. Cooper" of New York to communicate with Burbeck about harbor defenses; seven days later, Armstrong informs Burbeck to expect "a communication from Mr. Cooper relative to Harbour defence." In the two March letters, Burbeck is directed to authorize "Mr. Christopher Colles to erect his Telegraph at fort Richmond [March 9, 1813]" and ordered to "proceed to Boston & relieve General Boyd in the command of that post [March 12, 1813]."

    Armstrong's June 25th letter contains orders for Captain William Van Deursen, Jr., stationed at Fort Trumbull (New London, Connecticut): "So long as the blockade retains its present character, menacing an attack on the town & fort, you will prevent the departure of all vessels from the port." Six days later, Burbeck received directions to dismiss the Connecticut militia "with the Presidents thanks for the promptitude with which they turned out and expressions of his confidence in their zeal & courage. Should further trials be necessary [July 1, 1813]." In his July 9 letter, the secretary of war then gave Burbeck, stationed at New London, dire instructions: "If the British put themselves before your forts, giving them nothing but red hot balls & plenty of them. If Benjamin's recruits are insufficient to garrison & cover the forts call in some militia." Armstrong's final letter in this collection (secretarially signed) is addressed to Connecticut Governor John Cotton Smith regarding the supplying of Connecticut's militia, dated August 9, 1813. These important letters are in good to fine condition. From the Papers of General Henry Burbeck.

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