Dearborn, Henry

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Dearborn, Henry

DEARBORN, HENRY. (1751–1829). Continental officer, later secretary of war. New Hampshire. Descended from a native of Exeter, England, who came to America in 1639, Henry was born on 23 February 1751 in North Hampton, New Hampshire. He studied medicine with Dr. Hall Jackson in Portsmouth and started practicing at Nottingham in 1772 before he organized and was elected captain of a militia company. After learning of the fighting at Lexington and Concord, he led sixty of his men to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his company became part of Colonel John Stark's Regiment. Dearborn distinguished himself as part of the latter's command at Bunker Hill. Commanding a company of musketmen in Arnold's march to Quebec, he became sick and had to be left behind on the Chaudière River. He rejoined in time, however, to be captured at Quebec on 31 December 1775. Held for a while in the city, he was paroled in May 1776 but not exchanged until 10 March 1777. On 19 March he was appointed major of Alexander Scammell's Third New Hampshire Regiment (with rank from 8 November 1776), and he fought at Ticonderoga and the First Battle of Saratoga on 19 September 1777. On the latter date he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

After spending the winter of 1777–1778 at Valley Forge in Enoch Poor's brigade, Dearborn took part in the Battle of Monmouth in June. The next summer found him in Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois setting out from Easton, Pennsylvania. On 19 June 1781, Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering requested that Washington appoint Dearborn to be his (Pickering's) assistant, and the request was granted. While serving in this capacity during the Yorktown campaign, he had the sad duty of writing home that his former commander, Colonel Scammell, had been killed.

Serving in the Continental army until 21 March 1783, he settled in Kennebec County, in the Maine district of Massachusetts, where he rose to major general of militia and, in 1790, U.S. marshal for the district. He was a Republican congressman from 1793 to 1797. Dearborn was secretary of war during Jefferson's eight years as president (1801–1809). On 27 January 1812 President Madison made him the senior major general with command of what was expected to be the critical theater, the sector between the Niagara River and the New England coast.

History has generally judged Dearborn and his successor, William Eustis, to be incompetent secretaries of war. As a field commander, Dearborn was more conspicuously incompetent, and the American defeats of 1812 and 1813 in the War of 1812 were largely due to his lack of strategic sense and vigor. Morgan Lewis succeeded him in the summer of 1813 as field commander, but further evidence of Dearborn's incompetence being revealed by subsequent American defeats, he was relieved of command on 6 July 1813. His request for a court of inquiry being unheeded because officials were busy trying to salvage the mess he had created, Dearborn was given command of New York City. He was later made president of the court-martial that tried and condemned General William Hull for his defeat at Detroit, which was ironic, since it was Dearborn's inept strategy that had enabled the British to concentrate their entire force against Hull at Detroit.

In March 1815 James Madison surprisingly nominated Dearborn for secretary of war. In the ensuing uproar Madison withdrew his name, but not before the Senate rejected him. He was honorably discharged from the army on 15 June 1815.

During Monroe's administration, Dearborn was minister to Portugal from 1822 to 1824. He returned at his own request and retired to Roxbury, where he died on 6 June 1829.


Dearborn, Henry. Revolutionary War Journals of Henry Dearborn, 1775–1783. Edited by Lloyd A. Brown and Howard H. Peckham. Chicago: Caxton Club, 1939.

Estes, J. Worth et al. Medical Practice and Research in Revolutionary America, 1760–1820. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1979.

Potter, Chandler E. The Military History of the State of New Hampshire, 1623–1861. 1866. Reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1972.

Upton, Richard Francis. Revolutionary New Hampshire. 1936. Reprint, New York: Kennikat, 1970.

Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1983.

                              revised by Frank C. Mevers

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