MADISON BARRACKS at Sackets Harbor, New York, was founded because of the area’s strategic importance and has served the nation in nearly every war since the War of 1812. It has been considered one of the best military posts and a key to America’s northern defense.
In 1841, a young man, seemingly of great means, found himself on the wrong side of army officials and was locked up in the guard house there, awaiting a court martial and 50 lashes, after surrendering for having deserted. Anxious to secure his release, he pled his case to J. THOMAS ANGEL, an influential and wealthy official of Sackets Harbor. Angel helped to establish Sackets Harbor Bank in 1834. The young man claimed to be Harmar P. Denny, son of a congressman by the same name from Pennsylvania, although military officials refer to him as F. Shepard.
Highly sympathetic to the young man’s case, Angel relates his story in an 8” x 10”, 3 pp, ALS to Congressman HARMAR DENNY (1794-1852) of Pittsburgh. Angel noted that since the soldier was worth more than $5,000, he cannot be retained in military service against his will. He added, however, that he was not an attorney or familiar with the law.
To assure that the letter was delivered to the congressman, Angel convinced ZENO ALLEN, postmaster of Sackets Harbor, to send the letter under his free frank, to his counterpart postmaster in Pennsylvania, hoping to assure its delivery to the Congressman. This underscores the influence that postmasters exercised between each other at the time.
The letter contains two letters to the congressman, Angel’s long narrative describing the young man’s plight and a plea from Allen on the verso advocating for the young man. It also contains a note pleading with the postmaster on the address leaf to deliver or forward it to the congressman. Finally, a docket note from the congressman or his representative states how he handled the situation. Punctuation added for clarity.
First, Angel’s explanation of the case to the congressman:
“The only apology I have to make for thus introducing myself to you is the detail I am about to make. A few weeks ago, I became acquainted with a soldier in the garrison at this place. He was then in confinement in the guard house awaiting his trial for desertion. Soon after he had his trial & proceedings of the Court Martial was sent to Portland to Gen. Eustis for approval – about the time he sent for me. I called at the Guard House & he gave me the following account of himself. He told me his real name was Harmer P. Denny (he is called by the name of Shepherd) and that his Father was a man of wealth & influence, had been or was a member of Congress & lived in Alleghany Town opposite Pittsburgh, that his own mother was dead, that she left him a large estate in Boston, among other [things] was the ‘Burley House’ so called, that this father had given him many advantages at school & college, had once sent him to Europe with a tutor, that he went to Liverpool, London, then to France & Spain then home. He went into the state of Ohio, there got married & in Sept 1839 started for Boston & Cleveland, Ohio being beset was induced to enlist & did – from that place he came here & joined the 8th regt in Capt Bownel’s company, that company in the winter 39 & 40 were stationed at Ogdensburgh from which place he deserted & went to Boston & attended to his property & employed an agent & in Jan. last returned to this place & gave himself up as a deserter. He says that Capt. H. Clair Denny was his uncle (I was acquainted with Capt. Denny of the U.S. Army now resigned). He says he has been what we call a wild child or in other words has been reckless of consequences & now to date mourns his folly. On the recital of his parentage & situation I became interested in his case & immediately wrote General Eustis & got Judge Allen, the Post Master of this place to join me in requesting the Gen. if consistent to remit the penalty or if he could not, to have the infliction of punishment postponed until I could learn more of his history. The following is an extract from the Gen’s reply to our letter:
“‘I will direct the Commanding Officer at Madison barracks to postpone the execution of his sentence for a short time to enable you to communicate with Mr. Denny on the subject. According to your second request, I desire you will cause that gentleman distinctly to understand that any appeal he may make in favor of his son should be addressed not to me but to one of my superiors’ meaning, I suppose, Maj. Gen. Macomb [Alexander Macomb, commanding General of the Army, regarded as a hero during the War of 1812] or the Secretary of War [John Bell].’
“He [the young man] is a man I think about 24 or 25 years of age, rather thick set full faced, rather dark complexion, brown hair, I think. Now, sir, if by this short account you can recognize a son I hope you will lose no time in appealing to Gen. Macomb or the Sec. of War for his discharge. He feels very penitent & I believe is sufficiently punished for his rash step. Your own judgment will dictate to you the course to be pursed with the Department to obtain his discharge. I have understood that a soldier could not be retained in the service contrary to his will if he was worth over $5,000. I am not a lawyer & have never examined the law on this subject. This case requires immediate attention & that you may know that I am not imposing upon you. I have obtained the signature of Hon. Zeno Allen as Post Master of this place & late Judge of Jeff. Co. Com. Pleas. Please write me immediately on the receipt of this letter. I am, Sir, your obt. Servant, Thos. J. Angel”
On the verso, Allen wrote to the congressman: “Sir – this is written in good faith & in addition to what the subject has written I will inform you what the probably sentence will be from the experience I have had in such cases – it will be 50 lashes on the bare back and you may try to get the sentence remitted by application to the acting president [Vice President John Tyler became after the abrupt death of William Henry Harrison.] or get him discharged [because] he is your son. He has been & is like the prodigal of old…to return to his father… Zeno Allen”
According to the docketing, the congressman wrote to both Allen and Angel. “T.J. Angel, Z. Allen Sackets Harbor, NY, respecting enlisted soldier F. Shepard. April 17, 1841 rec’d on 29th Apr wrote same day to Angel enclosed to Mr. Allen & on 30 wrote to Gen’s Eustis…”
Verso carries an integral address leaf with a beautiful circular Sackets Harbor, NY, postmark, FREE Frank stamp, Zeno Allen’s signature as postmaster and a note to the postmaster “will please deliver this immediately or if Mr. D is from home please forward it & oblige a friend.”
These men went to great lengths to exonerate the young soldier from a punishment they believed he should not endure.
Letter is in blue ink and very readable. Folds, toning, light expected soiling, a couple of fold breaks and a seal tear. This letter is a wonderful piece of Sackets Harbor military Americana illustrating the influence of postmasters.
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