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"I'll never make it. I'll never make it" - An 1812 Vignette

During the late 19th century, long before today's era of mass electronic media, stories relating to America's past were abundant. Although most were only loosely based on fact, they were popular, particularly with young people. This included literature about the Great Lakes. The War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War were always popular topics. Since the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 has just been celebrated, and the setting for the story is Sackets Harbor, it seemed appropriate to publish this story.

One of the better known authors of this type of literature was E.T. Tomlinson. He was a nationally known author of adventure books for boys, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which sold millions of copies. He was also widely known for his short stories and other fiction. He also authored Greek and Latin textbooks widely used in schools. For 23 years he was pastor of Central Baptist Church in Elizabeth, N.J. He was a graduate of Williams College and earned his PhD of Philosophy from Colgate University.

Tomlinson was born in Shiloh, Cumberland County, N.J. on May 23, 1859. At the age of 22 he was appointed principal of Auburn High school and later became headmaster of Rutgers Preparatory School in New Brunswick, N.J. He became pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1888.

Tomlinson was well known in Jefferson County, and had a deep interest in local history. At one time he resided in Adams Center, near Sackets Harbor. His wife was the former Anna M. Greene, daughter of O.D. Greene of Adams. He passed away on Oct. 30, 1931.

The following article appeared in the “Syracuse Sunday Herald” on July 4, 1897, under the headline "His Best Fourth."


"I'll never make it. I'll never make it."

It was early in the evening of the 3d of July, 1813. Young Lewis Ramsay, a boy of sixteen, had been rowing desperately over the waters of Lake Ontario, not far from the garrison at Sacket's Harbor. The wind, which had been blowing steadily all the afternoon, had died away at sunset, and almost as glass the surface of the lake spread out before him.

Lewis had been rowing hard for an hour now, and had stopped for a moment to rest his aching arms, and to try to estimate the distance that yet remained between him and the harbor. "It's a good three miles yet, and I'll never make it," he groaned as he again took up his oars; but he began to row with a desperation that seemed to belie his words.

He was a sturdy lad, and many of his days that summer had been spent on the lake in the rude skiff he had fitted out with a small leg-of-mutton sail. On this night, however, he could only rely upon his oars, and with long and steady strokes he drove his skiff onward. A great fear was in his heart, for just as the sun had set he had seen a sight which had caused the color to leave his sunburned face, and his heart to beat as it had never done before. He knew that the issues of life and death depended upon him now, and he did not relax his efforts.

Soon the dim outlines of the high bluffs became distinct, and at last he gained the shore. He hastily drew his skiff up on the beach, and then, his face dripping with perspiration, and his body aching so that he could hardly stand, he started as swiftly as he could go towards the quarters of Commodore Chauncey.

Lewis well knew where these were. He had spent many hours in the garrison, and one of his greatest pleasures had been to clamber over the great frigate - the "General Pike" - which was now almost ready to put to sea. He knew just where the "Fair American," and the "Duke of Goucester," and "Pert," and all the other vessels of Chauncey's fleet lay at anchor. Indeed, when the British force had been landed at Sacket's Harbor a few weeks before this time, and had succeeded in burning the stores there which were valued at half a million dollars, Lewis had worked with the men in striving to check the progress of the flames when at last the enemy had fled, as alarmed by the movements of the Americans as the Americans had been by theirs, and had presented the novel sight of two armies running from each other.

"Halt! Who goes there?"

It was the guard who had stopped Lewis now. The panting boy advanced cautiously, and after whispering a word in his ear, said: "I must see the commodore right away." "See the commodore, is it?" laughed the guard. "He'll be likely to see such a youngster as you this time o' night, when boys of your age ought to be in bed."

But Lewis stepped up to the side of the guard and spoke a few quick words in a low tone. The soldier could not conceal his alarm as he listened, and said hastily: "Go right ahead! The commodore will listen to you this time, - no doubt of that. Hold on, though! He has rooms on shore now. Do you know where they are?"

"I know. I know," cried Lewis, darting swiftly along the street and soon disappearing from the sight of the guard, who resumed his beat with many a shake of his had, and low muttering to himself.

Lewis ran on until he came to the house in which he knew Commodore Chauncey had his rooms. He was compelled to repeat his summons on the heavy iron knocker several times before the door was at last opened by a woman, who held a candle in her hands and gazed curiously at him, evidently wondering why she should be disturbed at such an hour.

"Mrs. Fox, I must see Commodore Chauncey right away. Right away, I tell you," he added impatiently as he saw her hesitate.

"Mass me! If it isn't Lewis Ramsay. What's the matter now? Is your ma sick?"

"No, my ma isn't sick," replied Lewis angrily, "I tell you I must see the commodore this minute. Don't keep me waiting here. Tell him I must see him."

"The commodore isn't feelin' very good tonight, and I don't believe he'd see you, Lewis," replied Mrs. Fox, still hesitating.

"Yes he will. I know he will. Go right up to his rooms and tell him he must see me. It's a matter of life and death."

"Well, I'll see," said the woman. "come in. I'm afraid he's in bed, but I'll go rap on his door, as ye seem so set on it."

Lewis waited at the foot of the stairway, and in a few minutes Mrs. Fox returned and said: "The commodore says he's in bed and you'd better wait till mornin.'"

"I can't wait till morning, I must see him this minute!"

"Well, he said if ye wouldn't be put off nohow, to let ye come up. I'll hold the light for ye."

Lewis ran hastily up the stairs and was admitted into the room. A candle burning on the table served to show how pale the officer's face was, as he lay on his bed. Lewis knew that he was ill, or the report had been current in Sacket's Harbor, but when he saw the sick man before him, and realized the high position he had, he was confused, and hardly could collect his thoughts.

"Well, my boy," said the commodore kindly, "what brings you here?"

"Commodore Chauncey," said Lewis, his courage returning at the kindly welcome. "I was out on Point Peninsula this afternoon. I'd landed and drawn my boat upon the inner shore and walked around the Point till I could see out on the lake. When I got there, I saw a little schooner which at first I thought was the "Lady of the Lake," but pretty soon I saw she wasn't. She was a British gunboat, commodore, and I'd just made up my mind to that, when she came about and the first thing I knew three gigs put out from her - and started for the shore."

Lewis stopped for a moment, thrown into confusion by the manner of the commodore, who quickly sat up in bed and was giving him a look that seemed to pierce him through and through.

"Go on," said the commodore sharply.

"Well," resumed Lewis, "I thought I'd run at first, but something seemed to hold me there watching those gigs. They had six men in each of 'em, and I didn't dare to run for fear I'd be seen; so I climbed up a tree and kept watching the boats. They came straight for the place where I was, and I didn't know but they wee after me - especially when they drew up their gigs and sat down on the ground right under the tree where I was. Commodore Chauncey, those men are going to come here tonight and set fire to the 'Pike' and burn up the stores if they can."

The commodore leaped quickly out of the bed, rang the bell for his attendant, and while he was dressing plied Lewis with searching questions.

"Send Lieutenant Martin to me immediately," said the officer to his servant as he entered the room. "You know what immediately means, don't you?"

In a few minutes Lieutenant Martin entered the room, and the commodore had related Lewis's story.

"If the young rascal's told the truth, we've no time to lose." replied the lieutenant. "What time did you say they would start?"

"Ten o'clock," replied Lewis. He did not relish the epithet the young officer had applied to him.

"You'll take him with you. He'll be of service in showing the way, said the commodore, pointing to Lewis. "He's told the truth, of that I am certain."

This was more than Lewis had counted upon, but he followed obediently as the lieutenant hurriedly left to carry out the orders. The guards on all the vessels were increased, six gigs were fitted with men, and at a quarter past ten o'clock they started. Lieutenant Martin's gig, in which Lewis was seated near that officer, leading the way.

The increased guards would ward off the danger to the fleet, but the plan for the gigs was, if they did not fall in with the gigs of the enemy, to lie in wait near the entrance to the harbor, and cut them off when they should attempt to return. Lewis knew that the young officer did not more than half believe his story, and when they were some distance out from the harbor he was not surprised as the lieutenant said to him in a low voice - "You were up a tree, were you, when the men came ashore?"


"And they sat down right under the tree, did they?"


"Well, then how in the name of common sense did you ever get away to bring word without being seen by them? That's what I can't understand."

"The commodore asked me the same question. I told him. I'll tell you too, since you want to know. About sunset the men went off into the woods and left only one man on guard by the boats. I watched, and when his back was turned, I dropped, dodged from tree to tree, and finally got to my skiff."

"Ah," whispered the lieutenant, only partially satisfied. "If you've played a Fourth-of-July prank on us we'll string you up in the yard arm."

Lewis made no reply, yet his fears were not allayed. Suppose the men had changed their plans, or had abandoned the attempt? He peered eagerly through the darkness, trying to detect the presence of the enemies' gigs.

The men were rowing steadily and their oars were rowing steadily, an as their oars were muffled the sound could hardly be heard. The silence grew almost unbearable. Lewis felt as if he must cry out, the strain becoming so great.

On and on moved the gigs, the men all feeling the increasing excitement and yet working with the precision of clockwork. Suddenly Lewis touched the lieutenant on the arm. He thought he had caught the sound of oars in the distance. A whispered word to the men made them rest on their oars, and the lieutenant stood up, listening and peering before him through the darkness. Yes, there it was, evidently a boat was approaching, not far away.

The men were scarcely breathing: the suspense was intense. Then through the darkness glimmered the outlines of a gig about the size of their own; the men were rowing slowly and evidently their presence had not been discovered.

"Ahoy there! What boat is that?" called the lieutenant.

There was a smothered exclamation from the strange gig, a quick word of command given, and before the young officer could repeat his hail, boat and crew had disappeared in the darkness. The quick call of the lieutenant followed, and as soon as his own gigs had gathered about him, he gave them directions to spread out and make for the mouth of the harbor.

There followed a race in the darkness. Sometimes the gig would be seen faintly for a moment; but while the lieutenant was hesitating about giving the word to fire, for fear of hitting his companions in the other boats it would again disappear. Hour after hour the strange pursuit was kept up, the gigs being drawn in one direction, now in another, by some shout or call.

At last, just as the gray of the dawn began to appear, they found themselves huddled together at the mouth of the harbor. A breeze had risen, and Lewis peered eagerly about him as the light became stronger.

"Look there, Lieutenant!" said Lewis quickly, pointing toward the open lake.

A schooner with all her sails set could be seen far out over the water, speeding away before the freshening breeze.

"The game's up," said the lieutenant shortly. "We will go back to the Harbor.” And slowly back to Sacket's Harbor moved the little procession of six gigs.

"My boy," said Lieutenant Martin when they had landed taking Lewis by he hand, "you've had the greatest Fourth of July celebration you'll ever have in your life. We didn't catch the rascals, but you kept them from firing the 'Pike' and the stores; and that's better than all the anvils and rockets and cannon in the land."


This story is not entirely without merit.   The “Geneva Gazette” of Geneva, N.Y. of July 21, 1813 noted:

"Verbal reports and letters state, that a party of British troops, said to be about 600 in number, had effected a landing within a few miles of that place, where they remained secreted for a night; but finding in the morning, that a sergeant and two of their men had deserted they took to their boats and made off before they were discovered by our troops."

Whether Tomlinson's story is based on this incident is a matter of conjecture. Tomlinson also mentioned that the British had burned storehouses at Sackets Harbor, which is a true statement. The “Geneva Gazette” of June 21, 1813 reported:  

"We are informed that on Saturday last the 29th inst. the British landed 400 men at Sacket's Harbor and were repulsed - not however before they had set fire to some store-houses. On the following day (Sunday) our force was increased by the arrival of 800 men."

By Richard Palmer

Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter and well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times” called "On the Waterfront."  His latest book is the biography of Captain Augustus Hinckley, famed Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River mariner, as well as a review of the maritime history of Clayton, NY.  He is also a regular contributor to the Maritime History of the Great Lakes website and is frequently consulted by people searching for shipwrecks on Lake Ontario.

Everett T. Tomlinson’s books are long out of print, but several copies are available from online book sellers.  In addition, many are available online, free of charge, from The Project Gutenberg eBook project.  One that will certainly interest 1000 Islanders is Camping on the St. Lawrence.  Illustrated by A. B. Shute, the book was published by Lee and Shepard Publishers in 1899. 

The ebook #42623 was released in April 2013. 
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Herb Swingle
Comment by: Herb Swingle
Left at: 7:48 AM Thursday, January 15, 2015
Great Story! Caught my Interest.This comes from a Historian from Rochester,NY.