by Nick Blanton
John Francis Hamtramck was born on April 19, 1798 at Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father, Jean-François, was a general in the Revolutionary War, and in the Articles of Confederation period was given command of a garrison at Vincennes before it was even Indiana Territory. This command became the de facto government for the western edge of the United States. When General Hamtramck died in 1803, the Territorial governor, William Henry Harrison, became guardian to Hamtramck’s children, including his very young son, John Francis.
In the War of 1812, John Francis was a Sergeant in Zachary Taylor’s expedition up the Mississippi against British forts, ending in the Battle of Rock River in 1814. The expedition was a failure, but John Francis’ part in it may have convinced Harrison to place him as a cadet at the recently-created West Point Military Academy in 1815, where he graduated in 1819 and became a Second Lieutenant in the Army. His commission as an artillery officer sits in a frame above his sword in the Historic Shepherdstown Museum.
Shortly thereafter he married Juliette Williamson of Baltimore. Their daughter, Mary Rebecca, was born in 1822, the same year Juliette died. The young widower was at a ball at Wynkoop’s tavern in Shepherdstown in 1825 and met Eliza Clagget Selby. They were soon married.
It could be expected that The Era of Good Feelings would have few opportunities for a military man, but he got a post expected for one when in 1826 he was appointed Indian Agent to the Osage Nation by John Quincy Adams. Hamtramck and his new wife moved to St. Louis, where they lived until 1830. Eliza persuaded her husband to return to Jefferson County and, although they bought a farm just east of Alexander Boteler’s Fountain Rock, they lived in the Selby home (Wynkoop’s Tavern) on East German Street. In 1835 Hamtramck was commissioned a captain in both local militia units: the Potomac Rifle Company and the Shepherdstown Light Infantry.
In the 1840 presidential election, Hamtramck, a leader of Jefferson County Whigs, campaigned for his former guardian, William Henry Harrison, who earned the nickname “Old Tippecanoe” after defeating the Shawnee Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Hamtramck came to be known as “the son of old Tip,” a term much used by the Whigs at local rallies.
In May 1846, with the Mexican war started, President Polk asked the states to recruit one-year volunteer regiments. Virginia had most of its 30 regiments when, in July, the War Department told the governor they would not be needed. In November though, the War Department again changed its mind, and sent out an immediate call for volunteers. Virginia’s quota was now one regiment with ten companies, but the period of service would be for the duration of the war. Recruiting had to begin all over again.
On December 19, John Francis Hamtramck was appointed Colonel of the regiment.
But the War Department created yet more delays. Recruits were to assemble in Richmond. Many had arrived with no more than their own clothes, but they would not be mustered in until the whole regiment was assembled and until then they were to bear their own expenses. They were supposed to find their own uniforms and be reimbursed — an impossible requirement for many. The Virginia Government and the recruits’ hometowns had to step forward to feed, house, and order uniforms. With all the complications, the Virginia volunteers would not leave Fort Monroe until January 23, 1847.
After a miserable voyage by steamer the regiment disembarked at Camargo, Mexico, on February 19, with a number of men sick and a few dead. But Hamtramck himself and his adjutant went overland, intending to take a ship from New Orleans. It took weeks to find that ship, and Hamtramck finally caught up with his regiment on March 27.
Quartermaster Capt. James Lawson Kemper noted in his diary, on March 10, “a visitor has knocked our chivalry into a cocked hat by informing us of the disappearance of the Mexicans and of the fact that the heavy fighting is now over, at least for a time- that we are too late for Laurels.” By the time his regiment and Hamtramck had arrived, the war in the north of Mexico was done.
The regiment marched to Monterey, along with wagons of supplies for the army already there. Almost immediately Hamtramck became ill, and gave his command over to Major Jubal Early. Illness would be a constant problem for all the troops and Early himself became too ill to serve after coming down with rheumatoid arthritis the following year.
From April 1847 until the peace with Mexico was signed in June 1848, the Virginia regiment would be an occupying army in the north, forming a defensive line in case of need. They moved into Monterey as a garrison, with Jubal Early as governor. On June 14 Hamtramck wrote “our improvement astonishes even our own officers and soldiers here.” But with little to do but drill twice a day, the soldiers could easily get into trouble. By October, Hamtramck was dealing with men stealing out of camp at night to get drunk in town, or raiding surrounding ranches for livestock. In December one volunteer noted offenses were rising, with Courts Martial almost constantly in session. A few drunk soldiers strayed far afield and were killed by bandits.
The honor culture of the South had also come with the Virginians. On May 18, two Second Lieutenants, Mumford and Mahan, had a dispute. Rather than squelching it, their Captain Bankhead seems to have encouraged it to grow to a formal challenge. Neither appointed seconds, whose job would have been to negotiate a settlement and specify conditions, and the results tragicomic: two soldiers, thirty paces apart, trading shots with muskets at each other every three paces until both were mortally wounded.
On first meeting him in Virginia, Capt. Lawson Kemper had found Colonel Hamtramck “a great a stickler for the minutiae of military regulations and equipments. He thinks it vastly important that I should be looking after spurs, sword, servant, and all that.” The stern face glaring out from under the service hat does indeed look like that of a stickler for regulations, with little patience for inattention to duty. But, given control of a regiment of young men, all hoping for a fight and with little to do, a stickler for details and regulations may have been what was required. Rather than winning battles, the commander of these men had to keep them lodged, fed and out of trouble. Hamtramck seems to have been suited to the job. How many duels would have been fought, cows stolen, or drunk soldiers murdered by bandits, if there hadn’t been a stickler in charge?
On March 7, 1848, Hamtramck was appointed military governor and commandant of Saltillo, Mexico. On June 7, a peace treaty was signed between Mexico and the United States, and on June 21 the Virginians marched towards home. Or tried. Once again, the War Department seems to have assumed soldiers would take care of themselves, and there were no military transports able to take them from Camargo, the disembarkation point. With the shoes of the troops considered to be too bad for an overland march, the company commanders dug in their pockets and paid for private steamers to take the men to the mouth of the Rio Grande, from which three other steamers brought the regiment back to Virginia. On one of the steamers the crew mutinied, and the soldiers found themselves finally in an armed confrontation: subduing the mutineers.
Out of 938, the regiment had lost 88 men, from accident, disease and misadventure. Back In Richmond on July 21, 1848 Hamtramck left the service and headed home.
Hamtramck resumed the life of the farmer and prominent citizen. He judged a horticultural exhibition in Charles Town, served as magistrate of the court in Jefferson County, and was mayor of Shepherdstown from 1850 to 1854. He stayed very much the military man, fond of travelling in a coach-and-four with both driver and footman. On his death in 1858, the Shepherdstown Register noted that he “met the last great enemy as might have been expected of a brave man, with calmness and composure.” The militia unit he had commanded changed its name after his death to the Hamtramck Guards, and would later become integrated into the Confederate 2nd Virginia Infantry.
The Museum has four objects related to Hamtramck: his Mexican-American War sword, a table, his officer’s commission, and an invitation from his wife’s family to a dinner honoring him in 1847.
Wallace, L. (1969): The First Regiment of Virginia Volunteers, 1846-1848. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 77(1), 46-77. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247453
Jones, R., & James Lawson Kemper: (1966). The Mexican War Diary of James Lawson Kemper. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 74(4), 387-428. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247247
Goss, Joseph (2018): Frontier Cabin Story: The Re-discovered History of a West Virginia Log Farmhouse. Peace Corps Writers of Oakland, California.
Thomas, Jerry: Unpublished manuscript.