February 14, 2011

Bill Johnston: 12. Arrest, Trial, and Escape

Bill Johnston spent two days and nights on roof tops in Ogdensburg observing the Battle of the Windmill. He hardly ate. Twice he scoured the town in a vain effort to encourage men to cross in boats to take men off. It tore at him cruelly to be safe while his friends faced peril. And worse, some people called him a coward for not being in the battle. Some wind went out of his mighty sails that week.

Bill was tired. The battle and months of hiding from the law had worn him out. He hatched a scheme with his son John to give himself up but an eager deputy marshal ruined his plans.

Johnston arrested

Historical accounts vary about the actual circumstances of Bill Johnston’s arrest. The best source, in my opinion, is Benson Lossing. Chapter 29 of his 1869 book, Pictorial Field-Book of the War Of 1812, includes information based on actual interviews with elderly Bill. Here’s what Lossing wrote.

“He saw that all was lost, and, weary of hiding, he resolved to give himself up to the authorities of the United States, and cast himself upon the clemency of his country. He made an arrangement with his son John to arrest him and receive the $500 reward. On the 17th of November, he left for Ogdensburg in a boat with his son, when Deputy Marshal McCulloch pursued him in a boat over which floated the revenue flag. Johnston was overtaken about two miles above Ogdensburg. He was armed with a Cochran rifle [an early multi-round rifle], two large rifle-pistols, and a bowie-knife.”

According to historian John Northman, when men in McCulloch’s posse grabbed Bill, he shook them off and then leveled his pistols at them ready for a fight. But Bill hesitated, not wanting to kill fellow Americans. Instead, he and John negotiated surrender where Bill gave up his arms to his son.

McCulloch delivered Johnston to US Colonel William Jenkins Worth, the local military commander, at Ogdensburg. Worth imprisoned Johnston on the steamer Telegraph, where he joined other captured men including: the Hunter General, John Ward Birge; William Sprague, captain of the Hunter ship Charlotte of Oswego; and, Isaac Tiffany, the man who fired a cannon blast from that ship at the Experiment on the first day of the battle.

Johnston acquitted

US Marshal Nathaniel Garrow took the prisoners by steamer and train to Cayuga, New York, where they were cheered by the townsfolk, and then on to nearby Auburn for trial. Rather than placing his prisoners in jail, Garrow lodged them in a rooms near his in the American Hotel with guards at the doors.

On Friday, November 23, the prisoners and their guards assembled before Judge Conklin for a preliminary hearing on charges that they contravened the US Neutrality Act. Conklin held them over for trial on November 28. Isaac Tiffany had no stomach for a trial and escaped on the 26th.

At trial, Bill Johnston was acquitted because there was no evidence to prove he was involved in the Battle of the Windmill. The marshal promptly arrested him on an outstanding warrant related to the Hickory Island affair in February of that year.

Johnston escapes second arrest

Late that night, Johnston and Birge (who had not been acquitted) slipped from their shared hotel room past three guards and vanished into the night. Garrow posted a $200 reward for Admiral Johnston and a mere $50 for General Birge.

Bill always said no prison could hold him if he chose not to stay.
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