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Profile - Frankenstein’s Uncle Joins the U.S. Army

Well, actually Charles Wollstonecraft (1770-1817) was Frankenstein’s great uncle. He was the youngest of the six siblings of the English writer, philosopher, and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-1797), who was the mother of Mary Godwin Shelley (1797-1851), the author of Frankenstein.

The youngest child in a large family of very bright people, Charles was intelligent, charming, and somewhat hopeless. With big sister Mary’s help (her writing made her relatively wealthy), he read law for a time, but gave it up in 1789. Mary tried to land him a post in India, which didn’t pan out, so she set him up as a gentleman farmer, at which he proved inept. Then she had a clever idea. Mary had been thinking about moving herself and her sisters to the United States, where some states granted women much more freedom than Britain did. So she sent Charles across the pond in late 1792 as the advance man for the rest of the family. Initially Charles did surprisingly well. He traveled hundreds of miles in the Ohio country, living for a time among the Indians, while buying up land, until he had accumulated property worth about $10,000 then and many tens of millions today. He also went into business with one of Mary’s friends, running a calico printing company in Wilmington, Delaware, though the enterprise later failed. Things were looking up for Charles, and then tragedy struck; in 1797 Mary died of childbed fever following the birth of her second daughter, the future Mary Shelley.

Out of a job, with most of his wealth in land that was heavily mortgaged, and no longer able to sponge off his sister, Charles sought a commission in the U.S. Army, just then undergoing a rapid expansion due to the Quasi-War with France, and on June 4, 1798, became a lieutenant in the new 2nd Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers.

In soldiering, Charles appears finally to have found his calling. By 1800, he was regimental paymaster, headquartered in New Brunswick, New Jersey. When the Army was reduced after issues with France were settled in early 1801, Wollstonecraft was among the officers retained. He was assigned to Capt. John W. Livingston's Company of Artillery, garrisoned at Ft. Jay, on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. In 1804 the 33-year-old Charles wooed the much younger Sarah Garrison, daughter of a prominent Hudson Valley family (Garrison, near West Point, bears their name). About the same time Charles and his company (by then commanded by Capt. James Sterrett) were sent to Louisiana, recently purchased from France, and the couple were married in New Orleans, where they settled. Promoted to captain in 1805, the following year Charles attained command of the company and became the father of Jane Wollstonecraft (1806-1870).

Duty in the “Territory of Orleans” (the later State of Louisiana) was rather less boring than the normal routine of garrison life for American troops in the period. The slender forces available had to help suppress smuggling, keep an eye on suspected pirates (such the Lafitte brothers) who operated out of the many inlets and bayous along the coast, chase bandits, and patrol the “Neutral Ground.”

The “Neutral Ground” existed because the boundary between Louisiana and Texas had never been properly defined, even when Spain was ruling both territories (1762-1803). So with the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States in 1804, there was a swathe of land along the Sabine River claimed by both America and Spain. In 1806 the local American and Spanish commanders agreed to treat the area as a neutral zone until their governments could decided on a proper boundary, a deal made easier by the fact that the American department commander, the amazingly crooked and inept Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson (1757-1825), was secretly on the Spanish payroll. The region soon became a haunt for outlaws, preying on merchants and travelers passing through, and occasionally raiding into American or Spanish territory. Policing the Neutral Ground was a major task. In 1810 Charles was assigned to command at Natchitoches, on the northern edge of the Neutral Ground, and conducted operations in conjunction with Spanish troops to eradicate local bandit gangs.

In 1811 Mexico rose in revolt against Spain. American sympathies were very unneutrally with the Mexicans, and Charles was tasked with preventing Spanish royalist troops from entering the Neutral Ground to chase rebels. As if these weren’t problems sufficient for Wollstonecraft, his wife had succumbed to the temptations of New Orleans. Having caught Sarah in an affair in 1809, Wollstonecraft pursued a divorce which was granted in 1811, by which he gained custody of their daughter Jane.

Meanwhile, Mexican agents and their American sympathizers raised funds and recruits in the United States, organizing the “Republican Army of the North." Comprised of a few hundred mostly American volunteers and a handful a Mexican exiles, this “army” was commanded by Augustus W. Magee (1789-1813), until recently a lieutenant in Wollstonecraft’s battery. In mid-1812 the U.S. became embroiled in war with Britain, a Spanish ally, and in August, the “Republican Army of the North” invaded the Mexican province of Texas from Louisiana, an undertaking that was initially successful, but ended disastrously on August 18, 1813 at the Battle of Medina.

For the most part, Wollstonecraft’s war was a quiet one, and he continued to command his company in garrison. This gave him the opportunity to woo and marry Nancy Kingsbury, of Rindge, New Hampshire.

Early in 1814, Wollstonecraft was assigned to command Fort St. Philip, on the Mississippi about 80 miles south of New Orleans. Now, although the Battle of New Orleans, on January 8, 1815, is usually thought of as the final battle of the War of 1812, that in fact took place at Fort St. Philip. On January 9, 1815, a strong British naval squadron appeared before the fort, and commenced a bombardment. The garrison, command of which had passed in December, to Maj. Walter H. Overton (1778-1846) of the 3rd Rifles, had little more than 400 men, including the crew of a gunboat serving as artillerymen.

The Defenders of Fort St. Philip
Field and Staff 2
Capt. Wollstonecraft's Artillery 64
Capt. Murray's Artillery 50
Capt. Walsh's Artillery 3
Capt. Broutin's Company, 7th Infantry 78
Capt. Waides's Company, 7th Infantry 85
Lagau's Louisiana Volunteers 54
Listeau's Free Men of Color 30
U.S. Navy Gun-Boat No. 65 40
Total 405

The British subjected the defenders to a sustained bombardment. Capt. Arsène Lacarrière-Latour (1778-1837), a French volunteer who was present serving as chief engineer to the Southern Department, would later write,

From three o'clock on the 9th until daylight on the 19th the bombardment continued with very little intermission. During that time the enemy threw more than one thousand shells and carcasses, expended upwards of seventy tons of shells, and more than twenty thousand pounds of powder, besides small shells, and round and grape-shot from their boats.

During this trying siege, the garrison suffered surprisingly little, with two men killed and seven wounded. The successful defense caused honors to be showered on the offices of the garrison. Termed by Major Overton an “excellent officer,” Wollstonecraft, who directed the artillery during the siege, received a brevet promotion to major.

Later in 1815, Wollstonecraft relinquished command of his company. Assigned an administrative post, two years later he died of fever at New Orleans, still on active duty.

The story of Charles Wollstonecraft doesn’t end there. Although soldiering had proven the one thing he could do well, his ineptitude in other matters created a problem upon his death. Wollstonecraft died a rather wealthy man, owning considerable property and a number of slaves, but his affairs were a mess. His estate was encumbered by complicated mortgages, liens, contracts, and partnerships. Moreover, he had a poorly written will. So soon after his death, his former wife, Sarah Garrison Wollstonecraft, was able to gain custody of their daughter Jane Wollstonecraft. Some acrimonious court battles followed, as his second wife, Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft, the only mother Jane had known, fought to regain custody. In the end, Nancy more or less kidnapped Jane, and in 1824 took her off to Cuba, where they settled among some American expatriate women who found the island congenial. Nancy proved a fair artist, and gained a reputation for some excellent watercolors of the animal and plant life of the island, but died about 1828. Apparently Jane Neson Wollstonecraft was still with her at the time, but afterwards she more or less vanishes from view, though she is believed to have died around 1870.

Wollstonecraft’s Company of Artillery. The company (the U.S. Army did not adopt the term “battery” until after the Civil War) had been formed as the New York Provincial Company of Artillery by Alexander Hamilton in 1776 and saw action during the Revolutionary War from Long Island to Yorktown. The only unit of the Continental Army to survive to the present, it is the oldest organization in the Regular Army and has seen action in every American war. Eventually designated Battery D, 5th Field Artillery, it is today embodied as the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery.


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