Brigadier General John Roger Fenwick -They didn’t ask; he didn’t tell

I have been looking at John Roger, the young brother of Ned and Tom Fenwick of Fenwick Hall, and lifelong bachelor.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was gay.  As was George Washington and his aide-de-camp Friedrich von Steuben.

What a long way the American Army has travelled, these last 200 years.

The current draft of what I have to say in the book is here: John Roger Fenwick

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Brigadier-General John Roger Fenwick 1773 – 1842


1.                   John Roger Fenwick.jpgThis John was the youngest son of Edward “Lord Rippon” Fenwick. Despite his loyalist heritage, he became (perhaps bowing to the inevitable) a United States soldier.

2.                   He was born at Fenwick Hall, near Charleston, South Carolina[1] in 1773, and so was just a child during the American Revolutionary War 1775 – 1803[2].  His father died when John was just two years old, but his mother Mary lived on for another 30 years or so.

3.                   Text Box: Figure 25 - 1804 portrait  by Gilbert StuartHis much older brothers Edward Jnr (Ned)[3] and Thomas[4] both fought in the war, on the Loyalist side, and as recounted above, they paid dearly for backing what turned out to be the losing side.  The family house, Fenwick Hall, was sold when John was just a teenager. This is not to say that his childhood would in any way have been riddled by poverty: on the contrary, the family remained one of considerable wealth and local influence.  What is more, he would have been – by local standards – very much “old money”.

4.                   In due course, when his military genes kicked in, he was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps as a Second Lieutenant in 1799. His portrait as a young officer was painted in 1804 by Gilbert Stuart.  Gilbert Stuart, we can be sure, would not have come cheap.  Not only was he living and working in the North, but he had painted George Washington in the famous, albeit unfinished, portrait known as The Athenaeum that was reproduced on the $1 bill.

5.                   In 1806, an engraving was done of him by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin,  That he was the subject of these portraits might suggests a strain of vanity: more likely, however, they would have been commissioned by his mother, which appears to have doted on him.

6.                   Promotion followed promotion. He was appointed Captain in 1809.  In December 1811, he resigned from the marines to join the army itself in the Light Artillery, and by 1812 he was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding Fort Niagara.

7.                   John’s mother Mary died in February 1806.  She left various small bequests, and some money to John’s sister Selina, but the remainder of her estate went to John, so he is unlikely to have been short of money from that time on. He was plainly thoughtful, interested in ordnance and well-educated.

8.                   His French was good enough for him to be able in 1808 to present his translation of parts of  “some reflections on the present system of horse artillery translated from D’Urtubie and an essay on the subject contained in a memoir to the 1st Consul of France” to the United States Military Philosophical Society.

The Battle of Queenston Heights 13th October 1812

9.                   The Battle of Queenston Heights by James DennisJohn, in his later life, became somewhat feted as a hero of the Battle of Queenston Heights, which now looks a little strange, since the battle was a complete disaster for the Americans, who were trounced by a smaller force of British and Canadian Indians (understandably, the native Americans were not much enamoured of the United States in those days, much preferring the British in Canada who had stayed loyal to the crown). The War of 1812 website tells the story[5] (a moral, perhaps, about the dangers of getting up too early in the morning):

The Americans under van Rensselaer launched the attack on the Battle of Queenston Heights at 3:00 in the morning, by crossing the Niagara River in a group of boats that proved too few to serve the needs of the large American invading force, and too small to carry artillery across the river. In the early stages of the battle, the British had only 300 men to resist the 6000 Americans coming across the river, and Brock’s reinforcements had not yet arrived when the Americans first landed.

However, many of the American soldiers failed to cross the river at all, as, under a wilting bombardment, three of the boats (including the two largest) turned back for shore and many other soldiers were put on edge. General Van Rensselaer’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer (the general’s cousin), was hit by a musketball as soon as he stepped out of his boat on the Canadian shore. When Van Rensselaer quickly tried to form up his troops for the attack after being hit, he was promptly hit five more times and, though he would survive, spent most of the battle out of the action, weak from loss of blood.

Further calamity ensued during the battle of Queenston Heights as Lieutenant-Colonel John Chrystie’s boat, filled largely with relatively experienced and well-trained regular soldiers, came under fire and the boat’s pilot, despite the efforts of Chrystie to restrain him, turned the boat back for shore. Chrystie’s men were out of action without ever joining the battle, and though Chrystie himself tried to organize the rest of the men to cross the river, it was in vain. Much of the second assault wave, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Fenwick, was either shot out of the water by British cannon or forced into a hollow where British troops made quick work of them.

10.               So John was captured early in the morning.  Momentarily, things looked up: he was rescued at around lunchtime:

Some American soldiers entered Queenston village and looted some houses. They also rescued Lieutenant Colonel Fenwick and other survivors from his party[6].

11.               But his rescue did not last long, it seems. The heroic British Major General Isaac Brock having been shot in the chest and killed during the morning, the British forces were taken under the command of Major General Sheaffe, who took over where Brock had left off:

Sheaffe took his time forming his men up and preparing them for battle and attacked at 4 p.m., twelve hours after Van Rensselaer launched his assault. The first attack was made by the light company of the 41st with 35 militia and some Indians against the riflemen on Scott’s right. After firing a volley, they charged with the bayonet, forcing the riflemen to give way in confusion.[46] Sheaffe immediately ordered a general advance, and the entire British line fired a volley, raised the Indian war-whoop and charged. The American militia, hearing war-cries from the Mohawks and believing themselves doomed, retreated en masse and without orders. Cursing the men who would not cross the river, General Wadsworth surrendered at the edge of the precipice with 300 men. Scott, Totten and some others scrambled down the steep bank to the edge of the river. With no boats arriving to evacuate his men and with the Mohawks furious over the deaths of two chiefs, Scott feared a massacre and surrendered to the British. Even so, the first two officers who tried to surrender were killed by Indians, and after Scott had personally waved a white flag (actually Totten’s white cravat), excited Indians continued to fire from the heights into the crowd of Americans on the river bank below for several minutes.

12.               John must have been among those captured (captured again in his case) in the late afternoon.

13.               Then what happened to John, as a prisoner of war? Extraordinarily, he was soon let loose. The captured officers and men were marched to Quebec Citadel, and held then there until paroled on 20th November 1812 to embark for the Boston cartel ships[7]. In January 1813 he was among 22 officers exchanged at Washington in a prisoner exchange[8], so he was soon back among his United States friends.

14.               Parole or no, it did not take John to find further promotion[9].  Just a couple of months later, he was promoted again, to Adjutant General:

15.               Did John abide by his parole terms? If he did, that was more than could be said for Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, also wounded at Queenston and also taken prisoner on the same day as John. By May 1813, just a few short months after his exchange, Scott was back in action, leading the American attach on Fort Meade.

16.               In June 1815, John was disbanded (that being the end of this short and pointless war), but was nevertheless appointed as full Colonel of the 4th Artillery in May 1822.  In the following year, on 18th March 1823 he was appointed Brigadier-General (presumably for the purposes of his pension; he was a friend of President Madison), and then moved to Paris as American Consul. Some sources suggest that he died 5 year later, in 1828, in Paris. But they are wrong.

17.               How can we be so sure? Because, firstly, in 1824 John was the first commander of the Artillery School of Instruction[10] when it was established at Fortress Monroe[11]. There is still a Fenwick Road at Fort Monroe[12], named after him[13]. So he cannot have been in Paris then. Although it seems that John’s stay at Fort Monroe might have been fairly brief; the US military notes[14] show that:

BG John R. Fenwick was assigned to the new artillery school in January 1825 to organize it, but was called away that same year. In his absence, the responsibility for organizing the school fell to his second in command, LTC Abraham Eustis.

18.                Secondly, John was in New York in November 1828 when he was told that Commodore Josiah Tatnall and his wife Harriet Fenwick had named their 4th child after him[15]:

19.               On February 3, 1837, pursuant to a resolution by the Senate of the United States, an Ordnance Board was requested to meet “for the purpose of making a thorough examination of the improvements in firearms. And who was appointed President of that board? None other than our John[16].

20.               They got busy:

The Ordnance Board was convened by General Fenwick a few days later than planned, on February 27, 1837. As it would turn out, problems with assembling the small arms samples prevented the board from evaluating any small arms, a job that would be handled several months later during a subsequent board meeting held at West Point. The result was the initial meeting of this Board would be first by an Ordnance Board that conducted any recorded meetings and made any reports solely devoted to the subject of accoutrements. As experiments, correspondence, trials, and development stretched the process of formulating conclusions, this Board ultimately would be the first to look at the Army’s accoutrements in a comprehensive way. Over an eighteen month period in 1837 and 1838, “The Fenwick Board,” a name coined for its president,18 filed a number of reports, two of which were solely about changes to accoutrement patterns. In addition, its proceedings from July 16, 1838 to January 16, 1839 would include recommendations for additional accoutrement patterns for all branches of service.

However, between its meetings, much work and experimentation occurred, principally at Allegheny Arsenal under the direction of Major Baker. Thus, while the phrase “The Fenwick Board” will be used here to refer specifically to the work on accoutrements of the Board of Officers chaired by General Fenwick, its meetings and recommendations should be viewed in the context of a broader process of evaluation and review that produced the Pattern of 1839 “system” of accoutrements.

21.               To many of us today, the Infantry Cartridge Box that was issued to the American army as a result of the recommendatuions of the Fenwick Board is probably not that exiting.  But then again, many of us do not have a single infantry cartidge box to our name. So maybe any infantry cartidge box is better than none.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

22.      died, unmarried, in 1842.  Some records[17] say he died in Paris, but if so, his body was returned to the United States, for he is buried at Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia, then the Tattnall’s family graveyard.

23.               Apart from the cartridge box, what you we think of John Roger Fenwick?  When I was a boarding school, it was a regular joke that the youngest of several sons always seemed to be gay.  These days, there is a body of science that does indeed show that, probably due to chemical changes in the womb of a mother who has had several sons, the odds of the youngest son being gay are significantly enhanced.  John was probably a case in point.

24.                If so, it seems that he may not have been alone. And his rapid promotion despite a pretty dismal combat record might perhaps be explained by George Washington’s evident prelidiction for colleagues who were plainly gay.  For example, he appointed the obviously camp Friedrich von Steuben as his aide-de-camp (he probably meant no irony). Von Steuben was a Prussian, who intially gained attention through his service with Frederick the Great and his brother Prince Henry, both of whom were widely thought to be homosexual. Von Steuben was given a role in training the new Continental Army: his memorial suggests that it was no secret at all that his idea of military instruction was very much “hands on”.  Although George Washington died in 1799, the same year that John joined the army, it is inevitable that his influence – and the culture in imbued – would have continued to bear.

25.               Baron Von Steuben Statue (FayeB6) Tags: statue dc washington lafayettepark baronvonsteuben militaryinstructionIndeed, there is no some evidence that George Washington himself may have been AC/DC at the very least. Certainly, he married, but his marriage was to the extraordinarily wealthy widow Martha Custis would have been an attractive prospect – regardless of any sexual content – for someone as ambitious as George.  They had no children and George confided that his marriage was not a sexual one.  Suggestions that George was gay were made very early on – in 23rd September 1756 issue of the Virginia Gazette for example, in which there were bearly veiled references to George’s proclivities.

26.               John Roger Fenwick was very probably a nice boy who did well, and who was lucky to have served before the American Army became homophobic.

[1] See page 51 above.

[2] See page 90 et seq above.

[3] See page 241 above.

[4] See page 243 above.

[9] American state papers: Documents, legislative and executive of the Congress of the United States, Part 5, Volume 1


Under the order of the War Department, dated April 15, 1824, establishing the Artillery Corps of Instruction at Fortress Monroe, Colonel Fenwick was ordered to that post in command of the new school, with Lieutenant-Colonel Eustis of the 4th Artillery as the second in command.

[11] Indeed, it seems that he had by then served on numerous boards, including the one that exonerated General Winder for the capture of Washington in 1814.

[12] Fort Monroe in at Hampton, Virginia.

[13] According to

Fenwick Road started as Stone Road, used to cart stone from the docks to the workmen who were building the Water Battery in 1819. By 1869 it was extended as a straggly trail leading to a northern area called “Ordnance and Trial Ground.” This was an impact area, extending from about the old PX (formerly located in Building 105) to the Officers’ Club (now the Casemate Museum), where they built mockups of armored ships and tried out their new armor-piercing shells. In 1931 the street was named for Brig. Gen. John Fenwick, the first commandant of the early Artillery School of Instruction, established in 1824, and commander of Fort Monroe in 1825.

[15] Commodore Josiah Tattnall: From Pirates to Ironclads, Half a Century in the Old Navy; Mead Smith Karras



Filed under History

2 responses to “Brigadier General John Roger Fenwick -They didn’t ask; he didn’t tell

  1. I should have added, perhaps, that John Roger Fenwick is, or was (since he is now dead), my 10th cousin 6 times removed. According to my RootsMagic5 relationship calculator, that is.

  2. JR Fenwick did lose his left eye during the battle at Niagara. One of his relatives has John’s sword as seen in the paintings… Thanks for documenting jrf’s lost history…

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