The Daily

The Whiskey Rebellion (Part 2): The Dreadful Night

In 1781, Hugh Henry Brackenridge left the relatively cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia to ‘make his bones’ in what was known as The Wilderness. He settled at The Forks (where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio) – or  present day Pittsburgh. He lived through the first open and armed rebellion in the new United States – The Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, locals tarred and feathered a government agent sent to collect the new tax on whiskey. Local militias mustered and took Fort Pitt at the Forks for a brief period – at least until Alexander Hamilton and General Harry Lee showed up with a Federal army.

On November 13, Alexander Hamilton marched his army of Federal troops toward Braddock’s field and Mingo Creek where the local Wilderness militias had originally mustered. Empowered to arrest the “traitors” without warrant, the soldiers stove in doors in the middle of the winter night, taking custody of everyone (witnesses and conspirators alike) and anyone they could get their hands on. A maniac known as ‘Blackbeard White’ was charged by Hamilton with the Mingo Creek prisoners, who he tortured during two days of questioning in a cold basement without food, water or even heat.

Braddock’s Field

As part of the ritual humiliation of the Wilderness settlers, Hamilton marched them in chains through their own community in a show of Federal Power over what are still considered a throwaway population.

Moved from jails and holding pens to the lockup at Fort Fayette, there to await removal to Philadelphia, the chosen prisoners were escorted by horse guards, the most trim and gleaming of the eastern urbanites. Even in Philadelphia the Philadelphia Horse was striking; its gorgeousness here was breathtakingly strange. Uniformed in smooth blue broadcloth, riding huge bay horses so perfectly matched and powerful they could have pulled coaches, these well-bred scions of a distant city moved along the bare fields and through russet woods in a line of pairs, silver-decorated bridles and stirrups glinting. They rode with swords held aloft and pointing upward to reflect in the sun. Between each pair came a pair of prisoners bound for the fort’s lockup. However defiant, they were starved and cold, atop horses of every shape, color, and condition, on bare backs and threadbare blankets, men as varied in size, shape and condition as their mounts. People watched in astonishment as the column undulated half a mile through wet leaves and tall pines: badly mismatched pairs of mortals between sets of blue-silver centaurs, all beneath a sawtooth edge of steel.

William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion, Page 220.

Afterward, Brackenridge got his due when the Jeffersonians took power and he was made a judge. But like other Wilderness characters, he was overly fond of the drink. He was known for charging juries with his bare feet propped up on the bench. One night he stormed into a Canonsburg tavern overwhelmed by anger at the owner. In the middle of a crowd, he tore off his clothes, stomped his large feet and damned the tavern owner fifteen times. According to William Hogeland, “He often sought refuge in new chapters of Modern Chivalry. It had no plot, so it needed no ending, and the characters’ idiotic ploys went on and on.” His judgeship was for life and he died in office.

I’m proud to be a lawyer, watching lawyers and judges hold this experiment down while we lurch around the room in darkness toward what feels like a constitutional crisis. These real professionals give me faith. Please get involved in protecting our institutions in whatever way pleases you. If inclined, please visit my blog, The Daily at https://thethompsonlawfirm.net/blog/, where I try to keep track of health care, legal and history doings.