The American military officer Edmund P. Gaines (1777–1849) became a hero to his countrymen during the War of 1812. He continued to serve as a key figure in U.S. military operations in the South and Southwest United States over the next several decades, and history has commemorated him through his stature as a namesake.
Although the name Edmund Pendleton Gaines remains little known except among students of U.S. military history, it was familiar to his fellow Americans during the early 19th century, and there are now cities and towns called Gainesville in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and New York as well as a Fort Gaines, Georgia. Gaines achieved renown not only for battlefield command but also for his long career as a commander in the country's newly formed southeastern states, where he managed frequent conflicts among American settlers, citizens of Florida (which was controlled by Spain until 1821), and the many Native American tribes that still inhabited the area. A man of strong opinion, Gaines was as much a peacemaker as he was a hero during wartime, and his career suffered as a result of his clashes with two of the most powerful figures of the era: President Andrew Jackson and General Winfield Scott.
Although Gaines left the Army with an honorable discharge in 1800, he rejoined the following year, retaining his former rank and joining the Fourth U.S. Infantry. After transferring to the Second Infantry, he applied his surveying knowledge beginning in 1801 in a project to improve the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace was then little more than a pathway running from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi; the improvement project was spearheaded by President Thomas Jefferson as a way of tying together the expanding U.S. lands in the Southeast. Gaines commanded ten companies of the Second Infantry in the improvement of the Trace, and the road still exists today. While this experience inspired him to eventually advocate for deploying the U.S. military in the construction of a national railroad system, it also taught Gaines the value of working with local Native American groups.
Gaines was assigned to the Army garrison at Fort Stoddert in Alabama, near what is now Mount Vernon, in 1804, and two years later he was appointed the fort's commander. The area was then part of the Mississippi Territory and located close to the border with Spanish Florida, a region disputed because of varying interpretations of the language in the Louisiana Purchase. As a result, relations were strained among Spanish Floridians, Native American tribes, and whites, the last which were further subdivided into Americans and those still loyal to Great Britain. Gaines and his forces were tasked with keeping the peace among these groups.
Gaines was promoted to captain in 1807, and that same year he participated in the capture, in nearby Washington County, Alabama, of former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr. While Burr faced various legal problems, he was also charged with treason for attempting to foment war between the United States and Spanish Florida. Following Burr's capture, Gaines led the detachment transporting the politician to trial in Richmond, Virginia, where he was ultimately acquitted. Captain Gaines also gained mention in newspapers in 1810, when he put a stop to plans by a militia called the Mobile Society to raid and take over the city of Mobile, which was then under Spanish control. Although he took a leave of absence from the military in 1811, hoping to take up the practice of law, the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Great Britain caused him to reenlist. Gains entered the War of 1812 with the rank of major.
As the war raged on over the next few years, Gaines continued to advance through the ranks, earning a promotion to lieutenant colonel in command of the 24th U.S. Infantry and then to colonel in command of the 25th Infantry. He saw action in a series of battles with British forces along the U.S.-Canadian border, one of the most important of which, the Battle of Crysler's Field, occurred on November 11, 1813, near Cornwall, Ontario. Although the British ultimately scored a victory over a numerically superior American force, Gaines's company held a ravine for a sustained time against an advancing force of British, Canadian, and Mohawk fighters. After the conflict, he was promoted once again, this time to the rank of adjutant general.
In July of 1814, Gaines assumed command of Fort Erie, located across from Buffalo on the Niagara River. Now part of Canada, the fort was at the time under American control. For the next month, he supervised improvements to the defenses of the fort despite a relentless British siege. In mid-August, on a day of heavy rains, he ordered his men to hold their positions even though the ranks doubted that the British would renew their attack. Although the British expected to surprise their foes, the Americans were ready. In heavy fighting on August 29, Gaines was wounded by British fire, but he survived to see the siege broken, with heavy British casualties. In addition to receiving official thanks from five states as well as from the U.S. Congress, which awarded him a gold medal, he was promoted to brigadier general and “brevetted”—given an honorary higher rank—to major general. While Gaines recovered from wounds received at Fort Erie, the War of 1812 finally ended.
After the war, Gaines remained with the military. Now assigned the southeast, he found it to be as volatile as he remembered it. He supervised the construction of a fort on the Chattahoochee River in south Georgia, and it was named Fort Gaines in his honor; the present-day town of Fort Gaines, Georgia, grew up around this site. It was then left to Gaines to deal with the fallout from the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which had been signed on August 9, 1814, by President Andrew Jackson and the leaders of the Creek tribe. Under the terms of the treaty the Creek had ceded 23 million acres of land to the United States, but whites continued to encroach on the tribe's remaining land. Gaines attempted to keep the peace during the forced removal of the tribe from its ancestral lands, and he wrote to U.S. Army headquarters in Washington, DC, arguing that the Native Americans should be treated fairly. He advocated that attempts to convert them to Christianity would be more humane than military action.
Gaines's pacifist outlook stood in contrast to those of President Jackson and General Winfield Scott, and his public disagreements with these men over the treatment of Native Americans may have impeded his career. He was never promoted to the rank of major general, and he had to share command with Scott several times. From 1821 to 1823, Gaines commanded the Western Department of the U.S. Army from its headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, moving to the Eastern Department from late 1823 through 1825, and then back to the Western Department. He fought in the brief Black Hawk War against a confederation of Native American tribes in 1832 and suffered a mouth wound during an action against Seminoles in Florida.
In his private life, Gaines was married three times. His marriage to Frances Toulmin, a daughter of a territorial judge, lasted from 1806 until Toulmin's death in 1811 and produced one child; in 1815 he married Barbara Blount, with whom he had three children before Blount's death in 1836. In 1839 Gaines married Myra Whitney of New York, and she would survive him. He died of cholera in New Orleans on June 6, 1849, and is buried in Mobile's Church Street Cemetery.
Silver, James W., Edmund Pendleton Gaines: Frontier General, Louisiana State University Press, 1949.
Palm Beach Post, February 18, 2006, Michael Browning, “The Day the Slaves Fought Back,” p. D1.
Handbook of Texas Online, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fga03 (September 23, 2017), “Gaines, Edmund Pendleton.”□