November 18, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Where is Lieutenant John Brooks, Jr.?
Too long on lonely isle neglected,
Marked by no stone, thy dust has slept,
By humble turf alone protected,
O’er which rude Time each year has swept.
… But now with kindred heroes lying,
Thou shalt repose on martial ground,
Thy country’s banner o’er thee flying,
Her castles and her camps around.*
Marine Lieutenant John Brooks, Jr. was, everyone agreed, the most beautiful man in Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet. A Harvard graduate and son of Revolutionary War General and Governor of Massachusetts John Brooks, the dashing young officer probably wasn’t expecting to be sent to the back country. But in 1812, Lieutenant Brooks was arrested and found guilty by court martial for cheating at cards — behavior hardly befitting an elite Marine. So it was off to Lake Erie, where the U.S. was reluctantly preparing a Naval defense for its vulnerable inland lakes.
Now is not the time to submit a briefing of the War of 1812 for readers who don’t know much about it. (I certainly didn’t before I started writing this blog.) It was kind of a fussy, frustrating war that something to do with the British fighting to win back the colonies, Americans fighting for the honor of their young country, the Indians fighting to earn some territorial sovereignty, and everyone fighting to claim control of the Northwest Territory.
And that last part is why the Battle of Lake Erie was such a big deal. The decisive victory gave Americans control of Lake Erie, the British were forced to abandon Fort Malden (that’s just a jump across the river from Grosse Ile and you can visit!) and the Americans were able to win back Detroit.
You remember the Battle of Lake Erie: that’s the one where Perry wrote to William Henry Harrison: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Perry’s victory was in part amazing because he left his destroyed flagship, the Lawrence, and rowed a small boat under heavy fire to his undamaged Niagara, where he continued to fight the exhausted British fleet. (He brought a blue flag that had flown on the Lawrence that read Don’t Give Up the Ship.)
Fatefully, Lieutenant Brooks was assigned to the Lawrence — which the British annihilated. Almost every one of the ship’s 136 men were injured or killed, and all of its guns destroyed.
Lieutenant Brooks was talking to another officer when he was struck by a cannonball and slammed across the boat. The impact shattered his hip and “mangled him in a most frightful manner,” but he stayed alive for an hour, bleeding to death and imploring someone to shoot him or bring him a pistol. No one did.
Many of the 30 sailors killed aboard the Lawrence were buried at sea, but three officers from the American fleet —including Lieutenant Brooks — and three British officers were buried the next day on South Bass Island, near Put-in-Bay.
In 1817, a movement was started to bring Lieutenant Brooks to Detroit. He wasn’t from Detroit, and perhaps had never been in Detroit. Maybe Detroiters felt he deserved a burial more honorable, ceremonious and public than the one he had been given. Maybe someone influential in Detroit cared for him or his family. I don’t know.
I do know that the movement succeeded. At the end of October, 1817, Lieutenant Brooks was exhumed and brought to Detroit. A funeral procession marched through the streets to Fort Shelby. Reverend Sylvester Larned performed the service and *a Captain of the Fifth Infantry wrote the poem I excerpted at the beginning of this post. General Macomb and Governor Cass attended.
Lieutenant Brooks didn’t stay at rest at Fort Shelby for long: in 1826, the Fort, which Congress had just given to the City of Detroit, was demolished. Military burials at the Fort were moved to a new city cemetery bounded by Michigan, Lafayette, First Street and Wayne. The remains from that cemetery were later moved to the Clinton Street Cemetery, and the remains from that cemetery were removed to Woodmere and Mt. Elliott in 1869.
So where is Lieutenant John Brooks? Is he still beneath Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay? A Park Ranger there suggested to me that the unit sent to retrieve his body may not have been very particular about which one they chose.
I can’t find him in cemetery records at Woodmere; he wasn’t Catholic and wouldn’t be at Mt. Elliott; could he be beneath a building downtown, at the War of 1812 memorial site on Washington Blvd., or somewhere else?
Writing at the turn of the century, both Silas Farmer and Clarence Burton reported the records were lost — and with them, the remains of Lieutenant John Brooks, Jr.
And this is why, dear readers, I have been crazed, distracted, waking up in the middle of the night. All week. Where is Lieutenant John Brooks? How do we find out? I have to know.