Remembering Two Forgotten Soldiers of the War of 1812:
George W. Runk and John L. Hoppock of Hunterdon County, New Jersey
by Brian Murphy
“…terrible in battle, in death triumphant,
the gratitude of their country is the monument of their fame.”
The above toast was made in September of 1814 to honor the memory of Lieut. Runk
and the other Americans who lost their lives at the Battle of Plattsburgh.
September 11, 1814 was a momentous day in the history of the United States. For on that day, at the cost of many lives, the American navy on Lake Champlain, off Plattsburgh, New York, won a complete and total victory over the invading British fleet. Several days after this spectacular victory, the citizens of Plattsburgh organized a dinner celebration to personally honor Commodore Thomas Macdonough, commander of the American fleet. Among the toasts made that evening was one to the memory of Lieutenant George W. Runk. Unfortunately, very few people alive today have ever heard of Lt. Runk.
George W. Runk of Hunterdon County, New Jersey was the only commissioned regular army officer killed during the land battle that was so crucial to the naval victory on Plattsburgh Bay. The Riverside Cemetery in Plattsburgh contains the graves of several British and American officers who, while enemies in life, now rest side by side in that hallowed plot. Lieutenant Runk is now among those buried there, but this was not always the case. Four days before this famous clash of navies took place; Lt. Runk was severely wounded at Plattsburgh trying to prevent an overwhelming British land force from crossing the Saranac River. Lieutenant Runk was sent to the temporary “hospital” set up on Crab Island, but Dr. Mann could not save him. He was buried in a shallow grave on that tiny island where his body remained until 1816.
The Plattsburgh Republican of September 21, 1816 reported that the Lt. Runk’s remains were removed from Crab Island and brought to the Riverside Cemetery. A solemn funeral procession was held on that occasion, complete with music, and his remains were reinterred “with the customary military honors, by the side of the American and British officers” who had fallen during the same campaign. A generation later, on the 29th anniversary of the battle, the citizens of Plattsburgh and the Clinton County Military Association placed marble gravestones over the unmarked graves of the officers. Over the years the elements have taken their toll on these soft stone markers and they are now mostly illegible. At some point during the 20th century, more durable granite markers were added.
One of Lt. Runk’s friends, a neighbor from back home, was John Lambert Hoppock of Amwell. “Lambert,” as some of his family members called him, was a captain in Colonel Zebulon Pike’s Fifteenth Regiment. (This regiment spent several months under Pike’s command at the camp near Plattsburgh in 1812-13.) In one letter written from Sackets Harbor in the spring of 1813, the captain confided to his mother that Lt. Runk “appears to be too lazy to write as I have frequently wished him to do- He told me today he had written but one letter since he left home.” Sadly, Capt. Hoppock’s wish for his friend to write home did come to pass, but not for the reasons he would have hoped for. When Capt. Hoppock was killed less than a week later at the American invasion of York, Upper Canada, the unpleasant task of notifying family and friends fell to Lt. Runk.
York was the same battle that claimed the life of Zebulon Pike, who by then had been promoted to Brigadier General and who personally led the attack there. In the same letter, Lt. Runk informed Senator Lambert that General Pike’s body had been returned to Sackets Harbor “preserved in a hogshead of spirits.”
George W. Runk was from the area near Lambertville, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. He was undoubtedly named for the most famous living American at the time of his birth, circa 1785. His father, Jacob, was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd New Jersey, or “Jersey Blues,” Continental Army, Revolutionary War. Officer Runk received his commission as Ensign, in January of 1812 and was assigned to the Sixth Regiment, U.S. Infantry. He was eventually promoted to1st Lieutenant, which was his rank at the time of his death.
Every September, the Plattsburgh community hosts a solemn and inspiring memorial ceremony at the Riverside Cemetery honoring the fallen heroes of Plattsburgh. It is part of a week-long commemoration of the Battle of Plattsburgh. It is well worth attending. The people of Plattsburgh have many reasons to be proud of the town’s tradition with regard to the honor paid to the soldiers who fell here in 1814. As a native of New Jersey, with Lieutenant Runk, John L. Hoppock and others in mind, I thank the people of Plattsburgh.
Note: A version of this piece appeared in the newspaper the Plattsburgh Press – Republican.