Author: Mason Winfield
While the War of 1812 was fought on many fronts on land and water, it was largely a hit-run, raid-and-hold type of conflict. There were a number of battles, of course, and a handful of sieges upon forts; but few long campaigns were even attempted, and very little of the land fighting was more than a short hike away from a navigable body of water. Neither side ever occupied much of the other’s territory for long. The 1812 war’s only theater of sustained fighting was here on the Niagara Frontier, which is why it ought to be so immediate to us. This was Buffalo’s war.
Across the Niagara, that narrow, 30-mile long strait–it’s a connector of two big water bodies, not a true river–the citizens can glower at each other to their hearts’ content, as well as snipe and shoot if they dare. The farsighted can almost read expressions. A canoe or even a hearty swim can get you across if you pick your spot. The old-timers used to paddle across holding onto a log. (I don’t advise it upstream of the Falls.) An army can ferry across it in 10 or 15 minutes if it has enough boats. For the full three years, the citizens of both Upper Canada and Western New York were in a constant state of alert. Raids, smuggling, spying and cross-river cannon-attacks were constant. The summer and fall of 1814 were both epic and pivotal for this war and along the Niagara, and some of the most gripping stories I’ve ever heard of any war come from this place and time. Before we start to develop the events of the war’s local finale, most of us could use a little refresher.
The War of 1812 leaves a murky impression in the popular mind. It’s one of the few wars that has ever been fought over little more than national frustration. There are fringe theories about the war’s underground causes, but its direct ones are almost as hard to summarize. The U. S. utterly shocked the British by lashing out over a handful of things the Empire was doing that didn’t seem to it worth fighting over. (Cutting off trade with France during the Napoleonic Wars, which hurt the U.S. Impressment–forced recruiting–of suspected British citizens off of intercepted vessels, which included some U.S. citizens. Dillydallying about returning forts and territory after the Revolution. Encouraging Native Americans to push back against American settlement in the Great Lakes.) In reflection, both sides probably had things to work out from the War of Independence, and one of them was bound to flare up. The young U.S. did so first. It couldn’t get at the British homeland. (The world’s number one navy had other ideas.) British interests in Canada were a close second target.
The Niagara fighting had been inconsequential in 1812: a few cross-river raids and one battle (Queenston Heights) that was humiliating for the United States. 1813 was a different story, though, with the U.S. managing to occupy the whole western side of the Niagara for half the year, then seeing it all fold back in on itself. By December 1813, it was the British-Canadian war effort that was filled with passionate intensity–and reinforcements.
For all but the last two days of 1813, Buffalo was a prospering community with a fancy street plan in the elbow of the meeting of two water-lanes, the Buffalo Creek and the Niagara. Dense woods came up to the village limits and covered everything that wasn’t a stream, a road or a homestead. Most of Buffalo’s 500-800 citizens lived and worked south of today’s Chippewa Street and west of today’s Ellicott. They had tucked in feeling pretty safe on the night of December 29, just as a British-Canadian-Native American force was crossing the Niagara in several waves. It won a riverside battle against disorganized Americans and completed the torching of the American side.
The dawn that broke on New Year’s Day, 1814, found Buffalo a devastated community and most of Western New York quaking in dread of another invasion. Every significant settlement or structure within a mile of the Niagara was devastated, and for the citizens returning to what was left of their homes in Buffalo, the matter of simple survival trumped all other ambitions. “Wide right” and the Polar Vortex have nothing on the winter of 1814, the most miserable season Buffalo ever knew. The shocks were felt far inland. The rest of New York State was overwhelmed having to shelter so many refugees.
In those days winter and even early spring could be times of hibernation for war efforts. Armies stayed in place and consolidated as much as they could. Forts did their best to hang on. The winter of 1814 was different. Mighty forces were moving for both sides.
Because of the expense of the war effort, the United States was broke. Even its unity was being tested. The disruption of trade had bankrupted New England, and some of its team players were clamoring to secede from the Union.
England and all the forces the Empire could muster had fought the first two years of the 1812 war while engaged in a desperate set of clashes against Napoleon. By the spring of 1814, “Old Boney” was just about toast, and Brittania, as they called her, had her right hand free again. She could send ships and armies to America in overwhelming force, and they were going to start to arrive in earnest in the spring of 1814. It looked bad for the United States.
But there were some good signs, and on the Niagara. On to the last two seasons of our 200-year old war!
About the author: The founder of Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., a Buffalo-based tourism company, Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books, including Ghosts of 1812 (2009, Western New York Wares).