Part 5 in a Series by Mason Winfield:
Dread seemed to forbid his advance and Shame to forestall his retreat. – John Norton
Niagara Falls, ONT | July 25, 1814
July 1814 had been a good month for the U.S. The American Army of the Niagara had been on the Canadian side only a few weeks, and victories at Fort Erie and Chippawa Creek seemed to announce the turning of a tide in the American military and in the national position in the war. With that single victory at Chippawa, its commanders–Major General Jacob Brown and Brigadier Generals Winfield Scott and Eleazar Ripley–had restored some of the reputation of the American Army as a fighting force and secured their own legacies as commanders. As we all know, though, things are not always as they look. The American force walked a razor’s edge, and everybody knew it. A single slip in their planning would mean disaster as sure as a slide into the Falls. That mass of water-energy they could see and hear below them was symbolic.
Some of the Americans’ problems were their own fault. Camping out in enemy territory has never been uncomplicated, but some pro-American forces did something real stupid.
To this point in the 1812 war, the Canadians had not been truly roused. In fact, at the start of the conflict, the folk on the west side of the Niagara had been reasonably apathetic. Canada wasn’t even a nation at that point. Canada was the occasional name for the little-developed and less populated part of eastern North America on the other side of the water-barriers: the St. Lawrence, the Niagara and the Great Lakes. It was the Empire’s part of North America, and by 1812 a good many of its occupants were reevalutating the choice of masters the generation before them had made. This war came along and unified them. In some cases, it even incensed them.
The December 1813 burning of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) had riled the occupants of Canada, particularly those in Ontario province, but they seem to have felt that scores had been quickly settled. I agree. The Americans suffered a tenfold payback within weeks. Incidents from this second occupation set everything on fire again.
On July 18, some state militia and Native allies on a foraging mission were looking for supplies at the village of St. David’s just west of Queenston. They came under a bit of sniper fire from some members of the 1st Lincoln Militia, a Canadian outfit with quite a track record in this war. They went ballistic. They herded the villagers out and burned all 40 homes and businesses. To the Canadians, this was Newark all over again. While this was the poster-child incident for renewed outrage, it was not the only one like it.
Any sympathy the Americans could have expected from fellow white North American English-speakers on the other side of the Niagara had turned to fury. As a result of St. David’s, the only safe place in Ontario for an American was in the middle of of a U.S. Army formation or perhaps inside a fort protected by it. Pickets–scouting parties–were harassed by Canadian militia and volunteers, sentries disappeared in the night, and kids and little old ladies spied on American troop movements for the British. St. David’s was the grounds for a new resurgence of atrocities by the Empire. Even the British burning of Washington, D.C. a month later was to be blamed partly on St. David’s.
Some of the American problems were based on naval power, or their lack thereof. In the rugged, densely-wooded northeast, water travel was the only way to go, at least before the railroad and the I-90. It was a big deal in military senses, too, and the British had the edge. They ruled Lake Ontario and were constantly reinforcing their forts and armies on the Niagara.
The U.S. had a bit of a naval presence on Lake Ontario, and it could have pressured supply and reinforcement lines and otherwise stressed the British war effort from the north and east. A couple of times Brown called for U.S. Commodore Isaac Chauncey to pull his fleet out of Sackett’s Harbor and do just that, even if only as a diversion. (Just sail out and look tough, for God’s sake!) Chauncey, though, was determined not to make a single move till he had put together a fleet guaranteed to top his equally-cautious opposite number, British Admiral Sir James Yeo (inset). Up in Kingston, Yeo (who in one of his portraits bore a startling facial resemblance to 2004 American presidential candidate John Kerry) was building ships just as fast. (Their woodworking frenzy was styled, “The Battle of the Carpenters.”) The never-touching tango between these two, Chauncey and Yeo, was one of the frustrating sidelights to the local war. (U.S. General Winfield Scott called them, “heroes of defeat.”) Yeo might have been ducking a fight, but at least his ships were sailing. The lack of naval pressure on British-held forts like George and Niagara severely limited U.S. Army General Brown’s tactics on the Niagara. It dictated where he could go, what he could attack, and how much help he’d get. It also put a big hurt on his supply lines.
Armies need to be constantly resupplied with food, weapons and medicine. Even the smallest such mission to reinforce or provision Brown’s American force was dangerous and costly. The Empire’s skirmishers were masters at badgering supply missions, and force had to be committed to guarding their launch- and landing sites. More badly needed manpower was devoted to rowing small boats across the river above the Falls from Buffalo and below them from Fort Schlosser. (Schlosser was a blockhouse built in 1760 near today’s Niagara Falls. It was located near the the spot of the current water intakes for the New York Power Authority just off the Robert Moses Parkway. The Old Stone Chimney we still see was once part of it.)
One gigantic fixed problem for the Americans was a ticking time bomb on their side of the river: Fort George, the power-base on the Niagara Peninsula. The British still held it, and from it Major General Phineas Riall could sashay out with his army, shadow the U.S. force on the Niagara, pounce if he saw an opening, and scurry back and duck the fallout. Behind the bulwarks, walls and trenches he and his garrison were safe, since the cannon big enough to worry them could only be brought near them on ships. (See earlier references to the no-show American Commodore Chauncey.) The British and their allies could play stall-ball, and their orders were to do just that.
To add to that, British land power in the region was growing. Now that Napoleon was done for and the massive European wars were over, those hardened, veteran redcoat armies could be spared to come to America, and nobody could do anything to stop them crossing the Atlantic. If the U.S. force on this side of the Niagara couldn’t do something quickly to shut up the local British bases–ports and forts–or choke the avenues to and from them, it was going to be December 1813 all over again, and maybe a lot worse. Soon the redcoat force on the Niagara would be four times what it had been when it had torched the American side, including Buffalo. Not even an invasion of New York State was out of the question. In short, the U.S. Army of the Niagara had a single option: fight and win. Soon.
As for the British, their high command still weren’t convinced that the Americans could fight. It was as if they presumed the U.S. had lost its national character after the generation of men and women who had won the war of the Revolution. The first two years of the 1812 war had done little to incline them otherwise. The few wins the U.S. had had against them could be attributed to favorable circumstances and overwhelming force, not tough soldiers and savvy commanders. The one that couldn’t, the recent win at Chippawa, might still be regarded as a fluke. But the British high command had learned not to take chances.
Three weeks in July passed in a game of bluffing chess. Brown shuttled American troops up and down the Canadian side of the Niagara, hoping to goad British Major General Phineas Riall into an open fight. No dice. He came out, but he didn’t put out.
It was during this period that Winfield Scott had an adventure. Reconnoitering outside Fort George, he heard the familiar chug of a British cannon and spotted a cannonball on its way toward him. You really could see those things in flight or bounding like stony soccer balls over the landscape. Scott held his sword to the horizon, made some quick calculations, and spurred his horse to a sidestep. The missile dug a divot in the exact spot he had left.
Riall’s Native allies and Canadian militia attacked the American supply lines continually, and the skirmishes were numerous. By July 24th, Brown had to pull his camp back south towards Chippewa to be closer to his supply base above, or south of, the Falls. During this relocation an incident took place that brought two of the local war’s characters face to face.
Since the last time the Americans had come by Queenston in force, a troop of truculent Canadians and Native allies had reoccupied the heights above the village. They were going to be a thorn that would gouge the side of a slow-moving army as it passed. General Brown called on some of his best skirmishers–Peter Porter’s militia and a mounted troop of Canadian Volunteers under Joseph Willcocks–and ordered them to clear the heights. The roving fight took most of the day of July 24 and ended with members of the British Indian Department under Captain William Johnson Kerr (1787-1845) holed up in a farmhouse and surrounded by Willcocks and some of his Volunteers. Both figures are interesting.
Publisher, soldier, politician and rebel, displaced Canadian “King Joe” Willcocks is still remembered as Canada’s national traitor. A born Dubliner, he might have had his dander up against the British as a factor of his DNA. By 1800–at the age of 17–he was in York (Toronto), Ontario, and in politics by the time he was 21. One of his York bosses described Willcocks as “lacking a sufficiency of brains to bait a mouse trap.” (A handsome, dark-haired man, he screwed up his first appointment there by putting the moves on his patron’s sister–rich, homely and twice his age.)
By 1807 Willcocks was on the Niagara and publishing a rebellious paper, The Upper Canada Guardian; or The Freeman’s Journal. He’d also had his first brush with the Canadian establishment, the Empire’s political arm in the Americas. In those days, an appointed body, the Executive Council, controlled who got to own land and who didn’t. Not all its decisions were unbiased. Willcocks and his associates objected to this system, as did enough other Canadians to lead to an outright rebellion–the Patriot’s War–by 1837.
Still, Willcocks was loyal to British hero Isaac Brock and the British-Canadian war effort at the start. Willcocks claimed to have been fighting for the Crown at Queenston Heights. The turning-point for Willcocks came after Brock was killed and civil liberties–including the right to any form of dissent–were reigned in. Willcocks and his dragoons (mounted skirmisher-scouts) offered their services to the Americans in the summer of 1813.
In the American cause in 1812 they saw an ally against an Empire not known for second-guessing its decisions and its British-Canadian government arm that seemed to them despotic. The Canadian Volunteers were fighting their own liberation war. Their resentment of an “imperialist” power would be praised in other times and circumstances. While these Volunteers were good fighters, some of Willcocks’ decisions did as much harm as good to the American cause. These Volunteers were responsible for many of the depredations that offended the British and Canadians. Rightly called “a firebrand,” Willcocks arm-twisted American General George McClure to order the burning of Newark in December 1813. To be trapped in a Queenston farmhouse by this loose cannon had to be embarrassing, to say the least, for Kerr.
Part-Mohawk paramilitary William Johnson Kerr was the grandson of Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. An immensely influential Irish-born Brit with a thing for Mohawk women, Sir William was not definitively the godfather of hip-hop, but it’s been estimated that he was the baby-daddy to 100 children, including the mother of his eventual grandson. Another illustrious Canadian, William Hamilton Merritt (builder of the Welland Canal) knew Kerr and described him as “a very fine young man, tall and handsome.” The Americans had a different perspective.
Still notorious to them was certain war atrocity, a massacre after a guerrilla fight on Casper Corus’ farm outside Fort George in July 1813. Two dozen overmatched rookie Americans were killed wantonly and horrifically. While most sources I’ve consulted presume the incident was perpetrated by western Great Lakes Native Americans under the fearsome Potawatomi chief remembered only as “Black Bird,” many American officers of the day had formed the impression that Kerr was part of the party and were gunning for him ever after.
Kerr wisely refused to surrender to Willcocks or Porter, a couple guys not directly answering to the chain of command. They would probably have skinned him. Kerr held out till a squad of professional soldiers–U.S. dragoons (mounted skirmisher-scouts)–showed up. While it seems to me that the treatment of prisoners was way better in the local 1812 war than in much of World War Two, Kerr was lucky to make it to that POW camp in Cheshire, Massachusetts. In fact, on the night word got out that he was among the prisoners taken at Queenston, two American Army officers, Major Henry Leavenworth of the 9th Regiment and Captain George Howard of the 25th (the recently nicknamed, “Grey Doom”) came to General Brown requesting the cheerful honor “to blow out Kerr’s brains.” The request was denied.
Though camped back closer to his base, Brown was still spoiling for a fight. At first he planned to stomp on up to Burlington, a move that might force a battle on a larger scale. This was a time-tested strategy; pick a mark valuable enough and anyone will come out swinging. About the same time, Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond (1772-1854) arrived from York (Toronto) to take personal control of Fort George and all the Empire’s forces within range of the Niagara. The storm clouds were finally gathering.
This Gordon Drummond (inset) was the first native-born Canadian to command both the army and the civil government and a far grimmer customer than his predecessor, the universally admired Isaac Brock. No warrior was ever more courageous than Brock, but what stood out in him was his humanity. (It was reported once that he fought back tears at having to watch the execution of insurgent soldiers.) Brock wasn’t just a commander; he was a leader. Drummond prided himself on toughness, at least with other people’s bodies. His regiment, the 8th or King’s (“The Leather Hats”), had seen bloody action in Holland and served in the West Indies, the Mediterranean and Egypt. The fire-breathing Drummond had no qualms about massacres or executions. He loved bayonet charges, and he wasn’t sitting still in a fort.
At mid-morning on July 25, Drummond sent Fort Niagara’s commander Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker and some western Native warriors down the Portage Road on the American side. (Both sides had one.) Nicknamed, “Brigadier Shindy” (meaning possibly something like, “General Disorder”), Tucker dislodged some New York volunteers at Youngstown and destroyed cannon batteries at Lewiston that had been peppering Fort George from over the river. Still on the Canadian side, General Jacob Brown thought this might be the main British move: an attack on his supply base at Fort Schlosser (Niagara Falls, NY). Some panicky scouts certainly informed him so. Drummond also sent skirmishers and light troops south out of his home base, Fort George. On the gorgeous afternoon of July 25th, General Brown heard about the latter force.
Still suspecting that the full British move might be on the American side of the Niagara, Brown ordered Winfield Scott and 1200 friends to scatter these banditos back to Fort George, which he thought might ease the squeeze on Fort Schlosser.
At about 5:30 Scott and his army headed north along the Portage Road. If the Americans weren’t too abstracted, they would have enjoyed the wondrous summer afternoon and some of the most inspiring scenery in the nation. To their right were river, cliffs and falls, and the American side still starting to rebuild from its winter torching. To their left were fields, creeks and thick woods. The sloping sun sent hopeful light into the clouds ahead over the lake.
Scott’s force passed through the hamlet of Bridgewater Mills just a bit south of today’s Niagara Falls. Around a bend near Table Rock was the tavern of “the Widow Willson,” a merry, politically neutral figure whose establishment had been dispensing liquid conviviality since at least 1795. Not hurting the ambience were her two svelte daughters, Harriett and Statira, the latter (in the words of British Lieutenant John Le Couteur) “the naiad of the Falls.” Widow and water-nymphs were busily entertaining as Scott’s vanguard approached.
Just as Scott drew in sight, a handful of redcoat officers came out in a hurry, hopped onto their horses, and headed up the road through the woods to the north. The last of them paused, looked right at Winfield Scott, and, like the pre-match handshake of tennis players, gave a salute, which “Old Fuss and Feathers” returned. Because of his size, uniform and position in the formation, Scott was recognizable even at a distance. No further description was made of the redcoat who hailed him, but if he was short and portly, he just might have been Riall. The merry widow told Scott that he had missed happy hour with General Riall and his staff, but that he was in time to join the full party up ahead, with a couple thousand of Riall’s good friends.
Scott didn’t believe her. Still hoping he might catch up to Riall’s entourage, he rushed up the road through the heavy trees and came out upon open fields, a pair of roads, a modest hill, and an alarming surprise: a full British army at Lundy’s Lane set up in battle formation. What was going on? Scott had just taken a big bite out of Riall’s army at Chippawa and, like the Hydra growing back a couple of its heads, there it was again! Reinforced and reinvigorated, this was a far bigger army than Scott had faced at Chippawa.
Lundy’s Lane was a dirt road that ran from the cliff above the Niagara to the head of the Ontario. It met the Portage Road at a right angle on a gentle slope a mile west of the river. A church was on the pinnacle, and around it a cemetery and some open field. Riall’s brigade had shadowed the Americans all the way from Queenston like it had done so many times before that month. This time it had stopped and waited. The redcoat line stretched out ominously on Lundy’s Lane. The little hill by the church bristled cannon barrels.
As Scott’s forces set up at the edge of a wooded area, he saw that he was in a bind. His outnumbered troops would take a beating from the cannon. Here’s where all his drilling paid off. He deployed his brigade into a tight defensive formation, sent messages for General Brown to hustle on up with everything he had, and waited to see what would happen.
Still following his orders not to engage, British Major General Riall started taking his army apart and cautiously falling back. But top dog Gordon (“cold steel”) Drummond and the sturdy 8th showed up from Fort George. Their 3000 or so faced a game 1200 Americans, and Drummond was sending for reinforcements himself.
Scott cursed the addled scouts who had called for help from Lewiston. The Americans had fallen for the feint. The main British strength in Ontario was set up right in front of him, and here he stood facing it like a gunfighter with his hand at his side, staring down Sundance and well aware that the slightest move had better be the right one. What to do about it now? As he studied his position amid the companies of men, the wheels were turning rapidly in the mind of General Scott. Crowing at the high ground like a grade school geek from behind the newfound protection of the bully, Scott’s opponents didn’t all judge his moments of introspection charitably. “Dread seemed to forbid his advance and Shame to forestall his retreat,” wrote Mohawk Scotsman John Norton in his reflections of the day. If those indeed were Winfield Scott’s two shoulder-angels, dread would be the first to flinch. The bloodiest three hours in Canadian history were commencing.
Lead image: American infantry attacks at Lundy’s Lane. Painting by Alonzo Chappel in 1859
Profile images: Wikipedia – public domain
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).