Part 3 in a series by Mason Winfield:
By the spring of 1814, the War of 1812 had entered its last phase. The first move on the Niagara was that of the Americans. It had to be. Only one thing would save Buffalo and the whole of Western New York from a devastation worse than that visited upon them in the preceding winter: an attack.
The situation was looking good for the British and Canadians. The Empire held Fort Erie, Fort George and Fort Niagara, hence points of entry from Lakes Erie and Ontario. Their supply lines were strong. They could mass armies, shelter them in forts, and strike by surprise.
The British forces who had fought the first two years in the region had been modestly sized but professional and well-led. They had fought a good defensive war and struck back surgically when required.
The Empire had worthy allies, too. Native American nations from the American side of the western Great Lakes had come to southern Ontario in force. Along with the Mohawk, an Iroquoian nation that had gone to Canada after the Revolution, they were some of the most effective scouts and guerrillas the Empire would ever have in its service. Still believing they could protect their lands from one group of rapacious whites, these western nations warriors would do just about anything to help its enemy win. Rallying in defense of their homes, the Canadians had formed effective militia units and proven to be capable scouts, spies and paramilitaries. Anyone hoping to sneak through the countryside and pick away at a force of redcoats had them to deal with.
Now that the continental wars against Napoleon were finally over, the Empire had a lot more resources–including veteran soldiers–to send into the American conflict. Help was on its way. In short, the Niagara Frontier seemed a likely port of entry for a major invasion of New York State.
There were a few good signs for the Americans. The Army of the Niagara that had seen two years of general failure was rejuvenated and retrained. It had capable commanders and improved support. In terms of reputation, it had nothing to lose and everything to prove, which, as we see in sports, is a dangerous combination. American militia units who had been scorned by both sides during the first two years of the war were determined, too, to redeem themselves. And the New York Iroquois were fully invested in the American cause. The local Seneca, Tuscarora and Cayuga were a force of skirmishers that could match those fighting for the British.
In peaceful times, the structure we know as Fort Erie is a conversation piece, a historic, informative day-tour for buffs and students. In pre-20th century-style clashes, it was the western gateway to a whole nation. Sited where the Niagara narrows so that two countries can be joined with a single bridge, Fort Erie was a bulwark against invasion. It’s also a place of ancient habitation, especially the mysterious Snake Hill. Whatever you think of it, it’s hallowed by the sacrifice of men from many nations, this fort, town and site known as Fort Erie.
The spot may have been a place of power since the first humans came to this part of Ontario. The Onondaga flint that made such fine tools and weapons–the steel of pre-Contact America–is close to the surface and easily mined just under today’s Peace Bridge. Control of the flint would have been an issue for the local societies and the foundation of a trade network that could have stretched across the continent. Maybe this accounts for the prehistoric forts reported by the first whites on both sides of the Niagara. The area was a power-broker for the early Europeans in the region, too, and long before the first white settlers formed communities. The French built a series of forts along the Niagara.
By position and intent, Fort Erie holds the mouth of the Niagara. From the American side you’d hardly know a fort was there. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Fort Erie is no high-walled castle like those of Europe or some parts of the pre-Columbian Americas. The advent of cannon in the Renaissance period saw to it that that Camelot-profile was no longer a serious fort design. Fort Erie has sturdy wood-and-stone buildings, but they’re low, and surrounded by mounds of earth to protect them from artillery fire.
By 1763–the end of the last American war between England and France–the British had taken over all French holdings in Canada. They set about establishing their own control by building a series of forts, of which Erie was the first. The 1764 version was closer to the river than the one we know today. For half a century Fort Erie was a port, a supply depot, and a means of projecting military and economic power through the Upper Great Lakes. And you needed a fort here. At the end of his rebellion (1763-1766), the great Delaware chief Pontiac vowed like the Terminator, “I’ll be back.”
During the Revolution Fort Erie was a base for British troops, Loyalist Rangers, and the Empire’s Native American allies, mostly Iroquoian. It was an earth-and-wood affair. But the original fort had a problem: it was too close to the river. The ice-jams off of Lake Erie can spill up onto the shoreline and destroy buildings, even forts. By 1803 it was understood that a new Fort Erie would have to be farther from the river’s edge. The new fort was also bigger and its buildings were made of a hard material, the Onondaga limestone (shale) that the ancients mined.
But Fort Erie wasn’t finished when the War of 1812 broke out. Though British and Canadian units stationed there fought well in 1812 engagements, the fort wasn’t ready to withstand a siege. Fort Erie was dismantled even more by its own builders when the Empire’s forces withdrew under American pressure in the spring of 1813. By December of the same year, the American forces had retreated to their own side of the Niagara and the former owners of the Fort moved back.
As things stood at midsummer, American General Jacob Brown, high commander of the American Army of the Niagara, had to attack across the Niagara. He had to control forts and launch points and at least preoccupy the Empire’s military forces, if not drive them out. This was a tall order.
British-Canadian forces in the region were at least equal in strength to his own. He was only roughly sure where the mass of them were or what they might do when he made his move. For their part, the British and Canadians were in a prevent-defense, at least until the expected reinforcements could arrive. They knew there were a lot of ticked-off Yanks in Buffalo, and that the New York Iroquois were with them. They had to guess where this force would hit. They weren’t even sure that the Americans’ first push might not be an attack on their own side–Fort Niagara up in Youngstown, then owned by the British. Fort Niagara was a festering thorn in the American war efforts and a source of torment for the folk of Niagara and Orleans counties. Accordingly, the British had most of their strength to the north, by Fort George and Fort Niagara. This was the one drawback of holding all those forts: your strength was spread out.
American General Jacob Brown decided on a toehold rather than a kill-stroke. His objective was to touch his forces down in Canada where he could set up short supply lines. This meant the capture of Fort Erie where the Niagara River is narrow and the home base at Buffalo is in sight. If he could take this point and hold it, it would be his home away from home as he traipsed about Ontario. As a diss to the British Empire, he delivered the first blow on a ceremonial date.
The night before Independence Day there was a summer storm. Under the cover of the downpour, two American strike forces set out across the Niagara shortly after midnight. Brigadier General Eleazer Ripley landed a mile north of the fort. Winfield Scott came ashore the same distance south. Each had a full brigade, a variably-numbered unit of men and materials. This two-pronged attack was meant to cut off escape from the Fort and block reinforcement to it.
Winfield Scott was so eager to keep to the schedule that he jumped from his boat before it touched the bank. He’d misjudged the depth of the Niagara and the water closed over his head. That current is not one to argue with. Scott’s sword, pistol, boots, uniform, and cloak could have taken him to the bottom, if not downriver and all the way over the Falls. An oarsman helped the general to safety. These ship jump-offs were hazardous for the 6’5” Scott, anyway. Tough but not agile, Scott was almost bayonetted in the water at the taking of Fort George the year before. Scott’s Fort Erie slip-and-fall reminds us of other legendary debarkations, including that of William (the Conqueror) of Normandy, whose muddy stumble on Bulverhythe beach in 1066 had him joke something like, “At least I’m firmly planted in English soil.” Operations went smoothly after this, and the careful American planning turned out to be unneeded.
Fort Erie was guarded by a skeleton British/Canadian crew of 150-250 men. (Accounts vary.) Its commander Thomas Buck had been given orders to hold out until British/Canadian reinforcements could arrive. If he couldn’t do that, he was expected to fake a defense, make as much sound and fury as he could, and delay the American force. This he should have been able to do behind the walls and guns of the Fort; but as the Americans pinched in, he saw how overwhelmed he was.
Buck fired a few cannon salvos, wounded four Americans, and surrendered. By daybreak the rest of the 4000-man American force was ashore and looking for something to fight. It included 1800 militia and 600 Native Americans. This mostly-Seneca force partly led by Buffalo General Peter Porter had been recruited with the help of the fiery orator Red Jacket. Still, to the astute observer, the American force was less than half composed of professional soldiers. No British force they met would be so light on veterans.
It was a festive Fourth of July that the Americans spent at Fort Erie, celebrating a win on the date of their nation’s birth. Quite likely they drank a few toasts. They knew that many of them would not see their homes and families again. They did not know that a British patrol had escaped the fort and rode hard to reach Fort George in Newark (today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake). The commander of British forces on the Niagara Frontier heard all about it without worry. Major General Phineas Riall (generally pronounced, “rile”) had plenty of professional soldiers on hand. His redcoats should easily sweep away these farmers, shopkeepers, hunters, and what he presumed to be amateur soldiers. In the wee hours of July 5, Riall and about 2000 friends started moving confidently south on the Portage Trail beside the big river.
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).
Fort Erie images: NiagaraParks.com