It is stark and lonesome. No attention is drawn with signage pointing the way. There are no benches for visitors to share a moment with these lost souls. I can see why this story has been hushed by locals. Or how it can be difficult to believe they are out there. Why teachers think it is best not to tell the children that they froze to death, and how 300 human bodies now lay below my feet.
This ground was once a simple pasture, where sheep grazed, back when Dr. Daniel Chapin had a farm here in 1812. The meadow and farm was part of a larger geographic location called “Flint Hill” that stretched from present day Main St. to Elmwood Ave. It was tranquil, like a fairyland with hundreds of springs bubbling up through the rocks and grass forming ponds and streams throughout the hillside. But it didn’t last, the battles had just started, both the New York Militia and the regulars were assembled in what was then known as “Flint Hill”. The Battles at Buffalo were part of the War of 1812, a war that saw 15,000 people die. Major General Rensselaer commanded the New York Militia, while Brigadier General Smyth oversaw the “regulars”. Then, when overall command was given to Rensselaer, Smyth was disgusted and jealous, setting the tone for upheaval.
The militia and regulars formed a new defensive, the “Army of Niagara Frontier”. The force was made up of ordinary men, such as “Davis” from Pennsylvania, or “Jennins” from Baltimore. Rensselaer took these men across the vast Niagara river on October 13th, 1812. A battle erupted Niagara at “Queenston” in Canada. Our men were set back, and made their way back across the river, inland to Buffalo, setting up camp along Main St., in today’s Forest Lawn. Then the Frontier Soldiers were to be given to a new commander. However, it was too late for Davis and Jennins, who died those first few weeks of November 1812. The Frontier Soldiers were all still too new to war. They were in need of training, for a leader of substance, for a strategist. What they got was a bombastic Smyth, who’s pride and vanity would lead to the place I now stand.
Smyth had the forces, 4,500 men and too many setbacks. Humiliated, Smyth requested leave, and never returned. But it was too late for the soldiers to make any changes. It was December in Buffalo, and Smyth left them with little to survive on. With only summer linen jackets, vests, and knee-length breeches, they would face the snow.
The government didn’t send food. There were no blankets. The men were raw to the harshness of Buffalo’s unpredictable weather. Their summer time tents that let out the humid air, brought in the snow and chill. The men began to die. Archie Denton of Campbell County Virginia and Duncan O’Brian who’s residence is unknown passed. They were 600 souls. They were an army abandoned.
The huge arch at Main St. at W. Delavan marks not only the entrance to Forest Lawn cemetery but what came before – the encampment on what then was the eastern end of Flint Hill. Without coats and boots, their bodies succumbed to frostbite and pneumonia. While still at Flint Hill they stacked the bodies in tents, with the ground too frozen to dig. Then in the spring, they tried to bury them. The 300 dead soldiers laid on the ground as shovels of hard dirt were placed upon them. Their bodies protruded out from under the gravel.
It came down to a Buffalonian, Dr. Chapin, appalled at the dishonor these veterans were left in. He ordered and paid for 300 coffins for a proper burial. With the Forest Lawn area being of hard gravelled ground, and so many soldiers to inter, the soft sandy soil of the Meadow was chosen to relocate the men. Dr. Chapin began to dig a hug trench. With a typical 19th century coffin taking up 8.5 cubic feet, the massive grave would consume over 2550 cubic feet. Dr. Chapin then placed a weeping willow at either end of the new cemetery. But after 80 years they too withered and died.
With Smyth causing the anguish that would leave the souls in turmoil, it was Dr. Chapin who tried to correct the dishonor. But it was a third man, one who understood the meaning of loss and death, and through his letters to relatives a lingering melancholy can be felt. Frederick Law Olmsted was an avid supporter of veterans. When he came to Buffalo to inspect various locations for a grand park, he scoffed. He insisted on Flint Hill. Over the encampment bordering Main St. he designed a cemetery with rolling hills and kept the ancient trees. He then marked the entrance with a huge white marble arch, just as they honored soldiers in Europe. However, for the three hundred coffins that lay just below the surface in the meadow, he created a path, that took horses and their owners around the graves, so to move around hallow ground. He did not include any attractions such as a lake or pond, nor statue or military arch. Instead, the 300 men and their lost souls were given the meadow to wander. Their protectors would be the gentile bison which were allowed to wander over the grass; and to recall a gentler time – sheep and deer were released. Visitors could stand at Nottingham Terrace and view the tranquil place that disguised the frozen corpses below. The meadow is one of the places where the morning mist tends to settle, and when you stand there at the edge one can raise their hand and almost feel a soul reach out to find warmth.
If brave enough to venture to the center, you’ll find a boulder placed there in 1896. It marks the spot from which the buried coffins surround. To the sides are newly planted weeping willow trees, like bookends. But 300 bodies means 2550 cubic feet of space, more than twice that of the nearby tennis court. It is easy to think that all the buried men are encompassed between the two trees recently planted. However, If the coffins rested shoulder to shoulder they would stretch out over 450 feet. The good news is that the soldiers were laid 2-3 coffins deep, reassuring that they must be all included between the trees. But then again, as you approach the cemetery, you can see a gentile sloop stretch out past the willows and the full expanse of the hallow ground can be taken in.
Today, the mount that the coffin forms appears to spread out under the third golf green and towards the fourth tee box at the center of the golf course in Delaware Park. And in like fashion, the lost souls have their way. The putting green at the third fairway overlaps the graves. Here it is as if the ground moves, deflecting each putt. The spirits seem to have a wry sense of humor. However, the souls buried under the fourth fairway, are just as mischievous. Everyone knows how bad it looks if your ball lands near the boulder, and like a magnet they do.
As I stand there next to the great rock with 300 bodies below my feet, a golfer gives me a smile and waves hello. It happens to be Halloween, the wind is whipping through and the spirits must be lonely. While I am smart enough to know, a lost soul is not going to burst through the ground in an attempt to find life again; I can’t help but stay and stand there thinking of these men, and how they froze to death in a Buffalo winter.
And as I do, the golfer misses his shot… again.