August 16, 1814
Fort Erie, ONT
“Shew the damn Yankees no quarter!”
Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond
It was after three in the morning of August 16. The British-Canadian assault upon the American-held Fort Erie was underway, but the crucial coordination that the Empire’s General, Sir Gordon Drummond, had been banking on had failed.
Sir Gordon had launched four groups of men into action. Two had hurled themselves against the star-shaped, earth-and-stone Fort itself, coming in from the north and northeast. The other two – one a feint – had targeted the center of the long protective dirt wall connecting the Fort to the riverside like the tail of a comma. The feint had been useless at drawing American strength away from the true attack points, and the column charging in from the south had been beaten back with severe losses. The detachment aimed at the Fort from the northeast failed as well, and its losses were disastrous. The struggle, though, was a long way from over, and the fortunes of both the Niagara war and Western New York itself hung in the balance.
The third attack column would not be denied. These approximately 400 men under Sir Gordon’s Scottish-born nephew Lt. Colonel William Drummond came at the Fort from the north. Unlike the southern attack force, these troops had been furnished ladders that were long enough to scale the obstacles before them. They targeted, according to most sources, what was called the North East bastion, its cannon, and its defenders.
A bastion is a big projecting fixture sticking out of the otherwise straight, flat wall of a fort. It’s sort of a mini-fort open at one end, to the interior of a fortification. Most bastions are like star points or sharpened corners. Some bastions like those at five-pointed Fort Erie are on the corners. The main advantage of a bastion is that it improves its defenders’ shooting angles. No attacker within range can be safe from gun or bow.
Three successive tries upon the Fort’s low walls were shot, beaten, or bayonetted back. Lt.-Col. Drummond retreated, regrouped, and came up with a new plan. Under the cover of the stinging, blinding smoke from the Americans’ own cannon, Drummond and a hundred of his mates snuck under the observation of the defenders engaged at other points and gathered in the ditch below. Then they pitched up their ladders, scaled the low walls of the bastion, and poured inside in force with surprising speed. They jumped two lightly-defended cannon-batteries, set the blade to all who stood and fought, and stilled the firing upon their comrades massing below. The rest of Drummond’s redcoats felt a lot more welcome and moved inside as quickly as they could. They may have been reinforced by survivors of Hercules Scott’s attack. They took over at least one bastion, but they were prevented from overrunning the whole interior of the Fort by one of its design features.
Inside the earth-and-stone pentagon of Fort Niagara proper were the old British barracks, two big, two-story stone buildings. Looking at them today, they remind us less of castles than of familiar Federal-style frontier structures – homes like Lancaster’s Hull House or inns like Lewiston’s Frontier House; but they were sturdy enough to be obstacles, and the American soldiers inside them were shooting spiritedly from the windows at their milling and charging foes.
Between these buildings and across the interior of the Fort ran a sturdy stone wall – they call it a “curtain” – with a narrow entrance and a gate in the middle. The two together cut completely across the Fort and made an interior barricade in case one or several of the bastions were overrun. If the British could get past that formation in number they would pour into the rest of the encampment, which would have been curtains for the Americans. At the moment, though, Yankee detachments were not only holding their own but making vicious runs at pushing the redcoats out of their bastion. This was yet another of the night’s many pivot-points.
At one period during the furious contest, two of the Fort’s cannon batteries were held by opposing sides and blasting away at each other from fifty yards. The American-held cannon may have been knocked off its struts and rendered useless, which allowed the other cannon to turn its fire on the Americans packed in the avenues and attempting to recover the bastion.
By design there were a lot of tight spaces in this Fort. Only handfuls of men could get at each other at a time. If a man had room to shoot at a foe in one of these presses he might not have had time or space to reload. The combat was desperate and, but for the snipers from the barracks and other parts of the fort, hand-to-hand – or more properly, edge-to-edge, since swords and those deadly, foot-and-a-half long bayonets would have accounted for most of the bloody play. (Those three-lobed bayonets represent the only 1812-era weapon banned by the Geneva convention. They made broad, unstitchable holes and gashes. Limb-wounds that should have been survivable could become death-strokes.) The fighting in the narrow lanes would have been a fixture of horror.
Seemingly everywhere through it dashed the Celtic firebrand, British commander Lt.-Col. William Drummond. He impressed everyone who saw him that night.
Brigadier General Edmund Pendleton Gaines remembered Drummond as an officer “whose bravery if it had been seasoned with virtue should have entitled him to the admiration of every soldier.” (In the same sentence he referred to him as “a monster.”) Private Amasiah Ford of the 23rd U.S. Infantry wrote of Drummond repeatedly shouting, “Shew (show) the damn Yankees no quarter!” Another American survivor whose name does not appear in the accounts I have seen wrote of spotting “a red-coated demon, armed with a pike” and knowing it had to be Drummond – leaping to every new forefront, fighting ferociously, calling death upon all the Yankees, and daring anyone to deal him his own.
Folded inside William Drummond’s crimson coat was a document holding orders from his Uncle “Cold Steel” – General Sir Gordon Drummond – “to use the bayonet at your discretion.” Discretion… Right. This meant, Kill anybody you want. Drummond was doing his best, still hollering his signature slogan, which meant, of course, Kill anybody you can.
Though Drummond carried his standard officer’s pistol, it would have been a slow-going, one-shot-per-loading affair. His weapon of choice for the grisly night-fighting was a pike often called a spontoon, a short, sometimes ornate-headed spear with a crossbar or flare at the base of its business-end. A spontoon was a quick-thruster. The point of its point was to go into a body quickly, make a deadly gash, and then pop back out easily for use on another. It was an improvement on a lance that might go in so far that it got stuck and became useless – much to the embarrassment of its wielder – or, even worse, go all the way through and allow the frenzied victim to run right up its shaft and swat the wielder a good one. The hunters of fiercely charging animals like boar and bear had learned that lesson.
By the grey before daybreak, four hundred of the Empire’s minions packed the northern half of the modest-sized Fort. The Americans had taken a toll on them and diminished their strength significantly, but they had not succeeded in dislodging them. The stasis could not last long. The other squadrons of the Empire’s army seem not to have known of the breach at the north. If the Americans could not regain their own fort, the full redcoat army was sooner or later to storm in. It looked grim for the Yanks. Then…
There was an accident. Or a valiant act of sabotage… or even simple destiny. Whatever happened to turn it all around was at the least stunningly dramatic and no less fantastic than the history-defying, deus ex machina, king-toppling turnarounds in the battles of Game of Thrones or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. And it was all real.
There are so many versions of so many aspects of this night that an article of reasonable length cannot develop them all. I cannot understand why anyone can claim to be certain about anything but the outlines of this clash. The night was indeed confusion’s masterpiece, to paraphrase MacBeth and keep to the Scottish theme. But when you are dealing with an event that has multiple interpretations of equal likelihood and certainty is unobtainable, I always say, Tell the one that makes the best story. It follows.
At this point in the early morning the only Americans left alive in the northern half of their own fort were pockets of wounded men barricaded into corners, storerooms, and guard posts, bristling points and blades. The only thing keeping the British from digging them out was the onslaughts from companies of Americans desperate to stem the tide of attackers.
Into this scene entered U. S. Army Lieutenant Patrick McDonogh, one of the cornered Americans awaiting his fate. A bit more is known about McDonogh than about many soldiers of his rank since a study seems to have been made of him after the war. His letters to his family were collected and published in a bulletin of the Buffalo Historical Society. Some of his wartime comrades met with his family to share their recollections of him and his moments at Fort Erie, which is probably the source of this story about him.
This McDonogh seems to have been born in Dublin in 1786. By the age of five he and his family may have been living in Philadelphia. When the 1812 war broke out he and a couple buddies joined the U. S. Army. Ah, the Celts are scrappers. The Irish were always dying to get a piece of the Empire. Stuck on the same island as the English, the Scots usually had no choice but to fight with it.
McDonogh was 28 on the night in question at Fort Erie. He too, impressed many who knew him. This McDonogh (or someone of his rank and surname) seems to have been the man left in charge of Fort Erie six weeks before this night when the Americans first took it and started their warlike sojourn along the west side of the big river. When the U. S. Army of the Niagara returned and set up at Fort Erie, McDonogh would have been outranked by a number of candidates with last names like Brown, Ripley, and Gaines. But at that single instant, he was again the ranking American in the Fort, and he may have felt responsibility for it and all the Americans in it.
McDonogh spoke to the ranking redcoat before him and asked for quarter for himself and his comrades. This, of course, meant an honorable and peaceful surrender. Quarter was a fixture of this and a great many “civilized” wars, and there seems little doubt that the rank-and-file soldiers would have granted this mercy. The clashing, groaning, and dying for a moment quelled.
Then up came the red-coated demon, William Drummond, shouting his murderous mantra, and the bayonets lifted again. Realizing that all was lost, McDonogh snatched up a hand-spike – a cannon tool like a tire iron – and laid about with it like an avenging goblin, defending himself so well that his oppressors could hardly get close to him. Then Drummond raised his pistol, cut loose again with his signature line, and plugged McDonogh from point-blank range.
McDonogh fell back into his comrades’ arms, and the bloody surging started again.
McDonogh fell back into his comrades’ arms, and the bloody surging started again. This time, though the demon was in reach of McDonogh’s outraged comrades. The spiky blade that went through his heart passed through his uncle’s orders, folded in his pocket, that freed him to kill all he wished. We know this for a reason you will see soon.
One can envision, though, the bleeding McDonogh reclining in the barricaded space and taking his last breaths to the cracking and pounding of shell and shot, the gnashing edges of bayonets, and the cries of dying men. Possibly he was on a sort of wooden platform, and he could see through the planks below him. One can see him realizing in the sudden clarity that I hear comes to many at the edge of death that within reach of him were the ammunition chests used to replenish the guns and cannon of the bastion. McDonogh spotted one of the smoldering “punks” used to light the charges or came up with a match of his own. In the tradition of his family his last words were, May God have mercy upon my soul. But I will always envision him catching the attention of his doomed comrades, sharing sinister smiles, and commencing a rousing toast to be finished at the first banquet-table for the bluecoats in whatever Valhalla came next. Then…
A titanic explosion at the North East Bastion ripped through the air and sent McDonogh, his comrades, and several hundred of their crimson-coated foes heavenward. So thunderous was it that the whole Fort seemed to jump and settle back like a nodding sleeper in a chair. Wood, stone, dirt, and bodies flew into the smoky, percussion-lit sky. Even a two-ton cannon shot off its perch and leaped many yards into the air.
Most Americans were sheltered from the worst effects of the blast; they were in their sturdy barracks or on the other side of the rocky curtain that divided the Fort. But as for the British…
Four hundred men were killed or incapacitated in a single instant. Some redcoats, it was said, were lifted, dropped, and spitted like shish kabob on the raised bayonets of their comrades massing outside. Convinced that the Fort was booby-trapped and that they would be walking into the heart of a hand grenade, the dazed redcoats had had enough war for one night and struggled back to the British camp. In that single stroke, this most improbable Battle of Fort Erie was instantly and utterly over.
All during the conflict, citizens from Black Rock and Buffalo had stood in rapt silence on the eastern shore, straining to hear and see what was happening. They could feel the shot, fire, and explosions as if they were at the Fort themselves. Most were sure that an American defeat would call back the horrors of the previous December and worse to come after. When a rowboat crossed the Niagara and brought news of the victory, the citizens erupted in cheering that spread out to the countryside like a wake. And we thought the Bills’ playoff comeback over Houston was a loud one. South Towns residents remember that the fourth-quarter roaring could be heard at high points miles from the old Ralph.
The Battle of Fort Erie had devastated the British force.
The Battle of Fort Erie had devastated the British force. Almost a thousand redcoats were killed, wounded, or missing. I seriously doubt the low-end pop reports that the Americans lost only seventeen killed and eleven prisoners. I could probably find you more than that number of names among the killed. It was, though, beyond question a decisive win. It had been brave, it had been dramatic, and it had been astronomically lucky.
For another miracle, the body of Lt.-Col. William Drummond was found and recognized, not only by his uniform and its trappings, but because of the orders addressed to him and folded into his red coat. The bayonet that had passed into his heart had pinned them to his breast. He may even have been shot directly through it as though the bayoneteer that had lanced him had pulled the trigger and given him one more for good measure. The last I heard of it the document was preserved into the 20th century by an American family, and the bloodstain on it – by then coffee-brown – was still clearly visible.
To this day McDonogh, Drummond, and maybe even the red-coated demon’s fateful call are fixtures of Fort legend who still come back among its folkloric ghosts. It seems no wonder if two like these who leap out of this world in full cry with some superhumanly vivid emotion would stamp themselves like site-echoes on the collective memory, could that be in any sense what ghosts – or some of them – are. It seems only natural that the pair would land with reverberations in the world to come.
As for the living… When the survivors who could stand were assembled in the British camp, it was clear that the Empire’s cause on the Niagara had suffered a major defeat. Whole units had been devastated. Men wept openly to think of the comrades they would never see again.
General Sir Gordon asked first about the fate of Hercules Scott and was informed that he was dead. Next he asked about his own nephew and was told that he, too, had been killed. It was Drummond’s turn to burst into tears. How alone he must have felt. How far from finished he was.
Lead image: Ruins of Old Fort Erie, Ont. Fronting Lake Erie, Opposite Buffalo