Two of the most desperate, sensational battles I’ve heard of in history took place at Fort Erie during the late summer and early fall of 1814. The Siege of Fort Erie and the September sortie that followed it were so prodigious that they seem to belong more to works of fiction than history. Despite the fairly recent three-year round of commemorations, these events and the 1812 war as a whole are largely forgotten except by historians, which seems a tragedy, especially in Western New York. This was the Niagara’s war.
While largely a bash-and-dash affair involving creeks, lakeshores, and coasts, the 1812 war’s turf of sustained contention was here, along the thirty-mile Niagara. This was where the two foreheads of the Northeast met, and two nations and an Empire could glower and shoot at each other from yards away. During these three years of rage, everything on either side of this river and a mile inward was torched. It was a sixty square mile war, and those who lived on the frontier paid a disproportionate share of its dues. Since this is a journalistic article and not part of a book that people have been reading to this point, we should set the stage.
The war-season of 1812 started with both sides hoping to find a way to defuse the conflict.
The war-season of 1812 started with both sides hoping to find a way to defuse the conflict. That suited the British Empire fine. Shocked to find that the Yanks had gotten mad enough to start shooting at Canada in 1812, it had its hands full in the sprawling series of tussles named for Napoleon, what might have been the first true world war.
The first year was a stalemate on the Niagara. The American force – it should not be called an army – was big for the place and day, but thin on trained professional soldiers and poorly supplied, equipped, and led. (“More a danger to itself,” was the assessment of it by a visiting commander.) The British force was smaller but tight. The redcoat was the world’s best soldier; even Napoleon never beat a redcoat army at even strength. Augmented by the support of First Nations allies and some stout Canadians, the Empire held its ground on the Niagara and won the year’s only big engagement, the October Battle of Queenston Heights.
By 1813, American commanders understood their own force a bit better, and trained and led it better as well. (“We shall at least die with some grace,” predicted one seasoned commander at the start of the spring campaigns.)
The spring, summer, and fall of 1813 were seesaw seasons that devastated both sides of the Niagara. Early on, the Americans held the western side of the river and even sailed north for a week-long takeover of York, soon to become Toronto. However, by the fall the deep thinkers in Washington had drained the Niagara of most of its military strength. By December a reinforced British-Canadian-First Nations campaign torched the American side of the Niagara, including Buffalo, Lewiston, Black Rock, and Niagara Falls (then-Manchester).
Both sides had a score to settle by 1814, and the stakes were up.
Both sides had a score to settle by 1814, and the stakes were up. Not only was the Empire sending more of its forces to North America – Napoleon was looking like toast by then – but the American army was finally well led, trained, and supplied. American toughness and strategy had clearly won the engagement at Chippawa (July 5) and arguably the frenzied, shot-in-the-dark melodrama at Lundy’s Lane (July 25), the single bloodiest night in Canadian history. The Americans had been shorthanded at both engagements, too, which made a big mark on the British tacticians. No more underestimating Americans. It also took away the advantage of being underestimated. As of late July, 1814, a battered American army limped back and dug in at Fort Erie, which was soon ringed by the reinforced British.
The simplest way to take a fort is to cut it off and starve it.
The simplest way to take a fort is to cut it off and starve it. The defender gives up without fighting. Well-off-the-riverbank Fort Erie would seem to invite that tactic; but the choke-hold is also a waiting game, and in their fortnight at Fort Erie the Americans had pulled off a bold and clever move. They had raised a protective rampart – a wall of dirt – that ran 700 yards to a good landing at the riverbank. It was a lot of real estate to protect, but food, ammunition, and what reinforcements were available could cross the river and approach the fort in relative safety behind it. British General Sir Gordon Drummond (1772-1854) could see that the headlock wasn’t going to work. It was never his favorite, anyway. Ah, this Sir Gordon was a grim customer. We’ll hear more about him later.
Fort Erie was still on a thin edge, though, and even a bit of an interruption to its supply chain could have been pivotal in its chances to hold. As of early August, 1814, Drummond’s next best option seemed to be to knock off the American resupply operation at the other end – the launching pad. This meant destroying the small fort, docks, boats, and supply stores at Black Rock on the American side. The Battle of Scajaquada Creek (August 3, 1814) was the early morning attempt to see to just that.
To Scajaquada Bridge General Drummond sent a force about the size of the one that had invaded and burned Buffalo seven months before.
To Scajaquada Bridge General Drummond sent a force about the size of the one that had invaded and burned Buffalo seven months before. Had its mission succeeded and other dominoes fallen the Empire’s way, Fort Erie would have collapsed; Buffalo might have faced a second torching; and a robust British army might have poured down from Ontario to scourge the upstate and join a red-coated steamroller coming out of Canada in the Hudson Valley.
As it was, this woulda-coulda-shoulda British expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker – “Brigadier Shindy” (something like Colonel Chaos) to his men in the 41st Regiment – was stymied by a much smaller but determined force of Americans. It was a failure at anything but creating plucky new heroes on the American side and a lasting reputation for the wild volunteers known as the Kentucky Riflemen. By August 4 it was back to the stalemate, and “Cold Steel” Drummond – our nickname – was settling in and figuring out what to do.
Even in the apparent stasis of the first two weeks of August, things stayed mighty interesting at Fort Erie, and specifically outside it. In fact, the skirmishing was constant. Both sides sent out teams of fighting scouts called pickets.
It’s mind-boggling to think that groups of up to several hundred men might sally out of the encirclement of a beleaguered position like Fort Erie and range out every day into enemy territory. This was only one of the day’s practices that left me struggling when I started to build my understanding of the Niagara war.
For one thing, a besieger couldn’t crowd the walls of a fort in the 1800s due to the threat of cannon- and long-rifle fire. His camp was at least a mile away away. Except for the brief moments of an outright attempt to swarm and storm the defenses, there would have been a lot of no-man’s land outside any fort.
For another, the old Niagara presented very few cleared areas in 1812, even outside forts like Erie. Then the ancient woods began again and occluded everything behind them. The region around a fort, even around a powerful army on the move, needed to be constantly surveilled. Picket parties went out every day of that war all over the Niagara.
Of course, the British had their own picket parties too, and when these eyes and ears of the opponents met, there was a clash, quick, brutal, and close-quarters. One moment all might be still; then blades and clubs erupted out of the blinding foliage. Neither the stalker nor the stalked was ever sure of the numbers involved. Only the winner could count the dead. Fight or flight would have been an instant decision, with life in the balance. There are some pretty good tomahawk-fights in the film Last of the Mochicans (1992). There is nothing you can imagine out of film or fantasy that would be more dramatic than what truly happened in the woods of our home turf.
This piece has a whimsical title, but there was nothing funny about this skirmishing. It is hardly mentioned in most history texts, since it amounted to nothing pivotal – no transfers of forts or territory. But I would venture to say that more lives were lost in these small-party fights than in the handful of famous battles on the Niagara. There are accounts of them in obscure places.
We’ve already heard about the mass knife-fight near the Chippawa Creek, the appetizer to the Battle of Chippawa (July 5, 1814). Dramatic picket clashes took place outside Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake (the day’s Newark) when the Americans held it for half of 1813. One galling ambush-massacre on Casper Corus’ farm outside Fort George in July took the lives of around two dozen American militiamen. Most of the texts presumed that this atrocity was perpetrated by Western Great Lakes Native Americans under the fearsome Potawatomi “Black Bird.” While it was avenged by another sylvan operation led by Red Jacket and Colonel Cyrenius Chapin, I am not sure it ended up plucking the chief culprit.
You don’t read the names of many prominent British on the casualty roles in these picket melees, and it’s not because the Empire’s force wasn’t taking its lumps. The British tended to keep their officers and regular soldiers for what they were best at: pitched battle. The men who usually went out on these missions for the Empire seem to have been the ones who should be best at it: “irregular” soldiers like local volunteers, militia, and Native Americans who knew and exploited terrain quite well. They weren’t as good at stand-up army fighting, anyway, so they could best be spared if they were lost.
The Americans were remarkably egalitarian about their own picket forays. Picket duty may have been seen as a badge of machismo for regular soldiers and even high-ranking officers. The war lost a couple of its celebrated characters in the summer skirmishing outside Fort Erie.
A week after the Battle of Chippawa one woodsy clash took the life of Brigadier General John Swift (b. 1761), a Revolutionary War veteran and the founder of of Palmyra, NY.
A week after the Battle of Chippawa one woodsy clash took the life of Brigadier General John Swift (b. 1761), a Revolutionary War veteran and the founder of of Palmyra, NY. All sources agree that he took prisoners and was killed by a man he spared, but there’s latitude on other details. Swift could have been shot by surprise with a gun hidden among the captives. (“Which of you is General Swift?” one of them is reported to have asked. When the colonel answered to his name, he was fatally wounded.) He may also have been virtually executed when his group was enveloped and made temporary prisoners themselves, possibly staring into the barrel of death and begging for the chance to see his grandchildren again.
Another loss was one of the newly-minted wits of the Niagara War, U. S. Captain Ambrose Spencer. In the gloom of the battle of Lundy’s Lane, Captain Spencer had ridden confidently up to an approaching British regiment, been mistaken for one of its own commanders, called for the approaching force to identify itself (“The Royal Scots, Sir!”), and then cut loose – “Halt, Royal Scots!” – with one of the capital lines of the local war. Not only did Spencer derail a British advance, but this might have been the celebrated incident in which a British troop drew up and stood like targets due to an American’s command and suffered a fusillade of black-powder balls from concealed Yanks who then ran gleefully away. Spencer fell in action outside Fort Erie on August 5, with only a fortnight to savor his reputation as a card.
On August 12 a national hero, Major Lodowick Morgan of Scajaquada Bridge, was dropped by a sniper. He had barely a week to bask in the sunshine of his country’s love.
Other notable clashes took place on August 21, August 25, September 5, and September 7. The last of them took fourteen American lives, but it sounds as though an entire American picket party must have been wiped out in the first. British General Gordon Drummond’s report for the day noted that “from the number of scalps… taken by the Indians [sic] and the number of dead and wounded… carried into the Fort, the enemy must have lost forty or fifty men.”
One of the all-time kooks of a kooky war, Ontario turncoat Joseph Willcocks checked out on September 4, at last paying the dues for the burning of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) that so many had paid before him.
One of the all-time kooks of a kooky war, Ontario turncoat Joseph Willcocks checked out on September 4, at last paying the dues for the burning of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) that so many had paid before him. “King Joe” Willcocks may have hated the British Empire with the frenzy Abolitionist John Brown reserved for slavery. Willcocks is surely the most despised figure in Canadian history as well as its number one traitor, and the Maple Leaf Nation does not take its history lightly. In August 2007 I dropped in on a re-enactor soiree at Fort Niagara and met two gloating members of the faux-Lincoln Militia who claimed to be impersonating the real man who shot “Canada’s Benedict Arnold” out of his saddle. Still, we’ll never be sure of Willcocks’ exact fate. There’s a rumor that he was even “fragged” – taken out by ‘friendly’ fire, could there be such a thing – while on picket duty by his Yankee colleagues, who had reputedly never warmed to him.
We probably won’t be sure of Willcocks’ burial-site, either. His still-lukewarm body minus its rebel soul was brought back with the American war dead and planted in a cemetery at Niagara Square. By the end of the century most of the city cemeteries had been emptied into Forest Lawn, and Willcocks and other late warriors were laid in a section of simple and often unmarked graves. I’ve met two individuals who claim to know Willcocks’ plot, but they have yet to divulge it to me, even in confidentiality. It’s just as well if word never gets out. The site would be a beer-rental return for Canadian ticket-holders on nights the Leafs are in town matching up with the Sabres.
Photo: E.C. Watmough/Chicago History Museum/The Bridgeman Art Library