The Yankee Lighthouse
The Siege of Fort Erie, Part 3
August 15/16, 1814
Fort Erie, ONT
So far it had been an unusual two week siege. The besieger of a fort is typically the invader to the land. The holder of a fort is most often the one who is cut off and short-rationed. At Fort Erie in August of 1814, it was just about the other way around.
The Americans who held the Fort were well-enough supplied. They could not be completely surrounded because of that earthen wall they had built from the Fort to the riverside. It was seven feet high and seven hundred long. Their countrymen crossed the Niagara from Black Rock in boats and hauled shipments safely to the garrison behind it.
It was the besieger of the Fort, General Sir Gordon Drummond and his redcoat army, who were Ontario’s defenders, and it was this force just beginning to show the strain. It had too many men to be nurtured by the ravaged land around it. Ah, force has its own drawbacks, as Sir Gordon was finding. It was Napoleon who observed that an army moves on its belly.
The Americans were outnumbered roughly three to two, and that disadvantage should have been overwhelming. The British redcoat was the world’s best soldier. Tested around the world, he was the 19th century’s Roman legionnaire. The Empire’s strength in North America and across the world was only increasing, since it no longer had so much of its force entangled in the death-struggle with Napoleon. By mid-August, it looked to General Drummond as if the odds were even more in his favor.
Drummond had been given some information that convinced him that he was facing a foe more shorthanded than he really was. His own eyes and ears had convinced him that he was facing one who was wounded.
On August 14, British gunners had scored a miraculous hit on an ammunition dump inside Fort Erie. People in Buffalo had heard the cataclysmic explosion and stopped in the streets to stare at the earth-born thundercloud rising from it. To them it must have seemed a miracle that there was any fort left to defend, much less that men were still alive inside to man it. Sir Gordon decided to attack before reinforcements and munitions could arrive.
Overrunning the Fort looks ridiculously easy, at least from a little ways off. Fort Erie is not a castle. Its profile is low. Given just a bit of time, an attacker could swarm its ramparts. You would think from the sight of it today that the Tough Mudders would soar right over it and then start doing burpees on a bastion. Only the vigilance and the active energy of the defender plus a few light, spiky obstacles – that damned abattis – would slow the attacker down, draining his force of strength with gunfire and motivation with waiting bayonets. The defender’s picket parties – fighting scouts – were always ranging out to keep the Fort from being surprised if the attacker massed in enough force to menace it. And make no mistake, this roll of the dice at Fort Erie was a high-stakes game for the Americans.
Fort Erie was the finger in the dike for the fortunes of all Americans along the Niagara…
Fort Erie was the finger in the dike for the fortunes of all Americans along the Niagara, a bulwark against the fall of a number of dangerous dominoes including another Buffalo burning, a British invasion of Western New York, and a potential ravaging of the whole upstate. Even a meetup of Sir Gordon’s army with a redcoat steamroller in the Hudson Valley was possible if Fort Erie fell, meaning that a thrust on New York, Philadelphia, and Washington was not unforeseeable.
For the Yanks at Fort Erie, the threat was more than prospective. Every American could have been fighting for his life.
It’s always possible in any clash that any combatant will meet the Reaper, but in most of history’s battles the chance is low. Even for members of the losing side, a death rate of ten per cent is high. But this was a siege. Many of history’s sieges have ended with massacres. It was pretty much standard practice that if you made the attacker breach your walls, you paid a price.
Sir Gordon had cooked up a little surprise of his own for the hit on Fort Erie. He planned to hold a company of up to 800 First Nations warriors out of combat. He wanted these men intact once the fort Fell so they could kill as many vulnerable Americans as they could. Doubtless these warriors were from western Great Lakes nations with no allegiances to anyone on the Niagara. They had swigged the Empire’s Kool-Aid and swallowed the idea that if they did the Empire’s bidding they might yet keep their lands in the face of Euroamerican expansion. This way Sir Gordon would get to send his message – and the Empire might not be directly blamed. (The auxiliaries “just got out of hand.”)
On the evening of August 15, Drummond called in his commanders and announced his plan. He was dividing most of his force into three attack columns.
On the evening of August 15, Drummond called in his commanders and announced his plan. He was dividing most of his force into three attack columns. Their plan was to move in concealment through the heavy woods and break into the open ground to rush the American defenders at four positions. Two were planning to come in from the north and storm the five-pointed stone fort from two directions. The third, the largest, would move in the south against the cannon on the higher ground of Snake Hill. A fourth column of Canadian volunteers, First Nations allies, and other irregular soldiers was aimed at the center of the American formation within that long rampart that stretched out of the Fort to the south like the stiff tail of a comma. Its point was to do a bit of hooting and hollering and draw American strength away from the true clash points. This last move was a clever one, since the American reaction force, if it had one awake, would almost surely be in the center, and that would keep its men occupied. If all three British columns hit at once at three separate spots, the nut would surely crack. The plan was good. It did have a lot of moving parts, though. Its timing was both tricky and utterly crucial… and the circumstances, let us say, provided impediments to synchronization.
The night was at least intermittently rainy, which helped no one find his way in the dark. Familiar trails would have looked alien.
The night was at least intermittently rainy, which helped no one find his way in the dark. Familiar trails would have looked alien. The Redcoats had to move through all kinds of natural obstacles – gullies, rivulets, bogs, woods – before coming to that dreaded abattis, the day’s version of barbed wire, all silently and in the aforementioned gloom. If that wasn’t bad enough for the attackers, Drummond was planning to order most of his infantry to take the flints out of their guns’ firing mechanisms so as to prevent a stray shooting of “Brown Bess,” which would rouse the presumably sleeping Americans and prevent the chance to slaughter unarmed men with bayonets. I don’t call him “Cold Steel” Drummond for nothing. If the enemy wasn’t surprised, though, Drummond’s own men were open to the day’s admittedly errant gunfire until they closed.
Something threw two of Drummond’s top men into a state of deep foreboding. I am not sure if it was the plan, their personal destinies, or the mood of the night itself. It is known that Colonel Hercules Scott and Lt.-Col. William Drummond – Sir Gordon’s own nephew – left the planning session, wished each other well, and packed up their most prized belongings to be sent back to England. Possibly given a premonition that he’d die at Erie, William Drummond even handed over his splendid sword – a gift from Lloyd’s of London.
I don’t know what Hercules Scott did with the rest of his evening, but after his pow-wow with Uncle “Cold Steel,” Drummond the younger partied awhile with his mates and then crawled off for a catnap under the shelter of a military device, said in my sources to have been a shell casing.
If trouble was coming, it would figure that a couple of Scots would know. Whenever one of the players in the Niagara war got an accurate presentiment of death, it always seemed to me to be a Native American or an ancestral Celt. It makes folkloric sense. Until the Gypsies supplanted them in the popular imagination, the Celts were regarded as the possessors of “the Second Sight” by all of Europe and stereotyped like the Native Americans are today as the almost genetic preservers of mysticism and intuition. The Welsh, Irish, and Scottish are the prime national inheritors of the Celtic legacy. Many French, too, like to think of themselves as a Celtic nation, which surprises most people who hear that for the first time.
Maybe the two Scots’ premonitions were justified. The Fort’s American commander Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines was as sure as you could get that an attack would be coming that night; it was the obvious move after that massive explosion the day before that would have made the Fort look dramatically weakened, which it really was not. He had his picket parties out looking for exactly what was coming. He kept companies of men standing ready all night with guns loaded and bayonets fixed. He even had them load and unload their black-powder guns now and then just to be sure that that first volley would be a true one. As with any street-strumpet, the rain was no friend to “Brown Bess,” the day’s standard gun oft-personified as a camp whore, or the firing mechanism of any of her imitators. The bluecoats grumbled about standing night-duty in the wet, but their readiness to move to any point of pressure along their 700 yards of frontage would be pivotal in the fortunes of the night.
The first column to reach the American lines hit Snake Hill around 2 a.m. Led by Lt.-Col. Victor Fischer (sometimes written Fisher or, oddly, Flascher), it was a force of up to 1,500 non-British redcoats including many French, Germans, and Swiss. The plan was to overrun the American defenses and close in with the bayonet. Two thirds the size of the entire American garrison, its arrival at Snake Hill was no surprise. The American pickets had spotted them coming, sent up the flares, and scooted back to their comrades. Fischer’s rainbow redcoats tried courageously no less than five times to capture this southern flank by clearing obstacles and storming in under constant black-powder gunfire.
All the while Captain Nathaniel Towson’s six-cannon battery poured shot into their ranks and lit up the night so spiritedly that the British referred to the site as “The Yankee Lighthouse.” To the Americans, this was “Towson’s Lighthouse,” and its namesake would be a national hero. These cannon were loaded with grapeshot, chain, and other small items that would turn each of them into a giant shotgun, lethal against charging troops.
Until the British could close, they were stuck clearing obstacles and shortening distance. At one point Fischer’s multicultural redcoats got close enough to the ramparts to use their scaling ladders, only to find that they were too short. (When people pile the earth up into a seven-foot ramp, it makes a seven-foot ditch below it, which the Americans naturally located on the outside. You need fourteen-foot ladders. Excuse me, but… Duh.)
The last frontal attack was battered back, but Fischer was still determined.
The last frontal attack was battered back, but Fischer was still determined. He sent a strong detachment of several hundred men along the river aiming to sweep around the back of the ramp and come in on the Americans from the unprotected side. The American position, though, was well protected by its natural site. The redcoats had to contend with water and bad footing, as well as constant firing. Slipping on the stones and struggling with the current, the dead, wounded, and unlucky among Fischer’s men drifted downstream, many over the Falls. The Niagara was said to have turned scarlet with blood and redcoated bodies, though how anyone could have seen that in the dark is a question. A few hundred of the Empire’s bayoneteers closed in and clashed with the Americans blade to blade, but it was not enough. Half may have been killed before the rest understood their mistake and surrendered.
At last, the British commander ordered a retreat, leaving behind up to 200 prisoners and at least as many dead. The rout of this force was complete as bodies littered the battleground and hung mangled and shell-marked in the abattis. The Americans lost very few men in this interchange.
Accounts vary about the second British attack wave of maybe 700 men. Its target is in no doubt: the Douglass battery behind the stone Fort and close to the riverside. Its timing is in debate. It may have started when the fighting at Snake Hill was at its height; it may have started just after it was over. The defenders were ready. Maybe it was the crunch of the British boots on the stones of the riverside trail that gave it away.
Early on its doughty commander Colonel Hercules Scott was killed by a shot between the eyes, doubtless finding out on the other side that his own premonition had proved true.
Early on its doughty commander Colonel Hercules Scott was killed by a shot between the eyes, doubtless finding out on the other side that his own premonition had proved true. Scott’s second in command, Major William Smelt, was almost immediately and critically wounded. The redcoats got within fifty yards of their goal, but they were oppressed by the sizzling fire from American long guns and artillery. They were finally driven back by onrushing American defenders no longer needed at Snake Hill. They may have lost half their force in killed, wounded, or lost.
The coordination that Sir Gordon Drummond was banking on had failed. The feint had been useless, and the first and second attack columns had been beaten. The struggle, though, was a long way from over, and in fact still hung in the balance. That third column would not be denied.
Lead image: RareMaps.com