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Niagara Genealogy

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History Section


The War of 1812

Tensions Escalate

Two similar but separate nascent societies were now forming along the Niagara Frontier. On the east side, the newest nation on the map, the United States of America, republican and individualistic, and on the west side, the British colony of Upper Canada, monarchical and more socially structured, whose birth into nationhood still lay some seventy years in the future. Blood was the common denominator between these two similar yet polarized societies; blood begot through kinship, blood spilled during the American Revolution; and the blood yet to be spilled during the war that inevitably was to come. Tensions between Britain and the United States continued to escalate during the first decade of the new century. The political courses that each nation had charted put both on a deadly collision course that became the War of 1812.


The Causes of the War of 1812

Britain and the United States were not on good terms. The passions, distrust and bitterness created by the first War of Independence were still alive and thriving in the hearts of those who lived on both sides of the Niagara River. Loyalties were still questionable. General Brock was convinced that his 49th Regiment was the only genuine military force in Upper Canada, since he regarded the Canadian militia as neither effective nor trustworthy.

The threat posed by Napoleon in Europe further exacerbated Anglo-American relations. With their superior navy, the British enacted a blockade around the European mainland to weaken the French. This act legitimized, in their view, the boarding and searching of neutral ships, including those of the United States. Britain also began impressing sailors on American ships whom she believed had deserted the British navy. Such actions infuriated the American Government. These then were the explicit causes of the war. The implicit cause was that the United States believed that Canada would be an easy conquest; after all, Britain had its hands full in Europe with Napoleon, and many of the inhabitants of Canada were believed to still sympathize with the United States. In the American Congress, the Hawks-those elected representatives who favoured war, led by Henry Clay, the senator from Kentucky-won out and war was declared on Britain and Her Dependencies on 18 June, 1812.


The War Begins

Several major battles of the War of 1812 occurred on the Niagara Frontier. At the start of the war the British captured Fort Michilimackinac in the north before the American soldiers garrisoned there were even aware that a state of war existed between

Britain and the United States. The attack ordered by Brock, was bloodless.

William Hull, a hero of the American Revolution, and governor of the Michigan territory, led a large army to Fort Detroit in order to invade Canada but surrendered there to General Brock. Fear of slaughter by Indian warriors led by the great Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, coupled with the dashing and bold military manoeuvres of Brock, and the timidity shown by Hull, resulted in another bloodless victory-as brilliant for the British as it was ignominious for the Americans.


The Battle of Queenston Heights

The action swung now to the Frontier where the Americans amassed an army of regulars and militiamen under the leadership of Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer. His targets were Fort George and Queenston, but his counterpart at Fort Schlosser, General Alexander Smyth, refused to co-operate and Van Rensselaer decided to take only Queenston, the town at the northern end of the portage on the west side of the river.

On 13 October, 1812, after much difficulty caused by poor planning and organization and a lack of co-operation between the American regular and militia forces, the Americans managed to land on the west side of the river, at Queenston. The Americans scaled Queenston Heights by way of an old Indian path, attacking from the rear the Redan Battery, a lone British gun emplacement facing the American side. Brock, at Fort George, heard the gun fire

and immediately departed for the battle site. Once there he ordered the gun spiked then returned to Queenston to ready his troops for a head-on assault of the American position. The two head-on assaults that followed, resulted in both Brock's death and that of his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell.

Writers of history sometimes accuse Brock of foolhardiness in ordering a direct assault upon the American position. It might well have been, but it should also be pointed out that it was by no means uncommon for a commander to be killed or wounded in action, given the type of warfare practised at that time. Van Rensselaer, too, was wounded at Queenston Heights; Wolfe and Montcalm both died at Quebec in 1759; Tecumseh died at the Battle of the Thames in 1813; four American leaders were wounded at Lundy's Lane in 1814; and Braddock, the English commander, died after being attacked by the French near Fort Duquesne in 1755. It was the nature of warfare during this period of history, fought at close quarters, without the benefit of technical communications or the protection afforded by distance, that commanders were almost as exposed to the immediate dangers of the battlefield as were the fighting troops. With black powder gunsmoke drifting in thick clouds across the battlefield, a commander could not afford to be far from his troops.

Following the death of Brock, Major General Roger Sheaffe, Brock's Second-in-Command, assumed leadership of the British forces. By leading his troops from Fort George to Queenston, thence to St. Davids, where he turned eastwards, he was able to circle behind the Americans and stage a surprise attack, overwhelming their left

flank and leaving them with their backs to the river and with no escape. It was Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott, a most durable soldier, about whom more will be said, who formally surrendered to the British.

Thus this second invasion of Canada ended with a pyrrhic victory for the British; pyrrhic because of the death of Brock. While Brock had been alive, the British government had found it difficult to find a hat large enough to fit his huge head (in fact, one was on order at the time of the battle). And with his death the British found it impossible to fill Brock's boots as well, since no replacement of his stature existed.

The Americans, meanwhile, attempted to advance to Montreal at the end of 1812, but instead withdrew. General Dearborn, with the assistance of the American navy, commanded by Captain Isaac Chauncey, attacked and burned York on 27 April, 1813. American forces also captured Newark and Fort George exactly one month later, forcing the British to retreat to Burlington Heights.


The Battle of Stoney Creek

On 6 June, 1813, under Brigadier General John Vincent, the British staged a night assault against the Americans, attacking from an unprotected gully at Stoney Creek, near present-day Hamilton, Ontario. Although the attack surprised the Americans, they fought back furiously. Soon the battle became confusing and chaotic because of the darkness, and friends were mistaken for foes. The British captured two American generals and four field

guns. The American force retreated to Forty Mile Creek, near present-day Grimsby, Ontario.

There, on 7 June, 1813, the day after the Battle of Stoney Creek, units of the British Royal Navy, under the command of Sir James Yeo, commenced a bombardment of the American camp. Sixteen unguarded American boatloads of supplies from Fort Niagara were either captured or destroyed. It is at that point in the hostilities that the Americans decided to withdraw to Fort George, and another planned invasion of Upper Canada was thwarted.

Forcing their advantage, the British advanced towards the east with a split force to engage the Americans: those under the command of Major Peter De Haren marched against Fort George, while those commanded by Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon were to take Fort Erie. At the same time about 500 American troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Boerstler were marching from Fort George to Queenston to stop Fitzgibbon from harassing the American line along the western Portage Road. Boerstler's target was Fitzgibbon's outpost at DeCew House, south of present-day St. Catharines. In the battle that followed, a legend was born.


Laura Secord

The Americans, under Captain Cyrenius Chapin, made plans to attack the Fitzgibbon force. Legend has it that these plans were made at the home of James and Laura Secord, formerly from Massachusetts. Whilst preparing the American officers' meal, which they had commandeered, Laura Secord overheard their

plans to attack Fitzgibbon. Her husband, James, was still recovering from the wounds he had received at Queenston Heights, so Laura decided that she must attempt to warn the British of the impending attack.

Laura left her home at Queenston and, as a feint, walked to St. Davids for the apparent purpose of visiting her ill half brother. Laura's niece, Elizabeth, accompanied her for part of the journey but collapsed due to exhaustion. Laura continued on along Twelve Mile Creek which flows beside the DeCew House, and 30 kilometres (18 miles) later, arrived exhausted and hungry at an Indian encampment. The Indian chief took Laura to Fitzgibbon where she disclosed the American plans.

On 24 June 1813, Fitzgibbon, with 50 regulars and about 150 Cognawaga Indians, ambushed the American force on the Beaver Dams Trail at present-day Thorold, Ontario. Rather, it was the 150 Cognawaga under fur trader, Francois Dominique Ducharme, who attacked and defeated the Americans. Fitzgibbon only intervened to prevent a massacre and the scalping of Americans.

The Legend of Laura Secord is well-known today, and most certainly the story has been well embellished. But it is true that Laura Secord learned of the American plans, and that she did in fact warn Fitzgibbon of the impending attack. Fitzgibbon himself testified as such, and for her brave act Laura Secord was formally recognised by the British Government, receiving 100 in 1860 from the Prince of Wales. The long lapse of time between the end of the War of 1812 and official recognition for the part she had played was due,

not to neglect or indifference on the part of the government (though her act did require a good deal of confirmation), but was rather one of protecting the Secord family from any backlash by Upper Canada's more republican leaning citizens.


Newark Bums

In July, after Beaver Dams, the British advanced to Fort George, then turned south towards Fort Erie in a cleanup type operation. On 5 July 1813, they attacked and destroyed Fort Schlosser on the east side, and on 11 July destroyed Black Rock. Virtually all remaining American solders withdrew to Fort George and Newark. Brigadier General George McClure, in charge of the American forces at Newark, believed the American position was now untenable on the west side of the Niagara Frontier. After ordering the complete destruction of Newark by fire, an act strongly influenced by Joseph Willcocks, a former Loyalist who turned traitor and was now an officer in the American Army, McClure and his troops evacuated the town. All buildings except some churches and one house were burned to the ground.


The Capture of Fort Niagara

The British immediately retaliated. Under Colonel John Murray, they readied themselves to storm Fort Niagara on 18 December 1813. After first bayoneting the pickets, they proceeded to the main gate, which they found open, and entered the fort. Here the Americans put up fierce resistance resulting in about 11 British casualties, including the death of Colonel Murray. Finally, the

British prevailed, and several hundred prisoners were taken. One American account of the capture of Fort Niagara portrayed the British as slaughtering about 80 prisoners, many of them hospital patients. Another account described the capture as occurring 'without a shot being fired', which might be true as the British used the bayonet extensively so as to inflict an intentionally painful death upon the American defenders. Fort Niagara remained in British hands until peace prevailed in 1815.


The Destruction Continues

The British now turned their attention towards the rest of the Niagara Frontier on the American side of the river: Youngstown, then a hamlet, was completely destroyed by fire, as were Eighteen Mile Creek, Lewiston, and Manchester (now Niagara Falls, New York.). Fort Schlosser was burned, as were houses at Tonawanda Creek, LaSalle, Black Rock and Buffalo. American officials estimated a loss of 380 buildings on the Frontier. Unlike the destruction of Newark where there was no loss of human life, a number of American inhabitants did lose their lives in the reprisal fires that followed. American officials cited the deaths of Mrs. Lovejoy of Buffalo, the massacre of two large families at Black Rock, and other reprisals at Youngstown and Fort Niagara. The inhabitants of those communities were forced to flee and became refugees until the spring of 1814 when most returned.

In the other theatres of the war, the British continued to control the western front until 10 September, 1813, when the American naval commander, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, defeated the British

at Put-In-Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie. This effectively put the American forces in control of the lake and with the advantage that this gave them they went on to enjoy more land victories.


The War's Final Year

In the early months of 1814, American forces controlled Lake Erie and Detroit and were growing in strength along the Niagara Frontier under Major General Jacob Brown. Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, then the commander of British forces in Upper Canada, built Fort Mississauga upon the ruins of Newark. Along with Forts Niagara and George, a protective triangle was formed at the northern mouth of the Niagara River.

In July of that year a well seasoned American force, under Major

General Brown, mounted yet another invasion of Canada and, on 3

July, defeated the British garrison at Fort Erie before moving on to


On 5 July, 1814, the Americans came upon a British force at Chippawa, under the command of Major General Phineas Riall. The American militia, commanded by Brigadier General Peter B. Porter, initially retreated from the advancing British. Riall ordered a frontal attack but the British were beaten back by accurate American artillery fire, disciplined veteran foot solders, and decisive leadership.

One of those decisive leaders was Winfield Scott, who earlier had surrendered to the British at Queenston Heights and who was sub-

sequently pardoned on condition that he not fight again against the British. Knowing that if he were ever captured by the British he would likely face a firing squad, Scott, a huge, durable, bold and brave Virginian, survived the War of 1812 and went on to other battles. His forces captured Mexico City in 1847 and he continued to serve his country on the Chiefs of Staff in Washington until the outbreak of the American Civil War.



Retreat and Regroup

After retreating, the British regrouped and formed a new, strongly entrenched position on the north side of the Chippawa River. The victorious Americans halted. The two sides lost a combined total of about 750 men.

On 19 July, 1814, an American force burned St. Davids, Ontario. The main body of American troops under Brown moved out to march across the peninsula to isolate and defeat the remainder of Lieutenant General Drummond's corps. This strategy, if successful, would have left Burlington Heights and Upper Canada open and at the mercy of American forces, which already controlled Fort Erie and Queenston. However, fate took a decisive hand when Brown's forces accidentally encountered Drummond's advance guard, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas. It was 25 July, 1814, and the Battle of Lundy's Lane-the second bloodiest battle of the war-was set to begin.


The Battle of Lundy's Lane

Drummond ordered a defensive line to be formed at the crest of the hill which commanded a full view of the surrounding countryside. At about 6 p.m. Brown's forces successfully advanced against the British left flank before being driven back themselves. When darkness descended, confusion was experienced by both armies. The Americans succeeded in repulsing the British from the hilltop and captured their guns. Riall, one of the British commanders, was wounded and captured. The American, Winfield Scott, was also wounded, along with three other American commanders.

Daylight and calm eventually returned. The battle was over. The loss of human life-staggering. Of the 3,200 British and American men who fought at Lundy's Lane, 1,738-more than 50 percent-were either killed or wounded.

Who won The Battle of Lundy's Lane? Canadian and British sources will usually say that the British were victorious, while American sources will give the battle to the Americans. That the results are clouded and disputed are not so much because of political bias, but because of the possible interpretations one can have about this confusing battle. The Americans certainly gained control of the crest and, in this author's view, can rightly claim victory. However, during a lull after the battle, the Americans regrouped away from the battlefield only to return to find the British firmly entrenched back on the hill. There was neither heart nor energy for more fighting and the Americans simply turned and retreated to Fort Erie. Lundy's Lane can perhaps best be said to be an American victory eventually won by the British.

After Lundy's Lane the British marched to Fort Erie, and on 15 August, 1814, they attacked the Americans. However, with their control of Lake Erie, secure supply lines, and effective advance guards who constantly harassed the British, the Americans broke the British siege. On 15 September, the Americans successfully fought their way out from Fort Erie, chasing the British to Chippawa. There remained one final heavy skirmish near Chippawa when the Americans were beaten back.

By 5 November evacuation of the Americans troops from

Chippawa to Buffalo was completed before the arrival of winter.

Before leaving, Brown gave orders for Fort Erie to be blown up.

The war formally came to a close on 24 December 1814, with the signing of The Treaty of Ghent, although The Battle of New Orleans remained to be fought two weeks after the war officially ended with huge losses of British life. All conquests were to be returned-including Fort Niagara to the Americans. The borders were intact, unchanged since the war began.


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