This essay is a reprint from from a book entitled "Niagara Land: the First 200 Years," which in turn was a reprint of a series of essays published in "Sunday, the Courier Express Magazine" to celebrate the 1976 American Revolution Bicentennial.
Table of Contents
War of 1812 - Table of Contents
The War of 1812 Heats Up on the Niagara Frontier
By R. Arthur Bowler
Reprinted with Permission
In its first year, the War of 1812 was a moderate and sometimes even a comic opera affair. In 1813, however, both sides got down to the serious, destructive business.
Attack on York
The destruction got under way in April when Commodore Isaac Chauncey, utilizing his temporary naval superiority on Lake Ontario, carried an American army of some 1700 men across Ontario to attack the Upper Canadian capitol of York (Toronto). Although a number of Americans, including Gen. Zebulon Pike, were killed when a magazine blew up, the small defending force was quickly overwhelmed. When the Americans left two days later, they burned all the public buildings and a disputed number of private residences and stores.
The fleet and army then went to Niagara, where American preparations for a major assault across the river were already underway. The attack was launched on May 27. While Chauncey's fleet engaged and silenced the British batteries at and near Fort George at the present site of Niagara-on-the-Lake, 5,000 American troops crossed the river. With only 2.000 men, the British commander, Gen. Vincent, had little choice but to abandon the whole frontier and fall back to Burlington, Ont.
When he decided to withdraw, McClure compounded his earlier errors by ordering the village of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) burned .... Although he was abandoning, not destroying Forth George, McClure, after giving the inhabitants only a few hours warning, ordered the whole village of some 150 houses put to the torch.
Battle of Stony Creek
But, with victory in sight, incompetence once more took over. The American army pursuing Vincent made camp on the night of June 5 without taking adequate defensive preparations. During the night the British attacked and, although both sides suffered badly, the result of the Battle of Stony Creek was that the Americans fell back to Niagara and the war there subsided into stalemate.
Elsewhere however bloody battles continued. On September. 10, Commodore Perry destroyed the British fleet on Lake Erie and forced the British army in southwestern Ontario under Gen. Henry Proctor to withdraw towards Lake Ontario. Gen. William Henry Harrison, who had already begun to attack Proctor's outposts, now quickly followed him. On October 5, the two armies fought a pitched battle near Moraviantown on the River Thames, from which the Americans emerged the complete victors. Proctor, with 250 men, barely escaped to the head of Lake Ontario.
At this point, instead of pressing their advantage in the west, America's strategists moved Harrison's army, along with most of the regulars on the Niagara Frontier, to the east for an attack on Montreal. The movement of the regulars left the defense of the Niagara Frontier, including, of course, the Canadian side, to a few regulars and some 1,000 New York militiamen under the command of Brigadier Gen. George McClure. McClure's headquarters was at Fort George.
McClure's position, given that there was a British army of close to 2,000 men at Burlington and York, was not very secure and he should have spent the last months of the year tightening up his defenses and raising new levies of militia. Instead, he did nothing and. indeed, could not even control the troops he had. Their pillaging raids provoked an abiding bitterness in the settlers on the Canadian side of the river. Then, in early December, half of McClure's troops. their short enlistments expired, departed for home. At this point, McClure decided to abandon the Canadian side of the river and retire to Fort Niagara.
The Burning of Newark
When he decided to withdraw. McClure compounded his earlier errors by ordering the village of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) burned. He cited as his authority for this act Sec. of War John Armstrong, who in October had given McClure authority to destroy the village if necessary for the defense of Fort George. Although he was abandonirg. not defending Fort George, McClure. after giving the inhabitants only a few hours warning ordered the whole village of some 150 houses put to the torch.
In forcing the inhabitants -- mostly women and children. since the men were away in the army –-- out into the snow and bitter cold of a mid-December night, McClure was presumably hoping to deny the shelter of the village to the British forces who would now occupy the west side of the river.
But it was a most ill-advised act and one subsequently disavowed by the American goverment. Ironically, the British forces, who had begun to advance on the frontier a few days earlier, came on so rapidly when they heard of the plundering that the American troops failed to destroy Fort George in their haste to cross the river.
In mid-December, 1813, then, the position on the Niagara Frontier was the reverse of what it had been a few months earlier. The British were now in overwhelming strength and the inhabitants of the American side of the river waited fearfully for the reprisals which they knew must come. They were not long in coming, and were made all the worse by McClure's continued failure to organize adequate defenses. Already in 1813, there were a couple of dozen villages within easy march of the Frontier and, by strenuous exertion, McClure might well have assembled 2,000 men for its defense. He did virtually nothing.
The British attack commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir Gordon Drummond, began on the early morning of December 19. The first object was Fort Niagara, the strongest point on the American side. Incredibly. the defenders of the fort, over 400 regulars and militia, were not prepared. At the time of the attack their commander, Capt. Nathaniel Leonard, was at his home three miles away. Taken completely by surprise. the fort fell quickly and 65 of its garrison paid for their officers' negligence with their lives.
The new forces marched on Lewiston. from which most of the inhabitants had wisely fled. The village was destroyed and, despite their promises to abstain from such acts. the Indians killed the few inhabitants who had remained m the area. Just over a week later, on December 29. the British again crossed the Niagara. This time the objective was the villages of Black Rock and Buffalo.
With Fort Niagara taken, more British troops poured across the river, determined to avenge the burning of Newark. With them came several hundred Indians. The new forces marched on Lewiston. from which most of the inhabitants had wisely fled. The village was destroyed and, despite their promises to abstain from such acts, the Indians killed the few inhabitants who had remained m the area.
Just over a week later, on December 29. the British again crossed the Niagara. This time the objective was the villages of Black Rock and Buffalo.
See also: The Burning of Buffalo, by R. Arthur Bowler
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
R Arthur Bowler is an associate professor of history at the University of Buffalo and author of a recently published book on the War of 1812.
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