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.
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War of 1812 - Table of Contents

The Burning of Buffalo
By R. Arthur Bowler

Reprinted with Permission

When the citizens of Buffalo retired to their beds on the night of December 28, 1813, they did so with greater sense of security than they had known for some time.

Their anxiety had begun almost three weeks earlier, on December 10, when Gen. George McClure, commander of the American forces in the Niagara area, burned the Canadian town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) before abandoning the west side of the Niagara River.

McClure's action raised a storm of protest, much of it from settlers on the American side of the river. The burning of a defenseless town was rightly seen not merely as an act of wanton cruelty but also as an invitation to British retaliation in kind.

The settlers' fears were entirely justified. Within a few days of McClure's retreat a British army some 1,400 strong occupied the Canadian shore.

On the l9th, they began the process of retaliation. A strong force crossed the river that night, surprised the garrison of Fort Niagara and put a good part of it to the bayonet, and then proceeded to the destruction of the town of Lewiston.

Indians, who formed a part of the British force, carried death and destruction far beyond the confines of the town.

Two days later, the British made it clear that their revenge would not end at Lewiston when they marched up the American side of the Niagara and destroyed the villages of Manchester (Niagara Falls) and Schlosser. They stopped only at Tonawanda Creek, where the bridges had been destroyed by retreating American troops.

For several days the people of Black Rock and Buffalo waited fearfully for the renewal of the British advance. When, instead, the army withdrew to the Canadian side of the river, their fears lessened.

Planned defense at Buffalo

When militia forces from as far away as Genesee and Chautauqua began to pour in for the defense of Buffalo, a measure of confidence returned. The appointment of Maj. Gen. Amos Hall to command the Buffalo area further increased public confidence, and, when a full scale review on the 28th revealed that Hall had some 2,000 men under his command, including 129 cavalry and 136 men of the Buffalo militia under Lt. Col. Cyrenius Chapin, the people of the area once again felt secure. It was well that they slept easily that night; it would be some time before they could do it again.

Defeat at Black Rock

The British attack came in the very early hours of December 30. Over 1,000 men, in two divisions, crossed the river quickly and silently. The main force, under Maj. Gen. Phineas Riall, landed close to what is now the foot of Amherst Street. It easily brushed aside American cavalry patrols and captured one of the artillery batteries which was supposed to protect Buffalo from just such an attack. The second division moved directly against the Village of Black Rock.

News of the British landings reached Gen. Hall very quickly. Convinced that the main attack was against Black Rock, he marched virtually his whole force to that point.

But, even before he cleared Buffalo, he was fighting a losing battle. His militia force, poorly trained and at the best of times hesitant, viewed with very little favor the prospect of a night battle against British regulars and Indians, whose war cries they could already hear. In ones and twos and then in dozens they slipped off into the darkness.

By the time he reached Black Rock, Hall had barely 600 men. They bravely engaged the British force, then still in the process of landing, but when Riall mounted an attack on their flank they broke and fled in complete rout.

The British paused a moment to set fire to the Village of Black Rock and then turned to the open road to Buffalo.

The attack on Buffalo

In 1813, Buffalo was a raw but thriving town. Although laid out only a dozen years earlier by the enterprising Holland Land Company agent, Joseph Ellicott, its superb location had quickly attracted settlers. In 1813, Buffalo boasted at least half a dozen carpenters and an equal number of blacksmiths, as well as a mason, cabinet, watch, and wagon makers and an assortment of other tradesmen. The citizens could take pride, too, in their recently established printing office, their two doctors and a collection of lawyers, and their growing number of retail stores.

The focus of settlement was the area bounded by Chippewa Street on the north and Exchange Street on the south and by Washington and Franklin streets on the east and west, but streets were also laid out around Niagara Square, and there were scattered houses on the roads leading to neighboring towns.

Indeed the most imposing of the numerous taverns in the area was located on Main Street, then generally called the Williamsville Road. at Cold Springs.

The first indication that Buffalonians received that all was not going well came in the dawn hours when defeated and deserting militiamen began to stream through the town. The news that the American army was completely defeated and that the British force included Indians was enough to spark panic among the townspeople.

Piling valuables and, if they were prudent, necessaries onto whatever conveyances were at hand, they joined the flight. Within a few hours they had carried the panic through the neighboring towns and countryside.

The only Buffalonians who decided that resistance was still possible were Dr. Cyrenius Chapin and a small group of his militia company. The carefully planned British advance brought them into the town from two directions, by the Guide Board Road, now North Street, and then down Main Street, and by the old Black Rock Road, which began near the corner of Niagara and Mohawk streets.

Chapin and his men set up an old 12-pounder cannon at the corner of Main and Niagara, where they could face both challenges. But by that stage they were only a straw in the wind. They managed no more than a few shots at the British soldiers emerging from the Black Rock Road before their cannon gave way to its age and collapsed.

So ended the defense of the town. Chapin tried to arrange a surrender, but the British were not interested. He was taken prisoner and eventually ended up in Montreal.

By this stage, Buffalo was nearly empty of Americans, other than the dead and the critically wounded and a few stubborn souls such as Mrs. Joshua Lovejoy and Mrs. Gamaliel St. John, both of whom owned establishments on Washington Street between Lafayette and Mohawk. Mrs. Lovejoy paid for her stubbornness with her life when she attempted to stand in the way of looters, but Mrs. St. John managed to save her property and her house.

Burning of Buffalo, December 30, 1813 and January 1, 1814

With the battle over, the British then turned to the acknowledged purpose of the raid, the burning of Buffalo as the final act of retaliation for the destruction of Newark.

With system and dispatch, British soldiers proceeded up and down the streets firing the buildings. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon the entire town, with the exception of a half-dozen buildings, was a smoldering mass of ashes.

Black Rock was similarly devastated, and four ships, three of them naval vessels, pulled up for the winter at Black Rock and Buffalo Creek, had been destroyed.

The British recrossed the river that afternoon, taking with them some ninety prisoners and having behind more than forty American dead. The cost in British lives had been almost equally severe.

A few settlers filtered back into Buffalo the day after the raid, but they quickly dispersed again when a small British detachment returned on January 1 and fired most of the buildings that had escaped the initial conflagration. By that night, all that remained of Buffalo was Mrs. St. John's house, David Reece's blacksmith shop on Seneca Street and the small, stone-built jail on Washington Street near Eagle.

The Aftermath

The year 1813 had been a devastating year for the people of the Niagara area. But such was the vitality of the frontier that by the following spring the process of rebuilding was well under way.

A traveler who passed through Buffalo in May reported that three taverns, 16 stores and more than 50 assorted dwellings had already risen on the ashes of the first town. The bitterness roused by the senseless destruction of the year, much of it well directed against Gen. McClure, took much longer to erase.

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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