Tag Archives: Fort George

Lundy’s Lane and the Niagara Front in 1814

Major General Jacob Brown, commanding the US Left Division, failed to follow up the US victory at Chippawa on 5 July

1812. He allowed the defeated British, commanded by Major General Phineas Riall, to retreat to Fort George near the mouth of the River Niagara on Lake Ontario.

Brown advanced to Queenston, a few miles south of Fort George, but his force, whose largest guns were 18 pounders, was too weak to assault it. He hoped that 24 pounders might be brought from Sacket’s Harbor, but British control of the lake made this impossible. On 24 July the Americans withdrew behind the River Chippawa in order to re-supply before moving on the Burlington Heights.

Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, ordered a British force under Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker to advance from Fort Niagara along the east bank of the Niagara with the intention of threatening Brown’s lines of communication. Riall was to demonstrate on the west bank

Drummond left York for Fort George on the evening of 24 July, arriving at before daybreak the next day. He had intended to remain there for a day, but on arriving learnt that the Americans had withdrawn and that Riall had advanced after them. He therefore decided to follow with reinforcements.

Brown became aware of Tucker’s advance and decided that his best course of action was to move towards Queenston in order to force Tucker to return to Fort George. His leading unit was the 1st Brigade under Brigadier-General Winfield Scott.

The two armies met at Lundy’s Lane on the evening of 25 July. Both sides aimed to defeat the enemy, rather than to capture territory, but tactically it was a battle for the hill on which the British artillery was positioned. The action is sometimes called the Battle of Niagara Falls.

The position of the guns was crucial and the British ones inflicted heavier casualties because of their higher position. The Americans eventually took the hill and beat off a series of British counter-attacks, but were forced to withdraw overnight because of shortages of ammunition and water.

Donald Graves gives the following figures for troop strengths:

US: 2,508 infantry, 200 artillerymen and 70 cavalry totalling 2,778 men. The Left Division had 14 guns: five 18 pounders, three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. However, probably only nine were present: three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. On 23 July the Left Division had 5,009 men, but many were in garrisons and some were guarding the camp.[1]

Anglo-Canadian: 2,226 British regulars, 852 Canadian regulars and 550 Militia totalling 3,638 men Probable artillery strength was a rocket section and eight guns: two 24 pounders, five 6 pounders and one 5.5″ howitzer.[2] Many accounts of the battle mention the rockets, but Graves says that ‘there is little evidence that these dramatic projectiles caused much damage.’[3]

Drummond had 2,200 men on the field at the start of the battle, and thought wrongly that he faced 4-5,000 Americans.[4]

Official US casualties totalled 860: 173 dead, 571 wounded and 117 missing. Graves notes that many British and Canadian historians think that the true US casualties were higher.[5] However, he argues ‘that Brown’s return was probably as accurate as it could be.’[6]

Official British casualties totalled 878: 84 dead, 559 wounded, 193 missing and 42 captured. This return includes 142 casualties for the Militia, 75 of which were missing. A later return for the Militia one gives 97 casualties, including 36 missing, so some missing may have returned to the ranks. The US claimed 169 prisoners. Graves thinks actual British casualties were probably about 800.[7]

The wounded included Brown, Scott, Drummond and Riall. Riall was captured, lost his left arm and recuperated alongside Scott, who did not serve again in the war.

Jeremy Black notes that ‘both sides claimed victory and produced conflicting contemporary accounts.’[8] Casualties were similar on both sides, but the British were entitled to claim victory on the basis of possession of the ground after the battle.

Brigadier-General Eleazer Ripley, the surviving senior US officer, did not attack again the next morning, but retreated to Fort Erie. The US no longer threatened Canada and had lost the initiative.

The British besieged Fort Erie, but an attack by Drummond on the night of 15 August was defeated: casualties were about 900 attackers and 90 defenders. Brown launched a sortie on the night of 17 September. His men were outnumbered 3,000 to 4,000, but inflicted casualties of about 600 men for the loss of 500 of their own and captured or destroyed much of the British artillery.[9] This American victory forced the British to end the siege.

4,000 US troops under Major General George Izard were moved from Plattsburg to the Niagara front, arriving on 12 October. Izard had 7,000 men, but was reluctant to attack Drummond’s defensive position. The US won a small engagement at Cook’s Mill on 18-19 October, but Drummond did not react; Izard then withdrew to the US shore of the Niagara.

On 5 November Fort Erie was abandoned and destroyed. This largely ended operations on the Niagara Front and the US threat to Canada. However, the performance of Brown’s Left Division was important for American morale and the future of the US Army. It would, according to Alfred Mahan, ‘have been a calamity…had the record for that generation closed with the showing of 1812 and 1813.’[10]

Graves describes the Left Division as being the ‘best led, best trained and most experienced military force [the USA] was to field during the war…With some truth it can be said that the birth of the modern US army occurred not at Valley Forge in 1777-1778 but along the Niagara in 1814.’[11]

[1] D. E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814, Rev. ed. (Toronto: Robin Brass, 1997), pp. 257-58.

[2] Ibid., pp. 261-63.

[3] Ibid., p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 121.

[5] Ibid., p. 196.

[6] Ibid., p. 271.

[7] Ibid., p. 195.

[8] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 156.

[9] Troop strengths and casualties in this paragraph are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. xxi

[10] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905), p. 169. vol. ii,

[11] Graves, Where, p. ix.

 

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War of 1812: The Niagara Front to June 1813

In 1813 Britain had three forts on Lake Ontario to defend Upper Canada from American attack: Kingston, the main naval base, York (now Toronto), the provincial capital of Upper Canada, and Fort George on the western bank of the Niagara River, across the river from the American Fort Niagara. The main US naval base was at Sacket’s Harbor.

The Americans wanted to recapture Detroit and invade Canada, with an ultimate goal of taking Montreal. In order to do so they had to control Lake Erie, which in turn depended on conquering Ontario. The British were forced onto the defensive by lack of resources.

See this website for a map of the Lake Ontario theatre of operations.

In February the USA devised a plan to attack first Kingston and then York with 4,000 men from Sacket’s Harbor. These troops and 3,000 from Buffalo would then assault Fort George. There were probably only 2,100 British troops in Ontario, 600 of them at Kingston and 1,200 near the Niagara.

However, John Armstrong, just appointed US Secretary of War, thought that the British had 8-10,000 regulars in the area, more than there actually were in all of Canada. Consequently they abandoned their plan to attack Kingston. Henry Dearborn, the commander of US forces from the Niagara to the New England coast, thought that he faced 6-8,000 enemies troops. The Americans therefore decided not to attack Kingston, which left Sacket’s Harbor vulnerable to a British attack.[1]

The weather meant that the US offensive could not start until late April. York was captured on 27 April. They spent three days loading as many stores and guns that they could carry and destroying what they could not carry. However, bad weather forced them to remain until 7 May. The next day the US squadron took the troops to Fort Niagara, before returning to Sacket’s Harbor.

On May 15 Colonel Winfield Scott was appointed Dearborn’s adjutant general. Scott, aided by Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry of the USN, organised an attack on Fort George. It began on 25 May with a bombardment from Fort Niagara. Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s naval squadron comprised a brig, a sloop and 12 gunboats

On 27 May 4,000 US troops landed in four waves. Brigadier General John Vincent’s defending force was outnumbered by about 3 to 1. He was forced to retreat, withdrawing 16 miles to Beaver Dams, where he ordered the British garrisons of Fort Erie and Chippewa to join him.

The abandonment of Fort Erie allowed Perry to move several US ships that had been trapped at Black Rock to Lake Erie. This took until 12 June because ships had to be dragged by oxen against the current.

On 25 May the British at Kingston learnt that Chauncey’s squadron and Dearborn’s army were at Fort George, so decided to attack Sacket’s Harbor. Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the Governor-General and C.in-C. of British North America was visiting Kingston, so took command.

The British had just completed HMS Wolfe, a sloop officially rated at 20 guns, but actually carrying one 24 pounder, eight 18 pounders, four 68 pound carronades and 10 32 pound carronades. This made Commodore James Lucas Yeo’s  RN squadron on the Great Lakes slightly stronger than Chauncey’s American one, but the advantage would soon switch to the USN once the USS General Pike, armed with 28 24 pounders was completed.

The loss of Sacket’s Harbor would have deprived Chauncey of the General Pike and of his only shipyard. Most of Chauncey’s squadron was at Fort George, with only two schooners to face the British squadron of three sloops, two brigs and a schooner.  The British invasion force consisted of about 800 men against about 1400-1500 defenders, but most of the British were regulars, whilst two-thirds of the Americans were militia.

As the British prepared to land on 27 May they saw a number of vessels also heading for the port. The invasion was halted because of the risk that it might be Chauncey’s squadron. In fact it was a number of US infantry heading to reinforce the garrison.  Most of them were captured, but the delay allowed the Brigadier General Jacob Brown, a militia officer who commanded the US troops, to organise his defence.

The British landed early on 29 May. They initially forced the Americans back, but lacked the artillery to continue the attack once the Americans retreated into their fortifications. The larger British ships were unable to get close enough inshore to effectively fire on the fortification, so the British infantry was forced to withdraw. Brown’s report on the action stated that:

Had not General Prevost retreated most rapidly under the guns of his vessels, he would have never returned to Kingston.[2]

Brown was given a commission as a Brigadier General in the regular army as reward for his efforts in the battle.

At one point the Americans, fearing defeat, set the General Pike alight. the fires were extinguished before serious damage could be done, but her completion was delayed until July.

At Fort George, Dearborn sent Brigadier General William H. Winder’s brigade, later joined by Brigadier General John Chandler’s brigade in pursuit of Vincent. The 3,400 US troops, commanded by Chandler as he was the senior of the two generals, camped at Stoney Creek on 5 June.

Guided by Billy Green, a local man who knew the terrain well, Vincent’s 700 men launched a night attack on the enemy in the early hours of 6 June. Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey had obtained the US password from a prisoner.

Surprise was lost because some of the British troops were too noisy. The Americans appeared to be in a strong position, but a mistake by Winder allowed the British to capture the guns and both himself and Chandler. The Americans, with their command structure disrupted and their firepower reduced, retreated.

The British established posts at Twelve Mile Creek and Beaver Dams, from which raiding parties were despatched. A US force of just over 500 men from the US 14th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Charles Boerstler was sent to deal with them.

It was tracked by Britain’s First Nation allies. Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, commander of the 50 man garrison of Beaver Dams was warned by Laura Secord, who had learnt of the attack, probably by overhearing US officers billeted at her home talking of their plans. The direct journey from her home to Fitzgibbon’s HQ was 12 miles, but she took a treacherous 20 mile route, which took her 18 hours, in order to avoid US sentries.

On 24 June the Americans were ambushed in woods near Beaver Dams by 100 Mohawks and 300 Caughnawaga and some local militia. Fitzgibbon arrived and approached the Americans under a flag of truce, arguing that they were outnumbered and that he could not protect them from the First Nation warriors unless they surrendered. They did so, but only after more British troops appeared.

After Beaver Dams the US forces were reluctant to leave Fort George, but the British were too weak to retake it. Dearborn was dismissed on 6 July and given an administrative post in New York City.


[1] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, pp. 15-19

[2] Quoted in Ibid. vol. ii, p. 23.

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Living History — Twilight Artillery Duel in Niagara

Military History Now

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, American forces invaded Canada at Niagara. The small detachment of British redcoats defending the shore of Lake Ontario was quickly overwhelmed by the the onslaught of U.S. Army regulars and militia and abandoned their garrison at Fort George. To commemorate the battle, which took place in the second year of the War of 1812, Parks Canada and the Friends of Fort George hosted a weekend of reenactments to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the  attack, the highlight of which was a twilight artillery duel followed by a fireworks display. MilitaryHistoryNow.com was there to take in the event. And while the frigid winds off the lake made it feel more like an recreation of Napoleons’s retreat from Russia, we did manage to get some not-too-bad pictures of the event. We hope you enjoy them!  And remember — if you happen to be at a museum, airshow…

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