2 July 2009

A Tale of Two Forts

Note: This was a piece I wrote for a small periodical which ceased publication before this piece could be published. I intended it as part of a short series.

“The weapons of war are the tools of misfortune…. A city destroyed cannot be rebuilt, and the dead can not be restored to life.” Sun tzu, The Art of War

“Inter arma enim silent leges.” “Between arms, the law is silent.” –Cicero

In the year of Our Lord 1812, a dinner party took place at Fort George on the Niagara River. The American officers from Fort Niagara, just opposite Fort George on the American side of the river, were paying a visit to their British counterparts and were being fed by their hosts. The night went on elegantly and mannerly, as such formal affairs did at the time, until the party was most rudely interrupted. A messenger (history does not record from which side) sweaty and dirty, burst into the officers dining room with a terrible message. War had been declared. The British and the American officers dining together were now enemies and at war.

The interruption caused a little stir at first, but it quickly died down. These were officers and gentlemen, and were going to behave as such. The dinner continued as planned. After the final course was finished, the men drank toasts to the Prince Regent and the American President. Songs were sung, including the anthems of both countries. The British escorted their guests back to the American rowboats on the river, and wished them good-bye. As the Americans rowed into the night, the British cannons fired a salute. It was a decent, civilized moment. It would be among the last for the next three years. The Americans would soon return in arms, and blood would be spilled on both sides of the river.

Fort George and Fort Niagara, despite their close proximity, each within cannon range of the other, did not have much contact during 1812. There was a brief cannon duel between the two during which Fort George, being of a slightly higher elevation, had the advantage. Then the guns fell silent once more.

That changed on May 25th, 1813. American ships under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry sailed up the Niagara river and, along with newly constructed batteries at Fort Niagara, began pouring hotshot into Fort George. At the time Fort George was manned by some British regulars, local militia and Runchey’s corps of freed slaves. The British Commander, General John Vincent, knew the bombardment was a prelude to an invasion. His owns guns were mainly silent and did not return fire, as his stores of gunpowder were low, and he did not have enough for his cannons.

After two days of bombardment an American force of 5,000 men under Colonel Winfield Scott landed at Two Mile Creek. Vincent, badly outnumbered and his fort heavily damaged by the bombardment, ordered the cannons to be spiked, the ammunition destroyed and the fort abandoned. The British retreated to Beaver Dams where Vincent summoned British forces from Fort Erie, Chippewa and Queeenston to join him. He then withdrew from Beaver Dams to Burlington Heights, in present day Hamilton, and abandoned the entire Niagara region to the Americans.

In early June the Americans followed the British with the intent to destroy the British camp at Burlington Heights, but the Americans were caught sleeping- literally- as they were bivouacked at Stoney Creek and routed. Further battles drove the Americans back to Fort George, and their initial success in capturing the fort turned into a liability. The Americans were now hemmed in at Fort George. They summoned their troops from Fort Erie and ordered that Fort to be burned. An attempt to break through Vincent’s defenses lead to the American defeat at Beaver Dams, and the death or capture of over 600 American troops. They never tried to break out again, and afterwards kept their patrols to within a few miles of Fort George.

By December most of the Niagara Region was back in the hands of the British, with the exception of Fort George. By then the Americans had been reduced to a few hundred state militia men who were nearing the end of their terms of service and were eager to return to their homes and farms. Few wanted anything more to do with the war. When the American commander, General George McClure learned that British forces under the command of Colonel John Murray were advancing on Fort George, McClure ordered the fort and all the surrounding houses, including the town that is now Niagara on the Lake, to be burned. When the British arrived they found four hundred men, women and children in the streets and lanes, with whatever furniture or supplies they were lucky enough to pull from their burning homes. All made homeless, their foodstocks destroyed at the beginning of a bitter winter.

When a new British Commander, Major General Phineas Riall arrived in Niagara on December 16th, the people demanded revenge for the barbarous treatment they had received at the hands of the Americans. Riall agreed and ordered Murray to cross the river into American territory and attack Fort Niagara. The fort was captured quickly and decisively, and remained it British hands until the end of the war. A large quantity of gunpowder and other supplies was captured in the fort as well, ending many of teh British supply problems.

Shortly thereafter Riall crossed the river with more troops. Finding virtually no opposition, Riall captured Lewiston, Youngston, Buffalo and Black Rock, and burned them all. McClure’s barbarism had been answered with Riall’s, Niagara had been avenged, like for like, and measure for full measure.

The rest of the winter passed quietly, but preparations were afoot on both sides. More blood was to be spilled in anger, and for both sides the worst was yet to come.

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