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Sep. 21, 2019 | Saturday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: The invasion of Niagara
The Taking of Niagara, 1813. (Image courtesy Niagara Historical Society and Museum)

In the first year of the War of 1812, the Americans suffered many losses. The capture of Fort Michilimackinac, July 17, 1812; Gen. William Hull’s campaign to invade Upper Canada, July 12-Aug 8, 1812; the capture of Fort Detroit, Aug 16, 1812, and the battle on Queenston Heights, Oct 13, 1812, were all victories for the British, Canadians and Indigenous allies.

When war was declared by U.S. President James Madison (1809-1817) these results were not what the American government had anticipated. In fact, former President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) on Aug 4, 1812, had declared that taking Upper Canada would be a “mere matter of marching.” 

However, the fact is the American government was not prepared to invade any foreign country. The American army was poorly trained and not well led. As well, since the end of the revolutionary war, many of the experienced officers had been relieved of their duties because they were suspected to be sympathetic to Britain.

The American army was still poorly trained in 1813 but had a better cadre of officers and an overwhelming superiority of numbers. That year, they were ready to take on the British, Canadians and Indigenous allies of Britain by once again invading Upper and Lower Canada.

Lake Ontario was split by American and British fleets. The Americans wanted complete control of the lake and had at first thought to capture Kingston, considered essential for control over the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

The War of 1812, on Lake Ontario, was a matter of ship-building. The American Lake Ontario squadron, based at Sackets Harbor, N.Y., gained superiority when it was able to launch a new ship that was more powerful than any ship in the British squadron based at Kingston.

The British then launched a larger ship and gained control of the lake, only to be forced to take refuge in Kingston when the Americans launched something bigger. This went back and forth throughout the war. As well, the British had unsuccessfully attacked the Sackets Harbour shipyard and the Americans were unsuccessful in their attempts to capture Kingston.

Maj.-Gen. Henry Dearborn, the commander of the American army, started to doubt that Kingston was the right place to attack. The information he received about the Kingston fortifications was sketchy as to how many British troops were actually stationed there, with numbers of 3,000 to 5,000 British regulars being reported. Commodore Isaac Chauncey challenged this information but there was no concrete proof to back up his challenge. In fact, there were only 900 soldiers stationed in Kingston.

With the uncertainty of numbers, Dearborn and Chauncey worked out a plan to attack York (the capital of Upper Canada, now Toronto), a smaller, weaker target in their eyes. On April 26, 1813, the American fleet approached York from the east and anchored off the Scarborough Bluffs. There were 14 ships in total with 1,800 men. The next day the ships sailed past York, an intimidating sight for all.

Maj.-Gen. Roger Hale Sheaffe was in command of Fort York and watched this massive flotilla sail past. With only 600 fighting men, he knew that surrender might be his only option.

The Americans anchored off of the ruins of Fort Rouille, built by the French in 1750 and abandoned in 1759. A plaque, in the west end of the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto, marks the location of the old fort.

Sheaffe dispatched 100 Indigenous allies to stop the landing of the American forces. One company of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles Regiment was sent to join the Indigenous allies but they lost their way and were cut down by American sharp shooters who had been able to land and outflank them.

Next, the Grenadier Company of the 8th Regiment of Foot was ordered by Sheaffe to stand their ground to block the American advance. The men of the King’s 8th were outnumbered four to one by the Americans, but were able to drive the Americans back at the point of the bayonet four times before being overwhelmed by the U.S. soldiers. Of the 113 men of the 8th Foot, only 30 survived. The rest were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Sheaffe retreated to Fort York but realized it was futile to defend it with so few men. He then ordered the destruction of the ammunitions magazine and the burning of the ship HMS Isaac Brock. He fled to Kingston.

Fort York was surrendered to the Americans; this was their first victory, on land, in the War of 1812. The Americans, after looting the fort, the town and harbour, left York and headed south to Fort Niagara.

While the American forces were harboured at Fort Niagara for many weeks, the British in Fort George were preparing for the invasion they knew was to come. However, like Brock before the Battle of Queenston Heights, the British did not know where the invasion would start.

On May 25, 1813, the residents of Niagara (NOTL) started their usual morning activities when suddenly cannons could be heard booming from Fort Niagara. The bombardment of Fort George and the town of Niagara had started.

“Hot shot” (cannon balls heated in furnaces and then loaded into cannons) rained down on the town. What the initial impact of the cannon ball caused was minimal compared to the fires the hot shot balls started.

After two days of constant shelling, the morning of May 27 was silent; but the enemy was approaching. As the fog lifted off Lake Ontario, Maj.-Gen. John Vincent, commander of Fort George, saw from the lighthouse a two-mile arc of enemy vessels. In total, there were 16 American ships and schooners as well as another 134 smaller boats carrying over 4,000 American troops.

The attack of Fort George was coming from Lake Ontario, west of the Niagara River. The main landing area and battlefield was on the Lakeshore properties just west of Old Town, where the former Department of National Defence rifle range was later located.

The battle field was immense. To give you an idea of how big, at the north end of Queen Street, near the lake and golf course, you will find a cairn indicating the burial plot of three British soldiers who were killed in the early stages of the battle to take Fort George.

Vincent realized that they were outnumbered. He had under his command an assortment of regiments, ranks and soldiers. Out of the 1,000 regulars, there were soldiers from the 8th and 49th Regimental of Foot, the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, the Glengarry Light Infantry, approximately 300 Canadian militia and a small number of Indigenous allies.

Vincent had all his forces out to fend off the invasion but was driven back by the superior number of American soldiers. The British forces suffered great losses. In all, 52 men were killed and another 306 were missing or injured. For the men of Niagara, this was the bloodiest and costliest battle ever, including the First and Second World Wars.

Vincent ordered the retreat to Fort George where he had all the cannons spiked and ammunitions destroyed. To “spike a cannon” a barbed piece of metal is driven into the “touch hole,” the place where the cannon would be ignited. This spiking temporarily disabled the cannon. The cannon could be repaired but it took a great amount of effort and time.

Fort George and the town of Niagara were now under American control. The American forces lost only 40 men and another 120 were wounded in this battle.

Americans then went in pursuit of the retreating British and Canadians forces. The delay in the landing of American reinforcements on the Niagara River gave the British forces the time they needed and they made their westward retreat to Burlington Heights (Hamilton).

Once the Americans realized they had missed an opportunity to stop the retreat, it was too late and they were ordered back to Fort George. The British and Canadian retreat continued unchallenged for a week until the Americans finally followed up, only to be defeated at the Battle of Stoney Creek on June 6, 1813.

The American generals were pleased that they had taken Fort George but nothing remained of the fort except the stone powder magazine. Note: this building is still standing today and you can visit it during a tour of Fort George.

The day-to-day life of the residents in the town changed greatly. Although it might seem callous that the fighting forces marched out of town leaving women, children, the elderly and infirm to fend for themselves, war, during this time was between men. No one else would be harmed.

The taking of Fort George on May 27, 1813, was a second land victory for the Americans in the War of 1812. It was all part of their multi-pronged strategy for 1813, which would see the Americans take Fort George, then march on to Burlington Heights, Fort York (in a second attack), Kingston and Montreal. The plan was totally dependent on the Americans starting from Fort George. A plan that was doomed to fail.

References: Ron Dale, renowned historian; Niagara Historical Society and Museum; Great Canadian Battles – Edward Humphreys; Canadianencyclopeidia.ca; Torontoplaques.com.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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