The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter III
Part II

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

Although the City Council at that time was politically opposed to Clinton, partisan prejudices were buried, and unanimity was arrived at. It had been claimed by the friends of Clinton that this report opened the eyes of Governor Tompkins to the defenseless position of New York and led the Governor to pour militia into the metropolis. Under the authority of the President, Governor Tompkins assumed command of the troops.

AS soon as war was declared the general government made a requisition on the State of New York and New Jersey for 20,000 militia, to be concentrated in and around the city. The funds for the maintenance of these troops, however, were raised by the city of New York under promise of reimbursement on the part of the national government. A committee of defense was promptly appointed and citizens were called upon to volunteer their services to work in the fortifications, with the result that from 500 to 1,000 men, without distinction of class, were thus occupied each day. The lack of proper defense in New York was a matter of notoriety, and what was added was meagre. In vain the Common council asked the Legislature to appropriate $250,000 for defensive purposes. An appeal to Congress met with a similar fate. The amount actually expended during the year 1812 for the defense of the metropolis was the small sum of $11,500, and for the northern and western frontiers, $29.050. In 1813 the Comptroller's report showed that the following items had been expended: For the defense of the frontier, $15,000; purchase of arms, $37,500; expense attendant upon calling out the militia, $12,500; and for transporting arms, $2,702. At the same time an appropriation of $22,000 was made for a redoubt or protecting work on Signal Hill near the narrows, Staten Island.

In October, 1812 1,500 regular troops were stationed at buffalo and Fort Niagara, under the command of General Alexander Smyth, At Lewistown, 2,500 troops had been mobilized. The whole force was under the command of General Stephen Van Rensselaer, of the New York State Militia. The invasion and conquest of Canada was the daily topic of conversation, not only in New York but in every other State of the Union. A vigorous stroke in the upper province of Canada was looked upon as offering not only every feature of success but as a positive means of terminating the campaign. But the friction which then existed between the militia and the regular army officers appears to have made harmonious cooperation impossible and destroyed the hopes of those who had been sanguine in preparation.

The War in Outline--A bird's eye view of the leading operations of the war, and particularly of New York's part in them, will help us before approaching a little closer for the details. It soon became apparent that Governor Tompkins was a personality able to cope with the crisis that brought him heavy responsibility. In his annual speech to the extra session of the legislature in November, 1812, he suggested that a loan should be made by the State of New York to the national government that a vigorous prosecution of the war might be inaugurated. Accordingly a resolution carrying a loan of $500,000 was introduced in the Senate, where the Republicans were in the majority, and its passage was secured through the influence of Governor Lewis, Martin Van Buren, and General Erastus Root. The Federalists in the House however killed it. At the beginning of the war Governor Tompkins got together 40,000 men to defend the State, placing most of them in the vicinity of buffalo, Sacketts Harbor and Plattsburg.

The frontiers of New York were continually open to attack. General Dearborn was sent to command the northern army and General Jacob Brown was stationed at Ogdensburg with a body of New York militia. In June, three British schooners had been captured on Lake Ontario and in retaliation British frigates shortly after contrived to burn two American schooners. In July, five British vessels attacked the ship "Oneida," near Sacketts Harbor, but were repulsed. Meanwhile, Captain Isaac Chauncey was sent to cope with the active British fleet on Lake Ontario, and ship carpenters, seamen and guns were rushed to Sacketts Harbor. Merchant vessels were fitted for the service, and in a short cruise in November, 1812, Chauncey captured three merchant vessels, destroyed an armed schooner, and succeeded in disabling the enemy's largest war-ship.

The Canadians occupied St. Regis, a neutral Indian village on the border line and there enlisted about eighty Indians. An expedition from French Mills (Fort Covington) captured these Canadians on October 22. The British retaliated and an American militia company at French Mills was shortly afterwards taken. General Stephen Van Rensselaer, in command at Niagara, engaged in several skirmishes. After the disgraceful surrender of General Hull in Michigan during August, the British general, Brock, moved to the east to counter Van Rensselaer. While this American commander was preparing for his offensive in a campaign of invasion in Canada, Lieutenant Elliott, with a small force using open boats, crossed, during the night of October 9, the lower end of Lake Erie, and captured two British armed vessels anchored under the guns of Fort Erie. Van Rensselaer's attack on Queenston on October 13 was a failure, and was marked by considerable bad strategy and the refusal of many New York militiamen to fight beyond the limits of their State. At this affair a thousand Americans fell into the hands of the enemy. Van Rensselaer, as a sequel to it, resigned his command in disgust.

In a Canadian jail, about twelve miles from Ogdensburg, there was a number of American soldiers and civilians, and British deserters. In February 1813, an expedition under Major Forsyth started from Ogdensburg to rescue them, and this it did with great boldness. The British retaliated on February 22 by an attack on Ogdensburg, which they succeeded in taking and plundering. They crowned this achievement by retaking most of the prisoners.

Meanwhile, to secure the mastery of Lake Ontario, General Dearborn and Commander Chauncey decided to attack Toronto, which at that time bore the name of York. Chauncey's fleet, with 1,700 soldiers, left Sacketts Harbor, and in five days effected a landing near York. General Pike led the assault with such vigor that he enemy fled in precipitation. But before quitting their ground they blew up their magazine, killing and wounding about 200 of the American attacking force. The town capitulated on April 27. One fine sloop was captured by the Americans, though the British succeeded in getting even by burning an American sloop. General Pike, unfortunately, was among those gravely wounded by the explosion of the enemy's gunpowder. He was carried to the American flag-ship, and there the hero of the Toronto battle died, his head pillowed by the flag to which he gave his heart's devotion. Following this initial success the small American fleet proceeded in the direction of Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. there Colonel Winfield Scott landed the troops and, attacking the British outside the fort, defeated them. The garrisons, following the tactics of the garrison at Toronto fired their magazines and fled. The Americans were more wary on this occasion, and only one of them was permitted to explode. Scott then with his own hands hauled down the British flag and hoisted the Star and Stripes. Thus, on May 27, one more signal victory was chalked up to American credit.

Meanwhile, the British were taking the offensive also. During this same month of May, the British commander, General Prevost, sailed with a force of a thousand men from Kingston with the object of surprising Sacketts Harbor and occupying it while it was still deprived of an adequate defense. The resistance encountered was more than he had bargained for. He was met by 400 regulars and some volunteers under General Jacob Brown and on may 29 driven back with considerable loss to his ships. In the course of the summer thus inaugurated commodore Chauncey encountered the British fleet in three engagements, in which a decided loss or a decided gain could be credited to either. General Dearborn was removed from his command and General James Wilkinson became his successor. The victories on Lake Erie won by Captain Oliver H. Perry, with a newly formed fleet, and on land by General William Henry Harrison, were welcome news to the American people. Advantage was taken of the skill of the Indian warriors by both the Americans and the British in these struggles, though the British had taken the initiative in that regard, and had done this one a wholesale scale.

Meanwhile, important events were developing on and around Lake Champlain. Here General Wade Hampton had taken command under General Wilkinson, and a plan of campaign had been outlined in which the ultimate objective was the taking of Montreal. The realization of this programme was greatly hampered by incompatibility between the two American generals, and indeed insubordination and discord were a frequent occurrences in other places on the American side. Hampton, acting contrary to orders, marched into Canada, did some indecisive fighting, and then retired to winter quarters in New York. Wilkinson sailed down the St. Lawrence in November, 1813, as far as St. Regis, where he learned that Hampton was unwilling to join him. The expedition was therefore abandoned and his troops also entered quarters for the winter. About the same time General McClure abandoned Fort George with its garrison of sixty men, burned the fort, and also the neighboring village of Newark. The British, however, arrived to put an end to part of the conflagration and crossed the Niagara, captured Fort Niagara, and burned Youngstown, Lewistown, Manchester, and the Tuscarora Indian village. On December 30, or eleven days later, Black Rock and Buffalo shared the same fate.

The rigor of winter prevented much being done in the early months of 1814, but in March General Wilkinson advanced from Plattsburg into Canada, was repulsed at La Colle, returned to Plattsburg, and was soon superseded by General Izard. In May the British captured Oswego. General Brown and General Scott were sent to Niagara to invade Canada. Fort Erie was captured by the Americans, and Scott on July 5 won the bloody battle of Chippewa. Twenty days later the British were again met at Lundy's Lane. The Americans were outnumbered two to one and the difficulty seemed insurmountable. But the courage of the American forced was high, and it was realized that important effects would flow from a victory. General brown, chief in command, appealed strongly to the pride of his men. Pointing to a strong British Battery, he asked colonel Miller: "Can you take it?" "I'll try, sir" was the reply. With 300 men, miller charged up the hill, and, amid grapeshot and musketry, gained the Battery. Quickly the British, with fixed bayonets, advanced to regain it. They were repulsed and once more they advanced. Hand-to-hand fighting followed. A second and a third time the British forces were driven back, and the fight continued till long after dusk. At midnight the American forces triumphantly held the battery and the most obstinate battle of the war had come to an end. Over 1,500 on both sides were killed and wounded, among the latter being the American generals, Brown and Scott, and the British general, Drummond.

The victors returned to Fort Erie. There Drummond, with 5,000 men attacked them, but was repulsed and rived across the Chippewa. Meanwhile a British fleet and an army of Wellington's veterans were invading New York by way of Lake Champlain. Here they were met by the little fleet of five vessels and a few gunboats which Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough had got together. In the bay off Plattsburg a naval battle took place and Macdonough won a complete victory on the water, while General Macomb successfully resisted the attempt to capture the city. such in outline is an account of the war as it eddied back and forth for the greater part of two decisive years along the frontiers of New York.

The First Close Engagement--And now for a slightly closer view of some of the vents already alluded to. The declaration of war had occurred in June, and, though hostilities had been more or less chronic, particularly on the initiative of the British, for a number of years, the actual war was slow in getting under way. It was October before genuine engagements began to take place and already winter was threatening to render a real campaign impossible. In that month there were companies of regular

American troops in the vicinity of Buffalo and Fort Niagara. At Lewiston, 2,500 troops had been mobilized. Finally in October 11 an attack was under way on the British force at Queenston, but owing to rough weather and the want of a sufficient number of boats to carry the troops across the Niagara river, operations were held in abeyance until the thirteenth of the month. Two columns of attack were planned, one of the militia under command of Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, of the New York Militia, and the other a column of regular under Lieutenant-Colonel Chrystie, of the Thirteenth Infantry. A supporting force of 200 regulars under Lieutenant-Colonel Fenwick and Major Mullany followed.

On October 12th the preparation for assaulting the heights of Queenston were completed, and late that evening Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott hastened to headquarters and asked General Van Rensselaer to permit him to serve as a volunteer with the attacking column. General Van Rensselaer refused the request, but directed Colonel Scott to bring his command to Lewiston. It was at this juncture that the jealousy which was known to prevail between the regulars and the militia robbed America of the victory the enemy's batteries met the American troops with a galling fire. Colonel Van Rensselaer and Lieutenant-Colonel Chrystie were wounded early in the contest. General Van Rensselaer ordered Scott to cross over and take command of the forces engaged. Colonel Fenwick's supporting column had already met with disaster. The boats which transferred them were caught by the eddies and swept directly under the British batteries. The detachment, with the exception of a very few men, was obliged to surrender as prisoners of war. About the middle of the day General Van Rensselaer crossed over to the Canadian side, and examined the dispositions which Scott had made, approved them, and then returned to the American shore.

This engagement cast anything but credit upon the militia. "After the first onslaught," writes the editor of the Tompkins Papers, " they were seized with a timidity that coaxing and threats alternately could not overcome, and they positively refused to obey any order that would expose them to the enemy's fire. the American troop, those that were left, fought with desperate courage under the conduct of General Wadsworth--who had generously waived command in honor of colonel Scott-- and Lieutenant-Colonel Chrystie, but their efforts were unavailing, for the arrival of General Sheaffe, with 800 reinforcements of Canadian provincial militia soon put an end to the conflict. After consultation, General Wadsworth, colonel Scott and other principal officers decided to surrender their forces, which consisted of 139 regulars and 154 militia. Over 400 militia who had taken no part in the engagement were afterwards included in the surrender. The casualties of the day, including the 100 killed and \the 200 regulars who had surrender under Major Mullany, of Colonel Fenwick's command, aggregated 1,000."

Very different was the result of the operations conducted by General Jacob Brown, along the northern frontier of New York. In 1810 General Brown has been made a brigadier-general of militia from the rank of Colonel. When hostilities wee declared he commanded a brigade in the first detachment of New York militia, mustered into the service of the United States and the defenses of the eastern frontier of lake Ontario and the southern shore of the St. Lawrence. His front covered a distance of 200 miles; the greater part of it was thinly inhabited. It close proximity to the Canadian border, the inadequate supplies of equipment, ordinance, and of troops at his disposal, rendered his position one of great danger on one side and of vexation and embarrassment on the other. Hostilities were first opened on the New York frontier by Captain Forsyth, the commander of the regular troops at Ogdensburg, who crossed the River St. Lawrence and met a force of the British on the road to Gananoque, who he defeated. He pushed his way on to the village, entered it, destroyed what artillery stores he could not carry off, and returned to the American shore with several prisoners.

The British retaliated by opening fire on the city of Ogdensburg October 23d from the batteries at Prescott. For two days they maintained an irregular cannonading. On Sunday, October 4th, 600 British troops crossed the St. Lawrence in forty boats for the purpose of storming the town and capturing it by assault. General Brown, however, anticipated this move, and disposed his force, which aggregated about 400 men, along the banks of the river, with orders not to fire until the British were within close pistol shot. The British never landed. The several efforts that were made were met with such accurate fire from the American rifles that the British commander, quite baffled, was forced to return to Prescott without accomplishing the purpose for which he had embarked.

As before indicated, the winter months, from the severity of the weather, were necessarily quiet. However, in February, 1813, a small detachment of the British crossed over to the American side and committed a number of brutal and unprovoked outrages. The dashing Forsyth, who was then in command of Ogdensburg, promptly determined to cross the river and invade the enemy's country. His forces consisted of 200 men, mostly volunteers from the surrounding country. He surprised the British guard at Brockville, gathered in a an abundance of military stores and returned to his post, without the loss of a man and with fifty-two prisoners, among them eight officers. The British again retaliated. On February 22 they brought over a force of 1,200 men. Although Major Forsyth and Colonel Benedict, of the New York Militia, put up an heroic defense, they were finally driven back into the interior.

Meanwhile Governor Tompkins was showing solicitude for the safety of Sacketts Harbor, which was the main naval and military depot along the lake frontier, but fortunately for the American cause the British made no further attempt at invasion during the remainder of the winter. General Brown had been offered and had declined a colonelcy in the regular army. On May 27th a British fleet from Kingston was discovered on its way to Sacketts harbor. Colonel Backus, the commander of the post, at once communicated with General Brown, who was living within eight miles of the harbor, and requested him to come to the front. The General promptly gave orders to have the militia assembled, and proceeded at once to the scene of danger. Colonel Backus relinquished the command. The following day the British fleet appeared, and was seen to consist of four ships, one brig, two schooners, two gunboats and thirty-three flat-bottom boats carrying a thousand troops. The force as under the command of Sir George Prevost and Commodore Sir James Yeo. A breastwork was hastily constructed at the only point where the troops could land. Behind it was placed the militia and the Albany Volunteers under Colonel Mills. The regulars under Colonel Backus formed the second line in the rear. The artillery under Lieutenant Fanning occupied Fort Tompkins at the barracks. As at Ogdensburg General Brown has given orders that no shot should be fired from the American side until the enemy was within pistol shot distance. Consequently the very first volley was well directed and destructive. A number of officers were killed, boats were perforated, oars were splintered, and the attacking force was thrown into confusion.

With the contest well in hand and with every assurance of success, General Brown had at this point the mortification of seeing the militia stricken with panic. In spite of the efforts of their officers, coaxing, cajoling, and threats were as usual unavailing; the men fled in the wildest disorder. Colonel Mills was shot down while heroically attempting to stem the retreat. The British troops had landed and had begun their march toward the village. Colonel Backus had fallen, mortally wounded; Lieutenant Fanning was severely wounded, but General Brown gathered a nucleus of his command about him and for a time managed to check the triumphant march of the invader. What he could not accomplish by direct attack he succeeded in gaining by clever strategy. Taking a small party with him and gathering upon the way scattered remnants of dismayed militiamen, he worked around the flank of Prevost's command, in which manoeuvre the dense forest afford him good protection.

General Brown then marched his men toward the spot where the British had disembarked; and in doing so revealed his presence with the result of rousing the active apprehension of the enemy. Fearing that the American general would turn his flank, Prevost gave orders to retire, and this was done promptly and precipitately. The British left behind them all their killed, a number of their wounded, and thirty-five prisoners. General Brown permitted them to re-embark without further inconvenience than that which accompanied a dropping fire of musketry. With his feet once upon his flag-ship the British general calmly demanded the surrender of the town, a request which was as calmly rejected. This action at Sacketts Harbor revealed a considerable military ability in General Brown. This was generally recognized and he was commissioned by the President as Brigadier in the regular army.

As the winter months drew to a close general Brown was ordered to Buffalo, which he reached in March, though it not till well into the summer, about the beginning of July, that he was able to take the field. His force consisted of two regular brigades under General Scott and General Ripley, and the volunteers under General Porter and General Swift. Fort Erie was his objective point. With that in his possession the abandonment of Fort Niagara by the British was inevitable. On the morning of the third of July the fort was invested and the garrison of 170 men was compelled to surrender.

The battle of Chippewa which followed on July 5th and the battle of Lundy's Lane, which occurred on the 25th of the same month, greatly encouraged the hopes of the Americans who had been much discouraged by the failure of the military operations of the preceding year. In the battle of Lundy's Lane, or the Battle of Bridgewater, as it is sometimes called, the Americans lost 858 men killed and wounded out of 2,600; and the British 880 men out of 4,000. The siege of Fort Erie, the repulse of Colonel Drummond, who attempted to carry the works by assault, and the dashing sortie which the American forces made on September 17th, under General Porter and General Miller, brought renewed encouragement to the American troops and the American people.

The Northeastern Frontier--During the same period active operations had been proceeding along the northern and northeastern borders of New York. In the summer of 1813 General Wilkinson relieved General Dearborn from command of the northern army, as has been noted. During March, 1814, Wilkinson concentrated his forces at Champlain on the New York frontier to threaten the British outposts. After the failure of the assault on La Cole Mill, on the St. John, Wilkinson was recalled and General Macomb was placed in command of the army. In May, the British flotilla was prepared to sail for Plattsburg, General Macomb, penetrating the design, ordered caption Thornton's light battery to man the works on Otter Creek to protect the naval depot, the vessels and the stores. The British forces were roughly handled, and were only too willing to return to the Isle Aux Noix.

England had at this time dispatched to this country from 4,000 to 6,000 troops from Wellington's triumphant army, and the British forces in lower Canada aggregated 12,000 veteran troops. The British had planned a repetition of the invasion of New York, that had been inspired by Sir John Burgoyne thirty-eight years before. General Macomb's force at Plattsburg amounted to only 2,500 men, many of whom were convalescents and new recruits. In the entire command there was but one organized battalion. The morning returns showed that only 1,500 men were fit for duty. Calling in General Moers, division commander of the New York Militia, a plan was devised by which the regulars and the militia were co cooperate complete, and both general manifested commendable enterprise and energy in sending dispatches over the surrounding country to summon reinforcement sot their aid. The splendid spirit of cooperation displayed by the officers diffused itself through the rank and file. In General orders, General Macomb announced that each party would have to defend its works to the last extremity. Sir George Prevost had boasted that he expected to penetrate as far as Crown point and Ticonderoga before winter set in. But he was solicitous about the British flotilla which he expected to protest his left flank. Without the control of lake Champlain, he realized that his position would be extremely precarious.

On September 3d the British army entered Champlain, and on the following day the advance on Plattsburg was made. General Macomb had blocked the road with fallen trees, as General Schuyler had done at Saratoga for Burgoyne. As Prevost advanced he found the bridges were destroyed and the passes choked by chevaux de frise. On September 5 the British commander halted at Little Chazy, and as he did so, General Macomb was urged to abandon Plattsburg. His force at the time numbered 8,000 to 10,000 militia and volunteers but previous experience had taught him that the militia was not be altogether relied upon in a tight place or under heavy fire. On September 6th the head of the British column, under General Power and General Robinson, encountered a small Force of Americans. The militia, mistaking their red coats of the New York Cavalry that were stationed as lookouts on the hills, for British soldiers, were seized with the customary panic, and in spite of the efforts of their officers, precipitately left the field. The British column continued to advance, and encountering but feeble opposition, entered the village of Plattsburg. The Americans had retired into their breastworks on the southern bank of the Saranac and opened fire with their heavy artillery upon the British troops. The fire drew panic into the British ranks. The enemy fell back and encamped about two miles from the American forts, leaving in their front a few troops to protect the ford and bridges.

The British commander then spent some days in erecting batteries and bringing up heavy artillery. Constant skirmishes was going on between the advanced lines of the two armies, punctuated now and then by a heavy and effective cannonading from the American works. Sir George Prevost was playing a waiting game. He was reluctant to begin active operations in the field until his supporting fleet materialized. On September 10th unusual activity in the British camp indicated to the American general that the following day would see momentous action. He prepared for the attack which he regarded as inevitable. He came to the conclusion that the British fleet had arrived, an intuition that was quickly verified. At daybreak the British fleet was seen swinging around Cumberland Head. As soon as the British troops had finished their early breakfast they opened fire on the American works with their heavy guns. Under cover of this cannonade the British troops advanced to form a passage across the stream in three columns to assault the American works. The troops carried scaling ladder. The assault was well met by the Americans. The attacking columns that approached the American works by the bridge in the village, and the principal bridge were thrown back by the regulars in great confusion. The third column, which was to cross at the ford three miles above the fort, was led astray in the woods by a false road which General Macomb's engineering strategy had conceived. The ardor of the British troops was destroyed by the withering fire that came from the American guns. They bet a retreat, their flight accelerated by the discovery that the American commodore, Thomas Macdonough, had met and destroyed the British fleet on which so many of Prevost's hopes for success had been stored. Before the dawn of another day Sir George Prevost's army was in full flight for Canada. The British left behind their dead, their sick and their wounded, great quantities of provisions, of ammunition, tents, entrenching tools and ordinance stores. New York and Vermont, through their legislators, presented General Macomb and commodore McDonough with resolutions of congratulations. New York presented General Macomb with a sword and the city of New York, the freedom of the city in a gold box. Congress gave him a vote of thanks, and a gold medal emblematic of victory.

The President conferred the title of Brevet Major-General in the regular army, to date from September 11, 1814.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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