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

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

British Attack Washington--In the meantime New York and the adjacent States on the coast were thrown into a good deal of agitation by the arrival of the fleet of Admiral Cockburn, who first appeared at the mouth of the Chesapeake and came to anchor in Hampton Roads on February 4, 1813. His fleet consisted of two ships of the line, three frigates, and a couple of small vessels. Thence he made excursions northward and burned Frederick, Georgetown, Havre de Grace, Frenchtown. By these manifold outrages he threw the defenseless inhabitants of the surrounding country into great apprehension. The Washington authorities were fully apprised of his operations, with extraordinary lethargy, they made but little preparation for the defense of the Capital and the protection of the valuable archives entrusted to their care.

On march 11 Admiral Cockburn, with one 74-gun ship, two frigates a brig, and a schooner, came to anchor in Lynnhaven Bay. The authorities at Washington were promptly notified. Additional information arrived about that time, in effect, that 4,000

English veterans had landed at Bermuda. The general apathy continued at Washington; and to all outward seeming there were few that had any true notion of the peril that menaced the Capital. The District of Columbia was included in the Tenth Military District which was commanded by General W. H. Winder. It was completely defenseless. General winder called the attention of the Secretary of War, General John Armstrong, who was himself a military man, to the condition of defense at the Capital, but it was not until July 4th that the War Department opened its eyes and for the first time gave manifestations of life.

Formal requisitions were then made upon the neighboring States for artillery and infantry, buy by a remarkable oversight, no mention was made of cavalry, which was decidedly essential in stinging the rear and flanks of an invading army. Orders were issued to hold the militia in readiness for immediate service. The president proposed a plan to establish a camp of 2,000 regular troops between the Patuxent and the Potomac; the troops to be formed into an army of observation and mobilized in order to move in any direction at the first opportunity. On august 24th 5,100 green American troops, who had been gather and thrown together, and at the best were nothing but an organized mob, met the trained British troops under General Ross and were naturally defeated.

The English proceeded to Washington where, in violation of recognized military law and military usage, they destroyed the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings; the president himself fleeing from the town with hundreds of other fugitives to escape capture. The day after the battle of Plattsburg the British army encountered the American troops at Baltimore and were repulsed, their general, Ross, who had assisted in the pillage and destruction of the Capital, being killed.

Three weeks before General Jackson's signal; victory over the British troop at New Orleans, there was held the Hartford Convention, which was attended by delegates from New England States, who were known to be opposed to the Federal Administration and to the prosecution of the war. England had directed her colonies to continue commercial transactions with and to bestow special privileges upon the New England State several months before the friends of President Madison declared that the ulterior purpose of the Hartford Convention was, as before noted, the secession of those States which were known to be friendly with England, a charge which was vigorously denied by the delegate and their adherents. The final defeat of the English by Jackson showed that the fighting capacity of the United States was something to be reckoned with and had some effect on the future relations of this country with England, though the treaty of peace had before that defeat been signed and had combined with other influences to the spirit that inspired the Hartford Convention.

New York City as a War Port--However reluctant men in New York possessing property maybe felt in regard to the war with Great Britain, whose large resources the continental wars has developed, and whose navy, after the victory of Nelson, held sway over both oceans , the war was hailed with joy by thousand of adventurous spirits and the large class of seafaring men who for many years had been without congenial or profitable occupation. It was on these grounds among others that money and ships were forth coming, and that within four moths after the declaration of war twenty-six privateers were fitted out from the port of New York, armed with 212 guns, and manned by 22,039 men, experienced and daring. From its earliest history privateering was a favorite venture of New York citizens. Their seamen were especially qualified for the management of the fast craft which this service demanded, and for the handling of light guns usually carried by this class of vessels. The Sandy Hook pilots brought their seamanship, and the Long Island whale-boats men of the Revolution retained their traditions of bold enterprise.

In colonial days merchants of means not only fitted out but themselves sailed privateers on the Spanish main, and after the opening of the China trade, a sea voyage to the distant Orient was not an unusual preparation for a merchant career--sometimes maintained for years in their employment as supercargoes on the long trading voyages which were then the habit of trade. Moreover, the dangerous commerce with the West Indies Islands, which swarmed with buccaneers from every clime, had familiarized them with the very kind of action that was needed in the war. They could "hunt with the hounds or run with the hares," of the sea. In the Revolution they had not hesitated to attack men-of-war on the station at Sandy Hook, and to run large packets on the reefs was not singular feat. The ardor of New York in this direction was kept up by the constant repair of the warships of the United States to the anchorage in the lower bay.

During a large part of the war the harbor of New York continued blockaded by the British men-of-war; even the American frigates could not run the gauntlet, availing themselves of the narrow and dangerous strait of Hell Gate to the sound. Once in the open sea beyond Montauk they had opportunities of finding or forcing an offing. It was fortunate for the administration of President Madison that the naval successes scored by the "Constitution" and other American war craft occurred at the beginning of the contest. They added vehemence to the spirit of the war party in the very places which Madison's cabinet and the western politicians had ignored, disregarded, and even insulted in their declarations. The ships they proposed to put up in port as unable to defend themselves had humbled British pride, while the land forces had made but a sorry beginning in the proposed conquest of Canada. In the first six months of the war there had been as many encounters with British cruisers in every one of which the Untied States was the victor. Moreover, over 300 British merchantmen had been captured and brought into port, including those take by New York and other American privateers.

Arsenals and Fortifications--the Veteran Corps of Artillery was the first organization to volunteer in New York. They were commanded by John Delameter, who had served in the militia during the Revolution. They were invited by notice to meet at the new arsenal in Hubert Street to take their station at the North Battery at the foot of that street. They assembled and took possession of the fort by permission of General Bloomfield. The informed corps of militia, three regiments of artillery, one squadron of cavalry, one company of flying artillery, and the company of veteran artillery--in all about 3,000 men. The population of the city was about 98,000 persons, of whom about 1,500 were slaves. The number subject to military duty was about 12,000 men. The two brigades were commanded by General Peter P. Van Zandt and General Gerard Steddiford; the artillery by General Morton--all three veterans of the Revolution. Major James Warner commanded the city cavalry, and Lieutenant-colonel Francis McClure the riflemen. On the eve of the war Governor Tompkins issued his orders for the State military formation from his headquarters in New York City.

There were four arsenals in the city at the outbreak of war--the State arsenal, at the corner of Elm and Franklin Streets; the United States arsenal on Bridge Street near the South battery; the United States magazine and arsenal at the foot of West Twelfth Street; and the United States arsenal on the Parade, later Madison Square, at the junction of the old Boston Road and the Middle Road. these buildings were two or three stories high, of stone and brick, well constructed, and inclosed by high walls. There were two forts, one about 100 yards in front of the Parade, at the Battery, connected with it by a drawbridge. Officially known as the Southwest Battery, it was called after the war Castle Clinton. It was built about the year 1811, on the plans of Lieutenant Joseph G. Totten, of the United States Engineers. This was the military headquarters. Off Hubert Street, in the Hudson, was the North Battery, about 200 yards from the shore, to which there was a drawbridge thirty feet wide. It could carry twenty guns in one tier. Its fire crossed with that of the Southwest Battery. Later it was called the "Red Fort."

Outside the city were several works--Castle Williams, on governor's island (on its westward projection); fort Columbus, on the middle of the island; Fort wood , on Bedlow's island (a mortar-battery); on Ellis or Oyster Island, a circular battery mounting fourteen heavy guns. On the eastern shore of Staten island there were three batteries ready for garrison--Fort Richmond, Dort Morton, and Fort Hudson. All three would be later commanded by Fort Tompkins, not at that time above the foundation. These works had all been built by Colonel Jonathan Williams, of the Second Untied States Artillery, and chief engineer of the United States. Together they carried 284 guns and required a force of 3,700 gunners. The forts in the harbor were under command of colonel Henry Burbeck and the navy yard and flotilla were commanded by Captain Isaac Chauncey. On July 12, 1812, the common council received a report from the Governor of the State and the Secretary of War favoring further fortifications. On June 27 the Governor directed General Stevens by division orders to require General Morton to order out such part of the artillery not already called for upon the requisition of General Bloomfield. In this order the Governor says: "His Excellency confidently hopes that the General will exert his talents, his influence, and his official authority to produce a vigorous prosecution of the war."

The Fourth of July was celebrated with a "degree of splendor," remarks the "Columbian," " never witnessed at any former period on the occasion." There was a review before noon by General Broomfield, General Stevens, and General Morton, and a parade on the Battery, followed by an address in the evening by John Anthon, before the Washington and Hamilton societies at Washington Hall. On July 8 arrived new of Napoleon's decree from St. cloud, given out in April, declaring "the decrees of Berlin and Milan are definitely considered as no longer in force as far as regards American vessels," destroying the last cause of complaint against France, and the one strong argument of the Federalists against the war with Great Britain as one of the aggressors on American rights.

It is curious to note in the "Columbian," of July 9 a proposal by "one of '76" to place cannon on every wharf within a covered way protected by cotton bales, the device abandoned by Jackson at the close of the war. July 3 was observed a day of fasting and prayer by recommendation of Governor Tompkins. In august the first double steamboat was put on the Powles Hook ferry and excited great admiration. On August 14, there was artillery practice in the harbor, the target being a hulk provided by Governor Tompkins. The practice showed that 254 out of 314 shot took effect, the hulk being fired by hot shot from one of the militia commands. On the same day General Bloomfield was relieved from the command at New York by the secretary of war, and General John Armstrong appointed to the post.

Notwithstanding the blockade of New York by a British squadron of five vessels carrying 210 guns, besides many smaller craft, there arrived between April 6 and August 22, no fewer than 142 ships, 84 brigs, and 40 schooners, some with British licenses. The first privateer, the "Bunker Hill," left the port on July 6. Before the middle of October, 26 privateers, carrying 212 guns and 2,289 men, had left the port, taking their courses through Long Island Sound toward the British cruisers.

Of these the largest was the "General Armstrong," which carried eighteen long nines and a twelve pounder, and was manned by 150 men. These vessels were chiefly built in New York, where there were three large shipyards; that of Adam and Noah Brown, on the East River at Houston Street; that of Christian Bergh, on the East River near Gouverneur's Slip, where the "President," was built; and that of Henry Eckford, on the East River near to that of Bergh, who built the fleet on the lakes. The "Oneida," Commodore Chauncey's flag-ship, was also built by him. Napoleon greatly assisted the privateers by an order that all prizes taken by the Americans should be received in French ports on the same terms as though captured by French vessels. Soon the British Channel swarmed with American privateers, who had a close shelter in the French ports near by. There were numerous militia reviews during the year, the most notable of which was on the anniversary of the evacuation of the city by the British. There was a general parade, and in the evening a large company, including Governor Tompkins, General Armstrong, General Morton, and General Paulding, dined at Mechanics' Hall, at the corner of Park Place and Broadway.

The Fiasco in Michigan--When Congress met in November President Madison announced that a force had been sent to the Michigan territory "to intercept the hostile influence of the Great Britain over the savages and obtain the command of the Lake in that part of the Canada borders." This force, under the command of William Hull, Governor of the Territory of Michigan, who had been made a brigadier-general, consisted of regulars and volunteers, in number about 2,000 men. By some blunder in the war department the declaration of war was nearly two weeks on the way to him, and was known in Canada some days earlier. His orders to take possession of Malden, fifteen miles below Detroit on the Canada side of the river, reached him at Detroit on July 9. He crossed on the 12th and issued a proclamation to the Canadians, which was of no effect. Being without artillery, the capture was decided to be too hazardous an undertaking, and he re-crossed the river on August 7.

The enemy ha already anticipated his attempt at invasion by the seizure of the American post at Mackinaw, commanding the strait between Lake Huron and Michigan, which capitulated on July 10; an affair doubly important because of its influence on the Indian tribes. The British colonel, Henry A. Proctor, receiving reinforcements, and joined by the savages, defeated Hull's detachments, and Hull, disheartened, retreated to Detroit. Meanwhile Fort Dearborn, which stood at the mouth of the Chicago River, on ground which is now within the limits of the city of Chicago, was abandoned by Hull's orders, and the captain commanding the small garrison was in his retreat when his force was ambushed by the Indians and compelled to surrender, many of the woman and children being mercilessly scalped, and the savage trophies carried to Colonel Proctor, who had offered a premium for American scalps. On August 15 the British general, Isaac Brock, who had assumed command at Fort Malden, with his force ,in which were 600 savages under the lead of Tecumseh, the famous Indian chieftain, marched on Detroit. On Brock's arrival before the fort the white flag was hung out and Hull surrendered the fort and garrison and whole Territory of Michigan, of which he was governor. This occurred on August 16 and terminated the miserable campaign. Three days later the naval commander of the "Constitution," redeemed the honor of the flag and the name of Hull, which had otherwise become a byword in American history for incompetency and cowardice.

Tecumseh, who seems to have followed the example of Pontiac in an endeavor to unite all the neighboring tribes to recover their hunting grounds on the northwestern territory, flushed with the successes before the forts at Mackinaw, the Chicago River, and Detroit, planned desultory attacks on the other frontiers posts. In August a force of Kentuckians raised to reinforce Hull, had been placed under the command of General Harrison, the victory of Tippecanoe. On the fall of Detroit it was marched through the Ohio wilderness to the relief of Fort Wayne, where Captain Aaron Rhae was closely beset by a joint force of British and Indians. This was the scene of Josiah Harmar's defeat in the Miami campaign of 1790. On the approach of Harrison's relieving force the besiegers withdrew. Fort Harrison, which stood on the Wabash River on the site of the present city of Terre Haute, was held by Zachary Taylor with a small force. Invested by the savages and the blockhouse set on fire, the post was stoutly held, and, after a struggle, the attempt to capture it was foiled. This occurred on September 3. Fort Madison, which stood on the bank of the Mississippi near the site of the city of St. Louis, was attacked on September 5 by a force of 200 Winnebago Indians. It was ably defended by Lieutenant Hamilton and on the 8th the savages withdrew. Besides these concerted attacks there were sundry skirmishes with the Indians the most noted of which was that of Colonel Ball with a mounted command, on the bank of the Sandusky, in which the chiefs fell. This chastisement insured the quiet of the settlements for many years.

The invasion of Canada was not abandoned because of Hull's surrender. On the night of September 20 Captain Benjamin Forsyth took a party of Americans from Cape Vincent by water to the village of Gananoque, where after a skirmish in which he defeated the opposing force, he burned the military storehouse and returned to the American shore. On October 2 the Canadians replied with a much more formidable expedition against Ogdensburg. They crossed the river from Prescott opposite, in forty boats under the escort of two gunboats; the movement being covered by the fire of the British batteries at Prescott. General Jacob Brown, who commanded at Ogdensburg, with the American battery and a company of riflemen, received the flotilla so warmly that tit returned to Prescott without having made a landing.

The force with which General Brock took Detroit included two British war vessels. To these the surrender added the American brig of war "Adams," which the British named "Detroit." This leaving the United States without any force on the upper lakes, lieutenant Jesse D. Elliott, of the navy, was sent to buffalo to organize a flotilla, and a detachment of men was ordered up from New York City, where seamen were abundant. In October the "Detroit" and a smaller vessel, the "Caledonia," which had done service at the capture of Mackinaw, came down Lake Erie and anchored off Fort Erie. On the night of the 8th they were surprised by Lieutenant Elliott. The "Caledonia" was run ashore and secured, the "Detroit' captured. Elliott fought the English batteries from the captured vessel, but finding he could not tow her out of their reach, and the vessel drifting ashore on Squam Island, he abandoned her, carrying off his prisoners. Boarded by a British party, they were driven off by the American batteries, and she was thus the point of fire for both sides. In the night she was again boarded by the Americans and burned.

Invasion and Counter Invasion--After the capture of Detroit the British forces employed was withdrawn to the Niagara river, which became the scene of the autumn campaign. General Steven Van Rensselaer, in command of the American forces, planned an expedition to capture Queenston, which commanded the end of the portage between Ontario and the upper lakes. The American force was 6,000 men--regulars, militia, and volunteers. On October 13, after some blunders and one unsuccessful attempt, a crossing was made. Two hundred regulars under Lieutenant-Colonel John Chrystie, and the same number of militia under Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, were to cross before day break and storm the heights. Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott placed a battery on Lewiston Heights to protect the crossing. The regulars and a few of the militia had crossed when they were met at the landing by a force of the enemy. Pushing on, line was formed by Captain John E. Wool, at the foot of the heights,. ,when they were attacked in front and on flank. Though without artillery, Wool stood his ground. Van Rensselaer's militia were badly wounded. The Americans fell back to the river to reform, and were reinforced. By a skillful movement Wool turned the British battery, which he captured so suddenly that General Brock who was standing near, had not time to mount his horse, and at sunrise the American flag was flying over the works.

Brock ordered up reinforcement from Fort George, but without waiting their arrival took the lead of the defeated troops and moved up the slope to recapture the works. They were repulsed by a charge of bayonets. AS Brock rallied his men for a second assault, he fell, mortally wounded. Al attempts to avenge his death were in vain. Some time later Lieutenant-Colonel Scott and General William Wadsworth arrived with reinforcement. Wool, faint with loss of blood, turned over the command to Scott. The British general, Robert H. Sheaffe, brought up the reinforcements from Fort George, but General Rensselaer could not persuade the militia to cross the river to Scott's support.

Scott held his ground against a flank attack by the Indians, who were under command of famous Mohawk chief Thayendanegea, known among the whites chiefly as Joseph Brant, which he repelled by the bayonet. General Sheaffe bringing up his whole force, Scott was compelled to retreat, but finding escape cut off, all the boats having been allowed to float down the river, or to be taken by the enemy, he surrender his force, carrying the flag of truce through the Indian line in person. Thus ended the battle of Queenston, where, as with Francis the First at Pavia, "all was lost but honor."

The cessation of the movement of trade was not the only hardship of the time inflicted on the commercial community of New York. This was a state of things that followed as a corollary tot a condition of war; but there resulted a more personal and direct injury, for the property of the merchants was often seized under what were in many cases quite innocent breaches of the law. President Madison, in his message of November 4, 1812, called attention to this subject: "A number of American vessels which were in England when the revocation of the orders in council took place, were laden with British manufactures, under an erroneous impression that the non-importation act would immediately cease to operate, and had arrive in the Untied States." The forfeitures incurred under the act were not remitted by the officers of the government, and President Madison asked Congress to consider the subject in the light of equity and the public interest. Madison accompanied his message with petitions fro remission from the leading merchant of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven, Richmond, and Albany. The New York memorial was plain-spoken: "the citizens of New York had no idea that under the hard circumstances of their case their own government would either forfeit their property or mulct them when then intended no violation of the laws of the country."

The Lake Defense--the poor results that attended the two Canadian campaigns brought New York face to face with the problems of the lake defenses. Great Britain was beforehand with America in a naval force on these great inland seas. In 1808, under the general authority to construct gunboats, the President had empowered Lieutenant Melanchton T. Woolsey to contract for two vessels on Lake Champlian and one on Lake Ontario. The latter, a regular brig of war, was armed in the spring of 1809 with sixteen twenty-four pounders. A temporary arrangement being made with England, however, the vessel, which was named the "Oneida," was not put on the lake till the next year. The British had several vessels, of which, the "Royal George," of twenty-two guns, was the largest. In July, 1812, the British fleet had made an attempt to take the "Oneida,' at Sackett's Harbor, but Commander Woolsey, taking position with her at the entrance to the harbor, easily drove the enemy off. It was then that Captain Isaac Chauncey tool up from New York a force of officers, seamen, and ship-carpenters, and a quantity of naval stores. He purchased and fitted a number of schooners which, with the "Oneida," carried forty guns and 430 men. Before winter set in he chased the "Royal George" into Kingston, attacked the batteries, and cut out two small prizes, and about the same time an expedition crossed from Black Rock, and assaulted and captured the batteries at the head of the Niagara River.

The hard winter that followed made any active operations impossible; but numerous vessels were built, and when navigation opened in the spring of 1813, General Henry Dearborn, commanding the land forces, and Commodore Chauncey were ready for fresh operations. An effort was made to take York, the capital of Upper Canada, where the British, under command of General Sheaffe, had one large vessel, the "Royal George," and were building another. The expedition, consisting of fourteen vessels, sailed on April 25th. the town was captured on the 27th, after an action in which Major Benjamin Forsyth, with the American riflemen, distinguished himself and General Zebulon M. Pike, commanding the forces, was mortally wounded. The British military stores were destroyed, and the vessel on the stocks set on fire by Sheaffe. The government buildings were burned by the Americans. The "Royal George," had sailed two days before.

The capture of Fort George, on the western side of the Niagara river, two miles from its mouth, was then undertaken by Dearborn. The American troops were commanded by General John P. Boyd, who succeeded General Pike. Major Forsyth commanded the riflemen, Colonel Alexander Macomb the artillery, Colonel Moses Porter the light artillery, Commodore Chauncey, who had brought down supplies and a reinforcement from Sacketts Harbor, directed the fleet, and Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had hurried to the scene from Lake Erie to take part in the action.

The troops were landed on the 27th. Colonel Scott, supported by the light artillery, carried the heights and was the first man to enter Fort George. In the absence of the American force at the western end of Lake Ontario, the British General, Proctor, and Sir James Yeo who commanded the fleet, which consisted of four war vessels, a brig, two schooners, and two gunboats, attempted a surprise of Sacketts Harbor at the western end. The enemy appeared off the harbor on May 28, 1813, captured twelve of nineteen boats which were bringing up reinforcement to the Americans from Oswego, and landed on the 29th. the day was nearly lost when General Brown retrieved its fortunes, and the British took to their boats. Fortunately the Americans had themselves set fire to their stores and vessels.

Noted Skirmishes--There were some other notable actions in the course of the summer. There was, for example, a night affair at Stony Creek where, in an indescribable confusion, both the American brigade commanders were made prisoners, and the British general lost his way in the woods. The American troops, however, made a safe retreat to Fort George. An attempt to surprise the British depot of supplies at Beaver Dam, seven miles from Queenston, resulted in an ambush from which the lieutenant-colonel commanding extricated himself with skill, only to fall into a ridiculous snare. Duped by a trick, he surrender to an insignificant force, and had the mortification of see his men, in spite of the terms of capitulation, stripped of their clothing by the savages. The country was indignant at this disgrace, and General Dearborn, who commanded the northern department, was removed.

A third affair was an attack on Black Rock, near Buffalo, where the Americans had a dockyard and storehouses. The surprise, led by the British Lieutenant-Colonel Bisshop, was complete; the buildings were fire, guns spiked, and the spoliation almost complete, when an American force, hastily gathered by General Robert B. Porter, put an end to their operations and drove them in disorder to their boats. Commodore Chauncey, during this summer, repeatedly tried, in vain, to being Sir James Yeo to a decisive naval encounter. This officer declined invariably, seeking refuge under the guns of the British fort. On October 8, Chauncey caught a squadron of seven gunboats used by the enemy as transports, on which he took and brought in five with their cargoes of troops. The campaign closed with lake Ontario essentially an American possession.

 

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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