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

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

Fighting Round Fort Erie--Meanwhile, Brigadier-General Winfield Scott, following a plan of campaign arranged in collaboration with Governor Tompkins and military officials of New York, took command of the troops at Plattsburg and moved to Niagara, while General Brown stationed himself at Sacketts Harbor. Toward the end of June, Brown arrived at buffalo, where Scott was situated, and a plan being concerted, the troops crossed the Niagara river from Black Rock on July 3, and landing in two columns, one below and one above Fort Erie, invested the place, which at once surrendered. On the 4th, Scott marched on Chippewa. General Riall did not wait his arrival, but, taking the initiative, moved his army forward and attacked the American son the plain of Chippewa in the small hours of July 5. By a remarkable exhibition of strategic skill, Scott gained a complete victory, the British retreating across the river.

A couple of days later, the American forces crossed Chippewa Creek and marched on Fort George. This fortification General Brown found too strong for reduction, and as a result he brought his men back to Queenstown. Nearly three weeks later, receiving intelligence hat the enemy had send a force across to Lewiston, Scott was despatched along the road to the falls to threaten the forts and force their return. Not far from Table Rock, British officers were seen on horseback and a little later, the enemy was encountered in Lundy's Lane in superior force. The American commander however, succeeded in holding his round and even in capturing General Riall and his staff, and as darkness began to fall he received reinforcement from General Brown. The action continued even in the dark. Both Scott and Brown were wounded, and as a result General Eleazer Ripley took command, pressing the fight and repulsing successive attacks until the British withdrew. An hour later he was in Chippewa with all the American forces and all the wounded. A little later he withdrew to Buffalo, and the troops were posted at fort Erie. General Drummond meanwhile, was put in command of the British troops, and a new offensive was planned. After some sparring, a new British attack was launched on Fort Erie, which had well prepared to receive it, and the attack was repulsed with vigor. In British eyes, however, the point was regarded as vital, and repeated efforts were made to reduce it. direct attacks failing, a siege was then elaborated with regular approaches, but the works were surprised by a sortie of the Americans, the enemy guns were dismounted, and the magazine exploded. In these affairs there was considerable loss on both sides. Towards the middle of September the British came to the conclusion that they had encountered a nut too hard to crack. On the 21st of that month General Drummond raised the siege and withdrew beyond the line of the Chippewa. In October Fort Erie was dismantled, and the American forced re-crossed the Niagara to the United States side.

Fighting on Lower St. Lawrence--Down the St. Lawrence and on the region of Lake Champlain the war was also following its course with results favorable first to one side and then to the other. In February, General Wilkinson, whose army lay at French Mills, moved it to Plattsburg, from which town he marched in the beginning of March into Canada with 4,00 men. He found his progress blocked by a small force strongly posted on the Sorel in a stone mill and blockhouse. Finding it impossible to dislodge the enemy except by heavy guns, which the bad condition of the roads prevented him from bringing up, the American commander abandoned the expedition and fell back to Plattsburg. Wilkinson's rather weak manoeuvre stimulated the British to a series of annoying attacks. In May Sir James Yeo, with his fleet, and General Drummond made a concerted movement on the defensive works at Oswego which had been allowed to fall into neglect. The fort was gallantly defended by the American forces who nevertheless, were finally forced to withdraw.

Some days later a British squadron threatened Charlotte, at the mouth of the Genesee River. General Porter removed the women and children and call in the militia, where upon the ships bombarded the town and withdrew. During May, also, two British gunboats, attempting the capture of a flotilla which carried guns destined for a new war vessel building in Sacketts Harbor, fell into a snare which had been laid for them and were captured. The guns were then taken and placed on the "Mohawk," which was launched on June 11, bringing up the number of Chancery's squadron to nine vessels, carrying 251 guns. In August General Izard, who had succeeded Wilkinson in command, marched from Plattsburg to the Niagara River, which he crossed with about 8,000 men to attack General Drummond on the Chippewa. After a skirmish Drummond withdrew to Fort George and Burlington heights, but Izard failed to follow him, and finally fell back in the direction of Black Rock.

Saving the Northern Frontier--The British purpose was essentially that of Burgoyne during the Revolutionary War, and when it became clear that the actual conquest of the United Stated was impossible, the plan of operations was reduced to the rectification of the Canadian frontier and the attachment to Canada, if possible of such portions of the New England States as could be induced to secede, or at least, of that strip of land which Clinton has secured for the State of New York, and which lay along Lake Champlain. The British army was by this time considerably strengthened by recruits who had seen service against Napoleon, and Sir George Prevost was ordered to pursue Burgoyne's route. As part of the plan of weakening American forces, by sowing a spirit opposed to belligerency among the civil population, Prevost issued a proclamation to the American settlers near Lake Champlain, calling on them to renounce allegiance to the United States; and on September 1 he crossed the border on what has been called the second invasion of New York.

The people of New York, however, had kept as eye on every more of the enemy and were well apprised of his intention, for the line of least resistance was as plain to them as it was to Prevost. Like Burgoyne, he found his advance impeded by every sort of obstacle, felled trees, choked streams, disrupted bridges and torn roads. Moving at a slow pace, while awaiting the arrival of the cooperating fleet on Lake Champlain, under Commodore George Downie, he arrived at Plattsburg on September 6, which was held by General Macomb at that time with a force of 1,500 men. The fleet arrived on the 11th at the foot of the lake, and 8,000 men advanced tot he assault. The attempt to ford was at three places, but repulsed at each. The success of the American resistance was, however, decided by a naval battle, one of the most remarkable in American history.

McDonough's Great Victory--The ships which the British naval commanders brought down to enter the bay were in their combined strength superior to the fleet which Captain Thomas McDonough commanded. The main reliance of Downie, the British commodore, was his flagship, the "Confiance," which carried a frigate armament of thirty long twenty-fours on the heavy-gun deck. The British flotilla consisted of sixteen vessels, with ninety-five guns, and 1,050 men. The American squadron had fourteen vessels with eighty-six guns and 850 men. McDonough has made it his plan to fight at anchor, and as a consequence placed his ships in such a manner that the British could only win a passage by forcing it under a broadside fire. His flagship, the "Saratoga," he ingeniously arranged so that, by a kedge anchor and hawsers on the quarters he could bring her broadside to bear in any desired direction while her bow remained stationery. The English came forward instead lines, and a terrible broadside was opened on either side, that of the "Confiance,' sweeping the "Saratoga's" deck and checking her response till the dead and wounded were sent below. McDonough's ingenious arrangement enabled him to cripple his heavier antagonist, the "Confiance," who clung closely to him until, after a fight of over two hours, the British colors came down. Downie, the British naval Commander, had fallen early in the action. The victory was complete. The British general, Prevost, gave up his plan of campaign and returned hastily to Canada. And so ended the second invasion of New York by British forces. The northern frontier of the State had been made again secure, nor was it again to be disturbed during the war.

Naturally there was a feeling of great relief through the State and no least in New York City, which though further removed from the frontier, was nevertheless the great prize to which an enemy victor would have given major attention. Captain McDonough was the hero of the hour. The Common Council tendered him the honors of the freedom of the city, and his portrait was added to the city's gallery. On September 26 and October 10, the council also paid its respects to General Brown for his victory on the Chippewa; and on November 21 extended similar honors to General Macomb for his services on the frontier in command of a small army acting in concert with a body of militia hastily assembled from New York State and Vermont.

Tompkins Active War Governor--Governor Tompkins proved a sagacious leader during the war and was one of the most active of the company who fought for the prosecution of a successful conclusion. After his re-election in February, 1813, the Federalists continued to control the lower House of the Legislature, and they did all they could to hamper him. They effectively checked almost every recommendation and project which he and his party proposed for the defense of the State, and the support of the national administration. This partisan interference, while it increased the Governor's responsibilities, nevertheless called into action the strong traits of his character, particularly when it became apparent that the British had laid plans for an invasion of the State. After the triumphant British troops would be able to march to Baltimore, thence to Philadelphia, and then to New York, and the probabilities were that they would do so. The defenses of New York were regarded as far from adequate, and when an appeal was made to the national authorities that reply came back that was a precedent to a similar reply in the course of the Civil War, to the effect that New York would have to take care of itself, for the Government could no nothing for it.

As a matter of fact, the policy of the National Government a century ago was to leave the major responsibility to the States themselves, a responsibility which most of the States accepted as the natural thing and without complaint. During the War of 1812, however, the National Government was in sore straits and was practically bankrupt. It appeared impossible to raise a national loan. Representatives citizens of New York, without regard to party, called upon Governor Tompkins and requested him to use his authority to the limit, and if need be, transgress it for the sake of public safety. Rufus King was amongst those who made the appeal, declaring that "the time had arrived when every good citizen was bound to pout his all at the requisition of the government--that he was ready to do this; that the people of the State of New York would and must hold him (Governor Tompkins) responsible for its safety."

In describing this interview the Governor said: "I acquainted him with the difficulties under which I had struggled for the two preceding years, the various instances in which I had been compelled to act without law or legislative indemnity, and urged that if I should once more exert myself to meet all the emergencies and pecuniary difficulties with which we were pressed, I must inevitably ruin myself." But King replied: "What is the ruin of an individual compared with the safety of the Republic? If you are ruined you will have the consolation of enjoying the gratitude of your fellow citizens; but you must trust to the magnanimity and justice of your country, your must transcend the law, you must save this city and State from the danger with which they are menaced, you must ruin yourself if it become necessary, and I pledge you my honor that I will support you in whatever you do."

A special session of the Legislature was convened on September 26 of that year. On his own responsibility, Governor Tompkins raised a large sum of money, which he used in purchasing arms and equipments for the troops, and protecting the defenses of the State. Within a short time 12,000 troops had been mobilized in the State and placed in the defenses. At his request the President appointed him military commander of the Third Military District. After this defeat of the American troops before Washington, and the burning of the Capitol, public sentiment ran so strongly against General Armstrong, whose lack of decision and organizing capacity were regarded as being in part responsible for these disasters, that he was forced to resign, and his place in the cabinet was temporarily filled by James Monroe, who was transferred from the Department of State.

At this juncture of affairs President Madison offered the portfolio of the State Department to Governor Tompkins, and the proffer of this distinctive post was regarded as having a good deal of significance. For up to that time, with one or two exceptions, the Secretary of State, like the President, had come from Virginia, and the office was regarded as next in line of promotion to the presidency. But Governor Tompkins, who had come to be regarded generally as of presidential timber and who had friends who were beginning to put him forth as a candidate, declined the compliment on the ground that he could be of more use to the State of New York.

The executive and legislative departments of the State of New York in 1814 were in the hands of the Republicans. Laws were speedily passed increasing the pay of the militia when mustered into the service of the Untied States, for the encouragement of privateering, for classifying the militia in order to secure 12,000 men for two years, who were to be placed at the disposal of the Federal Government, for raising a corps of sea Fencibles for the city of New York, for the reimbursement to Governor Tompkins for expenditures that he had made on his own responsibility, and for completing the hitherto neglected fortifications on Staten Island.

War Sentiment in New York--We get a good idea of the military situation and of the general sentiment in regard to it, towards the end of 1814, from a speech delivered by Augustus Wright, from the Eleventh New York District on October 8, in answer to Governor Tompkins' call for troops:

When we call to mind the avowed purpose of the enemy, [Mr. Wright declared] "to lay waste and destroy all the assailable cities and district on the sea-board," in utter disregard o those principles which are enforced and inculcated alike by the laws of nations, and the feelings of humanity; and when we hear from your Excellency, that "one great object of his campaign was to penetrate with his northern army by the waters of Lake Champlain and the Hudson, and by a simultaneous attack with his maritime force on New York, to form a junction which would sever the communication of the States," the House of Assembly find ample cause of congratulation in the signal defeat of his land and naval forces at Plattsburgh, and ample cause of approbation of the measures pursued, and the powers exercised by your Excellency to defeat the daring purposes of the arrogant invader.

When, in addition to your former triumphs, it shall be announced in the Courts of European Monarchs, that a Brigadier-General of the American Army, with not more than fifteen hundred effective regulars, and two Generals of Militia, commanding about three thousand men, suddenly brought together by the emergency of the time, sustained for hours the shock of a well-appointed British Army of fourteen thousand men, and finally put them to discomfiture and to flight; and when to this it shall be added that a Captain of the American Navy, at the same time, captured a whole British fleet, vastly superior in number of men, superior in number of guns and weigh of metal--the world will again be taught that imposing lesson, that a brave, a patriotic, and a high-minded people, can never be subdued by the corrupting influence or the embodied power, of any foreign nation.

Of the gallant and splendid exploit of commodore MacDonough, and his associates in arms, the House of Assembly wants to express their admiration. And they assure your Excellency, that they will not fail promptly to express "their high sense of the illustrious services of these rave men" in a manner constant with the dignity of the State, and with the character and feelings of those heroic defenders of their country's flag.

In the list of naval worthies, the gallant Porter greatly contending against superior force, and against treachery unexampled, and Warrington and Blakely, successful in equal contest, are entitled to the war gratitude of their country. It is with the liveliest emotions of pride and pleasure that we turn, with your Excellency, to that theatre of renown, the Niagara frontier. Since the opening of the campaign in that quarter, a brilliant succession of skillful and heroic exploits has gilded our horizon, and has shed beams of brightest effulgence on the characters of Brown, Scott, Porter, Gaines and Ripley, and the companions of their fame. They have manifested t he world, hat the victorious legions of Lord Wellington cannot successfully contend with the powers of our hardy freemen, nor defeat the well-digested plans of our military commanders. And, while they have gathered for themselves deathless and unfading laurels, they have retrieved and re-established our character, as a Nation, for deeds of martial heroism.

At this eventful era, when perils thicken around us, and when every real patriot looks about him not only for the means of common safety, but also for the means of bringing to a glorious termination the great contest for our essentials rights, and for perpetuating our dear-bought liberties--when, with feelings of shame for the degradation of human nature, we behold a ruthless and vandal enemy, in violation of the most sacred rules of civilized warfare, destroying "monuments of art," and models of taste which lately adorned our capital--and heart of our country--it well becomes the House of Assembly of the great and powerful state of New York, to use every effort so to concentrate her resources, and direct her energies, as to meet with successful firmness, the events that may well await us.

We must cordially concur with your Excellency in awarding to the patient endurance , good conduct, and patriotism of our militia, the just tribute of praise. The late battles at Plattsburgh and at Erie bear ample and honorable testimony to their usefulness and merits. They have hastened to scenes of danger with an ardor and enthusiasm which belongs only to freemen.

But while the House of Assembly highly approve of the patriotic spirit, by which the militia of this state have been uniformly actuated, they do not hesitate, to declare, that the burden imposed upon them, by "existing laws" is unreasonably grievous; and they recur with satisfaction to the repeated solicitation of your Excellency for this relief. During the last and the present campaign, we have often seen the father of a numerous offspring and the sons of helpless parents, who had nothing but their liberties to lose, and nothing but their families to protect, suddenly called away from those who looked to them for daily sustenance, into the service of their country, to protect and defend the families and the princely possessions of the affluent and the legally exempt. The palpable injustice of such a system, in its operation on "the poorer classes of the community," powerfully impressed the mind not only with the propriety, but also with the absolute necessity, of converting the wealth of out population into a source of supply for the common defense.

Possessing an extent of territory and an aggregate of wealth hardly surpassed by any State in the Union--a population exceeding any other, and of all others the most extended and most assailable line of frontier, our safety imperiously requires that our means of resistance should correspond with the magnitude of the danger to which were are exposed. To affect this desired purpose, by providing for the common defense of the State and Nation, well organized and efficient corps of uniformed troops, answering, in numbers, to the population and resources, of the State, and to the exigencies of the crisis--shall be the leading object of our deliberations. And we shall have full confidence in the opinion that, by adopting at this juncture, a wise, liberal, and an enlarged policy in relation to the war, it will be in the power of the State of relieve the militia from the vast and oppressive levies to which they have been subjected-- to substitutive, in their stead, a less expensive and more formidable force--and to secure to herself that high character for munificence and public spirit, which she has already acquired, and is emulous to preserve.

The House of Assembly, with un-mingled emotions of pleasure, reciprocate the congratulations of your Excellency, on the "unanimity and patriotic spirit" which seems to actuate every breast. They observe, with proud satisfaction, the union the sentiment, and concert of action, which characterizes the present time. And they see, in the blaze of patriotism which has been rekindled by the wrongs we suffer, a light which cannot fail to conduct the people of the United States to the most auspicious and glorious destinies.

Vessels Commissioned from New York--New York did more than her share in fitting our vessels designed to prey on the commerce of the enemy, a kind of work which bulked large in the wars of the time. Of the 251 commissions in the course of the war New York send out fifty-five, a number exceeded only by that of Baltimore. The vessels were similar in displacement and armament, fast sailers, and they carried an eighteen-pound gun mounted in swivel on deck. The most noted of the ships that sailed from New York was the "Governor Tompkins," which took the "Mary Ann," off the Madeira Islands with a cargo valued at $60,000. Soon after this capture she chased a large vessel, which proved to be a British frigate. The little vessel was severely handled, but by the use of her sweeps got away. A still more notable affair was the capture by the "General Armstrong," of New York, of the "Queen," armed with sixteen guns, and carrying a cargo valued at $350,000.

On another occasion the "Armstrong" engaged off Surinam, what she presumed to be an English privateer, but which turned out to be an English frigate, carrying twenty guns. After an action of three quarters of an hour, the "Armstrong" got away. In July, the "Yankee," a fishing smack, was fitted out in New York harbor to capture the British sloop of war "Eagle." A calf, a sheep, a goose and three fishermen were placed on deck, while below lay forty men with muskets. Overhauled by the "Eagle" and ordered to report to the commodore, at the signal word "Lawrence!" the men concealed rose together, fired, and at one volley killed three of the enemy, and drove the rest below. The sloop of war struck without firing a gun, and was taken to New York, where the people crowded on the Battery celebrating independence. The incident, following others of like character, greatly enraged the English, who called for the annihilation of the budding American navy. The English journals urged that American merchantmen should be compelled to exhibit in large letters on their mainsails; "Licensed to carry guns pursuant tot a British act of Parliament"; and this only to protect them against the pirates of the Mediterranean or the ladrones of China.

New York City Prepares for Attack by Sea--As the war progressed and the British forces became released with the lessening of the Napoleonic tension in Europe, the danger of an assault on New York City became more clearly apprehended. In August, 1814, a committee of young men issued an address to the people for the organization of the militia. The address as signed by Isaac Merrick, David Ludlow, Stephen Keen, John M. Elliott, George Lovejoy and S. B. Brega. The purpose was to raise a battalion of volunteer infantry. A part of the scheme is wroth noting. "A cheap, neat and becoming uniform is fixed upon, calculated rather to give a soldierly appearance that to attract and please the eye of childhood. It is simply as follows: 'A blue broadcloth roundabout, a narrow rolling collar, single-breasted, buttoned in front with bell buttons, a row on each side the collar--will cost about fifteen dollars. Beaver of a straight crown, about nine inches high, helmet front diminishing gradually towards the back, leaving there only half an inch brim; a waving red plume, the staff of which is supported by a stripe of broad gold lace, running from base or rim of the hat and forming a cockade near the top with a narrow band of lace--will cost at the utmost not more than ten dollars. Cartouch box covered with red morocco, secured round the waist by a belt of the same to which the bayonet's scabbard will be affixes--will cost five dollars' "; the cost of the outfit so far being thirty dollars. Yellow nankeen pantaloons, black handkerchief, boots, together with a musket completed the equipment. The roll was in the hands of M<r. George Asbridge, at No. 9 Williams Street, corner of Beaver Street. A reference to Longworth's directory shows that this Asbridge was a printer.

The resolution adopted for the enrollment of voluntary labor to complete the defenses was responded to with enthusiasm. The mechanics, who from the days of the Stamp Act had been ardently patriotic, turned out in organized bodies to aid in digging and constructing the fortifications. Militia companies were raised, and offices for the enlistment of sailors opened. Castle Clinton--later well known as Castle Garden, because applied to purposes of popular amusement--was built at the southwest point of the island. A battery, which was named the North Battery, was thrown up at the foot of Hubert Street, and Fort Gansevoort at the foot of Gansevoort Street. Fort Columbus was built on Governor's Island where General Stevens had erected the earthwork and barracks in 1798; and Castle William on the same island. On Bedloe's Island, later Liberty Island, a strong star fort was erected, and on Ellis Island a circular battery. The Staten island shore was commanded by Fort Richmond, a strong construction of stone on the high ground; Fort Tompkins on a still greater elevation in the rear; and Fort Hudson, nearly on the shore line below.

As the passage of the Narrows is very short, and the channel draws close under the State island highland, these afforded an almost sure defense. On the opposite side, in the upper bay, was Fort Diamond, later Fort Lafayette, a still stronger work, built on made ground and commanding the waterline. Together these mounted 500 guns and amply protected the entrance against any floating armament of the period.

The entrance from the East River to the Sound, just west of Hell Gate, was commanded by Fort Stevens on the Long Island shore at Hallett's Point, named after General Stevens, who superintended its construction, and whose country seat was at Mount Bonaparte, the old Hallett farm being at Halletts' Cove near by. this low stone battery was again commanded by a round tower on high ground in the rear; opposite, across the stream, the rapid waters of which surging round numerous rocks, rendered the passage dangerous except to skilled pilots, was a similar work a t Benson's Point. Strong works guarded McGowan's Pass on the Harlem road and the pass on the western side of the island on the Bloomingdale road, a line of blockhouses being thrown up between.

At the close of the summer a requisition was made by congress for 20,000 men to be stationed in and about the city. The corporation of New York raised the necessary funds, under pledge of reimbursement by the United States. Enlistment proceeded with considerable celerity, and by the beginning of September all the artillery and infantry of the city and county were consolidated and mustered into the United States service, under this own officers, their pay, rations and regulations being those of the regulars. Governor Tompkins and General Morgan Lewis was the post commanders. The entire detached division was placed under the command of General Stevens. The seamen enrolled were placed under commando of Commodore Decatur, who, on the transfer of Commodore Rogers to the "Guerriere" in the spring of 1814, had been assigned to the command of the "President"--the "United States" (his old ship), and the "Macedonian," his prize, having been removed up the Thames above New London in April of that year and dismantled. Here he had been joined by Captain James Biddle, who brought down the "Hornet" from New London, passing the close blockade enforced by the British squadron with complete success.

Towards the end of 1814 here was a general apprehension that New York would soon be attacked by a powerful expedition of land and sea forces, and a descent was expected from day to day. The cruise of the "President," was therefore countermanded, and Decatur was instructed to remain the city and take entire charge of the naval defense. Advantage was taken of Decatur's presence in the city to confer on him the municipal honors voted to him by the Common Council. On November 11, a committee consisting of Aldermen peters Mesier and John Munson, introduced him to the Common council at the City Hall. Mayor Clinton, in his address to him, said that "the city looked to him as one of her most efficient protectors in the hour of peril"; and in the present war with Great Britain, the gallantry and skill of our seamen have been constantly gaining upon the admiration of mankind. Wherever they have approached an Enemy victory has almost invariably attended the American flag. The Great Lakes, the Mediterranean Sea, the British Channel, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, bear witness to their illustrious exploits, and they have elevated America to the pinnacle of naval glory."

 

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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