Chapter 15 - Outline History of the State of New York

CHAPTER XV.

CAUSES OF THE LAST WAR WITH GREAT BRITAIN - EXPEDITIONS AGAINST CANADA - BORDER HOSTILITIES.

THE country was now rapidly drifting into another conflict with Great Britain. The aggressions of the British had for several years been a subject of great anxiety and bitter animosity, which continually increased. Although the United States maintained a strict neutrality while the Napoleonic wars were raging between Great Britain and France, their rights as a neutral nation were disregarded. The embargo laid by Congress upon the shipping in American ports was found so injurious to commercial interests that it was repealed, and a non-intercourse act passed in its place. In April 1809, the English ambassador at Washington opened negotiations for the adjustment of the existing difficulties, and consented to the withdrawal of the obnoxious u Orders in Council so far as respected the United States, on condition that they should repeal the act prohibiting intercourse with Great Britain. Upon this basis an agreement was effected, when the President issued a proclamation declaring that as it had been officially communicated to the United States that the "Orders in Council " would be repealed on the 10th of June, trade might be resumed with Great Britain after that date. As soon as intelligence of this agreement on the part of their ambassador reached the English government, the latter refused to ratify it on the ground that he had exceeded his instructions, and immediately recalled him. The proclamation of the President was then revoked, and the two governments resumed their former relations. In addition to other injuries and encroachments upon the rights of the United States as neutrals, the English government claimed the right to search American vessels, and authorized its officers to examine their crews, seize all whom they chose to regard as British subjects, and force them into their service. All remonstrances were unavailing. The English officers in enforcing this right of search committed great outrages, and the practice became so obnoxious as to demand some decided measures for its suppression. Under these circumstances there appeared to be no alternative but war, and Congress having authorized it, war was declared against Great Britain on the 19th of June, 1812. The measure, however, was far from being universally sustained. The Federal party, then in the minority, opposed it, and their political opinions being apparently stronger than their patriotism, they loudly denounced it. It was also but feebly sustained by a portion of the Democratic party, not on political grounds, but from the belief that the country was unprepared for war. New York and New England were most prominent in their opposition, and if they did not directly aid the enemy their conduct was discouraging and injurious to those who were periling their lives in their country's cause.

The Americans, deeming it expedient to invade Canada, directed their attention at once toward that point, and measures were taken to collect forces along the northern frontier of New York, and westward to Michigan. They were distributed in three divisions. The eastern rendezvoused in the vicinity of Plattsburg, on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The central was under the command of Genera] Stephen Van Rensselaer, who made his head-quarters at Lewiston, on the Niagara river; and the northwestern division assembled at Detroit. In connection with these armaments a naval force was fitted up on the lakes, the command of which was assigned to Commodore Chauncey. In July a small British fleet made an attack upon Sackett's Harbor, on Lake Ontario, which was defended by Lieutenant Woolsey, who, from a battery arranged on the shore, so disabled the hostile fleet that it withdrew. In October an attack on Ogdensburg by a British fleet was repulsed by General Brown. In the same month Lieutenant Elliott, by a bold movement, captured at the foot of Lake Erie the British vessel "Caledonia," laden with a valuable cargo of furs, while she lay in fancied security, protected by the guns of a British fort.

After the inglorious surrender of General Hull at Detroit, the next offensive movement on the part of the Americans was assigned to the central division, which was eager to offset Hull's disgrace by a brilliant achievement. An attack on the heights of Queenston was decided on, and was made October 13th, 181 2. With inadequate means of transportation about a thousand men were transferred to the Canadian bank of the Niagara, drove the British from their batteries, and took the heights. General Brock rallied the enemy and attempted to recapture the position, but was mortally wounded and his force repulsed. The Americans, however, were unable to hold their ground against the British reinforcements which were brought up, having no implements for fortification; and the militia who had not yet crossed the river became panic-stricken on seeing some of the wounded brought over, and refused to go to the aid of their outnumbered comrades. The latter were therefore overwhelmed and forced to surrender, after having about sixty killed and a hundred wounded.

Nothing save a little skirmishing occurred in this quarter during the remainder of the year. The disgrace which had fallen upon the American arms on land this year was alleviated to a considerable extent, however, by their splendid triumphs on the water. Soon after the new year had been ushered in, the sanguinary conflict at Frenchtown, on the Raisin river, took place, resulting in the surrender of the American forces. The prisoners taken on this occasion were left to be tortured by the barbarous Indians under Proctor, the infamous British commander, in direct violation of his pledge for their safety. Several persons in St Lawrence county were arrested by the British authorities and confined in Canada on charges of desertion. On February 7th, 18 13, Captain Forsyth, the commander of the post at Ogdensburg, crossed to the Canadian shore with a small force, and captured about fifty prisoners, and some military stores. In retaliation Colonel McDonnell, on the 22nd of the same month, crossed the river with a considerable force, and attacked Ogdensburg. Only a feeble garrison was stationed there for its protection; but this, with the aid of the citizens, defended the town gallantly, although they were finally obliged to abandon it to the invaders. A large quantity of military stores came into the enemy's possession, several vessels were destroyed, and considerable damage was done to the property of the citizens.

General Dearborn had been entrusted with the command of the central division, and on the 25th of April detached a force of seventeen hundred men, under General Pike, for a descent upon Toronto, then known as York. They embarked at Sackett's Harbor on board the squadron of Commodore Chauncey, and landed on the 27th in the vicinity of York in the face of a spirited fire from the enemy, whom they soon drove back. The British before leaving their fortifications had laid a train of combustible matter, and connecting it with their magazine thus plotted the destruction of the invaders. The scheme was in part successful, for the Americans took the redoubts as they advanced, and when within about fifty rods of the barracks the explosion took place. General Pike was mortally wounded, and about two hundred of his followers either killed or injured. The troops were appalled at this disaster; but at the order of their dying commander they sprang forward and captured a part of the retreating enemy, and drove the remainder from the field. After the capture of Toronto the squadron returned, and preparations were made for an attack upon Fort George, on the Niagara river, near Lake Ontario. A descent was made upon this point on the 27th of May, and although meeting a stout resistance was in the end successful. On the landing of the troops Colonel Scott advanced to attack an advantageous position held by the enemy, and after a sharp conflict succeeded in dislodging them. General Vincent, the British commander, in alarm, ordered the evacuation of the remaining posts on the Niagara frontier, and on retreating from Fort George caused the magazine to be blown up. The greater part of the garrison made their escape, but nearly four hundred regulars and five hundred militia were made prisoners. General Vincent retreated with the view of taking a position on Burlington Heights, and was followed by a detachment of the Americans; but the British turned and attacked their pursuers in the night, and succeeded in capturing their generals, and further pursuit was abandoned. Colonel Boerstler was detached with a force of about six hundred men to dislodge a body of the enemy stationed at Beaver Dam, about seventeen miles from Fort George. Arriving in the vicinity of that place he was attacked by a body of Indians in ambush, who kept up a conflict in their skulking manner until the arrival of a reinforcement of British troops. The British officer then 'Sent a summons to the colonel to surrender, at the same time magnifying the number of his troops. Colonel Boerstler believing that he had a superior force to contend with, and unable to obtain a reinforcement, surrendered his detachment as prisoners of war.

During these offensive operations on the part of the Americans, like expeditions were undertaken by the British. The force at Sackett's Harbor having been reduced to aid the expedition along the Niagara river, and the fleet of Commodore Chauncey being at Fort George, Sir George Prevost made an attempt to take the former post. On the 29th of May he appeared before the place with a force of about one thousand men. It had been left in command of Colonel Backus, who, aided by General Brown, so successfully resisted the onslaught that the enemy, after sustaining considerable loss, withdrew. This affair was followed by considerable skirmishing along the New York side of Lake Ontario, and on the nth of July Colonel Bishop made an attack upon the village of Black Rock, on the east side of the Niagara river. In this conflict the British force was repulsed with considerable loss, and their leader mortally wounded.

Meanwhile Commodore Perry was preparing to dispute the control of Lake Erie with the enemy. The Americans had no efficient force upon that lake, and Perry, by unremitting exertions, built and equipped a fleet of nine vessels. Of these the "Lawrence" and the "Niagara "each carried twenty guns, and the whole fleet but fifty-four. The British fleet, under Commodore Barclay, consisted of six vessels, carrying sixty-three guns. On the 10th of September the British commander approached the American fleet with his vessels arrayed in battle order, and Perry at once prepared for action. With his flag-ship, the "Lawrence," he advanced to meet the enemy, and maintained an unequal conflict until his ship was reduced to a complete wreck, and nearly all of her crew either killed or wounded. At this juncture, and when the enemy had a fair prospect of obtaining a brilliant victory, Captain Elliot, commander of the " Niagara," who had perceived the crippled and unmanageable condition of the "Lawrence," moved forward to her aid, and Perry, although exposed to a continuous fire from the enemy, sprang into a boat and proceeded to the " Niagara," to which he transferred his flag. The action was then renewed with great vigor by the remainder of the American squadron. They passed fearlessly among the enemy's ships, dealing such a destructive fire upon them that the whole fleet soon surrendered.

This important and brilliant victory was followed by one under General Harrison, commander of the northwestern division, who on the 5th of October defeated General. Proctor at the battle of the Thames. By these victories the territory of Michigan, which had been so in gloriously surrendered by General Hull at the commencement of the war, was regained. Late in the autumn of this year an unsuccessful attempt was made to invade Canada, under the direction of General Wilkinson, who had succeeded Dearborn in the chief command of the northern army. The American Generals Izard and Hampton were repulsed near the border in Franklin county. General Wilkinson descended the St. Lawrence, and on the 19th of November, at Chrystler's Farm, near Williamsburg, an indecisive engagement took place, the Americans retreating to their boats and abandoning further operations.

The forces on the Niagara frontier had been so much reduced that they were inadequate for its defense after the British were reinforced by General Drummond. General McClure, finding he would be obliged to abandon Fort George, removed his military stores, and unnecessarily inflicted great distress upon the citizens of the villages of Queenston and Newark, reducing the latter place to ashes. The British soon after retaliated by a series of cruel barbarities along the Niagara frontier. On the 19th of December a successful attack was made upon Fort Niagara, and a large share of the garrison, together with the hospital patients, were put to death without mercy. General Rial, with a detachment of Royal Scots and a large body of Indians, crossed the river, plundered and burned Lewiston, and inflicted barbarous cruelties upon the defenseless inhabitants. Youngstown, Manchester, Schlosser and the Indian village of Tuscarora were devastated in the same manner. On the 30th of this month an engagement took place near the village of Black Rock, between General Rial's force and the militia, resulting in the repulse of the latter under General Hall. The villages of Black Rock and Buffalo were abandoned by the Americans, and speedily destroyed by the invaders.

In February, 1814, General Wilkinson dispatched a part of his army to Sackett's Harbor, and removed from French Mills to Plattsburg. The British had collected a strong force at La Colle Mills, on the Sorel, and General Wilkinson resolved to dislodge them. On the 30th of March he crossed the frontier and commenced the attack, but was repulsed and withdrew with his force to Plattsburg. In consequence of this failure he was removed from his command, General Izard succeeding him.

The military stores deposited at Oswego Falls attracted the attention of the British, and with the view of capturing them a British squadron appeared before Oswego. As soon as it was discovered information was sent to Captain Woolsey of the navy, and the militia gathered under Colonel Mitchell and gave the enemy such a spirited reception from a battery prepared on the shore that boats approaching found it prudent to return to their ships. The fleet advanced, and the American force of only about three hundred defended their positions for several hours. A landing was finally effected, and the little band, having maintained their ground as long as it was possible against a vastly superior force, withdrew toward the Falls to defend the stores, destroying the bridges in their rear. The British disabled the ordnance of the fort, and on learning that the bridges had been destroyed returned to Kingston. It was deemed prudent, however, to remove the stores thus preserved to Sackett's Harbor, and Captain Woolsey, aided by a body of riflemen and Indians, set out for the accomplishment of this object. The British admiral was apprised of the movement, and learning their destination through the treachery of a boatman, dispatched a force to intercept them. On the approach of the enemy Captain Woolsey '$ force put into Sandy Creek, and Major Appling was landed with his troops, which he concealed in ambush. The enemy followed and landed a detachment to pursue them. The British having ascended the bank of the creek to the place of concealment of Major Appling's men, the latter arose and opened such a destructive fire upon them that they fell back in confusion and left Captain Woolsey 'g expedition to proceed to its destination without further molestation.

On the 3d of July, 1814. Fort Erie, on the west bank of the Niagara, where it leaves Lake Erie, was surrendered to an American force of 3,500 under General Brown, who then moved on to Chippewa. Here they met and defeated the enemy in a general action, the latter retreating to Fort George, at the mouth of the river. The Americans pursued as far as Queenston Heights, whence they returned to Chippewa.

On the 25th Genera] Scott's brigade, while reconnoitering in force, encountered the entire British army advantageously posted, and the battle of Lundy's Lane occurred. The brigade of General Ripley came to the relief of Scott's when the latter had maintained the engagement into the evening, and after the brilliant capture of a British battery the enemy gave up the field. The losses were exceedingly severe on both sides.

The next day the Americans broke up their camp and retired to Fort Erie unmolested. Here they immediately proceeded to strengthen their defenses. On the 4th of August the enemy, having been reinforced, appeared and invested the fort, then commanded by General Gaines. On the 7th they opened fire upon the American lines, and before dawn on the 15th a combined and furious assault was commenced. In their attack upon the left of the American lines the enemy were repulsed four times with heavy loss, and on the right they met with no better success. In the center the conflict was desperate in the extreme, and the enemy finally succeeded in gaining possession of the bastion, but their advance was suddenly checked by its explosion, and the combat shortly after ended in their defeat at every point. They retreated to their camp with broken columns, having sustained a loss of nearly a thousand men. The Americans continued to strengthen their defenses, and both armies were reinforced. General Brown, having recovered from his wounds, resumed command, and finding the enemy were intent on prosecuting the siege, determined to make a sortie to dislodge them and destroy their works. The British force consisted of three brigades, each of which, in its turn, was stationed at the batteries, while the others remained at their encampment about two miles distant. The object in making the sortie was to defeat the brigade on duty before it could be reinforced. On the 17th 01 September the sortie was made, and resulted in the capture of the British batteries and the destruction of their fortifications. A few days afterward General Drummond left his encampment before the fort, and returned to Chippewa. No further offensive operations were carried on in this quarter, and a few weeks later the fort was demolished and the troops withdrawn to the New York shore.

While this siege was in progress, hostile movements of greater magnitude were being made in other sections of the country. The British army had been strongly reinforced during the summer; the city of Washington had been captured and the public buildings destroyed, and the entire coast was held in a state of blockade by their fleet. They contemplated a dismemberment of the Union by obtaining possession of Lake Champlain and the Hudson from the north, and capturing the city of New York; believing that a division of the republic would thus be accomplished and a separate peace concluded with the Eastern States, whose discontent and opposition to the war were manifest. The people were now fully aroused, and measures were immediately taken for the defense of New York. Its fortifications were strengthened and strongly garrisoned. The invasion of New York by the way of Lake Champlain was entrusted to General Prevost with about fourteen thousand veteran troops from Wellington's army, and the aid of a strong fleet carrying ninety guns. To oppose this formidable armament General Macomb, at Plattsburg, had only fifteen hundred regular troops and about three thousand militia, hastily collected and undisciplined. Commodore McDonough, by almost incredible exertions, had in a short time constructed a fleet carrying sixty-six guns. General Izard had transferred a large portion of the troops from this quarter to the Niagara frontier. Knowing the weakness of the American force at Plattsburg, General Prevost hastily organized and put his army in motion before the fleet was ready for co-operation, and on the 6th of September his advance reached Beekmanstown, where their progress was disputed by a body of militia and a few regulars, who, however, soon retreated toward Plattsburg, and tearing up the bridge over the Saranac entered their entrenched camp. The British advanced, and having taken possession of some buildings near the river attempted to cross; but they were met with a shower of hot shot which proved so annoying that they contented themselves with preparing for an assault upon the fortifications. On the morning of the nth the British fleet under Commodore Downie was seen advancing in line of battle, to engage the American ships at anchor in the bay off Plattsburg. A fierce and determined conflict followed, and in less than three hours the whole British fleet, excepting a part of the galleys, which had made their escape, surrendered. Simultaneously with the naval engagement General Prevost opened his batteries on the American lines, and attempted to force a passage of the Saranac at three different points, but at each place his troops were repulsed with great loss. On the surrender of the fleet, in sight of both armies, further efforts to cross the river were abandoned. When night came on General Prevost, in great alarm, made a precipitate retreat from the town, leaving behind his sick and wounded, together with a large quantity of military stores. This expedition was the last undertaken for the invasion of this frontier, and its signal defeat materially aided in bringing the war to a close. On the 24th of December a treaty of peace was concluded at Ghent, but before the welcome news had reached our shores the British met with another disastrous defeat at New Orleans.

SOURCE:  History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880