A visit with my wife, Bonnie, to the Fort George National Historic Site near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on May 22, 2016 sparked my interest in the War of 1812. So much so that I quickly realized that the epic battle that took place there in early 1813 and what followed set the stage for how our country and Mother England handled this brutal and controversial conflict to the very end.
The War of 1812 is one of those confrontations that to this day both sides claim they had won. So, what sparked it? Some historians believe it was simply an act of aggression: President James Madison wished to expand American territory north of the border when, on June 18, 1812, he and the United States of America declared war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and its colonies. But there was more to it than that. The Americans had serious issues, besides secretly wanting to rid the continent of the British once and for all.
In the midst of an ongoing war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France and in order to restrict American trade overseas, Britain dominated the Atlantic with a naval blockade on Western Europe. Add to that, when the Brits boarded American ships on the high seas, they removed any British-born American sailors, forcing them into their own Royal Navy. There was a term for it: “impressment.”
Upon declaring war, the Americans knew bloody well they couldn’t invade Britain. So, instead, they attacked the colony of British North America (Canada). The Americans--the Bluecoats--figured all they had to do was merely march into our country, occupy it, and it would be theirs. That, of course, wasn’t the case. We did have a gun-toting, home-grown militia of country boys who could shoot straight, some highly trained British troops (although we would’ve had more had Britain not been at war with France), plus several area native tribes loyal to the King, namely the Six Nations of Iroquois. We were the Redcoats. However, there were American-born settlers in Niagara whose allegiance was debatable, as were other native tribes who had been influenced by American sympathizers on both sides of the border.
The war was fought on numerous North American continent fronts, one of those being the Niagara frontier, a key area at the foot of the Great Lakes. The Fort George garrison was built by the British between 1796-1799 to guard the mouth of the Niagara River off Lake Ontario and the nearby town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) from American invasion. It’s interesting that the Canadians and Brits expected such trouble from their neighbors that many years before 1812. Anyway, the region was commanded by Brigadier General John Vincent. Across the river and within artillery range of Fort George sat Fort Niagara, New York on the American side.
A few months after the war started, both forts exchanged artillery salvos that damaged parts of their garrisons, until the Americans opened up with a colossal bombardment on May 25, 1813 that left Fort George in ruins. The American cannonballs flew over “hot shot,” which meant they were heated in furnaces, loaded up, then fired. Subsequently, any building taking a direct hit was quickly set ablaze.
Two days later, under cover of a thick fog that slowly dispersed as they reached shore, the Bluecoats, commanded by Major General Henry Dearborn, invaded with an amphibious force that outnumbered the British regulars, Canadian militia and natives combined by four-to-one. After a bloody battle, the Redcoats retreated west towards what is now Hamilton. For the next seven months, the Americans repaired the garrison as best they could, but not totally, and occupied it and the town of Newark, while sending out expeditions to crush the fleeing British. Following crucial defeats at the battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams in June, the badly beaten Americans gradually retreated to Fort George which they eventually abandoned on December 10, but not without controversy.
Following orders from the American officer in charge at the fort, Brigadier General George McClure, the Americans forcibly removed the Newark townspeople--women, children, and elderly--from their homes into a bitter-cold snow storm with only the clothes on their backs, about 400 civilians in all. The Americans burned approximately 150 houses to the ground, forcing the locals to find what shelter they could in the nearby woods. Then they advanced across the Niagara River.
Hot on the heels of the Americans, the British troops led by Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond were enraged at the sight of the smoldering ruins of Newark as they approached from the south. In retaliation, they sailed across the river, captured Fort Niagara with a surprise attack, and in the next few weeks torched several towns and villages, including Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo on the American side, and occupied the shores of the river until war’s end. No building along the Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was safe. This time around, unlike what had occurred at Newark, most locals knew in advance the British would be seeking payback and managed to remove much of the belongings from their homes.
How many Newark civilians died during December 1813 was undocumented. Undoubtedly, many froze to death. The shocking events of that day made headlines in many newspapers in England. Shortly after his order to burn the town, McClure was relieved of his command and dismissed from the US Army.
British vengeance didn’t stop with Newark. Once Napoleon’s army was defeated in April 1814, the Redcoats now turned their attention to the all-out war effort in America by sending thousands of troops across the Atlantic. When they invaded Washington in August, the Brits left the White House (known then as the President’s House), the Capitol Building, and many other government structures in flames and smoke, in direct response to the unwarranted destruction at Newark; along with the American forces setting private homes and business aflame and shooting all livestock in Port Dover on the north shore of Lake Ontario, south of Hamilton, on May 14. Luckily for the Americans, less than 24 hours after the attack on Washington, a wicked thunderstorm--quite possibly a hurricane--raced through the city and put the flames out.
The Battle of New Orleans was the last major conflict of the war, occurring January 8, 1815, a resounding victory by the Americans led by Major General Andrew Jackson. Trouble was the early 1800’s had slow communications: a negotiated peace had been reached by both parties on Christmas Eve in Belgium, two weeks earlier.
On February 16, 1815 President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812. In the agreement, no borders changed. Both sides would return property they had taken during the war, and would establish a joint boundary commission that would map the borders of the United States and British North America. Andrew Jackson became a national hero for his New Orleans victory and went on to be the seventh president of the United States for two terms from 1829-1837.
After the War of 1812, Fort George fell into ruin, then was abandoned in the late 1820’s. A century later, the National Historic Site saw the beginning of the reconstruction to its pre-1813 appearance and in 1950 opened to the public as a tourist attraction. Incidentally, the only untouched original building was the powder magazine, which had miraculously survived the 1813 American “hot shot” shelling.
When our founding Canadian Fathers of Confederation--including our first prime minister, John A Macdonald--established our nation in 1867, free of the British, they concluded that the American Civil War which had ended two years earlier was a result of too much power in the hands of the states. So, our boys created a more centralized federation with Ottawa running the show.
That sunny day this past May, Bonnie and I had a blast--no pun intended--walking the grounds of refurbished Fort George built from the original plans. If you go there, don’t miss the musket demonstration. You may even see the occasional ghost because I hear the place is haunted.