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The Siege of Fort Erie was one of the last and most protracted engagements between Britishmarker and Americanmarker forces during the Niagara campaign of the Anglo-American War of 1812. The Americans successfully defended Fort Eriemarker against the British Army, but subsequently abandoned it because of shortage of supplies.

Background

The Americans under Major General Jacob Brown had crossed the Niagara Rivermarker and captured Fort Eriemarker on 3 July, 1814. After defeating a British force at the Battle of Chippawamarker they advanced north, but the British reinforced their troops in the Niagara peninsula. On 25 July, the bloody but indecisive Battle of Lundy's Lanemarker, was fought, during which Brown was severely wounded. Following the battle, the outnumbered American troops, now under the command of Brigadier General Eleazer Wheelock Ripley, withdrew to Fort Erie. Ripley advocated abandoning the Fort and retreating to the east side of the Niagara Rivermarker, but Brown overruled him and summoned Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines from Sackett's Harbormarker to assume command.

The British, under the command of Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond (the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada), had themselves been hard hit at Lundy's Lane. Drummond nevertheless claimed that the Americans had been forced to retreat in disorder, and he intended to drive them from the Canadian side of the Niagara. His troops followed the Americans slowly, and reached the fort on 4 August. Drummond's division numbered 3,000 but Drummond himself complained about the quality of the troops and the degree to which the battalions were composed of mixed-up detachments and companies. His slow advance gave the Americans vitally-needed time to reorganise and to reinforce their defences.

Defences

Map of the American position and British siege lines
The original British fort consisted of two two-story barrack buildings with fortified cannon bastions connected to them. The barracks were connected by a thick stone curtain with the main gate located in the centre. The rear of the fort (facing away from Lake Eriemarker) consisted of an open terreplein, raised above the base of the dry ditch which surrounded the fort, with two redoubts located on the corner. The redoubts were incomplete and offered little protection. The front of the fort was protected by a large earth wall with a forward gun emplacement. The fort was also divided in half by an earth wall and ditch, but this too was incomplete with at least a third of the rear defenses being makeshift wooden walls or earthworks (some only 1 metre high). This was complemented by a gun emplacement in the centre redan (raised platform). The fort contained a total of six guns.

The dry ditch surrounding the fort had a high wooden wall in the centre. This wall was angled outwards and was sharpened to prevent any enemy from leaping into the ditch, which also had sharpened sticks placed up and down the walls to help impale or wound enemy soldiers. The ditch was used as a garbage dump and a sewer by the defenders, creating a slippery and smelly swamp at the base that would slow enemy attacks and would encourage disease in any wounds.

The Americans had made significant improvements to the defenses of the fort since its capture, and now redoubled their efforts to entrench themselves. Since the fort was too small to hold the entire American force, they extended the earth wall to the south for an additional to a rise made of sand, known as Snake Hill, which had been fortified with a large gun emplacement with six guns under the command of Captain Nathaniel Towson (considered to be one of the finest artillerymen in U.S. history). Four guns were distributed along the wall.

To protect the north end of the position, the Americans also threw up an earth wall (holding one gun) connecting the northeast bastion of the fort to the lake where there was another fortified gun emplacement with one gun known as the Douglass Battery from its commander, Lieutenant David Douglass of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Abatis (obstacles made of felled trees) were placed in front of the earth walls.

By the close of the Siege, the Americans had made the position even stronger by building three log blockhouses in the rear of the fort, and also strengthened the defenses and redoubts.

Preliminaries

Raid on Black Rock and Buffalo

British Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada
When the British force reached Fort Erie, Drummond's first move was to send a force across the Niagara in batteaux to raid Buffalomarker and Black Rock, hoping to capture or destroy American supplies and provisions. The force consisted of two columns; one was composed of the two flank companies and four other companies of the 41st Foot under Lieutenant Colonel Evans of the 41st, and other of the light companies of the 2nd Battalion, the 89th Foot and the 100th Foot, and the flank companies of the 104th Regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond of Kelty, General Drummond's relative, with some artillerymen, a total of 600 men. The raid was under the overall command of Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker (the senior Lieutenant Colonel of the 41st Foot).

The raid was a failure. On landing on the American side of the Niagara, Tucker found that the bridge over the unfordable Conguichity Creek had been destroyed, and a detachment of 240 of the 1st U.S. Rifle Regiment under Major Lodowick Morgan with some volunteers were defending the creek, to prevent the bridge being repaired. Eleven British soldiers were killed, seventeen wounded and five were reported missing. Tucker complained that the troops panicked and fled, though they subsequently rallied. The Americans lost two killed and eight wounded. (Morgan was killed a few days later in a clash between outposts.)

Preparations for the siege

Drummond lost several vital subordinates during the next few days, forcing him to take personal charge of the siege. Major General Henry Conron, who had recently arrived from England and who replaced Major General Phineas Riall who had been captured at Lundy's Lane, was incapacitated by a fall from a horse in which he sustained a broken leg. Colonel Stewart of the Royal Scots was summoned from Yorkmarker to replace him but fell ill with ague, and Colonel Hercules Scott of the 103rd Foot requested permission to relinquish his command of a brigade and return to command his regiment.

Capture of Ohio and Somers

While the British constructed their siege lines and batteries, three American schooners anchored in the Niagara River harassed them with gunfire. At the time, three small craft from the British naval squadron on Lake Ontario under Commander Alexander Dobbs were blockaded in the mouth of the Niagara River by three larger American vessels. Dobbs and his sailors and Royal Marines dragged six boats overland from below Niagara Falls and launched a boarding attack on the American schooners off Fort Erie on the night of 12 August. The crews of the schooners spotted and challenged them. The British replied "Provision boats", and deceived the Americans long enough to bring their boats alongside. They captured the Ohio and Somers. The crew of the Porcupine escaped this fate by cutting their anchor cables before slipping away, but were accidentally fired upon by US artillery on the shore. This victory raised British morale, but Drummond mistakenly believed that it depressed American morale to the same extent. He was encouraged in this belief by some American deserters, who also reported the defenders as numbering only 1,500, when in fact there were 2,200.

British assault

American Brigadier General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, commander of Fort Erie until wounded on 29 August, photographed in later life
On 13 August, Drummond opened fire on the fort with two light 24-pounder field guns and four 18-pounder or 24-pounder naval guns. The bombardment was fired from too long a range and was ineffective against the fort's walls. Drummond nevertheless launched a three-pronged attack on 15 August, with each arm of the attack aimed at one of the American batteries. The largest column, of 1,300 soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fischer of De Watteville's Regiment, would flank the south end of the defenses at Snake Hill. Another column of 700 soldiers under Colonel Hercules Scott of Brotherton, 103rd Foot, would attack the Douglass Battery and the north end of the defenses and sweep into the U.S. camp meeting Fischer's column in the middle. Finally, a column of 360 soldiers, sailors and marines led by Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond of Kelty, 104th Foot, would attack the fort once the other assaults were under way, with the objective of capturing the old British barrack buildings. A reserve of just under 700 was left in the siege lines under Lieutenant Colonel Tucker.

Colonel Scott and Lieutenant Colonel Drummond were both experienced soldiers and had little confidence in General Drummond's plan. Both men arranged their affairs before heading into battle, sending their papers home to their wives. Drummond even gave away his sword (a gift from Lloyd's of Londonmarker) to Surgeon William "Tiger" Dunlop of the 89th. Shortly before moving out, both men wished each other luck and bade farewell.

The columns moved out after dark, but the preparations during the day had been obvious from the fort. Surprise would be nearly impossible to achieve. While Fischer's column made its long march to the south of Snake Hill, Scott's and Drummond's columns waited in the pouring rain in a ravine a few hundred yards north of the fort. In the fort, General Gaines ordered his men to stand to. This produced rumblings from the troops forced to stand in their positions in heavy rain but would prove invaluable in the coming battle. He also ordered that the charges in all guns were to be drawn and replaced, ensuring the guns would not misfire through damp powder.

Fischer's attack

Fischer's column consisted of the light companies of the 2/89th Foot and the 100th Foot, the remnants of the 1/8th Foot, and volunteers from Fischer's own regiment, the Regiment de Watteville. De Watteville's nominally Swissmarker regiment was made up of men from all over Europe and the British commanders suspected their loyalty. On the approach march, the roll was called every hour to prevent desertion. Except for a few steady men, the entire column was ordered to remove their firearms' flints and take the enemy battery on the hill with the bayonet.

The column encountered an American picket 300 metres from the defences. Surprise was nearly achieved but because of the rainy weather, the British troops' advance was sounded by a loud swishing sound as they passed through high grass. The picket opened fire, alerting the garrison, before hastily retreating. The leading attackers rushed forward to the abatis. As they reached it, Towson opened fire. The rate of fire from his battery would earn it the nickname "Towson's lighthouse". Its fire was augmented by that of the 25th U.S. Infantry. After several attempts to storm the battery, many attackers broke and fled in panic, sweeping away the steady soldiers to their rear. Those who did try to scale the defences found that many of the siege ladders built for the attack had been made without taking the ditches into account and were as much as too short to get over the wall. The light company of De Watteville's attempted to bypass the defences by swimming in the Niagara River. The current proved to be too swift, and many of the men were swept away to their death; those who survived were quickly captured.

Some of the attackers charged the battery five times before retiring. Some units, such as the light company of the 8th, lost two thirds of their strength. De Watteville's regiment had 144 casualties (although many were "missing" and actually hid in the woods before deserting the next morning). Ripley, commanding this section of the American defences, reported taking 147 prisoners. His men suffered only a dozen casualties. Fischer's column reeled back in confusion and it was decided another attempt was impossible.

Scott's attack

Colonel Hercules Scott's column consisted of his own 103rd Regiment, less its light company. He launched his attack as soon as firing was heard from Snake Hill. Surprise was quickly lost when American pickets detected them and fired muskets to alert the defenders. Once the British had moved close enough, the guns of the fort and the Douglass Battery (loaded with canister) and several hundred U.S. Infantry opened fire, causing horrific losses to the British who were jammed into a narrow front between an embankment and the lake. Colonel Scott was mortally wounded by a musket ball in the head early in the attack. At one point in the battle, a cry rose from the British forces of "Stop firing, you're shooting your own men!", and the fighting ceased for almost an entire minute until an American officer, unconvinced by the unfamiliarly accented appeal, shouted back "To Hell with you!" and the firing resumed. Scott's shattered regiment fell back with 360 casualties (although some may later have joined Drummond's attack against the fort). The Americans facing them reported no casualties.

Drummond's attack

Lieutenant Colonel Drummond's column consisted of a small detachment of gunners of the Royal Artillery, the flank companies of the 41st Foot and the 104th Foot, fifty Royal Marines and ninety seamen of the Royal Navy under Commander Dobbs. The attack on the fort initially made little headway. Using the cover of darkness and the heavy smoke that hung over the field, Drummond then moved his men through the defensive ditch to assault the northeast bastion. The British caught the U.S. artillerymen there completely by surprise, and they quickly abandoned their guns and fled. Those under Lieutenant MacDonogh who stood and fought were quickly killed. as Drummond cried out "Give no Quarter to the Damn Yanks!" and charged deep into the parade square. A group of soldiers from the 21st U.S. Infantry (raised in Massachusettsmarker) reorganized themselves in the parade square and poured fire into the bastion. It is believed that Drummond was killed in this barrage. According to one American soldier, in the thick of the fighting he saw a "Red-coated demon, armed with a pike and screaming for his own death which we quickly obliged him to. He fell not far from our feet, no less than a musket's length away".

The attackers twice tried to storm the barracks and mess hall; the defenders in turn tried to recapture the northeast bastion. Fighting swayed back and forth for nearly an hour. General Drummond sent only two companies of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots to reinforce the attackers; they lost half their men and very few of them even reached the fort. Some Americans turned around an 18-pounder cannon on the rear redan and began to fire into the bastion less than away. The British responded by turning one of the captured cannons around and knocking the American 18-pounder off its carriage.

Shortly after the British began firing their captured gun, a large powder magazine in the bastion beneath their feet ignited. The explosion was immense, destroying the entire bastion and most of the attached barracks building. A two ton cannon was thrown out of the fort. Between 150 and 250 men, mainly British and Canadians, were killed in the bastion. It was gruesomely reported that some attackers were blown from the walls of the fort to land on the bayonets of those still in the ditch. The explosion caused havoc for both sides, although the Americans in the fort were sheltered from the full force of the explosion by the barrack buildings. Lieutenant Douglass was nearly killed when a large piece of flaming timber crushed the man next to him. The surviving attackers were convinced that the entire fort was mined, and they retreated in panic. Drummond's column had been almost wiped out during the attack. When the 104th assembled the next day and roll was called, those who were still standing openly wept at the loss of over half of their men who had attacked.

Aftermath

In total the British suffered 57 killed, 309 wounded and 537 missing (many of whom were killed in the explosion of the fort's magazine). The journal of surgeon William Dunlop described working on the wounded for nearly 3 days without ceasing. The Americans reported capturing 360 prisoners, 174 of whom were wounded. They themselves suffered only 17 killed, 52 wounded and 7 missing.

American sorties

American Major General Jacob Brown, commander of the Right Division of the Army of the North
In addition to the heavy casualties from the assault, Drummond's force suffered severely from sickness and exposure. The British troops lacked tents, and their crude huts and shelters made from bark and branches provided little cover. When the autumn rains began, the ground rapidly became inches deep in water. Drummond nevertheless was reinforced by two fresh regiments (the 6th and 82nd regiments of Foot), and maintained the siege. Major General Louis de Watteville also joined him to take over the day-to-day conduct of the siege.

On 29 August, a chance British shot severely wounded General Gaines and Brigadier General Ripley resumed command. Ripley's opinion of the entire campaign was far from positive, and he had even openly rumoured that the British would bring up further reinforcements and capture the fort. Major General Jacob Brown had only partly recovered from his wounds received at Lundy's Lane, but he nevertheless returned to Fort Erie to replace the pessimistic Ripley in command. It was known that Drummond's force was dwindling, and there were strong arguments for simply waiting for Drummond to abandon the unsuccessful siege, but Brown was determined to attack.

Action of 4 September

On 4 September, a detachment of Porter's brigade was sent out to attack the British Battery No. 2. The action lasted for close to six hours before being brought to a halt by a "tremendous rain and thunder storm". The leader of the American forces, Colonel Joseph Willcocks of the Canadian Volunteers (a small unit of Canadians fighting against Britain), was shot in the chest and killed.

Action of 17 September

On 15 September, the British finally completed Battery No. 3 at the western end of their siege lines, which enfiladed most of the American defences. Brown planned to outflank the western end of Drummond's siege lines, capture the batteries and spike the guns in them. Brigadier General Peter B. Porter was entrusted with the main attack. His pioneers cleared a trail through the woods to a point behind the British Battery No. 3. Drummond's troops and Indians, who were probably made lethargic by rain, sickness and shortage of rations, failed to detect any of this activity.

At noon on 17 September, Porter's force (volunteers from the Pennsylvaniamarker and New Yorkmarker militia, with the 23rd U.S. Infantry) moved along the trail covered by heavy rain. They completely surprised the remnants of De Watteville's regiment, who were covering that part of the siege works, and captured Battery No. 3. At the same moment, the recently promoted Brigadier General James Miller led detachments from the 9th, 11th and 19th U.S. Infantry along the ravine which had sheltered the British troops before their failed assault on August 15, and attacked the British centre. Attacked from both front and flank, Battery No. 2 was also captured.

By now, Drummond's reserves were hurrying forward. There was severe fighting amid the British entrenchments, but the Americans were unable to capture Battery No. 1. Brown ordered the attack to be broken off and sent Ripley forward to cover Porter's and Miller's withdrawal. In this brief but bloody affair, the Americans suffered 511 casualties (79 killed, 216 wounded and 216 missing). Porter, Miller and Ripley were all wounded. The British suffered more heavily, with 115 killed, 148 wounded and 316 missing

With two of his batteries destroyed and his force reduced to 2,000 effectives, Drummond abandoned the siege on the night of 21 September and withdrew to the Chippawa River.

Evacuation

In early September, Major General George Izard's division had been ordered to march from Plattsburghmarker to Sackett's Harbormarker, where they arrived on 17 September. On 21 September, the American naval squadron on Lake Ontario under Commodore Isaac Chauncey ferried the main part of the division to the Genesee Rivermarker a few miles west of the Niagara, from where they marched to reinforce Brown. Since Izard was the senior officer, he assumed command of the combined American force. The Americans now numbered 6,300 and had a clear advantage in numbers over Drummond, who had only 2,500 men even after further British reinforcements (the 97th Regiment) had arrived. Brown wished to make an immediate all-out attack. Izard instead waited until 13 October before he began a cautious advance, by which time the British had recovered much of their health and morale, and had strongly fortified the line of the Chippawa Creek. After some indecisive exchanges of artillery fire at the mouth of the river and a minor success against a British outpost at Cook's Millmarker on 19 October, Izard withdrew.

On 15 October, the British had launched the battleship HMS St. Lawrence on Lake Ontariomarker, and Chauncey's squadron promptly withdrew into Sackett's Harbor. It was no longer possible for the Americans to move supplies to the Niagara front, except by crude roads which would be difficult to use during the winter weather. At the same time, the British were able to reinforce and resupply their troops on the Niagara. Izard wrote to the Secretary of War, "At the head of the most efficient army the United States have possessed during this war, much must be expected of me; and yet I can discern no object which can be achieved at this point worthy of the risk which will attend its attempt."

At Brown's request, he and his division were transferred to Sackett's Harbor to protect the vital naval base. (The British contemplated making an attack there, but could not transport the necessary troops up the St. Lawrence before winter set in.) Izard, who was short of supplies, decided to abandon Fort Erie and go into winter quarters in New York state with the remainder of the army. On 5 November, the Americans set mines and demolished the fort before retiring across the river. This allowed the British to go into winter quarters also, which spared them losses from the winter weather. Izard himself asked for sick leave and tendered his resignation, which was refused. Many officers (including Brown) accused Izard of cowardice, and he was nearly court martialled as a result, but because of his military expertise and excellent service record, he was moved to a civil position and was eventually made Governor of Arkansasmarker.

When the British returned to the site of Fort Erie, they chose not to rebuild the fort due to lack of funds and simply added makeshift quarters until completely abandoning it in 1821.

During the entire Niagara Campaign of 1814, the British had suffered twice as many battle casualties as the smaller American force. Their attrition from disease and other causes was probably in the same proportion. On several occasions, especially after his own failed assault on Fort Erie, General Drummond blamed his troops for lack of spirit or misbehaviour in action, but most historians consider that Drummond himself planned poorly and took insufficient care to maintain his troops' health and morale.

Notes

  1. Hitsman, J. Mackay & Graves, Donald E. p.230
  2. Elting, p.246
  3. Cruikshank, Documentary History, p.118
  4. Elting, p.197
  5. Cruikshank, Documentary History, p.133
  6. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, p.206
  7. Elting, p.247
  8. Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.156
  9. Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.158
  10. Cruikshank (in Zaslow), pp.154-155
  11. Elting, p.248
  12. Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.155
  13. Cruikshank (Zaslow), p.161
  14. Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.162
  15. Elting, p.249
  16. Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.164
  17. Hitsman, J. Mackay & Graves, Donald E. p.233
  18. Journal of John Le Couteur, 4 Sept, 1814
  19. Elting, p.251
  20. Elting, p.252
  21. Cruikshank, Documentary History, p.207
  22. Cruikshank, Documentary History, p.219
  23. Elting, p.264
  24. Hitsman, J. Mackay & Graves, Donald E. p.266


References



Cited external links



Other external links

  • http://warof1812.ca/forterie.htm
  • http://members.tripod.com/~war1812/allbat.html
  • http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/locations/niagara.html



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