After a series of defeats in the first year of the war, the American government needed a bold new plan. Plans made in early 1813 in Washington DC called for an all out invasion of Upper Canada on all fronts. Forces stationed at Sacket’s Harbor would set out and take Kingston (the major Provincial Marine base in Upper Canada), York (the Capital of Upper Canada), and Fort Erie. Once those three objectives where taken, they would march on the headquarters of the British Army in Upper Canada, Fort George located in Newark (modern day Niagara-On-The-Lake). General Henry Dearborn quickly called off the attack on Kingston, after getting a (false) report that close to 8,000 British regulars had been stationed there. Instead Dearborn went ahead and attacked York at the end of April of 1813 capturing and burning the town, then turned his attention towards Fort George.
The central blockhouse at Fort George
General John Vincent had been given command of the British forces along the Niagara Peninsula he commanded a force of 1,000 regulars, 50 native warriors, and 300 militia. The British regulars stationed there were made up of the 8th (The King’s) Regiment of Foot, the 49th Regiment of Foot, the Glengarry Light Infantry, and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The trouble was that although Vincent knew that an attack was coming, he just didn’t know where the invading forces would land. With cannon fire between Fort George and Fort Niagara since the start of the conflict, Vincent assumed that any invading force would arrive under the cover the Niagara’s guns. But not wanting to leave an open area split his force into three groups, placing a majority at the river, another group west of Newark at the lakeshore, and the remaining forces inside Fort George. What Vincent didn’t know was that the Americans had massed a force of 4,000 troops.
Fort Niagara across the river
On May 25th the American guns opened up on Fort George and the British shore batteries, the attack was coming, Vincent knew this, but there was still no indication where the Americans were going to land. That became clear on the morning of the 27th, when a squadron of American ships sailed into range on the western side of the town, on the lake. By this point under two days of heavy bombardment Fort George had lost a few buildings to fire due to the heated shot being fired. The squadron under Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry managed to suppress the British Shore batteries giving time for Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott to lead the initial attack. Major Forsythe’s 1st US Rifle Regiment, the 15th US Infantry, and members of the 2nd US Artillery (fighting as infantry) waded ashore only to be met with a bayonet charge from the Glengarry Light Infantry, even Lt. Col Scott had to fight off a soldier, the Royal Newfoundlanders joined in the charge also but grape shot from Perry’s Squadron on the lake shattered the group forcing them to fall back. With the shore batteries suppressed Commodore Chauncey sailed his flagship the USS General Pike and proceeded to bombard Fort George with deadly results. The defenders managed to regroup outside of the fort linking up with the remaining defenders positioned near the river and forced Scott’s troops back into Newark, only to be again cut to pieces by the ships on the river and the next wave of American troops having landed.
A public golf course now occupies the site of the initial engagements of the Battle of Fort George. The public can visit the historic markers, just watch out for golfers.
General Vincent soon found himself outgunned, outnumbered, and outflanked. And with more American troops on their way he made the only call he could, retreat. Leaving a small force behind who destroyed what was left of the ammunition (the explosion knocked Scott from his horse breaking his collar bone) and spiking the guns Vincent and the remaining forces retreated back to Queenston, then Beaver Dams and finally the British fortifications at Burlington Heights. Along the way they were joined by the garrison from Fort Erie whom had fallen back as well upon a warning Vincent had sent them. The only saving grace was the delay of the US Dragoons, who were sent to cut off Vincent’s escape route. The British had lost the Niagara Peninsula to the Americans who quickly established themselves using Fort George as a base to probe the British lines. Bu they failed to exploit this advantage, under Dearborn they moved slowly giving the British time to regroup, engagements at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams forced them out, and by the winter of 1813 they had fallen back across the river, leaving Fort George, and the town of Newark in ruins, having burned Newark to the ground. Drummond struck back, as British forces crossed the river burning Buffalo, several other towns to the ground and taking Fort Niagara at bayonet point by December of 1813.
The memorial cairn marking the American’s landing site.
Today a majority of the battlefield is covered by the town of Niagara-On-The-Lake and a golf course, a cairn marks the approximate landing point of the initial attack on Fort George at the western side of the course. Fort George was rebuilt in the 1930s, and is open to the public as a museum and national historic site; the powder magazine in the fort is the original one. Across the river Fort Niagara is also open to the public as a historic site and museum.
With files from:
Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812 Second Edition by Gilbert Collins – 2006 The Dundurn Group Publishers
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