This Day in History: Fort Niagara & the War of 1812

On this day in 1813, the British sneak across the Niagara River. They would capture the American garrison at Fort Niagara the next day, then begin razing the countryside. The War of 1812 was in full swing!

Unfortunately, the campaign in New York was just the beginning. By August, the British would burn Washington, D.C., too.

Americans had gotten off to a good start during the spring of 1813. They’d captured Fort George and Newark, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Unfortunately, it was difficult to build upon this victory. American forces were said to be “disaffected” and “ungovernable.” Their pay was in arrears. Supplies were lacking. Some forces left, diverted towards an effort to capture Montreal.

By December 1813, Brigadier General George McClure had only 100 unhappy men defending Fort George. He knew that he could not maintain a defense of the fort throughout the long winter months. He would need to retreat to the American side of the river. Before he left, he carried out orders to burn Fort George and Newark (modern-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario).

The decision would have disastrous consequences.

The attempt to disable Fort George didn’t go too well. Moreover, hundreds of civilians in Newark were left homeless, just as winter was setting in. “Every building in Newark is reduced to ashes,” McClure later wrote, “the Enemy is much exasperated and will make a descent on this frontier if possible.”

All in all, it was a big mistake.

British Lt. General Gordon Drummond was furious! He would not let the destruction of Newark go unanswered. He sent Colonel John Murray to retaliate.

On the night of December 18-19, Murray crossed the river to attack the Americans, then encamped in Fort Niagara. Perhaps the Americans should have seen it coming? Instead, they were caught with their guard down, completely unprepared for the retaliatory attack. Most of the men were asleep. The fort’s commander was a few miles away at his family’s home. (Some say he was drunk!) Matters were tilted even more in favor of the British because they’d managed to learn the American countersign.

“Our men were nearly all asleep in their tents,” McClure later reported, “the Enemy rushed in and commenced a most horrid slaughter.”

More than 300 Americans were taken prisoner. Nearly 100 were killed or wounded. Only 20 men escaped. When the fort’s commander returned the next morning, he was also taken captive.

Unfortunately, the capture of Fort Niagara was just the beginning of the British effort. Drummond immediately began dispatching his forces into New York. They razed town after town. By the end of the year, as the state’s Governor would report, the “whole frontier from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie is depopulated & the buildings & Improvements, with a few exceptions, destroyed.” One eyewitness described a “scene of distress and destruction such as I have never before witnessed.”

Needless to say, it would be a long year for the American effort. But how things would change in the space of that single year! By January 8, 1815, Americans would be celebrating a satisfying victory at New Orleans, just as a peace treaty with Britain was finally being signed.

When all was said and done, Americans felt that they’d won a second war of independence against Great Britain.

P.S. The attached engraving is of a soldier’s wife at Fort Niagara during the War of 1812. She is helping to load cannon.