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This Day in History: The War of 1812 & a British siege of Fort Erie

On this day in 1814, the British besiege Fort Erie. It had been mere days since American and British forces had clashed at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, the bloodiest land battle of the War of 1812.

At that battle, Americans under Major General Jacob Brown fought until late in the night, but they finally withdrew and retreated toward Fort Erie. (See July 25 history post.) A follow-up British attack was perhaps inevitable, so Americans quickly got to work improving the fort’s defenses.

Repulsion of the British at Fort Erie, by E.C Watmough

They also needed a new commander. Brown had been seriously wounded at Lundy’s Lane, so Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines was sent to take over the command. He arrived on August 4, just as the British were beginning their siege.

On the other side of the conflict, British Lt. General Gordon Drummond was determined to launch an attack, but he considered the action risky. “[C]onsidering the strength of the enemy’s position and the number of men and guns by which it is defended,” he wrote, “[the attempt] must certainly be considered as one of great hazard.”

Unsurprisingly, then, Drummond made a few attempts to undermine the American forces before he launched his formal attack. He dispatched some men in an attempt to disrupt American supply lines. The resulting conflict at Conjocta Creek ended badly for the British, but Drummond had more tricks up his sleeve. Next, several British ships were sent after the American schooners helping to guard Fort Erie. Two of these American schooners were captured—a significant British victory.

On August 13, Drummond began bombarding the fort. The assaults weren’t tremendously effective. Many of them, one officer noted, “seemed to ram the earth harder” than the fort’s defenses. Undeterred, Drummond prepared for an early morning assault on August 15. He still hoped to take the Americans inside the fort by surprise.

His plan didn’t work—not even close! Gaines already knew that Drummond was coming. Deserters had told him.

Drummond was trying for a three-pronged attack, timed to coincide with a diversionary effort from his American Indian allies. Unfortunately for him, that diversionary attack never materialized. And Americans were ready and waiting for his “surprise” attack.

Perhaps the British had lost before they’d even begun?

One wave of the British attack began on a fortified hill known as Snake Hill. British soldiers had been ordered to remove their flints so they could better maintain the element of surprise. Presumably, that could have worked if Americans really had been surprised. Instead, Americans were ready to meet the British, and the red coats had no way to respond when Americans began firing on them. The British soldiers ran into further problems when they discovered that their ladders were not tall enough to scale the fort’s walls. Unsurprisingly, retreat soon became their only option.

In the meantime, another prong of the British attack was going better, but a chance explosion changed all that. A powder magazine unexpectedly exploded, completely consuming many British soldiers, even as it left Americans relatively untouched.

Gaines later said that the “[e]xplosion was tremendous—it was decisive.” Another American officer described the “horrid sight” that followed. “Some three hundred men lay roasted, mangled, burned, wounded, black, hideous to view,” he wrote in his journal.

The Americans had won, at least for now. But their victory didn’t stop the British from retreating and re-establishing their siege.

How did the siege finally end? Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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