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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n16 (04/18/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

We Shall At Least Die With Some Grace

The State of War: April 1813

Agriculture and preindustrial war have at least one thing in common: They start in the spring. The season of 1813 commenced on the Niagara with both combatants at an apparent stalemate. No forts had changed hands, and no land had new owners. But situations and prospects were different.

American forces had some small triumphs in 1812. A ship-jacking episode often called “The Adams-Caledonia Affair” was one of them. The first half of the Battle of Queenston Heights was another. (A small nucleus of American regular soldiers fought their way to the intended mountaintop and fulfilled their mission, but the second half of the plan—backup—had collapsed in disorder.) A cannon-spiking, bridge-wrecking special ops mission often called “The Frenchman’s Creek Affair” was likewise a first-half triumph with no follow-through.

But the winter of 1812-1813 was bitter for the Americans, licking wounds, taking stock, and burying soldiers killed by illness in their camps—at least 300 of them in Flint Hill (Delaware Park) alone. All components of the American military presence—commanders, soldiers, volunteers, and state militias—were bickering, and local resources strained to host them.

Things were better on the other side of the Niagara. In 1813, Canada was more location than nation. So many Canadians had been so recently British, Irish, Scottish, or American that concepts of national identity were loose. While a serious political rebellion against British patronage and privilege in Canada had taken form, the west side of the Niagara had generally rallied to the challenge of the war. Not only had they rebuffed every significant attack, but the Canadians along the Niagara were more prosperous and comfortable than their American counterparts. Part of that was due to their own industry and territory. Part was due to their mighty patron and the influence of the world’s number one navy.

Two hundred years ago, the land around the Great Lakes was a massive, creek-streaked tangle of old growth forest. It was said in the day that a squirrel—an unusually focused one, we presume—could get from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania without setting paw to ground. Land travel otherwise was a nightmare. Imagine horse-drawn carts, dirt roads, flooding creeks, and washed-out bridges. Toss in the Niagara’s potential nine-month rainy season. (Any ECIC coach knows what I mean.) The only means of transporting big cargo was big water, which meant the lakes. Not until the development of the Erie Canal (1825) and post-industrial engineering would it be any different. For most of the 1812 war, Britannia ruled the waves, including those of lakes Ontario and Erie. The Empire could merrily shuffle men and goods, stock forts and forces, and strike quickly anywhere near a coastline. The Americans had to use the land routes. Their armies were chronically undersupplied.

Still, as of April 1813, the war hadn’t come to the civilians. The Canadian side was apprehensive about the uncoordinated giant to the south, but its citizens were in far better position than they knew. The British redcoat was the era’s most professional soldier, and an army of them the world’s most formidable force. Even Napoleon never beat a redcoat army at even strength, and this was the backbone of the Empire’s presence on the Niagara. While Canadian units were mostly volunteers, roughriders, and guerillas—usually undependable in campaigns—these were fighting for their homes, and they knew their territory. Never underestimate that combination. And their Native American allies, chiefly the Iroquoian Mohawk, were among the finest forest-fighters the world has ever seen. “I would as soon be besieged by hobgoblins as by the Iroquois,” said the Jesuit Father Vimont. They had the same effect on American armies, who had nothing to neutralize them until the Iroquoian nations of Western New York, the Seneca, Tuscarora, and Cayuga, joined the fighting in the summer of 1813.

On the American side, people were discomfited by the camps of their own soldiers—can you imagine a three-year Woodstock with cannon?-—but otherwise as complacent about their safety and livelihoods as most of us about the prospects of the North Koreans liberating the halftime ceremonies of a Bills game. 1813 would be the year they got a lesson. The still-rusty American army hadn’t fought a war since the Revolution. Its Niagara posse looked big if you counted heads and not soldiers, but part-timers—volunteers and state militias—made up most of the force. In September 1812, one of Washington’s few seasoned officers had pronounced the Army of the Niagara “a danger more to itself.” It spent the off-season refining its supply lines and training, and another inspector noted improvements. Still, his forecast for the 1813 season was rueful: “We shall at least die with some grace.”

Mason Winfield is the author of 10 books, including Ghosts of 1812 (Western New York Wares, 2009), a history of the 1812 war on the Niagara.

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