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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n22 (05/30/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

"He is Lost! He is Killed!"

May 27, 1813: The taking of Fort George

It was late spring, 1813. The war hadn’t hit the Niagara hard, but that was about to change. A lot of American sailors and soldiers were on the Niagara, planning a knockout punch for the British. The April pillage of Ontario’s capital York (today’s Toronto) was just a tweak to the nose. Next up was a gut-shot: Fort George.

Built in 1802 to match Fort Niagara in Youngstown, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Fort George had dirt ramparts, a low profile, a fine Georgian officers’ building, and nine feet of height over its riverside bookend. It housed British soldiers, local militia, Native allies, and two unlikely pets—live bears. (All that’s written about these furry mascots is that they were great favorites of the hard-drinking 49th Regiment, “The Green Tigers,” and that one was shot and the other “executed.” This hardly defies the Pythonesque plotline that, after a night of gaming and partying with the Tigers, the pair dueled over a woman, and the victor was gunned down while escaping.)

In the last week of May, 1813, US commodore Isaac Perry’s navy visited southwestern Ontario and started shelling Fort George. Fort Niagara and other riverside batteries chimed in, with a new wrinkle in cannonfire: “the hot shot,” cannonballs heated in furnaces and lofted cherry-red. Most of Fort George—even its fire engine!—was smoking by the night of May 26.

Fort George commander Brigadier General John Vincent needed no psychic to tell him that he was under attack, but he had no clue where it would touch down. He posted most of his 1,200 Redcoats along the Niagara near the Fort.

The attack came out of a cotton-candy mist on the Ontario shore half a mile northwest. Just after dawn on May 27, US Colonel Winfield Scott landed some troops just east of the mouth of Two Mile Creek around the foot of today’s Vincent Street. Five hundred defenders rushed to the contact point.

Timing is the key in any water-to-land attack. Without both surprise and a big, quick landing, the invader faces disaster. The Americans had achieved a bit of the first, but they were short on landing craft. It would take at least four waves to get 2,000 men ashore.

The philosophy of the land-to-water defense has never varied: Catch the invader at the beach. Here defenders can outnumber attackers and chew them up, boat by boat. But in the age of the muzzle-loading black-powder gun, the only way to do it quickly was up close: the bayonet.

The Scots-Canadian Glengarry Light Troops caught the American first wave at the water. One of them nearly skewered Winfield Scott, the ablest young officer in the army. More than one heart skipped a beat. General Henry Dearborn watched through a glass from his ship, saw Scott tumble, and cried, “He is lost! He is killed!” Scott felled his attacker with his saber and led a charge up the beach. Not until half the Glengarries were down did the rest sullenly retreat.

The day was still in the balance. A multicultural band of reinforcements charged up, including the sturdy British 8th Regiment (“The Leather Hats”), some Native Americans, and Robert Runchey’s valiant Company of Coloured Men, African-Canadian militia. Once Colonel Moses Porter’s artillery was ashore, the invasion hit critical mass. The Americans moved through the village toward the smoking, shell-pocked fort.

The fort was lost. General Vincent’s priority became saving his redcoats, whom he pulled south toward Queenston with unseemly dispatch. Civilians, women, children, and even the British flag were left behind. The sight of the Union Jack set off a US officers’ race won by the 6’5” Winfield Scott. (“Damn you!” yelled runner-up Moses Porter. “Your long legs have got the better of me again!”)

The coup de grace would have been catching Vincent and his regulars in the open, and that almost happened. Some American dragoons (horse-soldiers) crossed the river and nearly cut them off. Winfield Scott gave chase and got close enough to engage their stragglers. Major-General Morgan Lewis dreaded an ambush and ordered Scott back. (“Once again the invaders have cracked the shell of the nut but lost the kernel,” wrote Pierre Berton.) Ironically, the village named for Lewis—Lewiston—was burned a half-year later by many of the men his decision spared.

Still, the Battle of Fort George was an American triumph. The Empire lost its fort and a big chunk of its force: 350 killed, captured, or wounded. Five hundred Canadian militia were prisoners. The Americans lost 140. But these figures feel unreliable. An American doctor surveyed the beach, site of the heaviest fighting, and reported 400 bodies.

The Yanks had their hold on Fort George; but like holding the tail of the tiger, when do you let go? The summer of 1813 would be a hot one on the Niagara.

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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