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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n26 (06/27/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

Green Tigers and Cherry Bounce

Peter Porter

July 11, 1813: The Raid on Black Rock

It was high noon on July 10, 1813, and a spy was looking across the Niagara. It was British Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon. At that point in the war the Empire’s forces on the Niagara were in such dire straits that they didn’t have salt to pickle pork. Through Fitzgibbon’s glass, the lightly guarded American supply depot at Black Rock had to look like a buffet. Two British colonels sashayed up behind Fitzgibbon, wondering if 300 men might be enough for a cross-river heist. Fitzgibbon laughed. His “Bloody Boys”—50 commandos picked from the 49th Regiment (nicknamed “The Green Tigers”)—had been planning the job themselves.

Fourteen hours later, Bloody Boys, Green Tigers, and other redcoats pushed off in a mist from Chippawa Creek, aiming for a touchdown south of the Scajaquada. The river was so strong that they ended up north of the spot, past Squaw Island. Fitzgibbon’s Bloody Boys took an eight-man US picket (scout party) by surprise and rampaged through the town of Black Rock.

The main force led by 30-year-old Colonel Cecil Bisshopp crossed the bridge, probably where today’s Niagara Street meets the Scajaquada. They scattered some militia and entered Black Rock, bent on stealing supplies, burning boats and buildings, and wreaking general deviltry.

US volunteer commander Peter Porter woke up in the path of a redcoat river. He jumped out the back of his fine house at Niagara and Breckenridge, borrowed a horse from his old black neighbor Robert Franklin, and galloped about Buffalo in his nightshirt looking for help. The British officers ordered breakfast at Porter’s house.

A bugle roused another sleeper: James Sloan, an itinerant peddler of dubious sobriety, waking alone in Hawley’s riverside tavern. He looked out. The navy yard, the military barracks, and a 50-ton schooner were ablaze. Redcoats were emptying a warehouse of salt, flour, pork, grain, cannon, and enough whiskey to set an army roaring. A baker named Wright was dead in the street. Sloan ducked back under the covers. A rough face looked in the window and yelled, “Sergeant Kelly, here is a man in bed.”

Two men in green coats burst in. Sloan said he was too sick to stand. They threatened to skiver (skin) him where he lay. Sloan got vertical. They asked if there was any drink about. Sloan hauled up the jug of “cherry bounce” he was doubtless saving for breakfast. (Cherry bounce was a ghastly mash of bourbon, honey, and fermented cherries.) Two filled canteens, three chugged from the jug, and Sloan was an honorary Bloody Boy. The pair advised him to hop back in bed, the safest place in Black Rock that morning. Sloan left us, though, with a glimpse of the mounted colonel who led the operation.

“Kind-looking” Cecil Bisshopp was the son of a baron and the heir to title and fortune. Only honor kept him in this war. Like the Empire’s Native allies, his men—whom he treated like human beings—were said to “adore” him. He was commended for “spirit and activity” at Queenston Heights, but lacked judgment at Black Rock. This should have been a hit-and-run operation. Bisshopp hit and lingered.

Peter Porter returned with 175 regulars and 100 militiamen and volunteers, including 12-year-old Henry Lovejoy, toting a musket bigger than he was. Even a chief with “eighty snows on his head”—Farmer’s Brother—led 30 Seneca on the two-mile trot to their first action of the Niagara war. Porter’s tatterdemalion army formed a mile south of the Black Rock shipyard and about 7am jumped the still-looting British near the bend of Niagara at Busti. “A body of Cossacks” could not have surprised him more, Bisshopp would later remark.

Most of the fighting was in the region at which West Ferry, Auburn, Breckenridge, and Lafayette meet the river, where, after 20 minutes, Green Tigers and Bloody Boys alike were shocked to be getting their butts kicked. They broke for the boats in atypical disarray and rowed for Canada. Farmer’s Brother waded neck-deep into the water for one parting shot.

The win at Black Rock was a rare one for the Americans in 1813. They lost a handful, but a hundred British were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Both their admired young commanders were hit. Seneca warriors carried British Captain William Caulfield Saunders to Porter’s house, where he recovered enough in three weeks to be moved. Cecil Bisshopp made it back to Canada but lasted only five days. His wounds didn’t seem serious; he may have grieved himself out of this world for the deaths he blamed on himself—a deeply Romantic passing. His fellow officers laid him under a monument at Lundy’s Lane, which, three decades later fell apart. Bisshopp’s sisters in England replaced it with the one we see today.

One who would die without tribute or monument was the festive Sergeant Kelly, wafting doubtless into the halls of judgement in an air of cherry bounce.

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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