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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n3 (01/17/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

Go Tell The Spartans

Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

- William Lisle Bowels’s translation of the epitaph to the 300 Spartan dead at Thermopylae

The Buffalo 300: Forest Lawn/Delaware Park

Every time you take the Scajaquada Expressway you cut through Flint Hill. Envision it as it was 200 years ago today, a windswept, wintry realm of pastures, groves, rail fences, and a couple one-story wooden buildings. Imagine a few miserable soldiers patrolling the outskirts, looking like ghosts themselves among the swirls of snow. Every now and then, hear the sound of a musket-shot, and a rumble of cannon fire from the west.

As the last of his Buffalo misadventures, General Alexander Smyth sent the Army of the Niagara into winter quarters in the late fall of 1812. Most of the soldiers camped on Flint Hill, the windy high point on Judge Erastus Granger’s 1806 farm at the east end of today’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. As a campsite Flint Hill was dry. Its high, hard terrain didn’t pool water. But cold, crowding, filth, and lack made of it a chilly hell.

Armies need to train, to move, to be led well, and to fight. General Smyth seemed to think his troops could stay put in the cold, nurtured and encouraged by his interminable and silly orations. Had he worked less on his speeches and more on his military duties, history might remember him differently.

In those days the organization of an army’s supplies was its commander’s job. And though the system of the whole US government was poor, Smyth was no star. His troops were short of blankets, cots, coats, socks, tents, boots, and even food. Many sentries patrolled barefoot. The US government paid contractors to supply its armies, but they let us all down. (“We are literally starving at this end of the line for bread,” wrote Fort Niagara’s commander the same year.) Things were so bad at Flint Hill that its commanders appealed to the public for aid.

The frustration of the men stalled at Flint Hill can only be imagined. Some went on strike, stacking their muskets, refusing to pick them up, and threatening to shoot any officer who harassed them. Some deserted, and many who were caught were shot in sight of others or hung and left hanging as reminders. (Executions took place at the corner of today’s Dewey and Main streets, and possibly at Florence and Crescent.) Some soldiers out on patrol—especially those, one would think, crunching barefoot through the snow—took pot-shots in the direction of General Smyth’s tent. On December 22, Smyth applied for leave “to spend more time with his family,” and made his exit from the Niagara. Those he left at Flint Hill had to stand and die.

Armies, cold, and hunger have another companion: disease—and the 19th-century versions were as dangerous as any enemy. An American prisoner gave the British an account of Flint Hill: “They die from eight to nine daily…Two or three holes are made every day, and into each [are] put two to four dead men.” Patients first reported “a pain in the head”; next they died, within two hours. Besides this mystery-ailment, the prisoner mentions pleurisy, dysentery, and measles. Added to the misery were those wounded in the constant cross-Niagara cannon fire. As at Fort Niagara, the surgeons at Flint Hill lacked medicine and instruments. By the spring, 300 of them were dead.

The hard, high ground that made for dry camping made, too, for painful digging. The men of Flint Hill could bury their late comrades only shallowly. In the spring of 1813 Captain Rowland Cotton and Judge Granger relocated the 300 bodies to softer sleeping a few hundred yards north. Contracted to make the coffins was William Hodge, owner of the “Tavern on the Hill” then at the crossing of today’s Main and Utica.

Cotton and Granger put a mound over the dead in the eastern section of today’s Delaware Park and planted a yellow willow at each end. These trees fixed the spot till the Buffalo Historical Society set a more fitting marker on Independence Day, 1896. A plaque on a stone in Park Meadow—a public golf course—holds a few lines for the Buffalo 300. It’s not “Go tell the Spartans…,” the epitaph that John Ruskin called “the noblest group of words ever uttered by man,” calling no drama to its subjects but explaining why they cannot be seen at their posts; but it does its laconic best:

To the memory of unnamed soldiers of the War of 1812 who died of camp disease and were buried here.

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

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