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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n46 (11/14/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

Willcock's Folly

The Burning of Newark, Niagara-on-the-Lake, December 10, 1813

To refresh us on this 200-year-old war: The US screwed up all of 1812 on the Niagara and pretty much everywhere else. The first sign that it might be getting its act together was its takeover of Fort George (May 1813) at Niagara-on-the-Lake (then-Newark). This cleverly timed land/water/fakeout operation was not only a military masterstroke, it was a strategic blow. In those days, forts at choke points controlled trade, travel, and war. After losing Fort George, the redcoats left the Niagara. Just a few hundred guerrillas waged a hit-run, summer-fall war.

By November 1813, the balance had shifted. Washington’s deep thinkers had transferred its professional soldiers off the Niagara and hung Fort George out to dry. It was the Empire ringing the Americans with a large, seasoned force. It was the US defending its fort with a skeleton crew—60 healthy men!—of shivering amateurs. Brigadier General George McClure had to leave the west side of the Niagara. The only question was one of style, and he made the worst decision of his abortive career. A bitter seed in his own ranks may have been behind it.

Publisher, soldier, politician, and rebel Joseph Willcocks (1773-1814) was a born Dubliner who might have had his dander up against the British as a factor of his DNA. A dark-haired, handsome man, he was in York (Toronto) by 1790 and in politics by 1794 (by which time one of his bosses had described him as “lacking a sufficiency of brains to bait a mouse trap.”) He’d also had his first brush with the Empire’s Ontario establishment.

In those days an appointed body, the Executive Council, decided who did or didn’t get to own land. Not all its opinions were unbiased. Willcocks was among the Canadians objecting to this system. By 1807 he was on the Niagara and publishing a radical paper, The Upper Canada Guardian; or The Freeman’s Journal. Still, at the war’s start he was loyal to the Empire. Once British hero Isaac Brock fell and civil liberties—including the right to any form of dissent—were reigned in, Willcocks and his volunteers offered their services to the Americans. While he’s remembered as “Canada’s Benedict Arnold,” Willcocks’s anti-imperialist sentiments would be praised in other circumstances. When the Americans pulled out of Fort George, Willcocks took what he thought was his last shot. He persuaded General McClure to burn Niagara-on-the-Lake.

All during the cold, windy day of December 10, Willcocks’s Canadians and American militia roused Newark’s inhabitants house by house. At dusk they started setting fires. They came to the home of William Dickson, a man Willcocks had had sent to the 1812-version of Gitmo. (Dickson had shot dead in a duel Willcocks’s most influential patron.) Willcocks’s henchmen carried Dickson’s ailing wife outside, wrapped her in blankets, and tucked her into her bed in the snow. Rightly called “a firebrand,” Willcocks himself torched her house. Like 400 other citizens, Mrs. Dickson had an ideal perch from which to watch everything she owned set to fire and rise as smoke and ash.

Folk in Lewiston and Youngstown might have spotted the eerie glow in the west and wondered if the eye of Mars was blinking back. For the British and Canadians, the unholy sun set in the wrong part of the sky. Canadian dragoon Captain William Hamilton Merritt set off to investigate. Merritt’s horsemen approached an astonishingly intact Fort George, its American garrison already crossing the river. Half a mile north lay a greater shock.

Where a town had been were piles of embers with only chimneys and foundations standing. Other former buildings were skeletal fires that spun and gloated with every whip of the wind. Shadows of still forms—chests and chairs hauled into the streets—rocked with each toss of the flames behind them. Dark against the blazes, human forms ran, huddled, and whispered like the shades of newly-killed Trojans greeting each other in the Aeneid’s hell.

Already people were at work putting out embers, pitching snow into foundations, and makeshifting shelters—boards piled around chimneys. Word came that “Butler’s Barracks”—nearby buildings used for quartering troops—had been spared, and some started moving toward it. Others trudged on snowy roads south to Fort George or toward farms to the west or north.

The burning of Newark was more affront than tragedy. The quaint village had once been the capital of Upper Canada, and the Yanks had ravaged the current capital, York (Toronto) seven months before. Though folk tradition maintains that women and children were found frozen in three foot drifts, no deaths were recorded. It was also a puzzle. Why had the Americans attacked civilian homes and left the military prize—Fort George—intact? For the British and Canadians this outrage upon Newark’s buildings justified any retribution “by fire and sword.” The war had done its worst to the Canadian side of the Niagara. The Americans’ turn was dead ahead.

The founder of Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., 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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