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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n48 (11/28/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

Bayonets Are Trump!

Fort Niagara

December 18-19, 1813: The Fall of Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY

It was near midnight at Saint David’s, a village just west of Queenston, Ontario. Hundreds of men milled about the chill gloom, tending to boats, weapons, ladders, and provisions. Their target was across the river: Fort Niagara. Colonel John Murray looked them over and asked Captain Thomas Dawson of the mostly-Irish 100th Grenadiers what sort of men they were. “They can all be depended on,” he was answered.

“Yes, Dawson, I dare say, but what I mean…” He looked away as if something was hard to say. “Are they a desperate set? I want men who have no conscience, for not a soul must live between the landing place and the Fort.”

That meant prisoners. Civilians. Women. Children. Anything. Dawson assured him. These men would not only fight; they would slaughter. How had it come to this?

In his retreat from Fort George the week before, American General George McClure burned the village of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake). While the attack killed buildings and not people, there were other firestorms. For the first time in this war Canada was roused. The Empire had a rallying cry to justify any payback. The first stroke would be quick.

Fort Niagara looked forbidding, but it was weak. Its green, meager garrison lacked backup. (Most professional American soldiers had been called away from the Niagara.) Its officers were bickering, and its commander–Captain Nathaniel Leonard–treated the Fort like a day job. He should have been expecting an attack, but he hadn’t changed the password for three days.

Around midnight on December 18, 562 picked men crossed the river and landed at Five Miles Meadows near today’s Stella Niagara. Utter silence was the key to surprising the Fort. Lest a stray shot give them away, Murray directed his entire force to unload their muskets. They were to use only bayonet and gunstock. One could envision the operation’s architect smiling grimly across the river. Canadian-born General Gordon Drummond was known for his fondness for settling matters at close quarters.

What an eerie cortege the shadow-army made, quiet as ghosts, landing, unloading, and tramping north. The educated among them must have been reminded of the reanimated sailors of Coleridge’s already famous supernatural ballad “The Rime…” Footsteps muffled by snow, the occasional clink of an implement, and the river’s constant sigh were the only sounds. Nothing was poetic about what followed.

Near Youngstown, a lone American shot off a rocket intended to rouse the Fort. He was bayonetted. Other sentries too focused on keeping warm and an advance guard party of forty men met the same fate.

Hulking Sergeant Andrew Spearman approached a sentry shivering outside a Youngstown tavern, faked an American accent, then choked the man to the ground. His stealthy comrades listened outside as twenty sentries played cards. One American asked his mates, “What’s trump?”

“Bayonets are trump!” yelled the Canadian captain. His team rushed in and skewered them all.

At 3am, Spearman and Dawson came to the Fort’s outer gate. Thinking them Americans, the sentry turned. Spearman strangled him to death. The rest rushed up, against all odds, to the main gate wide open and lightly guarded, with all but a handful of the garrison unarmed and asleep. A sentry here got the picture and called out, “The British!” But they were already in, and teeming daggers.

British Lt. Maurice Nolan rushed into the dim South Redoubt (a mini-fort) with pistol and sword. His men found him shot and stabbed beside three American bodies. Twenty-five Americans fought stubbornly until their barricades gave way. They were bayonetted to a man.

At the Red Barracks—then an infirmary—men blocked doors, fought barehanded, or wrenched away muskets with their spearlike bayonets. Some sick and wounded were spitted in their cots. The British may have known they were veterans of the American victory at the Battle of the Thames. Some women and children were likewise mowed down. One commander shouted, “Bayonet the whole!” Strokes from these long triangular points—meant to go in and out and leave unstitchable gashes—could have been lethal even in limbs. Blood would have poured…just so long.

Once the day was won the humanity of individual Canadians and British soldiers returned, else no Americans might have lived. By most accounts, 80 Americans were killed at the Fort and 350 captured, including shaky Captain Leonard, hungover at his cozy farmhouse. There is no tally of the slaughtered, including whole families, along the route of the murder-march. The British lost only a handful. This was the most one-sided victory they would ever have on American soil.

To the Americans the loss of men, morale, and position was shocking, but just as bad was the loss of materials. Fort Niagara’s artillery, ammunition, food, and medical supplies nurtured the Empire’s war effort at the start of the starving season. A blood-dimmed tide reared over the whole American Frontier.

Next up, Lewiston.

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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