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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n51 (12/19/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

Why, We Are All Alone!

Buffalo in 1813 was a merry little village nestled into the elbow of the Niagara River and the Buffalo Creek. Most of its 500-800 citizens lived and worked west of today’s Ellicott Street and south of today’s Chippewa. Heavy woods crept up to the village limits, broken only by creeks, cart-paths, and the occasional homestead. Top-heavy with amenities—doctors, blacksmiths, taverns, and, curiously, lawyers—Buffalo had yet to fill out Joseph Ellicott’s stately street plan, hence its britches could be said to be too big for it. The war so far had inconvenienced Buffalo, but it hadn’t hit. It was about to.

American General George McClure’s December 10 burning of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) had incensed the British and Canadians. Payback started a week later with the taking of Fort Niagara and fanned out. To the east, British allies ravaged everything within a mile of the Ontario shoreline. Moving south along the Niagara, the redcoats burned Youngstown, Lewiston, and Manchester (Niagara Falls), and were kept from Buffalo only by the broad Tonawanda Creek. (The Brits couldn’t get their cannon over it because retreating Americans had destroyed its bridge.) They called for the boats and regrouped in Canada.

Buffalo’s citizens held their breath. Maybe the British would call it even. The payback for Newark was already tenfold. And warriors poured in, seemingly by the hour, to defend the city. People breathed easier. But Buffalo’s lead defender was melting down.

A born Irishman then hailing from Bath, New York, General McClure (1771-1851) felt “insulted” time and again on the Niagara and singled out volunteer commander Dr. Cyrenius Chapin for blame. (Many had tried to talk McClure out of several disastrous decisions, but Chapin must have been heated.) In mid-December McClure declared that, if the citizens of Buffalo wanted his protection, they should deliver up “that damned rascal” as a prisoner. This was absurd enough to be a front. Chapin was a hero. His exploits were local legends. As for McClure.…you notice we don’t have a parkway named for him. The citizens were openly talking about lynching him. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to duck the battle everybody knew he’d brought on. On December 21, McClure huffed out of Buffalo with up to 400 infantry.

His replacement, militia Major General Amos Hall (1761-1827), arrived on Christmas night. One of the founders of West Bloomfield, New York, Hall was only a veteran in name. He’d been a piper in his father’s Revolutionary regiment. He was a leader, though. It would have been nice if he’d had an army to lead.

What Hall inherited was a 2,000-man patchwork: 382 state militiamen; 39 Black Rock cavalrymen; 129 US Army cavalrymen; 433 Ontario County volunteers, and militiamen from Genesee (332), Chautauqua (300), and Erie (136) counties. Added to the mix were 83 Seneca headed by Erastus Granger and 97 Canadian volunteers under Benajah Mallory. The usual leaders of these last two irregular forces—Peter Porter and Joseph Willcocks—might have helped the situation, but they were in Washington answering charges over McClure’s conduct at Newark.

Hall’s problem was not just organizational. He had no trained infantry. (McClure took that with him.) He had no idea when and where the British would hit, so he had to spread his forces out. Still, size looked like strength, and on the evening of December 29, Hall wrote to General McClure in his Batavia retreat. “We have been able to bring a little order out of confusion…The enemy make considerable movements on the opposite shore.…I however do not believe they will attempt to cross unless they find our force is wasting.”

As the ink on Hall’s letter dried, the British were on the river. A thousand redcoats and 400 Native Americans, mostly Mohawk, came in two waves.

Bent on quashing cannon batteries and drawing the Americans out, the first touched down around midnight near the foot of Amherst Street. Led by portly Anglo-Irish Major General Phineas Riall (a festive fellow when he wasn’t trying to kill you), this force brushed aside patrols and took the bridge over the Scajaquada, probably where Niagara Street crosses it today. By then the cannon had opened up on both sides of the river.

In Buffalo, General Hall heard about the commotion to the north and wondered if Black Rock was the target or a feint. He sent a few hundred men to find out. On seeing that the British had beaten them to the bridge, their commanders discussed dislodging them. Dr. Chapin showed up, chewed them out, and charged the bridge with his mounted troop. Hell woke suddenly in fire, percussion, and lead. Chapin’s horses bolted in all directions.

The British came in on Black Rock. They torched shops, houses, the small wooden Fort Tompkins, and four ships in the harbor that 100 days earlier had helped win the Battle of Lake Erie.

General Hall sent militia, volunteers, and Seneca up to Black Rock. Colonel Chapin rallied some men and joined them. This force was just out of Hall’s sight when he heard about the second attack. If it landed behind the Americans, it would cut them off. Hall sent 300 Ontario County militiamen under Colonel Samuel Blakeslee to the water’s edge. They caught some second-wave boats in the water and poured shot into them, killing many. The rest landed. They would turn out to be 200 Mohawk and 400 Royal Scots, the formidable 1st Regiment called “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard.”

Most military units get some kind of nickname, but…say what? In post-Biblical tradition, the Prefect of Jerusalem who washed his hands of the Crucifixion was a Scotsman who, like many Romanized Celts, had risen to power. In that light, Pontius Pilate’s youthful exposure to Celtic tradition might well have been why he stayed neutral; to him, Jesus’s faintly Druidic pronouncements seemed neither radical enough to demand an execution nor original enough to stop one. These Scots were sardonically proud of him.

Whatever the source of their name, Pilate’s boys made it clear to General Hall that splitting his forces was a mistake. If he’d gone to Black Rock with all he had and beaten off either wave, the day would have been different. It was also clear how ruinous McClure’s conduct had been on all fronts. That big fat bodyguard he took to Batavia might have been the core round which a quavering army would rally. (In a real army, wrote Perry Smith, McClure would have been shot.)

Hall headed for Black Rock with the Chautauqua County militia. The disunity of his forces really hurt him. He had to summon most of his army from different directions and hope it would form en route. Too little of it did.

Some who never showed were doubtless lost. Others had no conviction that they would not be the only squad who showed up against an army. And all heard the war-whoops around them in the woods. The Empire’s Native allies had gone ahead of the British and were everywhere. It took guts to keep marching through that snowy darkness. (The recruiting posters had failed to mention the prospect of a midnight knife-fight with Magua.) General Hall arrived with a fraction of his force.

The 600 or so who stood up for Black Rock were outmatched. The Ontario County militiamen made the best showing. For 40 minutes they held like the shield-wall at Hastings and gave the Royal Scots all they could handle. The riverside echoed with cannonfire, musket-cracks, and clashing steel. Blakeslee’s men heard the British call their leader “that old Devil” and order fire his way. British commander Riall saw enough of the Canandaigua boys and ordered a charge at weaker points around them. The American pullback turned into the first Turkey Trot.

Samuel Wilkinson found himself loading and firing beside a small, quiet man who, like him would someday be an Erie County judge. Ebenezer Walden looked up to say, “Why, we are all alone.” It was true. Their comrades had evaporated into the night.

Only a few of today’s streets were even cart-paths in 1813, but because of the heavy woods and riverlike creeks, everyone who traveled used them. The British marched down Niagara Street and fought a rolling skirmish all the way with Cyrenius Chapin’s volunteers. There were countless clashes.

Carpenter John Seely hauled a cannon with his horse and fired at the British from every high point. Chautauqua militiaman Ira Owen saw comrades drop as if hit from an unusual direction. Some braggart was in their midst! When the man to his right fell, Owen glimpsed a gun behind a flour barrel 80 yards off, and waited, aiming. “The dusky intruder” raised his head to fire and dropped before he could pull the trigger. Owen darted to the spot and snatched his gun as a trophy.

Some volunteers made a stand at a homestead near the corner of today’s Plymouth and Porter and slowed the advancing enemy, all Native allies. One by one the Buffalonians filtered away as their foes massed. Balding carpenter Job Hoisington’s last words were something like, “Oh, you go on. I think I’ll just have one more shot at them.” His blocky, tomahawk-tattooed body was found under a snowbank.

At the corner of today’s Porter Avenue and Niagara Street the British split again. One file kept coming down Niagara from the northwest. The other turned east until it reached the ancient trail that became our Main Street and headed south toward the city core. It was said that as the two-pronged attack neared Niagara Square, the raised bayonets took the gold of the day’s first light.

Next up, Part 2 of the Burning of Buffalo.

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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