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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v13n2 (01/09/2014) » Dispatches: War of 1812

The Empire Strikes Back

December 30, 1813: The Burning of Buffalo, Part 2

For all but the last two days of 1813, Buffalo was a prospering village with a fancy street plan in the elbow of two rivers, the Buffalo and the Niagara. Dense woods came up to the village limits and covered everything that wasn’t a creek, a road, or a homestead. Most of its citizens lived and worked south of today’s Chippewa Street and west of today’s Ellicott, and they had tucked in feeling pretty well protected on the night of December 29. They had a big force—2,000 guys—but none were regular army soldiers. (The only American professionals on the Niagara were patients at the hospital in Williamsville.)

Before sunrise on December 30, the town, fort, dock, and naval base at Buffalo’s northern bookend, Black Rock, were in flames, and a redcoat army moved south down the Black Rock Road, today’s Niagara Street, toward an undefended young city. Fires were in its wake, and fires lined its course, spouting stormy clouds, pitching bloody light into their bellies, and hailing them as they rose with sparks. Musket-cracks, cannon-blasts, barked commands, creaking wagon wheels, and the high whinnying of horses commandeered the chilly air. The war-cries of the Empire’s Native allies lent terror and mystery to the pastures, the woods, and everywhere there was obscurity. How had things come to this?

American General George McClure’s December 10 burning of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) had outraged the British and Canadians precisely as the American position was weakest. Payback started a week later with the taking of Fort Niagara and fanned out.

To the east, British Native allies made it halfway to Rochester and ravaged everything within a mile of the Ontario shoreline, including the Tuscarora Reservation. 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 across because retreating Americans had destroyed the bridge.) They regrouped in Canada, landed a pair of burly strike forces at Black Rock on December 29, and won a wee-hours snowy battle against disorganized and untrained amateurs. As of 5am on December 30, 1813, most of the American militia had scattered, and no organized force stood between a young city and 1,000-plus redcoats bent on the last stroke of payback for Newark.

The roads were hard and well-trodden, they say, and a foot of old snow was about. The first signs that something could be amiss for Buffalo came a few hours after midnight. Retreating—that’s a kind word—militia with a head start on the skedaddle swooped in and scarfed a few provisions for the trip out, including complimentary snacks and beverage. A farm or tavern surprised by 10 armed strangers wouldn’t have had much to say about it, and the better men were still up north fighting. Rough with the people they were supposed to protect but chicken with their enemies, these militia—dispirited, semi-shanghaied, part-time combatants—were despised by all parties on the Niagara, the only part of the nation that got a steady diet of them. The battle for Buffalo was only one of their debacles. They didn’t earn their honor here until the last stroke of the local war.

Cyrenius Chapin’s volunteers badgered the redcoat army constantly, but it was unstoppable. At least people knew where it was! The Empire’s Mohawk allies were everywhere, looting, burning, ambushing, and intimidating. There were many skirmishes between them and Buffalo’s citizens.

At the corner of the Guideboard Road, today’s Porter/North Street, half the British force turned east. When it came to the ancient trail that had become Main Street (then the Williamsville Road), it headed south toward today’s downtown. It’s safe to say that not all Buffalonians met this development with composure. In fact, most were as spooked as those of the cinematic Tokyo under the shadow of Godzilla.

There were two routes of escape: one north and then east via the Williamsville Road; and one an extension of today’s Route 5 to the south branching off into today’s Route 16/Seneca Street and into what’s still called “the Big Tree Road,” Route 20A. Once the British hit their cutoff at Guideboard/North, only the southern route was viable.

People fled their homes, grabbing odd items. A woman stuffed rising dough into a pillowcase, hoping to land somewhere and bake it. Mothers handed toddlers to strangers on horseback, hoping to collect them later. Babies were stacked in wagons beside loaves of bread. Horses and carts raced one way and then the other. Citizens speeding east on Main were turned back by a band of Native Americans in the woods at Guideboard/North. Some tore off in one direction; met more Native Americans, whom they presumed to be foes; ran back to their original spot; were outstripped by those they fled; found them to be loyal Seneca; ran back the first direction; met the Mohawk who’d been chasing the Seneca; and changed direction howling again.

There are vivid recollections of the night. Some of them were ironic.

“General Hall is a coward!” yelled dauntless widow-tavernkeeper Margaret St. John to a knot of American officers prepping to hoof it out of town. One looked like he was about to say something, then rode off with the others at a princely trot. Someone told Mrs. St. John that General Hall was among them. She replied that she would not take her words back and might even have added a few had she known. Having lost her husband and two sons to this war, she may have figured it had done its worst to her. But Mrs. St. John overstated the case. When he took over Buffalo’s defense on Christmas Day, Amos Hall’s present had been a disorganized rabble, and with it he’d duked it out for 40 minutes with the hardest army in the world. The only worse humiliation would have been for him to be taken prisoner. “He did the best that in him lay,” wrote Perry Smith. And at Williamsville bridge over Eleven-Mile (today’s Ellicott) Creek, Hall rallied 300 men and gave the Mohawk second thoughts about upstate adventuring.

Among the first to learn of the disaster at Black Rock were the family of volunteer Captain Samuel Pratt. Roused in their fine home at Main and Eagle by taps on the window from Judge Ebenezer Walden, they were better prepared than most. They kept a cart and provisions ready. Still, they were separated in the chaos. Pratt’s delicate, religious, Vermont-born wife Sophia (daughter of Revolutionary General Samuel Fletcher) rode toward Batavia with three Pratt children under eight and two black servants, one a fugitive slave named Jack Ray and another a girl remembered as “Tam.” On the way they picked up Mary Haddock, a five-year-old neighbor who had been lost in the shuffle. Little Tam, however, could not be talked out of going back for the family silver. She jumped off the cart and is lost to history.

Another Pratt boy, 13-year-old Hiram, lived at the northwest corner of Main and Swan as almost a surrogate son to volunteer Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Cyrenius Chapin. As the redcoats neared, Dr. Chapin came back from the action and told his two daughters, Amelia (11), and Louisa (nine), to head on foot for his Hamburg farm under the guidance of gallant young master Pratt. Then Dr. Chapin returned to the war.

The children ran a harrowing gauntlet to the riverside ferry and picked up another lost child, Hiram Pratt’s 11-year-old sister Mary. Among the first to cross the Buffalo Creek, the four slogged along the lakeshore trail with the rest of the wretched throng. It was said to be wet here under the foot-deep snow. A militiaman hustling away from his duty urged them to hurry lest “the Indians” catch them. “Why don’t you stop and fight them, you coward!” Amelia Chapin yelled back. At that moment her father was trying to slow the British. Captain Pratt moved like a shadow amid the looting Mohawk, putting out fires.

The first houses burned were either off the main invasion route or on fire when the British arrived. The Mohawk saw to that. The first Buffalo home torched may have been that of the Dill family at the northwest corner of Delaware and Tupper. The next was the home of Samuel Tupper near today’s Main and Tupper streets.

Sarah (Sally) Lovejoy was a tall, comely, dark-haired Yankee matron last seen wearing the little black dress. Her home was 465 Main. She called her precocious 12-year old, whom we remember as the warrior of Black Rock the summer before toting the musket that looked bigger than he was. “Henry, you have fought against the British,” she said. “You must run. I am a woman. They will not harm me.” Henry Lovejoy (1801-1872) took off, and lived to become Buffalo’s archetypal surveyor, largely based on his memories of property lines in pre-burning Buffalo. His mother stayed to defend her home.

Sally Lovejoy might have had a couple belts of the cherry bounce (an extreme sort of muddled, pre-mixed old-fashioned). She’d have done better to take the advice she gave her son. When the Mohawk came to loot her house, she took a butcher knife to the first. Through the window a neighbor saw the tomahawks rise and fall. Sarah Lovejoy’s body was found in the street, gently laid in her house, and consumed with it in the subsequent burning.

There were even scenes of humor. Three Mohawk women came into the St. John home, found Mrs. St. John and two daughters standing together, swapped their own national headpieces for the bonnets of the frontier dames with the nonchalance of rearranging a mantle, and left without comment, undoubtedly convulsing with laughter just outside. (One of the oldest jokes in the longhouse is pulling one over on whitey as straight-faced as as the Mandela-memorial sign-language guy and holding it together until he’s out of sight. They still do that.)

Outside, Mrs. St. John’s daughter, the remarkable Sarah, was chased and cornered by a Native warrior, his face daubed vermillion. As he closed, his motive unclear, Sarah did a double-take, smiled as if introducing herself, and reached out a hand. Instead of killing her, he shook her hand, painted her face the same brilliant red as his own, and motioned her to make tracks, probably collapsing with the giggles the second she left. To the longhouse folk, the white custom of the handshake was inexhaustibly hilarious.

Before things got too out of hand, the British cut off the alcohol. (Celebrating Mohawk tended to party.) Then they went about the destruction in a civilized way.

Things were desperate by the Buffalo River as people tried to escape to the south. Crossing on the thin ice was unthinkable, though some tried and were lost. (If you went underwater on a night like that, you weren’t coming back out.) The only safe transport was the ferry, a boat on a rope. It held twenty at a time, but hundreds waited, and it moved with agonizing speed. There was a rush every time it returned. No wonder. The Mohawk were near. Smoke rose from the city-center. Bullets whizzed overhead. What guarantee was there that some of those militia-style bullies might not push everybody aside, cross over, jump out, and run like hell for Hamburg? Someone needed to bring order to the scene. One arrived who could do it.

Captain Samuel Pratt was a veteran of many guerrilla adventures on the Niagara. Though a slight, well-spoken man, he was no one to mess with. Years before he had single-handedly horse-whipped a Seneca man known to the whites by “the inquisitive cognomen” (according to William Pryor Letchworth) of Peter Gimlet. The cause was stealing meat from a boiling kettle Pratt’s little daughter had been set to watch. Pratt, a trader, had his own nickname among the Seneca, sometimes written Ho-da-ni-da-oh. (It means “fair dealer” or, in essence, “straight shooter.” Pratt extended the Seneca liberal credit, knowing that a if a debtor died before repaying, his relatives would make good lest his spirit never rest.) Several hundred Seneca gathered outside Pratt’s home to protest the offense to their brother and hear Pratt’s side of the case. The Seneca counsel withdrew, returned with the judgement that they’d have given Gimlet a few more whacks, and offered to hold the varlet if Pratt felt like catching up.

Pratt and some volunteers took posts at the Buffalo Creek. Glaring back toward their smoking homes and clutching their weapons, they made sure the ferry kept going and that women and children got to ride it. Surely some of them were Native. How many Seneca died so that white Buffalonians might live?

A few Americans tried to slow the human storm. Lieutenant Colonel Cyrenius Chapin and his volunteers found a cannon on a warship in the Buffalo Creek, mounted it on a pair of wagon wheels, brought it to the intersection of today’s Niagara and South Division, and waited till they saw the redcoats coming down Main Street. More were approaching from the city commons on Niagara Square. Chapin’s handful started firing alternately down each street. One cannon sounds inconsequential against an army, but these streets were laser-straight, and the British were drilled to march in formation. A speeding hunk of lead would have bowled a strike through redcoats as long as Delaware Avenue. After a few spirited blasts, though, the cannon collapsed.

It was 10 in the morning. Dr. Chapin set the white hanky to his sword and met the British officers at today’s Franklin Square by Old County Hall, offering surrender terms: Public property was theirs for the taking, but private property was to be respected. Happy to turn off the sniper-fire and get Chapin’s berserkers corralled, the British accepted. But soon Chapin saw new smoke in the air over businesses and homes and demanded a meeting with General Phineas Riall, leader of the attack. He got as far as Colonel Elliott, leader of the Native allies, who informed him that the new burning was in response to a new attack.

Forty sick American regulars from the Williamsville hospital had indeed come to see if they could lend a hand. The walking shades were persuaded to withdraw; but it could be argued that Chapin’s surrender terms had been violated by his own side. When it was found that Chapin wasn’t exactly in charge (those who were had run off), the British declared the agreement invalid and arrested him on the spot. They were looking for an excuse. To the British, Chapin was a turncoat—he’d once practiced medicine at Fort Erie—and a brigand for the cross-Niagara guerrilla work of his mounted troop “the Forty Thieves.” Chapin and 90 comrades were shipped off to prison camp in Montreal. Their war was over.

Margaret St. John marched through the mess to a cannon-toting advance guard. A mounted British colonel addressed her crossly. “Why are you not away?” She replied that she had lost the chance and had nowhere to go but the cold and snow. The colonel leaned on his saddle and looked off.

“I have just now seen a very unpleasant sight in the house over the way,” he said. “The Indians have killed a woman, and I am very sorry any such thing should happen.” He set a couple of Royal Scots to guard Mrs. St. John’s house and sent her to British headquarters at Niagara and Mohawk Streets. Margaret St. John walked right up to the redcoat officers, possibly including General Riall, and demanded that they spare her house and tavern at 458-476 Main. Startlingly, they complied. Maybe the officers had, in happier moments, sampled her vintage, and were looking forward to it again in peaceable seasons. It was reason enough to have spared Hustler’s pub in Lewiston the week before. Still, what Mrs. St. John said to save her holdings is one of the mysteries of Buffalo history.

By three that afternoon the British were on the river. At least a tenth of the city lay dead. Citizens returned to a ruined village and numberless ghastly sights. Litter, carts, and bodies marked the snowy roads. Dazed horses and cattle wandered in the ruins, looking for forage and purpose. Bodies, frozen in their mangled attitudes, lay like the mimes of Death himself, like Herculaneum’s shocked and petrified dead. Many had been scalped, skulls still showing. Wolves licking the bloodfrost looked up arrogantly. Lake gulls and crows chiseled bits of loved ones’ limbs.

A number of the dead were found and laid out at Reece’s Seneca Street smithy, stiffened in all manner of poses, blackened by fire and powder or bloodied from shots or blows. An African-American known as “Frankie” was one of the those displayed, a tomahawk wedged in his skull. Frankie was known for a stutter and a contorted expression while straining for a word; one who knew him swore the blade had caught him with his mug stuck in the characteristic pose. Another African-American killed was the loyal Robert Franklin, found outside his Niagara Street home. Maybe the British remembered him saving Peter Porter the July before, loaning him a horse during the first British bushwhack on Black Rock. Maybe his countrymen forgot. For an unseemly time his body lay by the street unburied.

The plucky Pratt and Chapin children trudged snowy roads all the way to Griffin’s Mills and spent the night after the burning on the floor of a log house. They slept as well as they could the next night at a tavern whose name they didn’t recall. (It was filled with wounded soldiers whose moaning kept them awake.) On the third evening, young Hiram safely delivered his women-folk to the Chapin property in Hamburg and set out to find the rest of his family. In five days he and his sister rejoined their mother, then in Lima. She fainted when she saw them. Many other families were separated for months, if not broken forever.

In the first week of January, 1814, peddler James Sloan and Judge Samuel Wilkinson took a walk up Main Street from the Buffalo Creek to the Cold Spring at Ferry. They saw nothing alive but a cat haunting the site of its former home. As for buildings, all that stood was the blacksmith shop, the brick jail on Washington Street, and Mrs. St. John’s home. Only the fieldstone foundations and a few chimneys were left of every other building. Soon people piled boards over these rocky holes that had been basements and lived in them as temporary shelters. Those who tried to survive in the suddenly disordered city had plenty to fear from the desperadoes who came to prey upon them, “barely deserving the name ‘Americans,’” according to Orsamus Turner. It would be the hardest winter Buffalo ever faced.

On January 12, 1814, the Commander in Chief in British North America His Excellency First Baronet Sir George Prevost (1767-1816) cut loose with a huffing third-person statement of regret that British troops had been forced to take measures “so revolting to his own feelings and so little congenial to the British character.” He was through targeting civilian lives and homes “unless the future measures of the enemy should compel him again to resort to it.” Prevost ended by implying that the Americans should watch themselves thereafter, but it fell hollow. By then, the two sides were incensed with each other, and the Niagara’s bloodiest year was to come. This was a long way from the gentleman’s war that had started with Queenston Heights.

Surely the strangest effect reported of this affair came during the first day’s exodus from the city. Fleeing citizens remarked upon the unsettling, alarming shadows that overtook and streamed by them as they toiled on the roads under moon- or sunlight. Undoubtedly some effect of the burning city, they may have been cast by pieces of singed fabric or ash that drifted just yards overhead. Still, no one who reported them was sure what they were or why they would have so specifically haunted human avenues.

The official tally of Buffalo’s dead was modest—only in the dozens—but that couldn’t possibly be the full number. Many victims were not discovered until the spring, and many who died as a result of war-related actions—exposure, wounds, illness—were not listed in the night’s total. The blow in trauma surely lasted generations. A hundred years after the Civil War my South Carolina grandmother thought the human world was only a coin-flip away from turning upside down. Apprehension had to have lasted in Buffalo.

No, all over the American Niagara, victims slept the winter uncounted, hallowed and buried only by the snows. They were still being found in the warm seasons to come. By the spring, it was earth’s and undergrowth’s enfoldment that called them back. By the summer, people knew how to spot the shady places where their changed forms nestled or had been: by the clouds of delicate golden butterflies that rose up when a traveler’s passing rustled the brush.

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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