Battle of Fort George

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The War of 1812 is one of the few times that Canada has been invaded, and it has become a part of Canadian lore for the heroes it created, such as Isaac Brock, Tecumseh and Laura Secord, as well as for the tales of victory on the side of the Canadians.

While we would burn down the White House, and prevent the Americans from taking any permanent territory in Canada, it was not all victories for Canada and the British.

Sometimes, we would lose and from May 25 to 27, 1813, Canada would experience one of those defeats.

This is what would happen in the Battle of Fort George.

Before we get to the battle, we of course need to look at Fort George first.

Fort George had been built by the British Army in 1796 after Britain had been forced to withdraw from Fort Niagara following signing of Jay’s Treaty between the United States and Great Britain. The entire role of Fort George was to provide a counter balance to Fort Niagara.

For the next three years until 1799, the Fort would be built by the Army and would then be established as the headquarters for the British Army and the Canadian Militia. Some sources say that the fort was finished in 1802, rather than 1799. The Fort was an imposing structure for its time. It had six earthen and log bastions that were linked by a wooden palisade and surrounded by a dry ditch. Within the walls, there was everything the armed force needed including officer’s quarters, barracks, workshops, a stone powder magazine, a hospital, kitchens and a guardhouse. Fort George provided vital protection for the British over the Niagara River thanks to its placement. Despite its imposing size and look, it was considered to be extremely defective in its role. For one thing, the magazine was built of stone to protect the gunpowder inside, and it had an arched roof but that arched roof was not bombproof.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Fort George took an immediate important tole serving as the headquarters of the Centre Division of the British Army. Within the fort there were British regulars, Indigenous warriors, freed slaves and the local militia. Fort George was also where Isaac Brock would serve until he was killed in the Battle of Queenston Heights in October of 1812. Following that battle, Brock would be interred at the northeast bastion of the fort, where he would remain until 1824 when his remains were transferred to the Brock Monument.

On Feb.10, 1813, a plan was put forward to attack Fort George, along with several other key strategic points including Kingston, York and Fort Erie. Major General Henry Dearborn of the United States would later write that the plan was to take York, then proceed to Niagara and attack Fort George by both land and water. The original plan had 4,000 soldiers attack Kingston and then York before going on to Fort George, while 3,000 soldiers attacked Fort Erie. A decision was made by Dearborn to avoid Kingston because he believed there were 6,000 to 8,000 British soldiers there, which would later be proven to have been a false report.

On April 27, 1813, the Americans succeeded in the Battle of York, where they remained for several days before proceeding to Fort Niagara. The plan was then to attack Fort George but Dearborn allowed his men to rest and reorganize first. While at Fort Niagara, the Americans would parade in plain view in the hopes of overacting the British in display of numbers. At the same time, reinforcements were arriving on a daily basis at Fort Niagara.

The plan for the Americans was to attack from the shore of the Niagara River, supported by 12 schooners who had at least one heavy cannon each. Two other large vessels would engage the British batteries. The American force of 4,000 infantry would land in four waves. The first wave was commanded by Colonel Winfield Scott. This wave would consist of 20 boats with 400 infantry, along with hundreds more infantry on the flanks. This force was ordered not to advance farther than 300 paces from the water’s edge.  The second wave was commanded by Brigadier General John Parker Boyd and consisted of rifle volunteers and a battalion of artillery. The third wave was commanded by Brigadier General William Winder, which consisted of artillery, as did the the last wave commanded by Brigadier General John Chandler. Dearborn would be aboard the Madison observing the battle.

In all, it is estimated each wave consisted of about 1,500 soldiers each.

On May 25, the Americans began to bombard Fort George from their river positions and from Fort Niagara. In the fort, the gunners would heat the cannon balls to be red hot and then fire them into the cannons and fire. This would result in several log buildings in Fort George being burned to the ground, with women and children taking refuge in the bastions.

As for the British, they were under the command of Brigadier General John Vincent, who had 1,000 soldiers, along with 300 militia. Vincent knew an assault was coming but he did not know which direction it would come from. He believed the Americans would attack from the Niagara River so he had several regulars placed there in anticipation of the attack. Unfortunately, the attack, which happened just as the early morning fog on May 27 dispersed, came from the lake shore to the west. Vincent saw 15 vessels and 90 large boats arriving a few dozen soldiers each approaching. The American troops began to land west of the mouth of the Niagara River, while the schooners began to fire upon the British batteries. The Glengarry Light Infantry would charge at the Americans with their bayonets and Scott would fight off several soldiers but since the Light Infantry was outnumbered, the Glengarry company had to retreat after losing half their men. Within that company, Lt. Col. Myers would be hit three times in leading the first charge, and every field officer and most of the company of officers were killed or wounded.When the survivors retreated from the field, they left 300 dead and wounded behind.

The schooners fired into the British troops on the shore of the lake, dealing heavy casualties to the Royal Newfoundlanders and the Eight Company. Around this point, the second wave of the troops began to land and Vincent saw his troops were outnumbered and in a real danger of being outflanked.

No more troops were landed by the Americans after 10 a.m. due to a large wind that came up, making anymore landings too dangerous for the troops.

At noon, Vincent ordered an immediate retreat south to Queenston before the fort was encircled. He ordered the guns of the fort to be spiked and the magazines blown up but because of the approaching Americans, this was done in a hasty manner and Scott was able to take the fort with very little damage to these parts. One small magazine did explode, and Scott was thrown from his horse and broke his collarbone. Several women and children were also left behind in the hasty retreat, and actually would have probably been killed if the demolitions had of gone as planned.

Scott and his men were pursued at first before this was abandoned and the Americans returned to the fort. Vincent would continue on to Beaver Dams, near current Thorold, Ontario, where he he gathered with the British detachments from Fort Erie, which had been abandoned by the British. The resounding victory allowed American schooners to move into Lake Erie where they would be instrumental in the Battle of Lake Erie later in the year.

For the Americans, one officer and 39 enlisted men were killed, while five officers and 106 men were injured. Most of the casualties came in the first wave of the attack, while the second wave only suffered six men wounded. The third and fourth waves suffered no casualties. One person was killed and two were wounded in the U.S. Navy. The only officer killed was Lt. Henry Howard, who was the grandson of General Dearborn.

For the British, it was a much worse result. A total of 52 regular troops were killed, 44 were wounded and 262 were missing. Another 16 men, who were wounded and left behind at the fort, were not listed as casualties. The Americans, under their official report, state they took 276 prisoners, 163 of whom were wounded.

Following the battle on May 29, Captain Fowler would write to Colonel Baynes that the enemy had landed 8,000 men on that day, 5,000 in the first waves and 3,000 throughout the day.

While the Americans had a huge victory with Fort George, they were slow to act on it by advancing up the Niagara peninsula. Vincent was able to arrive in Burlington Heights on June 2 with 11 field guns and 1,800 seasoned soldiers who were ready for another battle. Three days later, Vincent launched a surprise attack at the Battle of Stoney Creek, which would lead to a major victory for the British. This victory would blockade the Americans in Fort George and return control of the Niagara Peninsula to the British.

Dearborn would be criticized by his contemporaries and historians for not taking advantage of his success. It was felt that he should have divided his attack and approached Fort George along the Queenston Road to cut off a route of retreat. He had originally planned to do this but failed to execute it in time. Dearborn would then see two defeats on the Niagara Peninsula, which would force his resignation. The Americans would eventually abandon Fort George after the Battle of Beaver Dams in December of 1813. As they retreated, they would destroy the town of Niagara. Described by Captain William Merritt of the Provincial Dragoons as a place where there was “nothing but heaps of coals, and the streets full of furniture, met the eye in all directions.” In all, 130 homes were destroyed and 400 people were left homeless.

Dearborn would not see success after the war. He would be nominated for Secretary of War by President James Madison but the Senate rejected this because of his performance during the War of 1812. He would die in 1829.

Winfield Scott, who led that first successful wave, would go on to lead the American army invading Mexico in the Mexican War. He would earn the rank of Lt. General, the first person since George Washington, in 1855 and he would serve as commanding general of the US Army from 1841 to 1861. Today, he is seen as one of the most accomplished generals in US history. He would die in 1866 and is buried at West Point.

John Parker Boyd would leave the army in 1815 and get involved in business. He would become the Naval Officer of the Port of Boston in 1829, serving until his death the next year.

William Winder, the leader of the third wave, would see his career destroyed after the his defeat at the Battle of Bladenburg, which would lead to the burning of the White House and Washington by British troops. He would be court-martialled for his role in the battle but was also acquitted of all blame. He would die in 1824.

John Chandler, the leader of the last wave would become the first president of the Maine Senate in 1820 and would serve as senator for that state from 1820 to 1829.  He would die in 1841.

Perry would see success on Lake Erie in the Battle of the Thames. His military career and life ended five years later due to Yellow Fever.

As for Vincent, the man who commanded Fort George, he would develop ill health and would eventually go back to England before the end of the war. He would never see active service again but would become a full general in 1843. He would hold the post of Lt. Governor of Dumbarton Castle from 1814 to his death in 1848. He was also the colonel of the 69th Foot in 1836.

Following the War of 1812, the Fort was left to fall into ruin and eventually abandoned. During the First World War, the fortification was used as a military training base by the Canadian Army and in the Second World War, it had the same purpose and was called Camp Niagara. The military would leave the grounds in 1966.

In 1921, the battlefield site was made a National Historic Site of Canada, as was the nearby Fort George that same year. Many buildings at the site of the fort were reconstructed in the 1930s and today the fort is manned by staff who maintain an image of the fort as it was in the 19th century. The stone powder magazine, which survived the Battle of Fort George, is now the oldest building in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the oldest military building in Ontario. Information comes from the Canadian Encyclopedia, Friends of Fort George, Wikipedia, Battle of Fort George 44th Battalion Pamphlet, Military History Of The Upper Great Lakes,

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