The War of 1812 along the Great Lakes Seaway Trail
Less than 30 years after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and the United States officially gained recognition as a sovereign country, a young American nation again declared war on Great Britain. The War of 1812 was fought for a variety of reasons, including British interference with American shipping, the seizure of American sailors, trade restrictions with France (with whom Britain was also at war), and British support of Native Americans which limited westward expansion.
The War of 1812 ranged along much of the Great Lakes’ coastline where American, British and Native American forces clashed for control of the heart of the continent. At the start, however, neither country was truly ready for war. Americans were overly optimistic about how easy it would be to march into Canada, while Great Britain was preoccupied with the conflict in Europe and largely viewed American hostilities as a bothersome distraction.
A look at some of the major events of the War of 1812 along the Great Lakes Seaway Trail:
LAKE ERIE REGION
President James Madison ordered the construction of a naval fleet at Erie in order to regain control of Lake Erie. Daniel Dobbins and Noah Brown led construction of four schooner-rigged gunboats (Ariel, Porcupine, Tigress, and Scorpion) and two brigs (Lawrence and Niagara). The ships were constructed between December 1812 and June 1813. A sandbar protected Presque Isle harbor, but also meant that the large brigs needed to be stripped of guns, ballast, and all heavy material, then lifted approximately 3 feet by barges (known as “camels”) in order to get out of the harbor. This fleet successfully fought the British in the Battle of Lake Erie.
Battle of Lake Erie
September 10, 1813 saw one of the biggest naval battles of the war as nine vessels of the United States Navy defeated and captured six vessels of the Royal Navy, thus ensuring American control of the lake for the remainder of the war. This in turn allowed the Americans to recover Detroit and win the Battle of the Thames to break the Indian confederation of Tecumseh. After the battle, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry notably sent a message to General William Henry Harrison stating “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Also notable is that Perry, forced to surrender his initial ship, the Lawrence, carried his personal flag bearing the motto “Don’t Give Up The Ship” to the Niagara where he proceeded to win the battle. Today, the Niagara can be seen at the Erie Maritime Museum. It is one of the last two ships remaining from the War of 1812.
The Brig Niagara sailing the Great Lakes today
Ask anyone from Chautauqua about their participation in the War of 1812, and they will tell you that the first shots on Lake Erie were exchanged near Dunkirk, NY. Legend holds that Captain Martin Tubbs and local militiamen fired on the Lady Prevost, a British schooner, which was moored near Canadaway Creek.
BUFFALO/NIAGARA FALLS REGION
Battle of Queenston Heights
The Battle of Queenston Heights was the first major battle in the War of 1812, taking place on October 13, 1812. Before daybreak, American troops began crossing the Niagara River from the village of Lewiston. Several boats were swept downstream by the current, while the others were greeted with heavy musket fire from the shores and cannon fire from the Heights. The British General Isaac Brock – known as The Hero of Upper Canada – was notably killed in the fighting. A small American force managed to make their way up the escarpment and capture the British cannon, giving them temporary control of the battlefield. As fighting continued, British reinforcements arrived while the American militia refused to cross the river. This advantage enabled the British to retake the Heights and ultimately force the Americans to surrender.
Battle of Fort George and Burning of Newark
On May 27, 1813, the U.S. succeeded in taking control of Fort George, located across the river from Fort Niagara in Newark (present day Niagara-on-the-Lake). Later that year, most of the regular American soldiers there were redeployed to Sackets Harbor to take part in an attack against Montreal. On December 10, General George McClure learned of a British advance, and decided his position at Fort George was untenable. He hastily evacuated his troops to Fort Niagara, and the village of Newark was burned. The burning of Newark was the pretext for the British to carry out similar outrages later.
Capture of Fort Niagara
On December 18, 1813, a British force of more than 500 soldiers crossed the Niagara River approximately 3 miles above Fort Niagara. They were under orders to use the bayonet so as not to lose the advantage of surprise. They captured American pickets in Youngstown and forced one of the prisoners to reveal the American challenge and password. The British troops then advanced silently toward Fort Niagara and gained entry through the gate. By the time the Americans became aware of the deception, it was too late to stop the British from rushing in and taking the fort.
Aerial view of Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, NY
Burning of Lewiston
Just hours after capturing Fort Niagara, British troops as well as their Native American allies headed south along the Niagara River with torches, guns, and tomahawks – intent on retribution for the burning of Newark. In the early morning of December 19, 1813, Lewiston residents awoke to unimaginable horrors. Lewiston citizens could only run for their lives through the snow and mud in hopes of escaping the murderous rampage. Seeing the destruction, Native Americans from the local Tuscarora village came to the rescue, offering the first resistance the British had seen. The Tuscarora used diversionary tactics to give the impression they were a substantial force, despite being outnumbered 30 to 1. They were able to buy enough time for the escaping residents to get out of harm’s way, saving the lives of dozens of citizens. A monument to these “Tuscarora Heroes” will be unveiled in Lewiston on the 200th anniversary of the event – December 19, 2013.
Burning of Buffalo and Black Rock
After destroying much of the Niagara Frontier, the British troops were finally halted in their southbound march as Americans set fire to a bridge over Tonawanda Creek. The British returned to the Canadian side of the Niagara and marched south, carrying their boats around Niagara Falls. The British crossed the Niagara in the early hours of December 30, 1813, landing approximately 2 miles downstream of Black Rock, They pressed onward, forcing the retreat of the Americans whom they pursued all the way to Buffalo. Once in Buffalo, the British and Indians burned nearly all of the buildings and destroyed the navy yard and several ships. They then moved back to Black Rock and torched the town before crossing back in to Canada.
ROCHESTER/CENTRAL LAKE ONTARIO REGION
British Raids on Charlotte
The south shore of Lake Ontario saw several minor skirmishes, most often the result of British attempts at confiscating American supplies. In Charlotte (Rochester), there were several British encounters. On June 13-16, 1813, the British fleet landed at Charlotte and confiscated various provisions which the residents surrendered without fighting. On September 11, 1813, the British were again making preparations to come ashore, but were driven off by the American fleet led by Commodore Isaac Chauncey. On May 13, 1814, the British attempted another landing, though the local militia refused landing and the British fleet departed after a brief exchange of cannon fire.
Battle of Pultneyville
On May 15, 1814, British warships under Commander James Yeo anchored off of Pultneyville. After negotiations, an agreement was reached permitting the British to take government supplies located in town without resistance, however a dispute broke out and weapons began firing on both sides. According to Yeo, the British “Flag of Truce was fired on from the woods,” thus starting the confrontation. The Americans noted that before terms of the truce were agreed upon, the British started taking supplies – and then went beyond the public warehouse and began plundering houses. The British retreated to their ships, taking two prisoners, and proceeded to shell the town, though causing only minor damage before sailing away.
Battle of Sodus Point
After the June 1813 British landing at Charlotte, word quickly spread that an attack on Sodus Point was imminent. The militia was immediately brought in and they remained at Sodus Point for several days. When no enemy appeared, most of the force left on the morning of June 19, 1813. Their timing would prove to be very poor as British ships came into sight that same afternoon. While some militia did return, many who fought were ordinary citizens. The British made their first advance that night, shots were fired, and darkness forced both parties to retreat. The Americans, realizing the British force was superior, scattered. The next morning, the British landed again and were met with little resistance. They seized supplies and then set fire to all but one of the buildings.
This mural in Sodus Point shows the events of the British raid there in June 1813
EASTERN LAKE ONTARIO REGION
Battle of Oswego
In May 1814, the British set their sites on Oswego, intent on seizing American naval supplies heading to Sackets Harbor. The British ships approached on May 5, but unfavorable winds forced them to withdraw and regroup. The following day about 700 British troops came ashore. The vastly outnumbered Americans fell back to Fort Ontario, which was largely in a state of disrepair, before retreating to the south. Failing to find supplies and munitions destined for the American naval base at Sackets Harbor, the British destroyed Fort Ontario before leaving on May 7.
Aerial view of Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY
Battle of Big Sandy
After the successful attack on Oswego, the British withdrew to the Galloo Islands in northern Lake Ontario where they could monitor and intercept any supplies on their way to Sackets Harbor. On May 28, 1814, an American force set out from Oswego in 19 boats loaded with supplies to be taken to Sackets Harbor. On the morning of May 29, they arrived at the mouth of the Salmon River having mysteriously lost one of their boats. The lost boat was discovered by British forces, eliminating the secrecy of the mission. The Americans met up with their allies, the Oneida Indians, who marched north along the shore while the boats proceeded in the lake. They reached the mouth of Big Sandy Creek later that day and brought the boats as far inland as possible. The British gunboats spotted the flotilla and chased them into Sandy Creek where the Americans and Oneidas were waiting. When the British forces had progressed up the creek, the American and Indian forces rose from their hiding places. After a short period of gunfire, the British quickly surrendered to avoid further casualties.
The Great Cable Carry
Although the Americans won the Battle of Big Sandy, the British still had control of the lake, so in order to get the supplies to Sackets Harbor, it was necessary to take an overland route. Ox carts were collected to carry most of the supplies, but one item in particular required a significant coordinated effort to reach Sackets Harbor – the main cable (rope) for the Frigate Superior. The cable was 7″ in diameter, 594 feet long, and weighed almost 10,000 pounds. Around 100 men at a time carried the cable 20 miles over 3 days to Sackets Harbor.
Sackets Harbor – U.S. Naval Headquarters on the Great Lakes
Following the outbreak of war in June 1812, Sackets Harbor became the center of American naval and military activity for the upper St. Lawrence Valley and Lake Ontario. By the spring of 1813, approximately 5,200 troops were stationed here and the village became the U.S. Naval Headquarters on the Great Lakes. 3,000 highly skilled men worked at the Navy Point shipyard and rapidly built 11 warships. Notable among these ships was the Frigate Superior, the largest U.S. Navy warship in service during the War of 1812. The Superior effectively swung the balance of control of Lake Ontario from the British to the Americans.
War of 1812 re-enactors at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site
First Battle of Sackets Harbor
Given the importance of Sackets Harbor to U.S. Naval operations, the British first tried attacking the village on July 19, 1812. British ships exchanged fire with the USS Oneida and a 32-pound cannon onshore (notably there was no shot in town larger than 24-pound balls, which were wrapped in pieces of carpet and used in the 32-pounder). The British flagship Royal George suffered severe damage and the British fleet retreated to Kingston.
Second Battle of Sackets Harbor
As Commodore Chauncey’s squadron was spotted off Fort George in the western end of Lake Ontario, the British saw an opportunity to capture Sackets Harbor and deliver a decisive blow that would ensure British supremacy on the lake. On May 29, 1813, British troops landed on Horse Island, south of town. They succeeded in pushing the American troops back, yet the British warships were largely unsuccessful in their efforts. With their ships ineffective, and American militia attacking, the British gave the order to retreat.
THOUSAND ISLANDS/ST. LAWRENCE RIVER REGION
The St. Lawrence Campaign
American military planners viewed the St. Lawrence Valley as the gateway for the invasion of Canada and in the fall of 1813, a strike on Montreal was planned. The strategy called for General James Wilkinson to lead his troops from Sackets Harbor and join forces with General Wade Hampton moving north out of Plattsburgh. Hampton’s force was turned back at the Battle of Chateauguay. Wilkinson’s force had reached French Creek (Clayton) on November 4. The American force was spotted by British warships which bombarded the American anchorages and encampments during the evening. The next day, the Americans were successful in driving away the British using “hot shot” (red-hot cannonballs) which set fire to the brig Earl of Moira. The American force proceeded down the river, but was defeated by a smaller British force at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm near Cornwall, Ontario.
The Battle of Cranberry Creek
British ships regularly transported materials via the St. Lawrence River. On July 13, 1813, an American raiding party intercepted one such shipment. After confiscating the supplies, the British pursued the Americans into Goose Bay and up Cranberry Creek (near Alexandria Bay). A force of 50 Americans hid, preparing to surprise the approximately 250 British soldiers pursuing them. The Americans inflicted heavy casualties on the British and forced their retreat.
Re-enacting the Battle of Ogdensburg
Battle of Ogdensburg
The Americans under Major Benjamin Forsyth made several raids on British supplies across the frozen St. Lawrence River in the winter of 1813. On February 22, 1813, the British attacked Ogdensburg to remove the American threat to British supply lines. The Americans initially were able to hold off the enemy as the British guns became stuck in snow drifts. However, as the larger British force threatened to surround the Americans, they retreated, enabling the British to take control of the town. The British burned the American boats and schooners that were frozen in the ice, and carried off artillery and other military supplies.
After two and a half years of fighting, both sides had grown weary of a costly war that offered little but stalemate. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, effectively ending the war (though British forces unaware of the treaty attacked New Orleans on January 8, 1815 and were soundly defeated). The signing of the treaty largely meant a return to the status quo – to the conditions before the fighting began. Most historians note that no land changed hands as a result of this war – but in actuality Carleton Island in the St. Lawrence River was the only land to change hands, having been “captured” without bloodshed by three freelancing Americans.
The Great Lake Seaway Trail follows the frontlines of the War of 1812 in the north. Two hundred years later, visitors will see a wide range of bicentennial events that will honor the heroes and heroines, sites and events of the War of 1812.