Capture of Fort Niagara

The Capture of Fort Niagara on 18-19 December 1813 was a British victory over the US during the War of 1812. American troops had occupied Fort George and the village of Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in Upper Canada since May 1813. As winter approached and the condition of the American troops worsened, it was discovered that British troops were approaching to retake the fort. Command of Fort George had devolved to Brigadier General George McClure. With just over 100 troops, McClure decided to withdraw across the Niagara River to Fort Niagara. Before leaving, he implemented instructions sent by Secretary of War John Armstrong to destroy Niagara.

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The history of Fort Niagara and its importance in the War of 1812 is discussed (courtesy WNED Productions and the Old Fort Niagara Association).

The Burning of the Village of Niagara

On the night of 10 December, the 400 residents of the village were forced from their homes and the buildings were burned. On 12 December, the first British troops arrived and occupied Fort George and tended to the civilians. Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, the new commander of Upper Canada, was outraged by the destruction and sent McClure a sharp letter demanding that he identify who had ordered the action. Although the US government disavowed McClure’s action, much bitterness remained and Drummond undertook a campaign during the winter of 1813-14, in which the American frontier was laid to waste. This campaign began with the capture of Fort Niagara.

Retaliation at Fort Niagara

Fort Niagara had been established by the French in 1670 and was captured by the British in 1759. The fort was transferred to the US in 1796 and Fort George was built on the Canadian shore. By 1813, Fort Niagara consisted of an exterior wall and several exterior works. Inside the fort were two two-storey redoubts (named north and south) equipped with artillery and several other buildings used for various purposes. There were 27 guns in the fort, but it is uncertain where they were placed. Captain Nathan Leonard was commanding and the garrison included some 324 regulars and members of the New York militia. Despite warnings that the British might attack, Leonard chose to spend the night at his home two miles away.

Beginning at 10:00 pm on 18 December, Colonel John Murray led 560 regulars across the Niagara River in two waves. The bateaux were piloted by men from the Lincoln militia. They landed above Youngstown, overwhelmed the guard and marched a kilometer to the fort. The sentries were quickly silenced and the British stormed through the open gate, while others scaled the walls into the fort.

The garrison had little time and the north redoubt was taken before the Americans could respond. Several defenders barricaded themselves in the south redoubt and the red barracks; heavy musket fire came from both buildings. A 6-pounder gun was fired at the British from atop the south redoubt. The barracks were quickly cleared after several attempts to break in. The door was finally battered down by sledges and hammers and when the British stormed in, a fierce struggle ensued. Captain David Davies of the 100th Foot, who commanded the British company attacking the redoubt, ordered his men to bayonet the defenders. The threat had the desired effect and 64 Americans surrendered. Shortly thereafter resistance ended and the fort was secured. Lieutenant General Drummond soon arrived and took possession of the fort. That night, another force under Major General Phineas Riall crossed the Niagara River and began the campaign of retribution for the burning of Niagara.

Aftermath of the Capture of Fort Niagara

About 20 Americans escaped in the confusion of the attack on Fort Niagara, while 65 were killed, 16 wounded and 344 captured. The British lost six men, and five were wounded. A large quantity of supplies was taken, including 4000 stands of arms. Several Canadian and First Nation prisoners were released.

The British held the fort for the remainder of the war.

 

Author: John R. Grodzinski

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