Battle of Fort George

Fort George is situated on the west side of the Niagara River, in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The British built the fort between 1796 and 1799 as a replacement for Fort Niagara (directly across the river), which they were forced to evacuate in accordance with the terms of Jay’s Treaty. The new post also served as the headquarters of the Right Division of the British army under General Sir Isaac Brock during the War of 1812 and of the British Indian Department in Upper Canada.

Battle of Fort George explores the experience of soldiering and the impact of the war on the family by portraying the life of a fictitious solder as he fights the Americans, then struggles to get back to his family at Fort George, perishing in the process (video by Cainan Querido, South-Western Ontario Field Unit, courtesy Parks Canada).

Work on Fort George was completed by 1802, when it became headquarters for the British army, local militia and the Indian Department. Standing guard over the entrance to the Niagara River, it contained six earthen and log bastions linked by a wooden palisade and surrounded by a dry ditch. Inside the walls, the Royal Engineers constructed a guardhouse, log blockhouses, a hospital, kitchens, workshops, barracks, officers' quarters, and a stone powder magazine. (Only the effectively designed magazine survives from the original fort.)

During the War of 1812, Fort George served as the headquarters for the Centre Division of the British Army. These forces included British regulars, local militia, First Nations warriors, and a corps of freed slaves. Brock served here until his death at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812.

The Battle of Fort George

In a plan approved by military leaders in Washington in 1813, Fort George was to be a principal target of attack, along with Kingston, York and Fort Erie. As Major General Henry Dearborn wrote, the plan was to “take York; from there proceed to Niagara and attack Fort George by land and water.” Commodore Chauncey’s small fleet began bombarding the fort on the morning of 25 May, setting fire to all the log buildings. The assault landing took place early in the morning of 27 May, 1813, led by Colonel Winfield Scott. The fort’s defenders were a polyglot force of about 1000, all ranks of the 8th and 49th Regiments of Foot, the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles and the Glengarry Light Infantry, along with about 300 militia.

When the assault landed, a detachment of British troops and First Nations confronted them but as the British commander Major-General John Vincent wrote to Governor George Prevost, they “were obliged to fall back, and the fire from the Shipping so completely enfiladed and scoured the plains that it became impossible to approach the beach.” The defenders suffered 52 killed and 306 injured or missing. Vincent decided to abandon the fort and move out of range of the naval guns. He got word that some 4-5000 American troops were making “an effort to turn my right flank.” He spiked his guns, destroyed the ammunition and marched his troops along the Niagara River toward Beaver Dams and eventually Burlington. Despite capturing the fort, the Americans had little to show for their victory as they did not succeed in destroying Vincent’s force.

The American forces used the fort as a base to invade the rest of Upper Canada; however, they were repulsed at the Battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams. After a seven-month occupation by the Americans, the fort was retaken in December and remained in British hands for the remainder of the war. After the war, the fort was partially rebuilt, and by the 1820s it was falling into ruins. It was finally abandoned in favour of a more strategic installation at Fort Mississauga and a more protected one at Butler's Barracks.

Fort George National Historic Site

The site was declared Fort George National Historic  Site in 1921. The original plans of the Royal Engineers guided the reconstruction from 1937 to 1941. Since 1969 the site has been managed by Parks Canada as a living history site. It is noted for its staff in period costume, period demonstrations and highly developed educational programs.

Author: James Marsh