Sunday, July 20, 2014

The War of 1812 . . . Year Three, Part 2 . . . Old Fort Niagara

The second day of our War of 1812 --Year Three-- Kick-Ass Immersion Pilgrimage© was centered around Old Fort Niagara.  The consensus of the Fife Clan is that this fort is definitely among the best we have visited . . . and we have toured more than a few.  It possesses the triumvirate of all great fortifications . . . location, architecture, and history.  Of course, that is our own personal criteria/viewpoint, but I beg you to differ in opinion in regard to this structure.  Do not doubt me!

As proof, I submit to you The French Castle . . . built in 1726, it is reputed to be the oldest surviving building in the Great Lakes region.  It has been restored to represent its appearance during French occupation.  Here I should note, a good many of the War of 1812 sites we visit overlap with other historical events . . . for example, in Canada you will come across sites and references to the Canadian Rebellion and the Fenian Raids.  In the US you might encounter the French and Indian War, or the Revolutionary War.  All that to say, this place is no exception.

Our visit coincided with a French and Indian War Encampment and Reenactments of La Belle Famille/Woods Battle and the Siege and Surrender of Fort Niagara by the French to the English.  As this deals with another time period we will return to it later in the entries devoted to sites we saw that were apart from the War of 1812.  But that is not to say that there is not much to relate about Fort Niagara during the War of 1812.  By the way, you might notice that the date of 1678 in the above photo does not jibe with the date of 1726 I gave in the previous picture.  That is because the date on the emblem, which is on the French Castle, denotes the date of the actual first structure, Fort Conti.  Of course, 1759 is when the French surrendered the fort to the British.

Now, when talking about the War of 1812, the strategic location of the fort, which is situated at the mouth of the Niagara River, guaranteed that this would be a place of interest . . . especially given that the British had two forts, Fort George and Fort Mississauga, just across the river.  In the early years of the war, it served mainly as a base of operations.  However, given the ugly history of the region: both sides campaigning to lay waste to all, be it a legitimate military objective or homes of the general populace, some kind of action was bound to transpire here.

Dr. J and Dudeboy praying that the British will be lenient when they attack?  I daresay, a lot of the US troops were praying that the British wouldn't give as good as they got, for what transpired up to this point and led to the British attack on Fort Niagara was not one of the United State's finer moments (and that is saying something!).  

Of course, what I am alluding to is the Burning of Newark (now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake) by US troops when they abandoned Fort George in December, 1813.  US troops had occupied Fort George and Newark since May of that year.  However, as their situation was becoming untenable with US invasions checked at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams (both in June of 1813), the worst of winter to come, the poor condition of the few soldiers left to defend, and an approaching British force bent on retaking the fort, it was decided to withdraw to Fort Niagara.

This is where things get murky . . . with the retreat, Newark was put to torch.  Ultimately the blame must lay with US Brigadier General George McClure.  Whether through incompetency by allowing/ignoring Canadian Volunteers under the command of American sympathizer Joseph Willcocks to settle old scores, or by outright intent this was nothing but guerrilla warfare.  I do think the concluding line in Wilcocks' wikipedia bio to be telling, "Willcocks lies in an unmarked grave, ignored by the country he fought against and forgotten by the country he fought for."

So, objectives had changed, with the British going on attack (bolstered with the incentive of obtaining a bit of retribution for the Burning of Newark).  That isn't to say the capture of Fort Niagara was the only objective.  The British under Lieutenant-General Gordon "Drummond undertook a campaign during the winter of 1813-14, in which the American frontier was laid to waste."

The South Redoubt . . . this is one place where the British encountered much actual resistance.  The fort had been neglected and fallen into disrepair.  Couple that with "a small party of negligent American pickets (who) were surprised while playing cards at a local tavern and forced at bayonet point to reveal the fort's password"* the British managed to gain control over much of the fort . . . the exception being a group of defenders barricaded in the South Redoubt. Those who were encountered were put to the bayonet.  

Casualties for the US amounted to up to 80 killed, 14 wounded, and over three hundred captured.  Compare that with only 6 killed and 5 wounded for the British.  Payback's a b!tch.

This is the massive (24' x 28') original garrison flag that had been captured by the British.  From an online article about the flag:
The road back to Niagara has been long and arduous for the colors the British captured on that frigid night, Dec. 19, 1813. A month later, an aide to Maj. Gen. Sir Gordon Drummond, the commander of the British forces in Upper Canada, arrived in Quebec to present the flag — the trophy — to Sir George Prevost, British commander-in-chief of North America.  In May 1814, Prevost shipped the Niagara flag to London where it was laid before the feet of the Prince Regent, later King George IV.  It is generally believed that the Prince Regent returned the Fort Niagara flag to Gen. Drummond, whose family home was in Scotland. There it remained on display in a hallway for decades.
The flag has suffered over the years with a fire and such, but it has been preserved and returned to Old Fort Niagara.  Note that it is a "Kentucky flag" . . . 15 stars and 15 stripes.
Before leaving the area, we drove back to Buffalo and visited the Buffalo History Museum and their exhibit, By Fire & Sword: War in the Niagara Theatre, 1812-1814.  It was small but interesting exhibit about the area during the War of 1812.  It included some artifacts pertaining to the US Brig Niagara and battlefield finds, like the above powder horn found at the Chippawa battlefield.
A relief from the museum's facade portraying Perry giving the Brits hell.

*The War of 1812: A Guide to Battlefields and Historic Sites by Grant and Jones

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The War of 1812 . . . Year Three, Part 1 . . . Don't Give Up the Ship!

Our full first day of War of 1812 immersion year three was centered around Erie, Pa. and a good deal of that was related to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.  

Specifically what brought us to Erie was the US Brig Niagara . . . sunk, raised, sunk, raised and restored for the centennial in 1913 and yet restored a couple of more times.  What remains original of the Niagara is not much.  Still, it is grand to at least have what exists today.  I should add that it was intentionally sunk all those times (the first time being in 1820) for preservation.  Atop the mast flies Perry's famous battle flag emblazoned with "Don't Give Up the Ship, " which had been James Lawrence's dying words during the USS Chesapeake action against the HMS Shannon earlier in the war.  Malc was really dismayed that I appropriated and bastardized the quote by continually exclaiming "Don't Give A Sh!t" for much of our trip.

Now, when I say what brought us to Erie was the US Brig Niagara, I need to elaborate on that and explain that we sailed on the blasted thing!  We were on the ship for just over six hours, going up and down Lake Erie.  It was amazing to watch all of the rigmarole that ensues to sail the ship.  There is a complex (what appears to be) tangle of ropes and such . . . far too much for my feeble brain make sense of.

And the trip was very much participatory.  The man who appears to be passed out drunk in the top-left of the above photo is actually the captain of the ship.  Fortunately he was not drunk, but only scanning the crew climbing around up above us amongst the sails, or maybe he was just observing the wind.  What I can unequivocally state is . . . he was not reenacting the actions of the captain of the Exxon Valdez.  

I should mention that the Niagara was not Perry's flagship . . . that being the Lawrence.  Now ensconced into US lore, Perry had his battle flag removed from the disabled Lawrence during the battle and was transported at great daring and risk to the Niagara where he took command and made it his relief flagship.  There is a bit of controversy surrounding all of this, especially regarding the Lawrence's actual captain (Jesse Elliott), but I am not gonna get into that.  That can be your homework.  As you can tell from the sky, we had great weather for it.

At one point, the crew fired off a round from the carronade.  Fortunately for the rich folk out sailing in their puny (compared with our massive warship!) sailboats it was only a blank.

Malc very excited to view Perry's personal compass.  During the trip, we actually got to view many items attributed to him.

The Perry Monument at Presque Isle State Park.  During the war, six of the nine ships in Perry's fleet were constructed at the Presque Isle Naval Base, which no longer exists.  However, there is this 100' monument which commemorates Perry and his base of operation. The plaque on the monument states, "Erected by the State of Pennsylvania to commemorate the victory of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. September 10th, 1813."

The monument is situated next to Misery Bay, so named because of the many hardships endured by Perry's men during the winter of 1813-1814, many of which suffered from smallpox.  Misery Bay was also the location where the Niagara and the Lawrence were sunk for preservation.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The War of 1812 . . . Year Three

Dear gentle reader,
Well, the Fife clan has just returned from another epic week and a half trip pertaining to the War of 1812. Last year we traveled to War of 1812 sites in New York, and Ontario, Canada.  The year before that, we visited sites in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.  And it is our plan to have one more War of 1812 trip next January, which will coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans (along the way we plan to visit several sites pertaining to the auxiliary Creek War).  However, for this year, we journeyed back to Canada (mostly Quebec, but we also returned to a bit of Ontario), and we traveled to the Lake Champlain area of New York. As always, it was a non-stop action packed trip that will take several entries to cover. Hopefully, you all will enjoy following our adventures, and maybe find something of interest.

The Canadian perspective of the War of 1812 . . .