Niagara Falls History - The War of 1812


In 1812, United States President James Madison declared war on Canada. Major General Isaac Brock received word that war had been declared while entertaining American officers at Fort George in Newark (Niagara on the Lake). Brock announced the declaration of war to his guests, and said his goodbyes to the Americans guests.

The Americans had 6,000 soldiers along the Niagara Frontier under General Stephen Van Rensselaer while the British had 1,200 regular soldiers bolstered by various militias. The Americans attacked Fort Niagara (at Youngstown, New York) forcing the British to abandon the fort and move to Fort George along the western banks of the Niagara River.

On October 13th 1812 the Americans invaded Upper Canada at Queenston under cover of morning darkness, but were spotted by a lone sentry, who notified the British soldiers at Queenston Heights. The American Commander Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer was hit by six musket balls and killed. The American artillery batteries in Lewiston, New York began to bombard British troop positions in Queenston.

At Fort George, Major General Brock could hear the sounds of battle and quickly rode to Queenston, leaving orders for the main British garrison to march to Queenston at first light. At Queenston, Major General Isaac Brock saw a massive invasion force of Americans ready to be ferried from the American shoreline at Lewiston, and called for more British troop reinforcements from Fort George and Chippawa.

Major General Brock wanted to hold the high ground at Queenston Heights, but was in the middle of the battle after American infantry under Captain John Wood snuck up the escarpment to near the top of Queenston Heights. He began to counter attack the Americans with the 200 soldiers he had, before either British or more American reinforcementss could arrive, but the attack was stalled by American artillery fire. During a charge in an attempt to retake the Redan Battery at Queenston Heights, Major General Isaac Brock was shot in the chest by an American marksman, and fell to the ground mortally wounded. When two companies of British militia from York arrived under aide de camp, John Macdonell, they attacked unsuccessfully, killing Macdonnell. Victory at the battle of Queenston Heights was clearly won by the Americans.

The New York State militia was watching the battle from the American shore, and saw the dead and injured Americans ferried back across the river. When they were to be ferried across to join their regular American army counterparts on the Canadian side of the river, they refused to go which under their constitution they had the right to do. This denied the regular American troops reinforcements to help fortify their newly won ground.

Major General Sheaffe, who replaced Brock, waited for reinforcements and along with some Indian allies of the British attacked and out-flanked the Americans, forcing the American commander, Winfield Scott to surrender to the British.

Brigadier General Smyth replaced the disgraced General Van Rensselaer and proclaimed publicly that he would invade Upper Canada before the end of the month. On November 17th 1812, in order to stop an American invasion, the British bombarded Smyth's headquarters and on November 21st 1812, bombarded Fort Niagara. The Americans responded with an artillery barrage of their own striking at Fort George.

On November 28th 1812, 400 American soldiers invaded Upper Canada by crossing the Niagara River between Black Creek (Buffalo) and Fort Erie. While one group seized the gun batteries between Fort Erie and Frenchman's Creek, the second group destroyed the Frenchman's Creek bridge in order to slow the arrival of reinforcements from Chippawa. The British army quickly foiled this American incursion, forcing the Americans to retreat back to Black Creek.

During the winter of 1812 - 1813, there was little war activity in Niagara, and the time was used by both sides to re-supply and reinforce their armies. The war between the Americans and the British continued in Kingston and along the St. Lawrence River including a successful British attack on the Americans at Ogdensburg, New York in February, 1813. In April, 1813, the Americans retaliated with an attack on Fort York (Toronto) forcing the British to abandon the fort after they set it and all their ships & supplies on fire. The Americans finally left York in May but burned the Parliament Buildings to the ground on their way home.

In June 1813, American Lieutenant Colonel Charles Boerstler of the American 14th infantry was ordered to march to Beaverdams to attack the British troops there. On their way, three American officers stopped at the house of Laura Secord in Queenston and forced Secord to prepare and serve dinner to them. During their meal, the officers discussed their impending attack, not thinking that Laura Secord was listening. After the Americans had left the house, Laura Secord delivered warning of the attack to the British commander.

Lieutenant Colonel Boerstler set out for Queenston with 700 soldiers. Iroquois Indian leader Dominique Ducharme picked out an ambush site along the American's route and placed Caughnawaga warriors on one side and Six Nations warriors on the other, leaving many Americans dead and injured, but still outnumbering the British. Only after the British received reinforcements and his forces were surrounded did Boerstler surrender. This battle was a victory for the Indians fighting alongside the British, and made Laura Secord a legend.

In September 1814, the Americans defeated the British in the greatest sea battle of the war on the River Thames, which damaged the British naval capability and allowed the Americans to rule the waterways. The American navy now controlled the waters of the Niagara River.

In December 1813, The Americans abandoned Fort George, returning to Fort Niagara, and torched the settlement of Newark (but leaving Fort George standing). The British reinforced the fort and built a new for across from Fort Niagara, called "Fort Mississauga". A few days later, the British attacked the Americans at Fort Niagara with fighting at close quarters with bayonets, defeating them and then burned Lewiston, Manchester (Niagara Falls, New York) and Fort Schlosser. The British marched southward and burned the settlement at Black Creek and Buffalo.

The winter of 1813-1814, was quiet, with the Niagara area in ruins and both sides re-supplying and reinforcing. In the spring of 1814, the British had defeated Napoleon in Europe, freeing British troops to be deployed against the Americans.

The American commander Major General Jacob Jennings Brown planned to feign an attack on Niagara while actually attacking Kingston instead. While he massed troops in Buffalo, the British had 2,700 soldiers in the Niagara Peninsula along with their Indian allies from the Niagara Falls,Chippewa, Delaware, Munsey, Wyandos, Fox, Shawnee, Moravian, Cherokee, Kickapoo and the Sioux tribes.

In July 1814 the Americans invaded Upper Canada by crossing the Niagara River landing north of Fort Erie under a hail of gun fire. The 6,000 American soldiers captured 137 British and marched northward towards Chippawa. The 30 minute battle of Chippawa ended with 1,300 American regulars defeating 1,500 British soldiers. The Americans forced the British to retreat under heavy gunfire to Chippawa Creek (Welland River) and crossing it before destroying the wooden bridge. This would be the first battle where the American regular forces defeated the British regular forces. After three days of shadowing the British forces across the river, Major General Brown withdrew his forces back to Chippawa in order to re-supply his army.

Major General Brown's next attack would be on Burlington Heights, which he reasoned if captured would cut off Fort George and Fort Niagara from men and supplies.

On July 25th 1814, Major General Phineus Riall marched his British army southward towards Chippawa from Queenston, arriving at Lundy's Lane Hill at noon providing a vantage point over the surrounding countryside. That afternoon, American commander Major General Brown was convinced that the British were invading Lewiston and sent General Winfield Scott with a brigade towards Queenston to force the British to withdraw.

Scott's brigade was spotted by a British sentry, who notified the main British force. General Scott and his American infantry proceeded cautiously, having been given overstated number of British strength by a tavern owner. As the Americans approached Lundy's Lane, British Major General Riall first retreated but ran into British Major General Gordon Drummond with reinforcement troops a mile north and quickly returned back to Lundy's Lane Hill.

As Scott and his infantry brigade advanced, the British opened fire. Scott quickly realized that he was facing the bulk of the British forces, however that he still outnumbered the British. The battle of Lundys Lane continued into the night, with the British abandoning Lundy's Lane Hill following unseccessful counterattacks. About midnight, as the British were facing certain defeat, the Americans were ordered by Scott to withdraw back to Chippawa to resupply water, allowing Lundy's Lane Hill to be retaken by the British. When the Americans returned in the morning, they found that the British had reinforced and entrenched themselves. In the end, 5,000 American soldiers faced 2,200 British soldiers, militia and Indians in the largest and bloodiest battle of the war, but the Americans withdrew to Fort Erie, having sustained 1000 casualties (the British had almost 900, including General Riall taken prisoner).

The last battle in the War of 1812 in the Niagara area was the Battle of Cooks Mills, when 2000 American soldiers attempted to attack the British in Chippawa from the unguarded west. They ran into 750 British soldiers under the command of General Riall, who forced the Americans to retreat back to Fort Erie. In March 1815, a treaty ended the war. The war improved nationalism on both sides of the border.

Both American and British borders would remain heavily guarded by military troops until the 1870's, though the forts at Fort George and Fort Chippawa were abandoned. The borders between the two countries remained the same as they had before the war began, as was established by the Jay's Treaty of 1794. Lundy's Lane also became a popular tourist spot.