Siege of Fort Erie

Siege of Fort Erie

Infobox Military Conflict


caption=
conflict=Siege of Fort Erie
partof=the War of 1812
date=August 4September 21, 1814
place=Fort Erie, Ontario
result=American victory
combatant1=Britain
combatant2=United States
commander1=Gordon Drummond
commander2=Edmund P. Gaines,
Eleazer Wheelock Ripley,
Jacob Brown
strength1=3,000
strength2=2,500
casualties1=966 dead, wounded, or captured
540 missing
casualties2=630 dead or wounded

The Siege of Fort Erie was one of the last and most protracted engagements between British and American forces during the Niagara campaign of the Anglo-American War of 1812. The Americans successfully defended Fort Erie against the British Army, but subsequently abandoned it.

Background

The Americans under Major General Jacob Brown had crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie on July 3, 1814. After defeating a British force at the Battle of Chippawa they advanced north, but the British reinforced their troops in the Niagara peninsula. On July 25, the bloody but indecisive Battle of Lundy's Lane, was fought, during which Brown was severely wounded. Following the battle, the outnumbered American troops, now under the command of Brigadier General Eleazer Wheelock Ripley, withdrew to Fort Erie. Ripley advocated abandoning the Fort and retreating to the east side of the Niagara River, but Brown overruled him and summoned Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines from Sackett's Harbor to assume command.Hitsman, J. Mackay & Graves, Donald E. p.230]

The British, under the command of Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond (the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada), had themselves been hard hit at Lundy's Lane. Drummond nevertheless claimed that the Americans had been forced to retreat in disorder, and he intended to drive them from the Canadian side of the Niagara. His troops followed the Americans slowly, and reached the fort on August 4. Drummond's division numbered 3,000 but Drummond himself complained about the quality of the troops and the degree to which the battalions were composed of mixed-up detachments and companies. His slow advance gave the Americans vitally-needed time to reorganise and to reinforce their defences.

Defences

The original British fort consisted of two two-story barrack buildings with fortified cannon bastions connected to them. The barracks were connected by a thick stone curtain with the main gate located in the centre. The rear of the fort (facing away from Lake Erie) consisted of an open terreplein, raised 6 feet (2 m) above the base of the dry ditch which surrounded the fort with two redoubts located on the corner. The redoubts were incomplete and offered little protection. The front of the fort was protected by a large earth wall with a forward gun emplacement. The fort was also divided in half by an earth wall and ditch, but this too was incomplete with at least a third of the rear defenses being makeshift wooden walls or earthworks (some only 1 metre high). This was complemented by a gun emplacement in the centre redan (raised platform). The fort contained a total of six guns.

The dry ditch surrounding the fort had a 9 foot (2.5 m) high wooden wall in the centre. This wall was angled outwards and was sharpened to prevent any enemy from leaping into the ditch, which also had sharpened sticks placed up and down the walls to help impale or wound enemy soldiers. The ditch was used as a garbage dump and a sewer by the defenders, creating a slippery and smelly swamp at the base that would slow enemy attacks and would encourage disease in any wounds.

The Americans had made significant improvements to the defenses of the fort since its capture, and now redoubled their efforts to entrench themselves. Since the fort was too small to hold the entire American force, they extended the earth wall to the south for an additional 800 metres (1/2 mile) to a rise made of sand, known as Snake Hill, which had been fortified with a large gun emplacement with six guns under the command of Captain Nathaniel Towson (considered to be one of the finest artillerymen in U.S. history). Four guns were distributed along the wall.Elting, p.246]

To protect the north end of the position, the Americans also threw up an earth wall (holding one gun) connecting the northeast bastion of the fort to the lake where there was another fortified gun emplacement with one gun known as the Douglass Battery from its commander, Lieutenant David Douglass of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Abatis (obstacles made of felled trees) were placed in front of the earth walls.

By the close of the Siege, the Americans had made the position even stronger by building three log blockhouses in the rear of the fort as well as strengthening the defenses and redoubts.

iege

Preliminaries

While the British constructed their siege lines and batteries, three American schooners anchored in the Niagara River harassed them with gunfire. A party of British sailors and marines under Commander Alexander Dobbs dragged boats overland from below Niagara Falls and launched a boarding attack on them on the night of August 12. They captured the "Ohio" and "Somers". The crew of the "Porcupine" escaped this fate by quickly cutting their anchor cables before slipping away, but were accidentally fired upon by US artillery on the shore. [Roosevelt, "The Naval War of 1812", p.206] This victory raised British morale, but Drummond mistakenly believed that it depressed American morale to the same extent. He was encouraged in this belief by some American deserters, who also reported the defenders as numbering only 1,500, when in fact there were 2,200.Elting, p.247]

British assault

On August 13, Drummond opened fire on the fort with two light 24-pounder field guns and four 18-pounder or 24-pounder naval guns. The bombardment was fired from too long a range and was ineffective against the fort's walls. Drummond nevertheless launched a 3-pronged attack on August 15, with each arm of the attack aimed at one of the American batteries. The largest column, of 1,300 soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fisher, would flank the south end of the defenses at Snake Hill. Another column (700 soldiers under Colonel Hercules Scott of Brotherton) would attack the Douglass Battery and the north end of the defenses and sweep into the U.S. camp meeting Fischer's column in the middle. Finally, a column (360 soldiers, sailors and marines led by Drummond's relation, Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond of Kelty) would attack the fort once the other assaults were under way, with the objective of capturing the old British barrack buildings. A reserve of just under 700 was left in the siege lines under Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker of the 41st Regiment. [Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.156]

Scott and Lieutenant Colonel Drummond were both experienced soldiers and had little confidence in General Drummond's plan. Both men arranged their affairs before heading into battle, sending their papers home to their wives. Drummond even gave away his sword (a gift from Lloyd's of London) to the British Surgeon, William "Tiger" Dunlop. Shortly before moving out, both men wished each other luck and bade farewell.

The columns moved out after dark, but the preparations during the day had been obvious from the fort. General Gaines ordered his men to stand to and ensured that all guns were loaded and ready. [Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.158] This obviously produced rumblings from the troops forced to stand in their positions in heavy rain but would prove invaluable in the coming battle. Surprise would be nearly impossible to achieve. While Fischer's column made its long march to the south of Snake Hill, Scott's and Drummond's columns waited in the pouring rain in a ravine a few hundred yards north of the fort.

Fischer's attack

Fischer's column consisted of the light companies of the 2nd Battalion of the 89th Foot and the 100th Foot, the remnants of the 1st Battalion of the 8th (Kings), and volunteers from Fischer's own regiment, De Watteville's Regiment of foot. De Watteville's nominally Swiss regiment was made up of men from all over Europe and the British commanders had suspicions of their loyalty. On the approach march, the roll was called every hour to prevent desertion. Except for a few steady men, the entire column was ordered to remove their firearms' flints and take the enemy battery on the hill by the bayonet. [Cruikshank (in Zaslow), pp.154-155]

The column encountered an American picket 300 metres from the defences. Surprise was nearly achieved but due to the rainy weather, the British troops' advance was sounded by a loud swishing sound as they passed through high grass. The picket opened fire, alerting the garrison, before hastily retreating. The leading attackers rushed forward to the abatis. As they reached it, Towson opened fire. The rate of fire from his battery would earn it the nickname "Towson's lighthouse". Its fire was augmented by that of the 25th U.S. Infantry. After several attempts to storm the battery, many attackers broke and fled in panic, sweeping away the steady soldiers to their rear. Those who did try to scale the defences found that many of the siege ladders built for the attack had been made without taking the ditches into account and were as much as five feet (1.5 m) too short to get over the wall. The light company of De Watteville's attempted to bypass the U.S. defenses by swimming in the Niagara River. The current proved to be too swift, and many of the men were swept away to their death; those who survived were quickly captured. [Elting, p.248]

Some of the attackers charged the battery five times before retiring. Some units, such as the light company of the 8th (King's), lost two thirds of their strength. De Watteville's regiment had 144 casualties (although many were "missing" and actually hid in the woods before deserting the next morning). Ripley, commanding this section of the American defences, reported taking 147 prisoners. His men suffered only a dozen casualties. Fischer's column reeled back in confusion and it was decided another attempt was impossible.

cott's attack

Colonel Hercules Scott's column consisted of his own 103rd Regiment. He launched his attack as soon as firing was heard from Snake Hill. Surprise was quickly lost when American pickets detected them and fired muskets to alert the defenders. Once the British had moved close enough, the guns of the fort and the Douglass Battery (loaded with canister) and several hundred U.S Infantry opened fire, causing horrific losses to the British who were jammed into a narrow front between an embankment and the lake. Colonel Scott was mortally wounded by a musket ball in the head early in the attack. At one point in the battle, a cry rose from the British forces of "Stop firing, you're shooting your own men!", and the fighting ceased for almost an entire minute until an American officer, unconvinced by the unfamiliarly accented appeal, shouted back "To Hell with you!" and the firing resumed. Scott's shattered regiment fell back with 360 casualties (although some may later have joined Drummond's attack against the fort). The Americans facing them reported no casualties.

Drummond's attack

Lieutenant Colonel Drummond's column consisted of a small detachment of gunners of the Royal Artillery, the flank companies of the 41st and 104th (New Brunswick) Regiments, fifty Royal Marines and ninety seamen of the Royal Navy under Commander Dobbs. [Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.155] His attack on the fort initially made little headway. Using the cover of darkness and the heavy smoke that hung over the field, Drummond then moved his men through the defensive ditch to assault the northeast bastion. The British caught the U.S. artillerymen there completely by surprise, and they quickly fled their guns. Those under Lieutenant MacDonogh who stood and fought were quickly killed. [Cruikshank (Zaslow), p.161] as Drummond cried out "Give no Quarter to the Damn Yanks!" and charged deep into the parade square. A group of soldiers from the 21st U.S. Infantry (raised in Massachusetts) reorganized themselves in the parade square and poured fire into the bastion. It is believed that Drummond was killed in this barrage. According to one American soldier, in the thick of the fighting he saw a "Red-coated demon, armed with a pike and screaming for his own death which we quickly obliged him to. He fell not far from our feet, no less than a musket's length away".

The attackers twice tried to storm the barracks and mess hall; the defenders in turn tried to recapture the northeast bastion. Fighting swayed back and forth for nearly an hour. General Drummond sent only two companies of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots to reinforce the attackers; they lost half their men and very few of them even reached the fort. [Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.162] Some Americans turned around an 18-pounder cannon on the rear redan and began to fire into the bastion less than convert|50|yd away. The British responded by turning one of the captured cannons around and knocking the American 18-pounder off its carriage.

Shortly after the British began firing their captured gun, a large powder magazine in the bastion beneath their feet ignited. [Elting, p.249] The explosion was immense, destroying the entire bastion and most of the attached barracks building. A two ton cannon was thrownconvert|100|yd out of the fort. Between 150 and 250 men, mainly British and Canadians, were killed in the bastion. It was gruesomely reported that some attackers were blown from the walls of the fort to land on the bayonets of those still in the ditch. The explosion caused havoc for both sides, although the Americans in the fort were sheltered from the full force of the explosion by the barrack buildings. Lieutenant Douglass was nearly killed when a large piece of flaming timber crushed the man next to him. The surviving attackers were convinced that the entire fort was mined, and they retreated in panic. Drummond's column had been almost wiped out during the attack. When the 104th assembled the next day and roll was called, those who were still standing openly wept at the loss of over half of their men who had attacked.

Aftermath

In total the British suffered 57 killed, 309 wounded and 537 missing (many of whom were killed in the explosion of the fort's magazine). The journal of surgeon William Dunlop described working on the wounded for nearly 3 days straight. The Americans reported capturing 360 prisoners, 174 of whom were wounded. They themselves suffered only 17 killed, 52 wounded and 7 missing. [Cruikshank (in Zaslow), p.164]

American counterattacks

In addition to the heavy casualties from the assault, Drummond's force suffered severely from sickness and exposure. The British troops lacked tents, and their crude huts and shelters made from bark and branches provided little cover. When the autumn rains began, the ground rapidly became inches deep in water. Drummond nevertheless maintained the siege, thanks to being reinforced by two fresh regiments.Hitsman, J. Mackay & Graves, Donald E. p.233]

On August 29, a chance British shot severely wounded General Gaines and Brigadier General Ripley resumed command. Ripley's opinion of the entire campaign was far from positive, and he had even openly rumored that the British would bring up further reinforcements and capture the fort. Major General Jacob Brown had only partly recovered from his wounds received at Lundy's Lane, but he nevertheless returned to Fort Erie to replace the pessimistic Ripley in command. It was known that Drummond's force was dwindling, and there were strong arguments for simply waiting for Drummond to abandon the unsuccessful siege, but Brown was determined to attack. He planned to hit the western end of Drummond's siege lines and spike the guns in his siege batteries. (Another factor in Brown's reasoning was that on September 15, the British finally completed Battery No. 3, which enfiladed most of the American defences.) Brigadier General Peter B. Porter was entrusted with the main attack. His pioneers cleared a trail through the woods to a point behind the British Battery No. 3. Drummond's troops and Indians, who were probably made lethargic by rain, sickness and shortage of rations, failed to detect any of this activity. [Elting, p.251]

At noon on September 17, Porter's force (volunteers from the Pennsylvania and New York militia, with the 23rd U.S. Infantry) moved along the trail covered by heavy rain. They completely surprised the remnants of De Watteville's regiment, who were covering that part of the siege works, and captured Battery No. 3. At the same moment, the recently promoted Brigadier General James Miller led detachments from the 9th, 11th and 19th U.S. Infantry along the ravine which had sheltered William Drummond and Hercules Scott on August 15 and attacked the British center. Attacked from both front and flank, Battery No. 2 was also captured.

By now, Drummond's reserves were hurrying forward. There was severe fighting, but the Americans were unable to capture Battery No. 1. Brown ordered the attack to be broken off and sent Ripley forward to cover Porter's and Miller's withdrawal. [Elting, p.252] In this brief but bloody affair, the Americans suffered 511 casualties, including 79 killed. Porter, Miller and Ripley were all wounded. Also killed was Colonel Joseph Willcocks of the Canadian Volunteers, a small unit of Canadians fighting against Britain. (Willcocks still nominally held a seat in the Upper Canadian Parliament in York). The British suffered more heavily, with 600 casualties (115 killed).

With two of his batteries destroyed and his force reduced to 2,000 effectives, Drummond abandoned the siege on the night of September 21 and withdrew to the Chippawa River.

Evacuation

In early September, Major General George Izard's division had been transferred from Plattsburgh to Sackett's Harbor, arriving on September 17. On September 21, the American naval squadron on Lake Ontario, under Commodore Isaac Chauncey, ferried the main part of the division west to the Genesee River from where they marched to reinforce Brown. Since Izard was the senior officer, he assumed command of the combined American force. The Americans now numbered 6,300 and had a clear advantage in numbers over Drummond with only 2,500 even after further British reinforcements had arrived. [Elting, p.264] Brown wished to make an immediate all-out attack. Izard instead waited until October 13 before he began a cautious advance. After a minor success against a British outpost at Cook's Mill, he retired to Fort Erie.

The British had launched the battleship HMS "St. Lawrence" on Lake Ontario, and the American squadron on the lake promptly withdrew into Sackett's Harbor. At Brown's request, he and his division were transferred there to protect the vital naval base. Izard, who was short of supplies, decided to abandon Fort Erie and go into winter quarters in New York state. On November 5 the Americans set mines and demolished the fort before retiring across the river. This allowed the British to go into winter quarters also, which spared them losses from the winter weather. The Niagara campaign was over and so were the invasions of Canada.

Many officers accused Izard of cowardice, and he was nearly court martialled as a result; but because of his military expertise and excellent service record, he was moved to a civil position and was eventually made Governor of Arkansas. When the British returned to the site of Fort Erie, they chose not to rebuild the fort due to lack of funds and simply added makeshift quarters until completely abandoning it in 1821.

During the entire Niagara Campaign of 1814, the British had suffered twice as many battle casualties as the smaller American force. Their attrition from disease and other causes was probably in the same proportion. On several occasions, especially after his own failed assault on Fort Erie, General Drummond blamed his troops for lack of spirit or misbehaviour in action, but most historians consider that Drummond himself planned poorly and took insufficient care to maintain his troops' health and morale.

Notes

References

*cite book|last=Cruikshank|first=Ernest A.|authorid=Ernest A. Cruikshank|editor=Zaslow, Morris (ed)|title=The Defended Border|chapter=Drummond's Night Assault on Fort Erie|location=Toronto|publisher=Macmillan of Canada|year=1964|isbn=0-7705-1242-9
*cite book|last=Elting|first=John R.|authorid=John R. Elting|title=Amateurs to Arms:A military history of the War of 1812|location=New York|publisher=Da Capo Press|year=1995|isbn=0-306-80653-3
*cite book|last=Hitsman|first=J. Mackay|authorid=J. Mackay Hitsman|coauthors=Donald E. Graves|title=The Incredible War of 1812|location=Toronto|publisher=Robin Brass Studio|year=1999|isbn=1-896941-13-3
*cite book |title=1812: War with America |last=Latimer |first=Jon |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2007 |publisher=Harvard-Belknap Press |location=Cambridge, MA |isbn=9780674025844 |pages=

External links

* http://warof1812.ca/forterie.htm
* http://members.tripod.com/~war1812/allbat.html
* http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/locations/niagara.html


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