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The Siege of Fort Erie 1814
by Frederick Carsted


erie.jpg (19778 bytes)

View of Fort Erie and mouth of Lake Erie from Buffalo Creek (Library and Archives of Canada)
(purchase this print by clicking here)

Mr Carsted is well-known in Manitoba military history societies for his leadership in the preservation of a vibrant living history community. A teacher by profession, when not involved in the recreation of military heritage, Mr Carsted is rediscovering, singing and recording the songs of the past.

  It was for commercial reasons that the early French fur traders built a trading post on the site in 1753. Then, in 1764, shortly after the ceding of New France to Britain at the close of the Seven Year 's War, the British began "the construction of the first Fort Erie on the riverbank somewhat east of its present location. During the next fifty years, Fort Erie was a stop-over for ships carrying merchandise, troops and passengers to the Upper great Lakes.

However, in March, 1779, this Fort was destroyed by masses of ice driven ashore by a furious storm . A second fort was begun on the river's edge, directly in front of the present site. This lasted until 3 February 1803, when it, too was destroyed by a storm.

On 9 January 1804, approval was granted to build a third Fort Erie on the knoll immediately behind the old position. This fort was still in an unfinished state when war with the United States began in 1812. But, on 27 May 1813, on the approach of an American army which had captured Fort George at the northern end of the Niagara River, it was partially dismantled and the powder magazine blown up by the small resident British garrison. The invading United States troops held Fort Erie until 9 June, then burned the buildings and marched back to Fort George to assist in a major offensive underway there.

The British finally cleared all American forces from the Niagara peninsula by December, 1813, and reoccupied Fort Erie. The fort was partially rebuilt and strengthen with earthworks and held until 3 July 1814. The Americans staged a further offensive with 4,500 soldiers under General Jacob Brown, Fort Erie was their first objective. The British garrison of 137, under Major Thomas Buck of the 8th (King's) Regiment, surrendered after firing only a few shots from their cannon . (Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond had hoped that Fort Erie would delay the Americans long enough for him to concentrate his forces. After the war Buck was court-martialed for his actions.)

A large contingent of these U,SI forces began advancing northward toward Lake Ontario. They defeated the British at the Battle of Chippawa on 5 July, but on 25 July, in the bloody battle of Lundy's Lane near Niagara Falls, the British were victorious. The U.S. troops, now under the command of Brigadier Eleazer Wheelock Ripley, (Brown was severely wounded by a Congreve rocket at Lundy's Lane) retired back to Fort Erie, while the British followed up slowly, making contact with the American outposts on 4 August. Since capturing the fort the U.S. troops had expanded and strengthened the landward defences with a V-shaped redan, a dry ditch and a palisade.

The British were slow in developing their siege operations. During the first week some American schooners moved freely between the fort and Buffalo, occasionally sailing down river to bombard the British camp. Finally the British moved some boats from below the Falls, and on 12 August captured two of the three American vessels. On 13 August Drummond's four gun siege battery opened fire. The guns however were old and not very effective in breaching the fort's wall. It was therefore surprising that Drummond decided on a three-pronged night assault only two days later. It was an ambitious plan, and given the nature of night operations, one that was certain to fail.

The attacking columns were composed as follows:

1) Right Column: Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fisher of De Watteville 's regiment commanding 1300 men drawn from companies of his own regiment and the 8th (King's) plus the light companies of the 89th and the 100th. Their objective was the American battery at Snake Hill.

2) Centre Column: Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond of the 104th commanding 250 men from the flank companies of the 41st and the 104th plus a number of seamen and marines. Their objective was the main fort.

3 ) Left Column: Lieutenant Colonel Hercules Scott of the 103rd commanding 650 men drawn from his own regiment.Their objective was the Douglass Battery located between the fort and the lake shore.

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Fisher's column was the first to move out, leaving the British camp at 2:00 a.m.. The "forlorn hope", led by Major Charles de Vilatte and Captain Thomas Powell, managed to penetrate the American defence line, some of them by wading through the waters of the lake to bypass the palisade. The main body, however, was noisy and this alerted the defenders. De Watteville's regiment was in the lead and, to ensure surprise, had been instructed to remove the flints from their muskets. They were met by a withering fire from the American defenders. Unable to return fire, the Swiss panicked. In their haste to get away, they threw the companies of the 8th and 89th into disorder. It was not until daylight that the three regiments were able to reform, too late to renew the assault. The hapless advance guard were abandoned to their fate, most becoming prisoner-of-war.

The remaining two columns waited, concealed in a ravine to the north of the fort, until 2:30 a.m.. The sound of the engagement of the right column was the signal to advance. Lieutenant Colonel Scott was killed early in the attack, and his men became disoriented and converged with the centre column in their attack on the breach in the north-east demi-bastion. The combined force suffered heavily from small arms and artillery fire as they closed up to the breach.

They launched three major assault and were repulsed each time. Finally, on the fourth attempt, the British infantrymen overcame the American gunners and broke into the bastion. They turned the guns on the defenders and started to clear the northern barracks but were driven back to the bastion. Here the British hung on tenaciously in the expectation that reserves would reinforce their effort. They made one more attempt to breakout soon after daylight on the morning of 16 August. During the fighting, an ammunition chest caught fire, causing the expense magazine under the gun platform of the bastion to explode. Men, masonry, timber and other assorted debris was hurtled skyward in a pillar of fire. The mangled British survivors surrendered. The waiting reserves outside the fort refused to advance, convinced that the fort was mined and that a similar fate awaited them. Having lost 366 killed or wounded and 539 missing, Sir Gordon Drummond stopped the attack. Among the killed was his nephew, Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond.

The assault had been a disaster. While Sir Gordon Drummond accepted responsibility for the failure, he attempted to shift most of the blame to De Watteville's Regiment. While the Swiss did break, the attack suffered generally from poor planning and inadequate siege artillery. Despite these shortcomings, the plan nearly succeeded. If the reserve troops had followed up the capture of the bastion, or the detonation of the magazine had not occurred the British may have been able to pull it off.

Drummond continued to stand his ground, though the siege became an affair of small attacks and counter-attacks, all taking their toll of lives. On 17 September, the U.S. troops, once again under the command of Major General Jacob Brown, made a full-scale sortie, during which destroyed two of Drummond's batteries and the British lost another lost another 600 men.

After thirteen days of continuous rain which filled their entrenchments and turned their encampment into a swamp, the British retired to prepared positions at Chippawa, burning their bridges behind them. The American forces, now commanded by Major General George Izard did little to exploit their advantage. After sending a small force to destroy Cook's Mills, Izard decided to abandon the fort. He ordered the fort to be mined and the artillery removed. After the garrison was withdrawn, the buildings were set on fire and the mines detonated on 5 November. The British, after surveying the ruins, decided not to rebuild the fort. After the war Fort Erie existed as only a barracks building until 1823, when it was abandoned completely.

The Fort was reconstructed in the 1930's, during which time a mass grave was discovered containing many of the casualties of the August 15th attack. A monument erected at the ruins was relocated to this site to honour these long forgotten soldiers. On the monument are the following plaques.

"IN MEMORY OF THE OFFICERS AND SEAMEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY,THE OFFICERS, NON COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND PRIVATES OF THEROYAL ARTILLERY, ROYAL ENGINEERS, ROYAL MARINES, Ist ROYALSCOTS, 19th LIGHT DRAGOONS, 6th, 8th ( KING' S ) , 41st, 82nd, 89th, 103rd, 104th, AND DEWATTEVILLE'S REGIMENTS, THE GLENGARRY LIGHT INFANTRY AND THE INCORPORATED MILITIA WHO FELL DURING THE SIEGE OF FORT ERIE, AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER 1814"

"OFFICERS KILLED DURING SIEGE OF FORT ERIE

COLONEL HERCULES SCOTT 103rd REGT LIEUT-COLONEL Wm DRUMMOND 104th REGT
LIEUT-COLONEL JOHN GORDON ROYAL SCOTS
CAPTAIN R.D.PATTESON 6th REGT
CAPTAIN TORRENS 8th REGT
CAPTAIN ED.WALKER INCOR.MILITIA
LIEUT COPLES RADCLIFFE R.N.
LIEUT NOEL ROYAL SCOTS
LIEUT J.RUTLEDGE
LIEUT BARSTOW 8th REGT
LIEUT PELLICHODY DE WATTEVILLE'S REGT
ENSIGN C.LANGFORD 82nd REGT"

At the foot of the monument is a stone tablet with the following inscription:

"HERE LIE BURIED 150 BRITISH OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE ATTACK ON FORT ERIE ON THE 26th(sic) DAY OF AUGUST 1814 AND THREE OF THE DEFENDERS, MEN OF THE UNITED STATES INFANTRY, WHOSE REMAINS WERE DISCOVERED DURING THE RESTORATION OF FORT ERIE 1938 & 1939"

Reprinted from "The Pibroch": Journal of the Manitoba Model Soldier Society by permission of the author.

 


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