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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 15

Chapter Fourteen

 p154  We, Too, Burn a Capital

As a young man of 24, fresh from the New Hampshire hills, Henry Dearborn had his first taste of battle at Lexington. That was the beginning of a distinguished military career in the Revolutionary War. At Bunker Hill he headed a company. He was with Benedict Arnold on the bold and arduous expedition up the Penobscot River and through the Maine wilderness to Quebec. In the fight which ensued there he had the misfortune to be captured, but managed to arrange his exchange. Once more in active service with the American Army he was promoted to major and behaved with such gallantry at Saratoga that he was made a lieutenant colonel. He took part in the battle of Monmouth and he was with Washington when Lord Cornwallis found himself trapped at Yorktown and surrendered his army. Thus, at the age of 32, Dearborn had done more fighting than most men do in a lifetime, and everywhere he had conducted himself so magnificently that he earned a merited reputation as a warrior of high degree and one who deserved the recognition of a grateful country.

Dearborn, however, did not immediately capitalize on his fame. Instead he beat his sword into a plowshare and retired modestly to a farm on the Kennebec River. But such distinction as he possessed could not go forever unnoticed. In 1789 his old chief, George Washington, called him to government service as marshal of the district of Maine; and so pleasant did Dearborn find public life that he entered politics and was elected to Congress. When the statesmen of the day, having no longer a foreign felon to fight, split into two parties in order the better to fight among themselves, Dearborn forsook Washington and gave his adherence to Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans. When Jefferson was elected President, Dearborn  p155 was rewarded by being elevated to the cabinet as Secretary of War, a post he held for eight years. Upon the succession of Madison Dearborn was named Collector of the Port of Boston, a particularly juicy plum reserved for deserving Republicans in the Federalist stronghold. Dearborn was happy in his surroundings and, no doubt, would have been glad to remain there. At the outbreak of the War of 1812 he was 61 years of age and beginning to succumb to the inevitable aches and pains of that period of maturity. He was so stout that a special vehicle had to be designed to carry him. The vehicle, bearing his name, later became for years a favorite with farmers.

However, a generalissimo had to be found. Madison looked far and wide but he could discover no one better qualified for the post than Dearborn. His career in the Revolution and his eight years of experience in the War Department marked him as a military man. More to the point, his politics were right. Besides, a New Englander at the head of the Army would serve to refute the Federalist libel that this was a war, not of New England, but of the South and the West. Dearborn's age was a handicap, yet Madison may have recalled that Cincinnatus was reputedly an elderly man when he saved his country and that Frederick the Great presented a more recent example of a warrior who continued his career with considerable success in spite of advancing years.​a When duty called it was not the part of Dearborn, any more than it had been of William Hull, to decline. And so, once more, painful as it may have been for him, he found himself enduring the hardships and rigors of the camp.

Dearborn appears to have been dazzled by the honor thrust upon him by Madison, so much so that he did not quite take in the extent of the authority vested in him, as has been previously mentioned. Even when his position had been clarified he did nothing about it. He let the summer and autumn of 1812 slip by without striking a blow commensurate with his position, his past record and the size of the force he had with him on the right flank. But if Dr. Eustis had, perhaps sympathetically, permitted Dearborn to take things easy, his successor in the War Department, General Armstrong, was of a different mind. Hardly had Armstrong taken over the reins than he began to consider how he might get action out of Dearborn. The  p157 result of his cogitations was a plan that involved a combination between Commodore Isaac Chauncey's fleet and Dearborn's command.

In the early months of 1813 Commodore Chauncey succeeded in temporarily bottling up the British fleet of Sir James Yeo at Kingston and thus gaining control of Lake Ontario. Kingston stands on the Canadian shore of the lake not far from the head waters of the St. Lawrence River. Armstrong regarded this auspicious circumstance as an opportunity to strike a telling blow at Canada. Pursuant to this object, orders were given to concentrate an impressive force of 7,000 regulars and volunteers at buffalo and at Sackett's Harbor, an important naval depot at the eastern end of the lake, 3,000 men at the former, 4,000 at the latter. (See Map III)

According to the plan proposed, the troops at Sackett's Harbor were to cross the ice to Kingston, capture the town, destroy all shipping and then proceed to York, the capital of Upper Canada and today better known as Toronto. There they were to seize the army stores and destroy two frigates that were building. When Dearborn received the order on February 10, he was at Plattsburg with 2,500 men. Before he could carry out this ambitious plan a report came to him that Sir George Prevost, Governor-General of Canada, had forestalled him by sending heavy reinforcements to York. Dearborn considered the prospects of the expedition in the light of this new intelligence. The report appeared reasonable, for the defeat of Napoleon in Russia had improved the situation of the Allies on the Continent and it was generally known that several veteran regiments of British regulars had arrived at Halifax and were only waiting for the ice in the St. Lawrence to break before proceeding inland to the relief of their countrymen in Upper Canada. Dearborn, therefore, did not see fit to make a further check on the report of reinforcements at Kingston before accepting it as truth. The news, as it turned out, was premature; Kingston and York were lightly garrisoned. And so the Generalissimo stuck to his comfortable campfire on good solid American soil; passed up the prospect of a dreary march across the ice and, along with it, an opportunity.

The only winter operation of the Americans was a modest raid from Ogdensburg, New York, across the St. Lawrence to Elizabethtown, the expedition being under the command of Major Benjamin  p158 Forsyth who rescued a handful of prisoners from the village lockup. The British retaliated in kind by raiding Ogdensburg and plundering the town. It was, in fact, this British attack that was responsible for the report that reached Dearborn of large reinforcements at Kingston. The rest of February and the whole month of March passed without further activity.

By April, however, the Americans had succeeded in concentrating at Sackett's Harbor 5,000 regulars and volunteers, 2,000 militia and 1,500 sailors, an unusually large number of troops to be gathered together in one place according to War of 1812 standards. As little as they had shown themselves to be distinguished for initiative, even Dearborn and Chauncey were brought to realize that something ought to be done and done quickly, too, before the veteran regiments at Halifax had time to march and reverse the advantage. Between them they devised a new plan. In this Kingston was left out of consideration. Instead the expedition was to sail across the lake direct to York. Having destroyed the military and naval objectives there, it was to recross the lake and reduce Fort George which stood on the Canadian shore near the mouth of the Niagara River directly opposite Fort Niagara on the American side. Simultaneous with the attack on Fort George, the troops at Buffalo and Black Rock were to pass over the river to Canadian territory and overwhelm Fort Erie and Fort Chippawa, thus driving the British back along the line of the Niagara all the way from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

On April 25, when all the preparations were complete, the flotilla under Chauncey, loaded with 1,700 men of Dearborn's command, set sail from Sackett's Harbor. The food or the climate, or both, were constantly affecting the health of the American army in the lake region. On this occasion the commanding general became so ill that he was confined to his cabin and was quite incapable of conducting the operations. While Dearborn was dosed by the doctors, General Zebulon Pike took his place and gave the orders. The expedition met with no resistance on the lake and on the morning of April 27 it arrived off York.

York, with its valuable army stores and government buildings, was defended by Major General R. H. Sheaffe and only 800 men, not including the usually untrustworthy contingent of Indian allies.  p159 The odds were hopelessly against him but Sheaffe was obstinate and determined not to surrender the town without a struggle. Anticipating the attack he had constructed a mine and artfully concealed it, planning to set it off upon the arrival of the Americans, throw them into confusion and thus to some extent equalize the strength of the two contending forces.

By 8 A.M. all was in readiness among the Americans for the attack. Equipment was checked, officers and men were given their final instructions and the vessels put in as close to the shore as they dared go. At word of command the soldiers leaped into the shallow water and struggled toward the beach. They were immediately met by a volley from the defenders but pushed bravely on. It was not, however, Sheaffe's intention seriously to contest the landing. As soon as the Americans appeared in force the British began to fall back upon the town, firing as they retreated and luring the Americans on to the trap which Sheaffe had prepared for them.

Dearborn was still indisposed and remained aboard ship. General Pike however led the attack in person and set a brave example to his men by exposing himself in the forefront of the battle. In their enthusiasm over having broken down the British resistance the Americans pressed forward toward the town. Suddenly a great explosion was heard, shattered human bodies, equipment and debris hurtled through the air and the surroundings were obscured in a heavy acrid pall of smoke. The British mine had been set off.

The explosion had been timed so clumsily that the British were unable to get their own men out of danger and inflicted almost as much damage on themselves as upon the Americans. Forty‑two of the British were killed outright. The Americans lost 52 killed and 180 wounded. Unfortunately, among those fatally wounded was the brave General Pike. A heavy stone dislodged by the explosion fell on him and crushed his chest and he died within a few minutes.

As Sheaffe had anticipated, the mine created temporary confusion but the Americans quickly recovered from it and Colonel Cromwell Pearce succeeded to the command and continued to push on. As soon as Sheaffe realized that the Americans had not been completely demoralized by the unpleasant surprise he prepared for them, he called in his regulars and withdrew from the town. So hasty was his departure that he left behind his official papers and  p160 his personal baggage, including among other trifles a musical snuffbox that delighted the Americans who already had established the national tradition for collecting souvenirs.

Finding themselves without defenders and at the mercy of the Americans, the civilian authorities and the militia officers who had not run away with the regulars now advanced under a flag of truce and offered to surrender the town. General Dearborn had by now sufficiently recovered from his indisposition to land and resume the command. He accepted the surrender of 290 prisoners, naval and military stores and the two frigates that were building. The blowing up of the mine, however, and the death and wounding of so many of the Americans put them in a vindictive mood. Not only did they destroy the military objectives, but some unknown person or persons took it upon themselves to set fire to the public buildings which were burned to the ground. The American authorities did not condone this act of vandalism but explained that some of the men had been infuriated when they found a human scalp, recently taken, hanging on the wall of one of the buildings. The British, for their part, retorted that the scalp was that of an Indian and that the scalping had been done by no less a person than Commodore Chauncey himself.

For four days the Americans made themselves at home in the town. After having removed all the public property they wanted and made sure that the rest had been destroyed they withdrew to the ships, while Sheaffe and his regulars, who had been lurking outside, reoccupied the town. This brief sojourn on Canadian soil cost the Americans 66 killed and 220 wounded. The British loss was 60 killed, 89 wounded and 290 prisoners. The unfinished frigates and other military property had been destroyed, but the destruction of the public buildings was a precedent that was later to bring regrettable retaliation upon Washington.

Having completed the first phase of its operations the expedition was now ready to proceed with the second. Hoisting sail the fleet soon left York behind, recrossed the lake and anchored offshore four miles east of the mouth of the Niagara. While the troops debarked to reorganize, Chauncey set off for Sackett's Harbor to replenish his supplies. The excitement of the operations at York, limited as his participation in them had been, proved too much for General  p161 Dearborn. He had a relapse and became quite ill; age proved to be his most dangerous enemy. Luckily for the expedition he had as his adjutant young Winfield Scott who not only was hale and hearty but loved nothing so much as a good fight. While Dearborn's military career was drawing rapidly to a close, Scott's was just beginning. So far as the proposed campaign was concerned Dearborn's physical incapacity was a blessing in disguise. Another valuable recruit, who left off building vessels at Erie when he smelt the smoke of battle, was Oliver Hazard Perry, a rising young naval officer. Perry's arrival was just the force needed to stimulate the somewhat hesitant Chauncey. The Commodore soon returned from Sackett's Harbor with his supplies and all was in readiness for the attack on Fort George.

The American force consisted of 4,000 men fit for duty. Opposing them were 1,800 British regulars under Brigadier General John Vincent. The engagement opened on May 26 with a spirited artillery duel between Fort Niagara on the American side of the river and Fort George on the Canadian side. This was merely a diversion to keep the British occupied until night came. As soon as it was dark the American troops embarked on the Madison, the Oneida, the Lady of the Lake and small vessels and boats that had been collected together to receive them. During the night a heavy fog set in and though this served to conceal the flotilla from the British it at the same time rendered much more difficult the posting of the vessels. This task was placed under the immediate direction of Perry who displayed the professional ability that might have been expected from him. As dawn broke on May 27 all the ships and boats were in their proper order, lying near the mouth of the river and facing the Canadian shore where the landing was to be made. (See Map II, p110)

Colonel Scott had accepted the office of adjutant to General Dearborn on the express condition that he be permitted to lead his regiment into action. He now elected to go with the vanguard of 500 men who preceded the main body. As the hour designated for the attack approached a wind came up, dispersing the fog and at the same time raising a choppy sea. This created a new and unexpected problem which Perry handled with great skill, keeping the fleet in formation while it approached the shallow water near shore.

 p162  Vincent's regulars, accompanied by Indian warriors, lay concealed in a ravine and wood opposite the landing place and awaited the Americans. As soon as the boats had arrived within wading distance of the beach the 500 men led by Scott and Perry plunged into the lake with all their heavy battle equipment and made for land. Fortunately, the shore at this point rose to a height of from six to 12 feet, making a natural entrenchment which afforded excellent protection while they were getting themselves together for the strenuous effort which lay ahead. By way of welcome the British discharged a volley of musketry, but the bullets passed harmlessly overhead.

Now that the vanguard had gained a foothold, the main body followed as fast as the boats could put them ashore and in short order the beach was dotted with men. The British and Indians, 1,000 strong, advanced to the attack and the Americans scrambled up the embankment to meet them. For 20 minutes the battle raged. Three times the Americans moved forward and three times they were driven back to the beach at the point of the bayonet. Throughout the engagement the guns of the American schooners roared as they hurled grape and canister into the ranks of the enemy. Scott and Perry, both conspicuous for their splendid physiques, were in the thick of the fight giving aid and encouragement to the men. For a time the situation was in doubt. Then the scarlet line of the British regulars faltered. The deadly fire of the American infantry accompanied by that from the ships was taking a heavy toll of their numbers, and the Americans were pressing relentlessly forward. It was more than even British regulars could stand. They broke and withdrew, leaving the Americans in possession of the field.

Seeing his army defeated and in full retreat Vincent ordered the guns of Fort George to be spiked, the ammunition destroyed, and the garrison to withdraw immediately. Similar orders were issued to the garrisons of Fort Chippawa and Fort Erie. Vincent selected as a rallying point Beaver Dams, 18 miles to the west, thus leaving the Americans in complete control of the Niagara River. However, before the order at Fort George could be carried out, the American forces took possession and saved much of the munitions and stores. In the engagement the British lost 863 men killed,  p163 wounded and taken prisoner. The American loss was comparatively light, amounting to no more than 40 killed and 100 wounded.

In the full flush of a fine victory against British regulars, Scott was all for pursuing Vincent's beaten army and destroying it before it had time to reorganize. But Scott was no longer in a position to make the decision. The operations had now come within the province of General Morgan Lewis, who commanded at Fort Niagara and outranked Scott. Lewis, adopting a policy in marked contrast to Scott's audacity, recalled the Americans just as they were coming up with the stragglers from Vincent's army. Scott, who had won the victory, was forbidden to touch its fruits. He obeyed the order like a good soldier, but with considerable reluctance.

Two days later, on May 29, General Lewis himself, accompanied by the brigades of General William H. Winder and General John Chandler, set out in pursuit of Vincent who had now retired farther west to Burlington Heights at the western end of Lake Ontario. But the expedition failed to come up with the enemy and returned to camp. Meanwhile Lieutenant Colonel James P. Preston commanded a force which crossed over from Black Rock and occupied Fort Erie. Thanks to Lewis' caution several more days were wasted during which Vincent had time to receive reinforcements from York. Then, at last, General Winder was dispatched to search for him, but with a force of only 800 men. Winder, upon approaching the heights, learned of the reinforcements and sent back for help to Dearborn, who had recovered and resumed command. He was soon joined by Chandler with 500 men, bringing the American force to 1,300. The Americans now boldly advanced until they came within sight of Vincent's camp. They were content to drive in the British pickets and then retired 10 miles to Stony Creek where they pitched camp for the night, throwing out pickets and patrols and sleeping with their arms by their sides in anticipation of an attack.

In this they were not disappointed. A British reconnoitering party discovered the American camp and returned to Vincent to urge a night assault. Vincent approved and at midnight set out with 600 men for Stony Creek, halting his force a mile from it. By good fortune he ran into a deserter who gave him the American countersign.  p164 Armed with this information Vincent's men approached the American pickets, whispered the magic word in their ears and, having been passed as friends, returned the compliment by capturing the pickets before they had time to give the alarm.

Vincent then ordered his men to charge. The Americans, sleeping peacefully in the assurance that their pickets were watching over them, were taken completely by surprise. Before the attack was well under way their first line was broken and their guns captured. As usual with night attacks, great confusion reigned on both sides. British and Americans fought among themselves as much as they fought each other. Even General Vincent, when he was thrown from his horse, lost his way. He turned up next day miles from the scene of the conflict. An even worse fate befell the two American commanders. Winder and Chandler ran into the enemy and submitted to ignominious capture. It was, on the whole, not a glorious display of American military prowess which took place that night on June 5 at Stony Creek. Yet, oddly enough, it was to enhance the military reputation of one of the American victims and give him an opportunity for undying glory, if it did not give him the glory itself. Though the British won the victory they lost 23 men killed, 100 wounded and 55 missing in contrast to the American loss of 17 killed, 38 wounded and 99 missing.

When day came what was left of the American host, disheartened by the loss of its leaders, broke camp and began an unhappy march back home by way of the lake shore. Hardly had it started when Sir James Yeo's squadron put in an appearance and attacked the column with such spirit that twelve boatloads of baggage and camp equipment were lost. To add to the Americans' discomfort and depress their already dampened spirits they were chased most of the way to Fort George by Indians and Canadian militia.

Vincent now advanced from Burlington Heights to Beaver Dams. Dearborn, who unfortunately for the American cause continued to enjoy a period of good health which enabled him to resume command, sent out another expedition of 570 men, including infantry and artillery under Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Boerstler, to dislodge the enemy. Not far from Beaver Dams the road over which Boerstler and his column was marching passed through a dense wood. In the very middle of the wood the Americans were ambushed  p165 by a band of Indians who let them pass and then fell upon their rear. Boerstler immediately disposed his men for the fight, and for three hours held off the Indians. But after this exertion he concluded that his force was too small to undertake an engagement with the British while at the same time it ran the risk of being harassed by Indians. He therefore prepared to retire. Hardly had he made the decision when he saw a detachment of the British approaching under a flag of truce. Boerstler granted a parley and the officer in command introduced himself as Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon. He stated that his was an advance party of a strong force composed of 1,500 British and 700 Indians, who already were within a few minutes' march. It was obvious, he said, that Boerstler's men stood no chance whatever against such odds, and pointed out that it was now too late for the Americans to hope to escape. He realized, of course, that a man of Colonel Boerstler's courage would welcome a trial at arms. But before Colonel Boerstler came to that decision, he would like to remind him that the Indians were a bloodthirsty lot and that if the Americans attempted to resist, a horrible fate awaited them. He suggested that the sensible course for Colonel Boerstler to adopt was to admit the hopelessness of his situation and spare his men the suffering and bloodshed.

Boerstler was duly impressed by the horrors painted by Lieutenant Fitzgibbon. However, his pride revolted at abject and unconditional surrender. He replied that he would yield, but on the express condition that the officers be permitted to retain their sidearms and that the members of the militia in his force be granted parole. To these stipulations Fitzgibbon courteously consented. The agreement having been made Boerstler turned over to Fitzgibbon 542 prisoners, all the muskets, two guns, all the ammunition they had brought with them and a stand of colors. Having completed these operations, the Americans looked for the arrival of the main British force. But no force appeared. When inquiry was made Fitzgibbon confessed that there wasn't any main force. There were no 1,500 British soldiers and no 700 Indians. The only force in the neighborhood was the 250 men Fitzgibbon had with him. To a mere lieutenant and 250 men an American lieutenant colonel had surrendered a force over twice its size!

While these events were taking place at York and along the Niagara,  p166 the British forces at Kingston were not idle. Sir George Prevost learned that, after the departure of Dearborn's expedition, Sackett's Harbor across the lake from him had been left virtually unprotected. Its garrison, he was informed, consisted of no more than 60 artillerymen and 100 infantrymen and most of these were either invalids or raw recruits. So Sir George, though he had little reputation for enterprise, found this opportunity too good to ignore. He determined upon an attack with the assistance of Sir James Yeo and the fleet.

On May 27 word reached the Americans at the harbor that Sir George had put to sea. They had not entirely over­looked the possibility of such an attack during Dearborn's absence and General Jacob Brown, a capable officer of the New York militia and a Quaker, had been counted upon to take command in an emergency. Brown was immediately notified and called out the militia. The following day the British squadron, consisting of 12 ships and 40 bateaux, bearing 1,200 troops and a contingent of Indians, was sighted off the harbor. With all sails set, the ships made an impressive picture. But just as the Americans at the harbor sighted the British squadron, the British observed 19 American gunboats bringing up reinforcements. So the squadron departed in haste.

Bright and early next day the British were back again. Off the harbor the fleet was becalmed so that the larger vessels could not come close to land. Sir George, however, got his party into boats and came along himself. The militia at the harbor had never been under fire before and at sound of the first shots they fled in disorder. On the other hand the regulars and volunteers put up stiff resistance and, though outnumbered, fought a delaying action for more than an hour.

Nevertheless the situation was desperate. With the limited force at his disposal General Brown saw little hope of driving the British off. His only possible reinforcements were the militia and they, thoroughly frightened, were keeping at a safe distance from the engagement. But Brown had an inspiration. He sent a messenger speeding after the militia to announce that the day had been won and urging them to share in the victory!

To be on the losing side was one thing, to take part in a victory was quite another. Frightened though they were, 300 of the militia  p167 accepted General Brown's bait and returned boldly to the field to take their part in administering the coup de grâce to an already vanquished enemy. Fortunately they did not have time to discover the deception or else they might have scampered off again. If the American militiamen were timid, so was the British commander. Sir George, seeing the new force on his flank mistook the militia for regulars and imagined that he was about to be caught in a trap. So he ordered his men to retreat to the boats. Or, as he preferred to express it in his official dispatch, "I reluctantly ordered the troops to leave a beaten enemy." At noon Sir George's "victorious" squadron set sail for Kingston, leaving the "beaten enemy" in full possession of the field and of the objective which Sir George had failed to reach.

Sir George's "victory," however, was not altogether fruitless. From behind the lines Lieutenant Woolcott Chauncey, of the United States Navy, had watched the battle. When he saw the American line fall back and the militia in flight, he came to the very natural conclusion that the Americans were beaten. To prevent the spoils from falling into British hands, he set fire to the General Pike, which was building, and to all the naval stores. Luckily, the General Pike was too green to burn; but the stores were not. Lieutenant Chauncey's prompt action cost the United States Government a matter of $500,000.

Late in July, Colonel Scott and Commodore Chauncey paid another surprise visit to York, burned the barracks, the public storehouses and their contents and eleven transports, and captured five cannon. That just about completed the activities of the army of the center for the summer. It attempted no conquest of Canada and was content to hold the line of the Niagara. Meanwhile every day's delay saw the arrival at Halifax of veteran regiments released from the European war.

General Dearborn's leader­ship had now been tried and found wanting. The spirit may have been willing, but the flesh was weak. So he was permitted to retire. It was only fair to the aging warrior.

Thayer's Note:

a The example of the great Byzantine general Narses will also come to mind, whose greatest battles were won when he was in his mid-seventies; his last victory coming when he was about 86.

Page updated: 11 Oct 13