War of 1812: Battle of Sackett’s Harbor, May 29, 1813

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Sacket's Harbor - May 29, 1813

During the spring of 1813, General Dearborn and Commodore Chauncey foolishly left Sackett’s Harbor (now Sackets Harbor, NY) lightly defended while they conducted military operations 200 miles away. Meanwhile, the British Naval fleet and a large army were stationed in Kingston, barely 20 miles from Sackett’s Harbor.

Colonel Electus Backus commanded the meager forces protecting the harbor. His troops included approximately 650 soldiers from various units. The strongest defensive position at Sackett’s Harbor was Fort Tompkins, with a 32-pounder swivel gun.

Reasons for Attacking Sackett’s Harbor, NY

The capture of York on April 27, and subsequent looting of the town, outraged the British and Canadians. With the American forces preparing to attack Fort George, the British saw their chance for revenge.

Sackett’s Harbor was the primary American shipbuilding facility on Lake Ontario, and capturing it would give the British Navy control of the lake. They could destroy a new warship under construction in the harbor and capture or destroy several other warships and American military stores. Additionally, they could recapture some of the spoils from York, including HMS Duke of Gloucester.

The British Invasion Force

Sir James Yeo commanded the British naval squadron that sailed for Sackett’s Harbor on May 27. The powerful force consisted of the Wolfe, Royal George, Earl of Moira, Prince Regent, Simcoe, and Seneca, with two gunboats and some small transports.

Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, commanded the invasion force of 1,000-1,200 men. With him were detachments of the 100th Regiment, 8th (King’s) Regiment, Royal Scots, 104th Regiment, Glengarry Regiment, Canadian Voltigeurs, and Newfoundland Regiment.

The Americans Prepare for the Attack

On May 27, 1813, the USS Lady of the Lake arrived from Kingston with news that the British fleet was heading for Sackett’s Harbor. After Brigadier General Jacob Brown of the New York Militia, was alerted, he quickly sent messages requesting reinforcement from local militia and regular troops.

When the British squadron arrived on May 28, conditions were perfect for an amphibious assault. Had Prevost attacked immediately, he almost certainly would have captured the naval base with minimal loss. Instead, he waited until the following day while the Americans prepared.

General Brown placed Colonel Mills and 400 militiamen along the shoreline facing Horse Island, the expected landing site. Protected by a five-foot gravel ridge, the citizen soldiers overlooked a fordable strait between Horse Island and the mainland. It was a perfect killing ground.

In support behind them, he placed the Albany Volunteers along the edge of a wooded area. The last defensive position was a line of U.S. Regulars commanded by Colonel Backus, defending the town and Fort Tompkins. When the British finally attacked, the defenses had increased from approximately 650 to 1,300 men.

Sir George Prevost Attacks Sackett’s Harbor

On the morning of May 29, Yeo’s largest ships were becalmed and could not contribute. The British landed approximately 750 soldiers on Horse Island under cover of the two gunboats. The attackers quickly advanced towards the mainland while under fire from the Fort Tompkins swivel gun.

American militia fired too soon. Their volley had almost no effect on the enemy, except to give away their position. The gunboats’ return fire of grapeshot and canister killed Colonel Mills. Suddenly leaderless and with the seemingly unstoppable mass of British Redcoats approaching, the amateur soldiers fled into the woods. General Brown desperately tried to rally them, but his first line of defense was gone.

The British split their force into two equal columns. The left column advanced directly towards Fort Tompkins along the shoreline, while the right column followed a path through the woods. The columns were slowed by the Albany Volunteers, who fought well but were slowly forced back. Soon the volunteers joined the last line of defense in front of Fort Tompkins. Colonel Backus had only 500 men left. When the British emerged from the woods, their two columns formed into line. The defenders opposed them with heavy musket fire, while the swivel gun fired over their heads.

Suddenly, smoke from a huge fire rose over Sackett’s Harbor, suggesting that British troops were behind them. General Brown soon received word that Naval Lieutenant Chauncey had believed the battle was lost. In accordance with his orders, he torched the barracks, storehouses, and two warships – the Duke of Gloucester and the ship under construction in the navy yard.

General Jacob Brown Saves the Day

American troops continued to be forced backwards. Colonel Backus was killed. Taking shelter in some log barracks, they repulsed repeated British attacks. General Brown knew that if they could not stand here, Sackett’s Harbor was lost.

Seeking reinforcements, he sent dragoons to find some of the panicked militia. When about 300 of them assembled southeast of town, General Brown shamed them for running away and told them that any man who ran again would be shot. A hundred advanced towards the British landing boats in an attempt to persuade the Redcoats that their rear area was threatened. Another 200 attacked a British force that was attempting to flank the log barracks.

Now with his right and rear area threatened, Sir George Prevost ordered a retreat.

Results of the Battle of Sackett’s Harbor

Having ignominiously returned to the fleet, Sir George Prevost demanded the surrender of Sackett’s Harbor. General Brown sent him a contemptuous reply and the British squadron returned to Kingston.

American soldiers fought the flames to save as many of their supplies as possible. The two warships were salvageable, but the barracks and storehouses were a total loss. British casualties were 50 killed, 195 wounded, and 16 captured. American losses were 47 killed, 84 wounded, and 36 missing.

The British never again attempted to capture Sackett’s Harbor.