War of 1812: Capture of Fort George, May 27, 1813

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After capturing Fort York on April 27, Major General Henry Dearborn planned on sailing directly to Fort Niagara to begin an assault on Fort George. Unfortunately, stormy weather on Lake Ontario delayed his army’s journey until May 8. With low morale and many casualties caused by the shocking powder magazine explosion after the York battle, the American forces were further weakened by seasickness during the rough voyage across the lake to Fort Niagara. The attack was delayed for three weeks.

Fort George Is Weakly Defended

British-held Fort George was a weak fortress. Buildings and palisades were made of wood and susceptible to flames. The main powder magazine was not built solidly enough to withstand a direct hit. To return enemy fire, the fort had only five guns: one 12-pounder, two 24-pounders, and two mortars. An additional battery with six cannon and five mortars was positioned north of the fort facing Fort Niagara, and still further north was a small battery guarding the mouth of the Niagara River.

The British naval fleet could not help. It was trapped in Kingston by ice blocking their passage to Lake Ontario. To weaken the defenses further, the United States had placed a battery of heavy guns on high ground east of the fort, near Youngstown, NY, that overlooked the fortifications. From here, the American artillerists could drop cannonballs directly into Fort George.

The British Prepare to Defend Against Invasion

By May 21, American forces at Fort Niagara, across the river from Fort George, included 17 warships under the command of Commodore Isaac Chauncey, more than 100 small transports for landing troops, and approximately 7,000 U.S. Regulars.

The British forces were on alert, expecting the Americans to invade but not knowing where. Since the United States Navy was currently unopposed on Lake Ontario, they could land troops anywhere from Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON) a mile north of Fort George to Queenston, six miles south.

Defending Fort George was Brigadier General John Vincent with approximately 1,050 Regulars, 350 militia, and 50 tribal warriors. One-third of his force, led by Lieutenant Colonel Myers, was positioned north of the fort along the lakeshore in Niagara. Another third of his men under, Lieutenant Colonel Harvey, was south of the fort beside the Niagara River. The final third he placed in reserve on the large plain west of Fort George under his own command.

The Attack on Fort George Begins With a Two-Day Bombardment

On May 25, sixteen large caliber guns and mortars from Fort Niagara and nearby batteries began firing on Fort George. Many of the cannonballs were heated in ovens in hopes of setting wooden structures ablaze.

The cannon bombardment continued on May 26. The 12-pounder in Fort George was knocked out of action, every building in the fort was burning, and a 24-pounder had to be abandoned because of the flames. By dusk, every building in Fort George was destroyed.

The American Attack on Fort George

When the fog lifted on the morning of May 27, sixteen United States warships of various sizes were positioned two miles offshore, surrounded by more than 130 small craft, each filled with 30-50 American troops.

The schooners Julia, Growler, and Ontario sailed close inshore and silenced a British artillery battery. Another battery was put out of action by the Governor Tompkins and Conquest. Hamilton, Scourge, and Asp were also close inshore to support the troop landing, while Madison, Oneida, and Lady of the Lake fired from offshore. In all, fifty-one naval guns fired upon the British positions. When Fort Niagara opened fire, the troops surrounding Fort George were bombarded by more than seventy heavy guns and mortars.

American forces landed on the lakeshore at about 9 o’clock that morning behind the barrage. The initial landing force consisted of approximately 800 men led by Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott. Opposing them were about 550 British troops commanded by Colonel Myers.

The American infantry were unable to advance until a brigade of 1,500 men and an artillery battalion under General Boyd joined Colonel Scott’s invasion force. The combined 2,300 men pushed the defenders back and managed to exit the beach. The British force was badly mauled.

They retreated to a second ravine, where Lieutenant Colonel Harvey and a supporting force arrived with a 6-pounder field gun. Soon another brigade of 1,500 American troops led by General Winder joined the invasion force. By repeatedly outflanking the British left and right, the United States army forced the enemy to retreat until they were on the plain near Fort George. General Vincent then brought his reserve units out to join Harvey’s battered troops.

General Vincent Abandons Fort George

American troops began crossing the Niagara River near Youngstown in an attempt to cut off the British escape route to Queenston. At the same time, the invasion force continued outflanking the British left, threatening to surround the British and cut off their western escape route as well.

At Noon, General Vincent ordered his army to abandon Fort George and retreat south towards Queenston. This was the decisive moment when the United States could have captured the entire British army at Fort George. Instead, old and feeble Major General Dearborn, exhausted from his exertions during the battle, was once again incapacitated. Overall command went to General Lewis – an able politician but poor soldier. Lewis acted cautiously for fear of losing his army, and the bulk of General Vincent’s survivors escaped.

Results of the Battle

The Fort George defenders had suffered 358 casualties in three hours. Losses for some of the units were devastating. The 8th (King’s) Regiment lost 196 killed or wounded out of 310 total men. Glengarry Light Infantry lost 77 out of 108, and the Royal Newfoundland suffered 16 casualties out of 40 men. The American losses were reported as 150 total casualties.

While the Americans were preoccupied with Fort George, the British attacked and nearly captured their primary naval base on Lake Ontario, Sackett’s Harbor. Meanwhile, General Dearborn’s forces pursued Fort George’s retreating garrison and attacked them in the Battle of Stoney Creek.