War of 1812: The Capture of Fort Niagara, December 19, 1813

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Soon after General James Wilkinson took command of the U. S. Northern Army in August 1813, a new Canadian Invasion plan to capture Montreal was devised. Using the bulk of his forces from Fort George to Vermont, General Wilkinson began a two-pronged advance into Canada on October 16. The campaign failed when his armies were defeated at the Battle of Chateauguay and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.

Meanwhile, Forts George and Niagara were vulnerable to attack. Brigadier General George McClure of the New York militia commanded a small garrison at Fort George consisting of only 60 soldiers ready for duty. On December 10, after learning that a British force of 1,500 regulars and 700 allied tribal warriors were approaching, he ordered his weak force to abandon Fort George and withdraw to Fort Niagara.

The Burning of Newark

In addition to abandoning Fort George, General McClure announced to the inhabitants of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON) that he intended to burn their town to prevent the British army from using its buildings for shelter.

His men soon carried out this order by evicting about 400 women and children into the snow, who watched helplessly as fire destroyed all but one of the 150 homes and buildings. A number of the refugees froze to death before they could find shelter. The destruction of Newark was an unnecessary and cruel action that was condemned by both sides.

The British Seek Revenge for Newark

On December 13, Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond became the supreme military leader of all British and Canadian forces in Upper Canada. Four days after taking command, he ordered an immediate attack upon Fort Niagara to revenge the burning of Newark. Colonel John Murray would lead the surprise attack.

Soon after relocating his men to Fort Niagara, General McClure moved his headquarters to Buffalo. On December 18, he warned American settlers in the area that the British would be invading the United States. However, he did not issue any new orders or warnings to his own men defending Fort Niagara. This force was under the direct command of an artillery officer named Captain Leonard, who would prove to be either a traitor or a derelict.

On the night of December 18, there were approximately 400 men in Fort Niagara’s garrison. Some were in the hospital. Most were asleep, except for too few sentinels to guard the fort properly. Captain Leonard was at home, miles away from his post.

Surprise Attack on Fort Niagara

Colonel Murray’s troops, numbering 500-600 men, included detachments of the 100th and 41st Regiments of Foot, the Royal Scots, and militia units acting as guides. Shortly after 4 o’clock in the morning, they surprised American sentries in the village of Youngstown, NY and quietly killed them using bayonets. Preparations were made for the assault on Fort Niagara. Five companies of the 100th Regiment would attack the main gate, supported by the 41st Regiment, while the remaining 100th Regiment companies and the Royal Scots would make diversional assaults on other areas of the fort.

There are two versions of what happened next. One account claims that British soldiers forced the sentries to divulge the fort’s password and then used the password to gain entrance to Fort Niagara. A second account claims that the drawbridge and main gate were open and completely unguarded, and the British attacking force simply walked into the fort. In either case, the British entered Fort Niagara nearly or completely unopposed.

The battle that followed was unusual in that there was very little musket fire. Most of the work was done with the bayonet. The only significant opposition was in the southwest blockhouse and in the French barracks; however, the surprised garrison soon surrendered the fort.

Results of the Capture of Fort Niagara

The British and Canadian soldiers wanted revenge for the burning of Newark. Despite little opposition, they killed 65 enemy soldiers, many of them hospital patients, wounded 6, and captured 250-350 more. Every woman found in the garrison was stripped of her clothing by the vengeful soldiers, and many were killed.

The victorious forces had lost only six dead and five wounded. They captured 27 artillery pieces, 3,000 muskets, and a large quantity of ammunition, clothing, and other supplies. Now that Fort George and Fort Niagara were in their hands, British and Canadian soldiers, with the help of their tribal allies, burned almost every building within 18 miles of Fort Niagara, including Manchester (now Niagara Falls) and Buffalo, New York. Civilian men, women, and children were murdered and scalped.

General McClure, who blamed Captain Leonard for the capture of Fort Niagara, resigned from the army. Captain Leonard was court-martialed and discharged. General Wilkinson was eager to restore his reputation after his disastrous campaign of 1813. He invaded Canada again in the spring of 1814, but his powerful army was defeated by a much smaller force in the Second Battle of Lacolle Mill.