August 29, 2012

A most horrid slaughter

It was a frigid night on December 18, 1813 when the British prepared for a daring attack on Fort Niagara. A British force under Lieutenant-Colonel John Murray waded across the Niagara River and crept upon the shore just below Fort Niagara in preparation for their assault.

The capture of Fort Niagara Plaque
The American burning of Newark (modern-day Niagara-on-the-Lake) precipitated the daring assault upon Fort Niagara. This action saw the destruction of about 150 private homes and forced many inhabitants into the below freezing weather. The burning of these homes has been blamed on a group of former Canadians serving in the U.S. army as part of the Canadian Volunteers.

In retaliation for the burning of Newark, General Drummond ordered the assault on Fort Niagara. The Canadian militia eagerly produced enough boats for the crossing. As the British made it across an advanced guard quickly dispatched with the American sentries and forced their way into the fort. The Americans were caught off guard and suffered nearly 65 dead and 350 captured in the engagement, mostly preformed by the bayonet. Brigadier General George McClure, the commander of the American forces and the one who ordered the burning of Newark, reported, “Our men were nearly all asleep in their tents, the Enemy rushed in and commenced a most horrid slaughter.”

The British victory at Fort Niagara was the first action by the British in their winter campaign that saw the destruction of the American Niagara frontier and the capture of much needed weapons and supplies.    

If you want to see the recreation of this engagement, make sure you visit Fort Niagara on September 1 and 2 for their annual 1812 event. The highlight of the weekend begins on Saturday at 7 p.m. with a performance by the MacKenzie Highlanders Pipes and Drums. Following the performance there will be a battle re-enactment of the British capture of the fort in December 1813. Click here for more details.

August 22, 2012

I ain't afraid of no ghost

Since the War of 1812, numerous ghost stories have been told in the Niagara Region at locations where soldiers died. One story of ghostly encounters occurs at Old Fort Erie.

After the war, many citizens moved into the Fort Erie area to build homes and shops. Since these residents moved in many began reporting stories of ghosts haunting the grounds around Old Fort Erie. One image that was often reported centred around two figures walking on the grounds of the fort. One figure appeared to have no head and the other had no arms. Many wrote-off this story as fiction until a discovery was made in 1987.

During the construction of a home down the road from the fort 28 bodies were uncovered from the War of 1812. These men were once part of the American army that held Fort Erie during August and September of 1814. In this mass grave two bodies stood out. One skeleton was missing its head and another was missing its arms. The story of these two ghosts has a basis in fact.

Jarvis Hanks wrote about his experiences during the Siege of Fort Erie. Since shaving was mandatory in the U.S. army many soldiers would often pair up to shave each other. Hanks wrote of an incident when Corporal Reed sat down to shave Sergeant Wait. As the corporal began, a British cannon ball severed the corporal’s arms and the sergeant’s head. The sergeant was wrapped up in a blanket and buried while the corporal lived only for a few days after.

If you want to hear stories like this and more, make sure you visit Old Fort Erie on Friday, Aug. 24 for their ghost tour. Also, make sure you check out Fort George for their ghost tours on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and you can purchase tickets for their Halloween tours in October.     

August 15, 2012

The Rogue’s March

During the War of 1812, both the British and American armies inflicted various punishments on their soldiers in order to instil discipline. Both sides used different types of punishments during the war.

Cat o' nine tails
For the British, punishments varied depending on the crime committed and the officer in charge. The typical punishment for serious crimes such as murder or mutiny was execution. In Britain during the war, 225 offences warranted the death penalty under the criminal code. For lesser crimes, a commanding officer could decide an appropriate punishment, which could have included flogging, extra duties, embarrassment of a solider, and the payment of fines. The punishment of flogging (usually no more than 300 lashes) could be used to punish soldiers. Flogging often involved the offender being stripped to expose their bare back as they were whipped in front of the regiment.  However, by 1814 most officers were tending to shy away from using the cat o’ nine tails. In fact, Gordon Drummond disliked flogging and urged his commanders to use milder forms of punishments.

In the U.S. army whipping as a form of punishment was abolished by May 1812 in order to entice recruits to join the U.S. army. The typical forms of punishment used in the U.S. army could include payment of fines, ‘running the gauntlet,’ picketing, branding, wearing a ball and chain, confinement to a black hole, and for serious crimes execution by hanging or firing squad. In 1812, only three soldiers were executed, but by 1814 there were 146 men executed. In total about 260 men were sentenced to death during the War of 1812 and 205 were actually executed.

For both armies musicians played a part in punishing regular soldiers. For the British, the musicians often performed the flogging of the men. As well, in both the British and American armies the musicians could play ‘The Rogue’s March’ as part of a soldier’s punishment. Generally, when this tune was played a soldier would be tied-up and led out of the garrison in front of everyone. As the offender reached the gates, the youngest musician could be called upon to complete the disgrace with a ritual kick in the butt.  

If you want to see some musicians in action make sure you stop by Fort George on Aug. 18 and 19th for the Fife and Drum Muster and Soldiers' Field Day. A competition will take place between fife and drum corps from Canada and the U.S., as well as a competition of 1812 drill teams from Fort George, Fort Erie, Fort Malden and Fort York. For more information, please click here.

The Rogue's March

August 08, 2012

A brave and excellent officer – William Drummond

William Drummond was described as above the medium height, dignified appearance, regular and clear-cut features, and a charming expression. At the beginning of the war, Drummond served with the 104th regiment in New Brunswick until February 1813 when the regiment was ordered to move west. Drummond, along with six companies of the 104th, made a hazardous trek through the Canadian wilderness in the middle of the winter. By April 1813, the 104th made it to Kingston after trekking through 800 miles of wilderness. While in Quebec an officer from the Canadian Voltiguers described Drummond as a “brave and excellent officer with many estimable qualities, together with his reputation for courage caused him to be idolized.”

Drummond participated in the ill-fated attack on Sackets Harbor in late May 1813. Although the assault was described as “a scandalously managed affair,” Drummond distinguished himself by rallying his troops during the battle. Drummond managed to escape death during the battle when a musket ball grazed him.

Aside from Drummond’s courage in battle, he was also a great diplomat. Drummond earned the respect of John Norton and his native allies. Norton presented Drummond with strings of wampum beads that he wore until his death. Due to Drummond’s good relationship with the natives, he was often called upon to settle disputes between Norton and the Indian Department.  

Siege of Fort Erie map
With the American invasion of Niagara in July 1814, Drummond was ordered with the two flank companies of the 104th to proceed to the Niagara. Drummond arrived in time for the Battle of Lundy’s Lane where he had two horses killed under him. After the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Drummond participated in the failed British attempt to destroy American supply bases at Conjocta Creek. After this failed assault, the British laid siege to the American held defences at Fort Erie. After a few days bombardment, the British launched a daring assault on August 15, 1814.

As Drummond assembled his men for the assault, he bid farewell to the officers as he believe he would not survive the night. Drummond gave his sword to Surgeon William Dunlop before the assault for safekeeping and opted to carry a pike into battle. As Drummond led his men to the North-East demi-bastion they were repulsed by the American gunners inside. After a few attempts, Drummond and his men managed to take the bastion and began pouring into the fort. As Drummond charged into the fort he was shot dead. One American officer describes the incident:

“an officer advanced as far as the door of the mess house . . . [and] gave us orders to kill him - we shot him down and his party gave back at his fall.”  

After Drummond’s death, the British in the bastion managed to turn around a cannon and began firing into the fort. This action caused the gunpowder magazine in the bastion to erupt in a “a jet of flame, mingled with the fragments of timber, earth, stone, and bodies of men, rose, to the height of one or two hundred feet in the air, and fell, in a shower of ruins.”
Explosion of the bastion during the failed British night assault

The British failed to take Fort Erie that night and Drummond lay dead in the American held fort. The next day as the young drummer boy Jarvis Hanks sees the bodies he notes that Drummond’s body was looted and that one of the American officers purchased his gold watch. William Drummond was buried, along with a number of his comrades, in a mass grave in the ditches of Fort Erie.

If you want to learn more about William Drummond and the Siege of Fort Erie, don’t miss the Siege of Fort Erie on August 11 and 12th. There will be battle reenactments all weekend long as well as a lantern tour after the Saturday night battle. All battles are free to watch! Don’t miss Canada’s largest 1812 reenactment. Click here for the schedule of events.

August 01, 2012

Bayonets are trump

For soldiers during the War of 1812 their time was not always spent performing military drills or fighting in battles. For recreation, soldiers in both armies had a few activities to occupy their time.

Soldiers often liked to gamble by playing various dice and card games. In fact, soldiers were so prolific with their gambling that on a number of occasions men would play dice games just minutes before battle. One officer noted that just before a battle the ground was covered with cards and dice, since it was considered bad luck to carry these items into battle.  

Fort Niagara
For officers their recreational activities tended to be more refined and included activities such as painting, playing an instrument or attending plays. Officers did gamble with their fellow officers, as one embarrassing example from December 1813 highlights. On Dec. 19th in the middle of the night, a British force stealthily overcame the American defences at Fort Niagara. As some American officers played cards, one asked, “What are trump?” A British soldier burst forward and replied, “bayonets are trump!” This story has probably been exaggerated over time, but it does show that games of chance were prolific.

If you want to experience some entertainment involving the War of 1812, make sure you head to Old Fort Erie to see Sparks from a Campfire. The Dominion Repertory Theatre performs this play set during the War of 1812 and tells the story of a young man thrown back into the time of the War of 1812. The play runs from July 28 to Sept. 2, Tuesdays through Sundays at dusk. For more information, please click here