April 30, 2014

Prisoner of war – Samuel White

Captain Samuel White of Pennsylvania fought under the command of Colonel Fenton and Campbell during the Niagara 1814 Campaign. On July 5th at the Battle of Chippawa, White marched to the battlefield where volunteers were requested to push the British out of the woods. White laid down his sword and borrowed a rifle, volunteering as a private.

As the battle began to wane, White heard the order to withdraw from the woods too late. As he was making his escape, White “had not proceeded more than a few rods, when we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by Indians who had been lying in ambush.” White and his compatriots were seized upon by their captors who demanded money. Unable to comply, the captured men were stripped of their valuables leaving them in only a shift and pants. White recounts that the natives killed a number of militia while regular officers and men were spared.
Map of the Battle of Chippawa.
Lossing's Pictorial Field-Book of the
War of 1812

White was soon hurried across the Chippawa River to the rear of the line with “American round shot still rolling after us; one of them fell within a yard of me as I pressed forward, making the clay fly all over us, and then bounded into the creek.” White was forced back to the native encampment being jeered by British soldiers along the way. After a short while, British officers collected White and brought him to General Rial for interrogation. White complained that he was robbed of $100 and his clothing, but Rial said, “all the Indians got was legitimate spoils and could not be returned.”

After his meeting with Rial, White was placed in the care of a sergeant who treated him well and lent him a coat as he was suffering severely from the cold night. Eventually, White and his comrades made it to Fort George where he received kindness from a British doctor. Dr. Carr mentioned that one of his sons had been taken prisoner by the Americans and was treated with great kindness, causing Dr. Carr to respond in kind to White and his fellow officers. Eventually White and company reached York where they signed paroles for their release to Montreal to await exchange back to the U.S. While aboard ship, White attempted to bribe the captain to run his ship close to the American shore to allow his escape, but the captain didn’t comply.

White and some of his fellow officers were later imprisoned in Kingston; an act that White believed violated his parole agreement. Eventually White was paroled back to the U.S. at the end of the war.  

To learn more about the Battle of Chippawa, you can head to the Niagara Falls Library on May 1 to hear the Niagara Parks Commission’s Superintendant of Heritage Jim Hill speak about the battle. Click here for more information.

April 23, 2014

Mad as a hatter

The term mad as a hatter, or variations of this phrase, is generally used to refer to a crazy person. The term is believed to have originated during the 18th century when the production of felt for hats used mercury.

Unfortunately for the workers in these factories, the exposure to mercury over time caused mental illnesses and tremors, among other ailments. It was not until the Victorian Era that the effects of working with mercury became well known in society, leading to the popular saying ‘mad as a hatter’ or ‘the hatters’ shakes.’

British Belgic shako
Before the War of 1812, beaver pelts were popular in Europe for hats. One of the most common hats before and during the War of 1812 was the top hat. As the top hat’s popularity grew, the militaries of Europe began to redesign the headgear worn by soldiers. The British Army had two prominent designs during the war for their shakoes, the stovepipe and the Belgic. Both designs were modeled on the top hat and made of black felt with a brass plate attached to the front, varying based on regiment.

American tombstone shako
The American shako was similar to the British design but leather was used instead of felt and a tin plate was used instead of brass. Both the British and American shakos used hackles, the plume extending from the top or the side of the shako, and varied in colour depending on the type of soldier wearing it. For examples, the British used white hackles to represent the grenadiers, green was used for light troops, and white with red represented line infantry or battalion troops. 

Both the British and American shakos were designed to be tall so that soldiers would look more intimidating from a distance and to make it easier to identify troops. The design of the shakos had a purpose and the armies that issued them were not necessarily mad as a hatter.

April 16, 2014

I never saw such a thing before – Sergeant Wait

After the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, the Americans withdrew to their defences at Fort Erie. It did not take long before the British setup siege guns and began bombarding the American position. The incessant bombardment caused death and destruction in the American encampment that many recorded. One story concerning the death of a sergeant appeared to be quite popular.

The story begins with Jarvis Hanks, a young drummer in the American Army. Hanks wrote that there were no barbers attached to the army, forcing men to assist each other in shaving. One morning a number of men were shaving near an earth wall for protection from British artillery, including Sergeant Wait and Corporal Reed. As the corporal was in the process of shaving the sergeant, a cannon ball flew into the encampment taking one of the corporal’s hands and decapitating the sergeant, “throwing blood, brains, hair, fragments of flesh and bones, upon a tent near them, and upon the clothing of several spectators of the horrible scene,” writes Hanks.
American re-enactors at Fort Erie

The corporal was sent to the hospital for amputation and the sergeant was wrapped up in a blanket and taken out for burial. Hanks goes on to write that only 20 minutes transpired “between the time he sat down to be shaved and the time he was reposing in the home of the soldier’s grave!” Sergeant William Wait apparently had premonitions of his demise as he was asserting to his comrades that he would “never live to visit home and the scenes of his childhood again.” Unfortunately, William Wait’s premonition came true.

Lieutenant Douglass of the U.S. Engineers mentions the story in his account of the 1814 campaign. Douglass talks about the measures taken to protect the encampment and how these measures were not always sufficient. Douglass writes that “a chance shot, glancing obliquely, took off his head [Sergeant Wait] and the hand of the operator, at the same moment.” Somehow Corporal Reed managed to survive the ordeal and made it back to the hospital in Buffalo where he encountered Dr. Horner.

Dr. Horner wrote about his experience during the Niagara 1814 campaign and the wounds he saw. One day while making his rounds in the hospital, Dr. Horner encountered a corporal with an amputated forearm who could “scarcely restrain a broad laugh.” Upon inquiry the corporal apologized for laughing and explained that he lost his arm in a funny way. The corporal went on to explain the story:

“Our first Sergeant wanted shaving, and got me to attend to it, as I am a Corporal. We went out together in front of his tent, I had lathered him, took him by the nose, and was just about applying the razor, when a cannon ball came, and that was the last I saw of his head and my hand. Excuse me, doctor, for laughing so; I never saw such a thing before.”

This story in the American encampment at Fort Erie was unfortunately not the last gruesome death during the Siege of Fort Erie. If you want to find out more about the Siege of Fort Erie, mark August 9 and 10 on your calendars for the 200th anniversary of the siege. Click here for more information. 

April 09, 2014

Like a sweeping hail storm – Alexander McMullen

McMullen’s harrowing experience at Chippawa was not the last time he saw action in 1814. On July 25, 1814 McMullen marched to Lundy’s Lane and fought in the desperate battle.

McMullen was with about 300 other militiamen, reaching Lundy’s Lane late in the battle after the Americans had taken the high ground and the British guns. It wasn’t long before General Porter was encouraging the men to assist their countrymen when McMullen recounts that “showers of musket balls came over our heads like a sweeping hail storm.” McMullen braved the hailstorm and marched forward.

The carnage of the battlefield was evident to McMullen who wrote, “we passed over the dead and dying, who were literally in heaps, especially where the British had stood during the battle.” Soon the battle lines became very close and a “death-like silence” prevailed for a brief moment. A British officer asked if the Americans had surrendered but an American officer exclaimed that they would never surrender. As the battle continued, many of the volunteer militia contended for a place in the rear of the line as “the groans of the dying was all that was heard for some minutes.”
American re-enactors on the march

McMullen notes that the battle was one of the most trying experiences in his life, but after the battle, his unit was tasked with removing the captured British guns. Only one gun was removed before the men refused to haul another, as the men were desperate for water. Shortly thereafter the men were ordered back to the encampment at Chippawa.

At Chippawa McMullen witnessed the mass of dead and wounded. He found his friend Thomas Poe who said that he was mortally wounded with only moments to live and wished to be buried on the American side of the river. McMullen, along with a lieutenant, carried Poe nearly a mile to a boat where Poe said, “Alexander, you will never see me again in this world.” Poe died a few minutes later but he was granted his wish as he was buried in the U.S.

Within a short time, McMullen was struck with a debilitating fever and violent headache. He was placed on a wagon and transported to Black Rock on the American side of the river. McMullen was forced to lie down outside as a torrent of rain fell throughout the night. By morning, he found himself in two inches of water and so weak that he was barely able to walk.

McMullen eventually went to the hospital in Buffalo where he was diagnosed with the ague. Upon leaving the hospital, he spent some time at the house of a widow whose husband died a few years before. He received all the kindness he could ask for and it wasn’t long before McMullen’s health was restored.

On Monday, April 14, join the Niagara 1812 Legacy Council and partners as we announced the 2014 signature events. Click here for information and to register.

April 02, 2014

Not a very pleasant sight – Alexander McMullen

After Alexander McMullen’s participation in the Raid on Long Point, he prepared with his regiment to march to the military encampment at Buffalo.

Before the march a number of men deserted and some soldiers prepared to mutiny because it was believed that bad provisions were being purchased by officers to save money. In addition, McMullen and the men had been in the service for nearly three months and had not yet been paid by the federal government.

When the order was given to march, the mutineers stood with loaded muskets beside their tents refusing to budge. The mutiny only lasted an hour as one officer, with drawn sword, persuaded the men to give up the mutiny. McMullen wrote, “men who appeared determined to die on the spot, now shrank like children before one man.”

McMullen and the rest of Colonel Fenton’s Pennsylvania Volunteers marched for eight days to Buffalo arriving on June 12, 1814 with a welcoming from a band of musicians. McMullen noted the destruction that Buffalo experienced from British forces in December 1813 writing, “the inhabitants were generally living in sheds of frame lined with rough boards, a temporary protection from the inclemency of the weather.”
Battle of Chippawa plaque

New regulations welcomed McMullen and company. The men awoke at 4 a.m. with 15 minutes to prepare for drill that lasted for an hour. After breakfast, the regiment formed and guards were detailed before sergeants’ drill commenced, lasting until 11 a.m. At 2 p.m., the Adjutant-General drilled until 9 p.m. when the regiment was dismissed to rest. McMullen noted the “constant exercise, wholesome provisions, and strict discipline soon made our regiment have another appearance.”

The intense training received at Buffalo helped greatly when McMullen and his company crossed the Niagara River on July 5th, 1814 and moved to Chippawa. McMullen arrived at about 2 p.m. and decided to lend his musket to a lieutenant and take a nap. After a few minutes, McMullen awoke to the sound of musket fire without a musket or cartridge box. He quickly ran to the water where the baggage was stored and, after some difficulty, managed to solicit a musket.

A few shots were exchanged between the militia and natives on both sides before the British retreated across the Chippawa Creek. McMullen wrote “a number of killed and wounded lay on the plains where the army had fought. We marched past them towards the bridge, saluted by the cannon balls from the British works at Chippawa, which to us militia was a new but not a very pleasant sight.”

The next day, July 6, McMullen and some men were detailed to escort prisoners to Buffalo. Moving the boats upstream proved to be difficult and the men decided to rest near a house on the Canadian shore. At midnight, McMullen was guarding the boat “when the sound of footsteps within a few paces startled me. I turned hastily around and saw a large Indian, who when he saw my musket presented called out, ‘Don’t shoot!’ he proved to be one from our own side on his road to join the army.” The men finally reached Buffalo where they remained for eight days before proceeding to Queenston where they remained for some time until withdrawing to the encampment at Chippawa. McMullen didn’t have to wait long until word came that the British were in pursuit of the Americans and had established a position at Lundy’s Lane.

On July 5 and 6, you can find out more about the Battle of Chippawa by heading out to the Chippawa Battlefield to experience the 200th anniversary event. Click here for more information.