May 30, 2012

An army travels on its stomach

Supplying armies during the War of 1812 in Niagara was difficult at the best of times. Many roads in the Niagara were deemed impassable much of the year. In the winter, heavy or wet snow could close roads and in warm weather, rain could wash them away. Supplying armies via water was considered a better option, although, this route was not free from peril.

The British supply system began 3,000 miles away in Great Britain. The British transported troops, war material, naval equipment and even food. Upper Canada before the War of 1812 was able to produce enough food for its population; however, with the large influx of British troops, native allies and militia away from their farms, more food was needed. Ironically, the U.S. supplied a large quantity of food to the British during the war through illegal trade routes, greatly assisting in British war efforts.

In order to move supplies, a series of portage routes were in place throughout Canada. On the St. Lawrence, supply ships had to portage around treacherous rapids near Montreal in the summer. In the winter, the freezing of the St. Lawrence meant that sleds could move boats and supplies to open waters. In Niagara, transporting supplies around Niagara Falls used a similar procedure. Portage Road in Niagara Falls has its name for obvious reasons. This road became the major supply route for goods and troops heading from modern day Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort Erie. Its use during the War of 1812 was vital to keeping the British adequately supplied in the Niagara Region.
Birch bark canoe

The long supply route leading to Niagara caused some hardship for British forces during the war. Perhaps the greatest supply shortage for the British in Niagara occurred during the 1814 campaign. During the British siege of the American held defences at Fort Erie, the British suffered from numerous supply shortages. Many men lacked adequate clothing, including shoes, in addition to tents, food and even ammunition. These shortages crippled the British and contributed to their lifting of the siege. Despite these challenges, Portage Road provided an essential link to supplying British forces in the Niagara Region.  

If you would like to find out more about logistics and portaging, you can join Niagara Falls History Museum on June 9th for their Great Niagara Portage Adventure. This event will feature a number of teams carrying canoes and food items in support of Project SHARE. For more information, click here.

May 23, 2012

An unlucky general - General William Winder

In order to be a successful military command one must have skill to successfully lead troops and win battles; however, luck is also a factor. Unfortunately, William Winder was not the most fortunate commander during the War of 1812.

Winder was a prominent Baltimore lawyer before being appointed to command the Fourteenth U.S. Infantry. He led this regiment during the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek in November 1812. During this battle, Colonel Winder was ordered to send his men across the river to cover the American withdrawal. Winder sent part of his forces across when the British suddenly appeared with over 300 men. Winder’s force was seriously outnumbered and the men scampered back to the boats with the British in pursuit. The unlucky appearance of the British cost Winder almost 30 casualties.   

William Winder
After Frenchman’s Creek, Winder was promoted to brigadier general in early 1813; many had mixed feelings about this appointment. One contemporary described Winder as knowing “no more of Military affairs than his horse.” Others were more kind and commented that Winder would be “a tolerable good General” with more training. Despite some misgivings, General Winder took part in the successful capture of Fort George in May 1813. After the fort’s capture, General Winder, along with General Chandler, advanced to Stoney Creek in pursuit of the retreating British forces. The Americans set up camp at Stoney Creek on the night of June 5 with plans to advance upon the British the next day.

The British decided to launch a surprise attack against the American forces in the middle of the night. The British successfully silenced some of the American sentries as they advanced towards the American encampment. When the British opened fire the surprised American camp jumped into action. The Americans managed to recover from the initial surprise and began to create a stiff defence. However, fortune was not with Winder that night. As he redeployed his troops to protect the American left flank, Winder left a gap in the American lines as well as leaving the artillery unsupported by infantry. The British managed to exploit this mistake by routing and killing the U.S. artillerists. In the confusion, General Chandler proceeded towards the captured U.S. artillery not realizing he had walked into the hands of British troops. Shortly thereafter General Winder made the same mistake, but he managed to draw his pistol and pointed it at Sergeant Fraser of the British 49th Regiment. Fraser pointed his musket at Winder’s breast and exclaimed, “if you stir, sir; you die.”  
Battle of Stoney Creek

After Winder’s capture, he was eventually sent to Montreal to await exchange back to the U.S. The British were reluctant to exchange Winder since many British officers thought him to be a talented general. Winder managed to secure his release from British captivity just in time to be appointed by President Madison to command the newly formed military district around Washington. Winder’s unlucky streak continued with the British invasion of Washington in August 1814. Winder was not given proper resources for the defence of the capital and was unable to prevent the capture of Washington. After the war, Winder managed to survive a court martial and was discharged from the military in 1815.

Winder went on to continue his law practice in Baltimore when he died nine years later from tuberculosis at the age of 49. Winfield Scott described Winder as having the elements of a good soldier but no luck.    

If you want to find out more about Winder’s unlucky engagement at Stoney Creek, you can join Battlefield House in their 31st re-enactment of the Battle of Stoney Creek. The re-enactment goes from June 1 to 3 with a full list of activities. Don’t miss the night battle re-enactment on Saturday, June 2nd at 8:30 p.m. To see the full schedule of events, click here.

May 16, 2012

The bombs burst in the air

A War of 1812 battlefield was full of danger. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the battlefield came from the deadly projectiles fired by the artillery. A number of different projectiles were used by both the British and American artillery. Below are only some of the different types used on the War of 1812 battlefield.
3-pound field gun
Round Shot

When people think of cannons today the traditional cannon ball often comes to mind. During the War of 1812, the cannon ball, or round shot as it was called, made up about 80 per cent of the ordinances used by artillerists. Round shot was particularly deadly and effective against enemy defences and infantry. When fired at enemy infantry, round shot would bounce through numerous lines causing significant damage. Round shot could also be heated to produce hot shot in order to set fire to enemy ships or wooden defences.  Although, the solid cannon ball was not the only projectile used on the battlefield.
Canister Shot

This type of projectile consisted of a small tin can that disintegrated when fired releasing a deadly spray of small iron balls or scrap iron. Mainly used at close range, this type of shot acted like a shotgun as it tore through enemy infantry.
Spherical case shot, round shot and fragment
Spherical Case Shot

A particularly deadly projectile, spherical case shot was adopted by the British in 1803. This type of shot consisted of a hollowed out cannon ball filled with black powder and numerous projectiles, such as muskets balls, and a timed fuse caped off the bomb. When fired, the bomb would break apart in the air causing a shower of destruction to anyone in its path. Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery created this type of bomb, and after his death this type of projectile was renamed after him. The American national anthem references spherical case shot with "the bombs burst in the air." Francis Scott Key witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore and penned a poem that later became the American national anthem.

These artillery projectiles are only some of the deadly ordinances that were used during the War of 1812. If you want to see some cannons in action, make sure you visit Old Fort Erie, Fort George or Fort Niagara this summer; although, their guns don’t fire any of these projectiles today.  

May 09, 2012

A Canadian General – Gordon Drummond

Gordon Drummond was born in Quebec in 1772 and by the age of 17 he joined in the 1st (Royal Scots) Regiment of Foot as an ensign in 1789. Drummond quickly rose through the ranks and distinguished himself in battle on numerous occasions. He was described as a handsome man somewhat above average in height with stern even features, he was cool and controlled, and a good administrator. He married in 1807 and was devoted to his wife and three children. By late 1813, Drummond was sent to Upper Canada to take command of all British forces in Niagara. Upon arriving in Niagara, Drummond ordered a daring raid against Fort Niagara, leading to its capture.  

Gordon Drummond
Drummond was also responsible for the civilian administration of Upper Canada. When Drummond took command, he pressured the legislature to enact harsh penalties for treasonous behavior. This led to the seizure of property and imprisonment for certain individuals, as well as the Bloody Assize trials that culminated in the hanging of eight traitors. As well, Drummond helped to fix the logistical problems present in the Niagara Peninsula by setting food prices and by sending army dependents (wives and children of soldiers) to Kingston.

Drummond was not immune to the dangers of war. At the Battle of Lundy’s Lane Drummond was wounded by a musket ball that entered under his right ear and lodged in the back of his neck. He managed to tie a handkerchief around his wound and continued the battle. He eventually had the ball cut out a few days later. Although Drummond was wounded, he continued to command by sending his army to lay siege to the American army held-up in Fort Erie. The British were unsuccessful in dislodging the Americans, but Drummond and his forces did manage to prevent the Americans from proceeding farther into the Niagara Region.

When the War of 1812 ended, Drummond was knighted and in April 1815 he succeeded George Prevost as Commander-in-Chief of the Canadas. He served in this position for a year before retiring citing ill health. Due to his service in Upper Canada, the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada awarded him large land grants. Drummond decided to donate the land grants, along with his wartime prize money, to the widows and orphans of soldiers. Drummond knew the pain of losing loved ones as one of his sons joined the Royal Navy and the other joined the army; both died in the service. In Drummond’s later years, he lived in a townhouse in London and died in 1854 at the age of 82.

Some historians praise Drummond for his courageous leadership and effective administration whereas others scold him for his lack of dynamism. This summer make sure to visit the Niagara Falls History Museum, Old Fort Erie and Fort George to learn more about Gordon Drummond and form your own opinion of this Canadian General. 

May 02, 2012

Fix bayonets!

The War of 1812 had a number of deadly weapons on the battlefield, but perhaps the most feared was the bayonet. Both British and American infantry used the bayonet fixed to the end of their muskets. Soldiers commonly fired with the bayonet attached, but on the battlefield contests usually ended before the bayonet was used. Primarily the bayonet was used to silence sentries or pickets but it could be used in battle.

The bayonet
On the battlefield, the bayonet could be used when an enemy’s formation began to falter. Typically an army would fire into enemy formations until gaps formed. Once these gaps formed, a bayonet charge would provide the best opportunity to scatter and destroy the enemy. Despite this strategy, the use of the bayonet on the battlefield often did not occur because, as one contemporary remarked, “the fear of the bayonet, rather than the bayonet itself, was the deciding factor.”

In some instances the use of the bayonet did occur in battle. During the Battle of Lundy’s Lane both armies advanced so close due to the large amount of smoke and the fact that the battle took place at night. During the battle the British commander, General Drummond, lamented, “Of so determined a character were their [American infantry] attacks directed against our Guns, that our Artillery Men were bayoneted by the Enemy in the Act of loading.”
The bayonet at Lundy's Lane

A bayonet wound was one of the most feared due to the blade’s triangular shape. Triangular shaped wounds were difficult for a surgeon to sew up. As the surgeon sewed up one side of the wound, the stitches on the other side would begin to pull open, causing immense pain for the patient.  Most surgeons would not bother with bayonet wounds, and if they did, it usually involved stuffing the wound with linen bandages and constantly checking it, removing the bandages as necessary.

Today the use of triangular shaped blades is banned by the Geneva Conventions, for good reason. Make sure you visit the numerous battle reenactments this summer, you might just see a bayonet charge in action.