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. 

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