July 30, 2014

Total want of military command – Conjocta Creek

After the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, the Americans withdrew to their defences at Fort Erie with the British following shortly after. The American position at Fort Erie was not desirable, possessing a position of 800 yards long by 250 yards wide. Porter lamented the American position claiming, “our position is a wretched one.” The American position necessitated an open supply line to resources positioned at Black Rock and Buffalo across the water, a fact that was not lost on Drummond.

Drummond believed that destroying the American supplies would force the enemy to “fight under desperate circumstances or surrendering unconditionally.” Drummond selected 39-year-old Colonel John Tucker of the 41st Foot to launch a raid to destroy the American supplies.  Tucker’s reputation in the Right Division was not very high with soldiers nicknaming him “Brigadier Shindy,” which indicated that Tucker was a “dancing master” who was prone to quarrelling over minor problems.
U.S. Riflemen

Tucker moved his 600 men across the water near Squaw Island just a few miles from Black Rock at about 2 a.m. on August 3, 1814. Tucker did not advance his force until about an hour before daylight. Their advance puzzled John Le Couteur, writing that they moved “without an advanced guard or any apparent precaution.” The British had already lost the element of surprise as the Americans were waiting for them. 

Major Lodowick Morgan of the First U.S. Rifle Regiment was waiting for the British near Conjocta Creek (also known as Scajacuada Creek). Morgan had been a prewar regular, serving as a rifle officer for six years. Morgan spotted the British movement on August 2 on the Canadian side and suspected a forthcoming attack on the American supplies. He ordered his men, about 240 in total, to remove the flooring from the bridge over Conjocta Creek and establish a defensive position.

As the British approached, Morgan waited until they were in within good rifle distance then blew his whistle for the men to open fire. One rifleman wrote that the first volley “completely ‘decapitated’ the head of the approaching column.” The first volley sent the 41st into chaos as the men began to fire without discipline and many ran to the woods to seek cover. Tucker eventually steadied his men and deployed them into line where he exchanged fire with the more accurate American riflemen.

Le Couteur noted that the Americans “shot every Fool that came near the Bridge.” Private Byfield,

received a musket ball, through my left arm, below the elbow. I went into the rear. One of my comrades, seeing that I was badly wounded, cut my [cross] belts from me and let them drop. I walked to the doctor, and desired him to take my arm off. He said it might be cured without it; and ordered me down to a boat, saying, that the wounded men were to cross the river, and they (the doctors) would soon follow.

Tucker continued his duel with the Americans for another hour before retreating to the boats. The results for the British were 12 killed, 17 wounded and 4 missing to the Americans 2 killed and 8 wounded. Le Couteur blamed Tucker’s “total want of military command” for the failure of the mission. Tucker blamed the failed mission on his men, noting to Drummond “the men displayed an unpardonable degree of unsteadiness, without possessing on solitary excuse to justify this want of discipline.”

Drummond was furious about the defeat and on August 5, he issued a strongly worded general order blaming the defeat on “the misbehaviour of the troops employed.” Drummond reminded the officers of the 41st that it was their duty to “punish with death on the spot any man who may be found guilty of misbehaviour before the enemy.”

With the failure at Conjocta Creek, Drummond decided that the best course of action was to lay siege to Fort Erie in order to remove the Americans from that position.

This weekend you can head to Buffalo to find out more about the Battle of Conjocta Creek. Click here for more information. Also, on August 9 & 10 don’t miss the 28th Annual Siege of Fort Erie re-enactment. Click here for more information.  

July 23, 2014

Ketchum’s trap

As the sun began to set at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane Major Thomas Jesup, commanding the Twenty-Fifth U.S. Infantry, saw an opportunity to capture the British guns. A first step in this plan required someone to reconnoitre and secure the road junction leading to the British position.

Jesup choose Captain Daniel Ketchum for this important task. Jesup described Ketchum as “a very good man for the service on which I sent him.” Ketchum recruited his company from Connecticut and was permitted to dress, equip and drill his men as light infantry. Ketchum took his men and moved into the Portage Road where he quickly began to catch individuals and small groups of British and Canadians moving in the dark.

Ketchum managed to catch some high-ranking officers, including General Riall. Riall was hit by a musket ball in the right arm during the battle and as he was riding to the rear of the line, he became caught in Ketchum’s trap. A few minutes later one of Drummond’s aides, Captain Robert Loring, was caught attempting to ride through the junction with orders for the dragoons. 
Battle of Lundy's Lane commemoration, 1914

The next person to enter the trap was William Hamilton Merritt as he was making his way to report to Drummond. When Merritt failed to report his friend Captain John Clark, an adjutant in the Lincoln Militia, was sent to retrieve him when he became caught in the trap. After taking a few more prisoners, the aptly named Ketchum rejoined Jesup in the main body of the Twenty-Fifth.

Jesup now had a problem; what was he to do with the nearly dozen officers and over a hundred men captured. Riall asked to be paroled so that he could visit his own surgeon but Jesup said he had no power to grant such a request. At the same time, Jesup’s men began to cut the prisoners suspenders so that they would be forced to hold their pants, making it difficult for them to escape.

As the prisoners were loosing their suspenders, a British officer rode out of the darkness to Riall, saying, “General Drummond is impatient for information.” The officer was quickly taken prisoner. Ketchum took his prisoners to the rear when he stumbled into a British unit that opened fire, causing Ketchum to loose a number of prisoners but he retained the captured officers. Ketchum despotised the prisoners to a guard before returning to the battle.

As the battle continued, Jesup believed that the battle was lost when he received word that the brigade had been cut to pieces. Jesup decided to move his men back when they heard the rumble of artillery wheels and saw troops moving toward them on the Portage Road. Jesup soon found himself conversing with Captain Thomas Biddle of the U.S. Artillery who informed him that Major-General Jacob Brown had arrived with reinforcements and was about to continue the battle.

On Friday, July 25, the commemoration of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane begins at 7:30 p.m. with a commemorative service. At 8:30 p.m., a participatory walk takes place with participants walking to the battlefield. Click here for a full list of details.

July 16, 2014

Strike terror in all – The Bloody Assize

In 1814, Lieutenant-General Drummond sought new powers from the legislature of Upper Canada. Drummond’s early victories provided him with much influence in the legislature and the fact that three of its members, Benajah Mallory, Abraham Markle and Joseph Willcocks, had defected to the U.S., the legislature was willing to concede to Drummond’s demands.

Drummond suspended habeas corpus and introduced a new law to confiscate land from traitors, or anyone who did not swear an oath of allegiance or had fled the province. Despite these new laws, Drummond sought to punish traitors with the hangman’s noose. In May 1814, a grand jury indicted 70 men, but only 19 were in custody when the trial began on June 7. By June 21, one dying man pleaded guilty, and the jury convicted 14 more for treason.

One of the men convicted was Aaron Stevens, a former Indian Department official and farmer from Newark. In the summer of 1813, Stevens acted as a spy for the Americans and he even helped to defend the U.S. camp at Fort George. The attorney general, John Beverley, described him as “a man formerly in the confidence of the Government, of respectable family and property, convicted of having acted as a spy for the enemy.”

Another man accused was Jacob Overholser from Fort Erie. Overholser was a  40 year old illiterate who had lived in Upper Canada for only four years. During the American occupation of Fort Erie in 1813, Overholser turned to an American officer for redress when four neighbours stole his horse and threatened to burn his barn. Overholser’s neighbours later reported him to the British who convicted him of treason to show that no personal feud could trump the demands of the government for loyal service. Even John Beverley though the case was not that important, describing Overholser as “not a man of influence or enterprise, and it is though acted as he did from motives of personal enmity.”

The British wanted to have enough executions to demonstrate the power of the government and enough pardons to show that the government had mercy. Chief Justice Scott explained, “Example is the chief end of punishment & that the punishment of a few would have an equal, & I even think a more salutary effect in this province than the punishment of many.” He went on to comment that some would need to be executed as examples to “strike terror in all.”

The Ancaster court, or the Bloody Assize as it was later known, sentenced all 15 to hang but delayed punishment to allow some to be pardoned. Seven convicts, including Overholser, received a suspended sentence that included exile for life and the confiscation of their property. Those pardoned were sent to Kingston to await deportation. One escaped during transport and the remaining six were placed in the crowded, cold and filthy jail in Kingston where three of them died from typhoid fever, including Overholser.

At Burlington Heights on July 20, 1814, the British executed eight people, including Aaron Stevens. The condemned stood in wagons beneath a quickly built gallows when horses moved forward, leaving the condemned to strangle to death. As they struggled, a beam broke loose striking one man in the head, killing him instantly. Once all the convicted were dead, their heads were cut off and put on display.

Drummond concluded that the executions had produced “the most Salutary effects among the people … throughout the Province.” Drummond showed that disaffection in the province would no longer be tolerated.

July 09, 2014

I never witnessed such a scene – The Burning of St. Davids

After the American victory at the Battle of Chippawa, the advancing Americans discovered the growing hostility to their occupation. As the Americans advanced, General Porter became frustrated with the women of Upper Canada since they provided information to the British. Porter reported that the enemy “were advised of all our movements and positions by the women who were thronging around us on our march … professing friendship.”

The Americans were also unhappy with Upper Canadians when on July 12, General John Swift accepted the surrender of a Loyalist, but before the prisoner was disarmed, the prisoner raised his musket and shot the general dead. Major Daniel McFarland of the U.S. Twenty-Third Infantry summed up the hostility of Upper Canadians in a letter to his wife, “The whole population is against us; not a forging party but is fired on, and not infrequently returns with missing numbers.”

In response to ambushes from Upper Canadians, Porter sent Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Stone, a tavern keeper and mill owner from Western N.Y., to St. Davids to investigate the area on July 18, 1814. Stone had reports that St. Davids was a Loyalist stronghold and a militia headquarters. After a brief skirmish, the American volunteers plundered the village and burned down fourteen homes, two shops and a gristmill. Shortly after the burning, McFarland and the regulars entered the village. McFarland wrote to his wife, “My God, what a service! I never witnessed such a scene.”

General Brown was outraged and decided to dismiss Stone from the army citing that Stone was accountable for an act that “was directly contrary to the orders of the Government and those of the Commanding officer.” Although Stone denied giving the order to burn the village, the results were clear. The Canadian militia were particularly outraged as Riall reported that they “seem actuated with the most determined spirit of hostility to the enemy.”

In retaliation, Governor General Prevost called on Vice-Admiral Cochrane “to inflict a severe retribution” on the Americans. The destruction of St. Davids, and the earlier destruction of Dover, led to the British attack on Washington in August 1814.

Make sure you head out to St. Davids on July 18 and 19 as they commemorate the 200th anniversary of the burning of the town. Click here for details. 

July 02, 2014

Close call at Chippawa – Joseph Henderson

During the Battle of Chippawa, one individual had more narrow escapes than perhaps anyone else involved in that battle. Joseph Henderson of the Twenty-Second U.S. Infantry had three close encounters with death during the engagement.

Born in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania in 1791, Joseph Henderson attended public school and graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1813. By the spring of 1813, Henderson gained a commission in the Twenty-Second Regiment, earning a promotion to captain in the fall of 1813.

During Winfield Scott’s training camp at Buffalo, Henderson wrote that his company often drilled late into the night. The Twenty-Second was well prepared for the upcoming Niagara 1814 Campaign as their participation at Chippawa soon proved.

At dawn on July 5, 1814, Henderson received his first close call that day. A British and native picket approached the American camp and began to snipe at their position. Henderson was posted just north of Street’s Creek with his men when the firing began. The captain recalled that several of his men were wounded and a “ball entered a Knapsack upon which I was seated and another entered the Supplies against which I was leaning close to my head.”

The captain’s second encounter came as Scott was marching his brigade over Street’s Creek. The clustered Grey Coats presented a tempting target for British gunners as they began firing at the bridge. A shell fragment knocked off Henderson’s hat during the exchange. A soldier was kind enough to return the hat to Henderson remarking, “an inch is as good as a mile.” Scott’s brigade managed to get across the bridge, stepping over the dead and dying in the process.

As the fierce firing between the British and American lines continued, Henderson received his third close call of the day. During the fight, a British shell fragment killed a large man in front of Henderson causing the man to fall on Henderson, knocking him flat on the ground. Henderson was once again unharmed, managed to manoeuvre himself up from under the weight, and resumed his position.

When the battle finally ended, Henderson was unable to rest. The number of casualties overwhelmed the American Army surgeons, forcing Henderson to put his medical degree to use as he personally treated the casualties from his company. The casualties from Chippawa were horrendous; Riall reported 456 casualties and Brown reported 295 casualties. 

On July 5 and 6 head out to the Chippawa Battlefield to learn more about the battle. Historic merchants, battle re-enactments and a commemorative ceremony are just a few of the activities throughout the weekend. Click here to find out more information about this Niagara 1812 Signature Event.