September 24, 2014

The Devil for us all – Dr. Cyrenius Chapin

After the capture of Fort George in 1813 by the Americans, the British set up a loose blockade. Both sides suffered from shortages of supplies and sickness. The Americans took to looting farms and mills in order to sustain their position. One of the most prolific plunderers was Major Cyrenius Chapin.

A doctor by trade, Chapin was the 44-year-old commander of the mounted volunteers recruited at Buffalo. Chapin as a rare Federalist who broke with his party and supported the war. He was fond of profanity and alcohol, and after ten years of practicing medicine, he decided to seek thrills and profits by conducting cross-border raids. Chapin insisted that his men only stole from public property, but that was not always the case. His group quickly earned the name “the Forty Thieves” for their rampant looting.

Chapin and 28 of his men were taken prisoner during the Battle of Beaver Dams. When being transported to Kingston, Chapin and his men overpowered their 16 guards when they stopped to drink grog. The boats were redirected to Fort George where a crowd of Americans watched Chapin come in with his new prisoners. One officer said that Chapin was bearing a “sort of triumph in his look.”

In December 1813, Chapin was in Buffalo ready to defend the area from advancing British troops. The men in Buffalo preferred Chapin’s command over General McClure’s since McClure was blamed for letting Joseph Willcocks burn the town of Newark. McClure had Chapin arrested on charges of mutiny and treason, writing, “there is not a greater rascal [who] exists than Chapin, and he is supported by a pack of tories and enemies to our Government.” Local volunteers soon rescued Chapin and sent McClure running for his life.

When the British arrived on December 30, 1813, the American defenders did not last long before fleeing for safety. Chapin yelled, “Every Man for himself & the Devil for us all.” The British and Native allies burned the town, leaving the American side of the Niagara devoid of 12,000 inhabitants whose flight depopulated 160 square miles.

Chapin became synonymous with destruction. In 1814, Brown commented on his new army mustering around Buffalo that “All private property, ever has been, and ever will be, by me, respected. No such man as Dr. Chapin, will I hope accompany an army that I have the honor to command.”  

If you want to find out more about Cyrenius Chapin, head to Old Fort Erie on Friday, September 26, to hear Doug Kohler speak about Chapin. In addition, on Saturday, September 27, the Heritage Arts Legacy of Fort Erie will be holding a Bi-national Peace Celebration at Old Fort Erie. Click here to find out more.

September 17, 2014

The most splendid achievement – The Sortie

After the failed British assault on Fort Erie on August 15, 1814, the British continued to siege the American held position. New artillery positions were installed and skirmishing between both sides continued into September.

The American commander of Fort Erie, Major-General Jacob Brown, decided on a plan “to storm the batteries, destroy the cannon, and roughly handle the brigade upon duty before those in reserve could be brought into the action.” On September 17, 1814, Brown ordered his men to attack the British position. At the time, the British were busy removing their artillery since they had decided to abandon the siege the day before.

The weather was rainy on the 17th, helping to obscure the American advance through the tree line. At around 2:30 p.m. men from Porter’s column burst forward into the British position with bayonets fixed and quickly overwhelmed the De Watteville Regiment on duty. Private Ford recounted that the Twenty-Third

charged upon the blockhouse from which the enemy kept up a brisk fire until they were compelled to surrender” and “took about eighty prisoners while the ground was strewed with the dead bodies of the enemy.

Porter and his men quickly captured Battery No. 3 and worked upon disabling the British artillery pieces.

A short time later, a second attack commenced on Battery No. 2 where the Americans overwhelmed the British position. General Drummond ordered his men stationed at the main camp to move forward and recover the captured gun batteries.

Major-General Jacob Brown
Members of the 82nd Regiment entered Battery No. 2 and “poured a volley into the mass of the enemy, who were huddled together into so small a space that they could not return it.” As the fighting continued, Le Couteur recorded that the attack on the battery “was a very savage affair” as “our Men bayoneted every Soul” and the battery “was full of corpses.”

The fight for Battery No. 3 resulted in a musket duel. Porter moved forward with some of his men, but in the confusion, he found himself alone and surrounded by British infantry. Porter grabbed one of the soldier’s muskets and demanded them to surrender, claiming that he had reinforcements on the way. The British in turn demanded that Porter surrender. Thankfully, for Porter, some of his men appeared and fired at the British, allowing him to escape.

Eventually, Brown ordered a withdrawal believing that he had accomplished his goal. The battle lasted less than two hours, causing heavy casualties on both sides. The Americans listed 511 casualties: 79 killed, 216 wounded and 216 missing. The British listed 579 casualties: 115 killed, 148 wounded, 316 missing with the De Watteville’s receiving 264 casualties. One American officer said that the sortie was “by far the most splendid achievement” of the Niagara 1814 campaign.

This Friday, September 19th, head to Old Fort Erie to hear Jim Hill speak about the “Military and Militia in the War of 1812.” The talk begins at 6 p.m.

September 10, 2014

James Fitzgibbon and the girl he loved

The War of 1812 separated many military couples and given the danger associated with active service, a number of military couples decided to marry on short notice. One example comes from Captain James Fitzgibbon who married in 1814.

In August 1814, the Americans were in the Niagara and two major engagements had already taken place at Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane, with Fitzgibbon fighting at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. With the Americans in possession of Fort Erie and the British preparing to siege the enemy, Fitzgibbon surprised his commanding officer when he “asked [for] leave, without giving any reason for such an apparently unreasonable request.” Many officers would not receive permission, but Fitzgibbon’s impressive record permitted him to take a short leave.
James Fitzgibbon

Fitzgibbon sent a letter to his fiancĂ©e, Mary Haley, at Kingston 250 miles away requesting that she meet him. Mary Haley appeared at the appointed time on August 14, 1814 outside the church at Adolphustown, then an important community on the road between Kingston and York. The couple married and “the knot tied, the soldier said farewell to his wife on the church step” before returning to the war. Fitzgibbon knew that he would be involved in heavy fighting and did not want “the girl he loved being left unprovided for” should he be killed.     

Fitzgibbon survived the war and remained in Upper Canada serving as a public servant and a colonel in the militia. During the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837, he helped to defend Toronto from William Lyon Mackenzie’s forces. Fitzgibbon moved to England in 1847 after his wife died, with whom he had four sons and a daughter. In 1850, Fitzgibbon was appointed Military Knight of Windsor before dying in 1863 at Windsor Castle.

The story of Laura Secord and her encounter with Fitzgibbon will be one of the topics covered at a lecture series being put-on by the Heritage Arts Legacy of Fort Erie this Friday. Every Friday in September starting at 6 p.m. at Old Fort Erie there will be different War of 1812 topics being covered. Click here for more information.

September 03, 2014

A divided nation

Spies played an important role during the War of 1812 by providing vital information to military and civilian authorities. One spy’s revelations helped to divide the Americans before and during the war.

John Henry was born and educated in Dublin before moving to Philadelphia in the mid-1790s. Henry was described as a tall, handsome, charming gentleman who cultivated Federalist patrons by selling them wine and editing one of their newspapers. Henry was rewarded for his service with a captain’s commission in the army, but he abruptly resigned in 1800 and moved to Montreal, professing his renewed loyalty to the British crown.

President James Madison
During the Chesapeake crisis in late 1807, Henry served as a British secret agent by provoking Federalist disaffection in New England. He predicted that, “By good management, a war will make half of America ours.” Henry went to New England in 1808 and reported that the Federalists were prepared to secede and join the British.

Once the Chesapeake crisis passed, Henry sought payment in London but only received vague promises. Henry decided to go to the president and secretary of state to sell his papers, predicting that the damning letters would discredit the Federalists “and produce a popular war.” Madison and Monroe decided to spend the nation’s entire secret service budget for the year, $50,000, to buy Henry’s papers.

Initially the Federalists were worried, but closer examination of Henry’s papers proved that he relied on gossip and his reports lacked hard evidence. Congress attempted to questions Henry, but Monroe reported that he had left the country with the administrations blessing. The Republicans used the papers as proof that the British and the Federalists were up to no good. One Republican remarked, “Such is the conduct we have ever expected from England, while she retains possession of Canada – such the cause that necessarily forces us into a state of war.”

In the end, John Henry’s reports helped to polarize U.S. politics and bitterly divided the nation, a fact that continued throughout the War of 1812.

On Saturday, September 6, two great events are happening in Niagara. During the day, Fort George will be hosting Polo Niagara with polo events happening throughout the day. At night, Old Fort Erie will be having their annual Murder Mystery where visitors will interrogate suspects to help solve a murder. Don’t miss these great events.