An assault on Fort Erie, Drummond noted, would be an operation of ‘great hazard.’ Yet he had no choice
At 11 p.m. on the moonless night of Aug. 2, 1814, British Lt. Col. John G.P. Tucker and his men pushed away from the Canadian side of the Niagara River. The nine bateaux carrying 580 soldiers of the 41st and 104th Regiments of Foot and the 2nd/89th Light Company drew into the stiff current, then pulled toward Black Rock, N.Y., a mile away. Tucker’s mission was to destroy the American supply depots and batteries both there and at Buffalo. That accomplished, the Americans could not continue to send supplies across the river to Fort Erie. They would have to withdraw, and their last toehold in Canada would fall. Tucker was confident of success—a confidence not shared by the soldiers under his command, who referred to him as “Brigadier Shindy” for his flighty nature and record of incompetence.
“We reached the Yankee side shortly,” recalled Lieutenant John Le Couteur of the 104th Foot, “and landed about two miles below Black Rock about midnight.…A little before daylight we moved on…without an advanced guard or any apparent precaution.…Just before day the men in our front, of another corps, began firing in a shameful manner and ran past us. I halted my Subdivision and came to the charge to keep the others off.…Day now dawned, and we advanced extended, but the surprise was at an end thro’ the misconduct of our Commander. There was a broad and deep creek [Scajaquada Creek] in our front with a broken bridge on it—two beams alone remained entire. Behind it was a heavy breastwork lined by a company of riflemen.” The concealed men were 240 sharpshooters of Major Ludowick Morgan’s battalion of the 1st U.S. Rifle Regiment, who, noted Le Couteur, “shot every Fool that came near the Bridge.”
“Brigadier Shindy’s” performance was true to form. His miscalculations cost the British 32 casualties. The Americans lost just two killed and eight wounded. After three hours under fire the frustrated British withdrew across the Niagara.
In early July 1814 the United States, locked in the War of 1812 with Great Britain, had launched its fifth attempt to seize Canada. The 4,800 Americans led by Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown defeated the British army at Chippawa, but three weeks later the Redcoats, under Lt. Gen. Sir Gordon Drummond, fought the Yankees to a bloody standstill at Lundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls. The Americans retreated to Fort Erie, across the Niagara River from Buffalo. With the balance in his favor, Drummond could advance against Fort Erie or, by shifting his force to the east bank of the Niagara River, attack Black Rock and Buffalo. Tucker’s failure at Black Rock, however, exhausted the latter option. As a result, on August 3, Drummond moved his army against Fort Erie. With him were 3,150 men of the 8th, 41st, 89th, 100th, 103rd and 104th Foot, the Royal Scots, the Glengarry Light Infantry and the Regiment de Watteville. A squadron of the 19th Light Dragoons accompanied the infantry. Drummond’s artillery comprised two light 24-pound guns and four naval 18- and 24-pounders. Drummond also had a small but effective—and terrifying—force of Grand River Iroquois headed by Captain John Norton.
Born in Quebec, 41-year-old Drummond had been a soldier since he was 17 and was the first native-born general officer to command a British force in Canada. His regiment, the celebrated 8th, or King’s, Foot, had distinguished itself in Holland, the West Indies and the Mediterranean. Since being recalled to Canada in 1813, Drummond had been second in command to Sir George Prévost, governor general of British North America and commander in chief of British forces in Canada.
Drummond’s opponent at Fort Erie was Brig. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a dedicated, energetic and experienced officer. His command was about two-thirds the size of Drummond’s, comprising 2,200 men of the 1st, 9th, 11th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 25th U.S. Infantry regiments plus detachments of artillery and the Company of Bombardiers, Sappers and Miners from West Point. Shortly after the siege began, Morgan’s 1st Rifles and the 4th Rifles, under Captain Benjamin Birdsall, supplemented this force. Gaines’ force was split between two brigades, one under Brig. Gen. Eleazer Wheelock Ripley, the other under Lt. Col. Thomas Aspinwall.
Fort Erie had initially comprised two massive stone buildings joined by a 3-foot-thick curtain wall, surrounded by four bastions or demi-bastions, with a triangular ravelin to protect the inner gate. The Americans had since strengthened the fort for all-around defense. A 7-foot-high palisade barred the gap between the original fort and the Niagara River, ending at the water’s edge in a small stone redoubt dubbed “Battery Douglass” after its commander, engineer Lieutenant David Bates Douglass. North of the fort a similar breastwork stretched 300 yards toward Snake Hill, a sand mound that had been leveled and shaped into a redoubt named “Battery Towson,” for its commander, Captain Nathan Towson. Another palisade ran from Battery Towson to the river. No fewer than 18 guns protected the fort: one in Battery Douglass, six in Fort Erie proper and six in Battery Towson. Four more pieces were distributed between Snake Hill and Fort Erie, and another situated between the fort and Battery Douglass. All were sited to enfilade the front of the breastworks.
Ringing the perimeter of the American position were a ditch and an abatis of tangled trees with sharpened branches weighted down by logs. Work details had cleared the perimeter of vegetation 400 yards beyond the abatis. The sum total of these defenses was a fortified camp 700 yards long by 200 deep, open on its rear to the Niagara River. To add to British discomfort, the northern approaches lay exposed to fire from American batteries across the Niagara River at Black Rock, and the southern approaches to fire from three newly arrived U.S. Navy schooners, Ohio, Porcupine and Somers. In the words of Le Couteur, Fort Erie was “an ugly Customer.”
Drummond concurred. An assault on Fort Erie, he noted, would be an operation of “great hazard,” given “the strength of the enemy’s position and the number of men and guns by which it is defended.” Yet he had no choice. He ordered his engineers to site artillery to bombard the fort and breach the walls in preparation for an assault. Command of engineering operations devolved on an inexperienced junior officer, Lieutenant George Phillpotts. Drummond did assign a few officers with technical knowledge to assist Phillpotts. One of these was Le Couteur, who soon found himself working “in his shirt like the men” to build fieldworks.
Phillpotts chose a site near the lake, north of the American position, to place the siege battery. The work proceeded slowly, as the British had only enough entrenching tools for 120 men. Moreover, though trees screened the men from the fort, the batteries across the river and the American warships kept up a galling fire. The latter soon ceased to be a problem, however. On the night of August 12 a force of 75 sailors and Royal Marines silently rowed out into the lake and captured Somers and Ohio. Porcupine’s crew managed to cut the schooner’s anchor cables and flee.
That same night Phillpotts finished his siege battery and chopped down the screen of trees in front of it. Dawn revealed an emplacement armed with three 24-pound guns, a 24-pound carronade and an 8-inch mortar. When the guns opened fire on the fort, however, Le Couteur observed that, “our fire, instead of affecting a breach, seemed to me and others to ram the earth harder.” The inexperienced Phillpotts had positioned his battery too far from the fort. Dr. William Dunlop, assistant surgeon of the 89th Foot, observed, “We were attempting to breach a wall at a distance that it was scarcely possible to hit it.” In contrast the American gunners, noted Dunlop, “managed to pitch shot and shell…in a way that was anything but pleasant.” Despite their distance from the fort, late on the afternoon of August 14 British gunners scored a direct hit on a magazine chest, causing a spectacular explosion.
Drummond believed the magazine explosion had inflicted heavy American casualties within Fort Erie. To exploit the opportunity, he planned to launch a surprise assault that very night. The objective would be to capture the three large American gun batteries, for if they fell, the fort would follow. Simultaneous attacks would hit Battery Towson, Battery Douglass and the main fort. Leading the attack on Battery Towson would be Lt. Col. Victor Fischer and 1,000 men of the Regiment de Watteville, supported by the 8th Foot, the light companies of the 2nd/89th and 100th, the 19th Light Dragoons and a few artillerymen. As soon as that attack got underway, Lt. Col. Hercules Scott would lead 700 men of his 103rd Foot against Battery Douglass, while General Drummond’s nephew, Lt. Col. William Drummond, would lead 360 soldiers of the 41st and 104th Foot against the main fort. Tucker, with the Royal Scots and the Glengarry Light Infantry, would form the reserve. The assault would begin at 2 a.m.
Despite Drummond’s optimism, however, American losses from the magazine chest explosion had been minor. Moreover, British deserters had given the Americans full details of the coming assault.
At 4 p.m. Fischer’s column took up its attack position, screened from view by the trees. Officers ordered the soldiers to remove the flints from their muskets and depend entirely upon their bayonets. Talking was prohibited, and the roll was called every hour to discourage desertions—an important precaution because, as Dunlop observed, “De Watteville’s regiment, which was recruited chiefly from the prison hulks, consisted of all the nations of Europe, but all of them had served in the armies of Napoléon.” At 2 a.m. Fischer’s column attacked.
The Americans held their fire until the British were at point-blank range. Then, simultaneously, Towson’s guns and the infantrymen’s muskets opened a thunderous fire. So continuous and bright was the flame from the American guns and muskets that the British would dub Snake Hill the “Yankee Lighthouse.” Regardless, Fischer’s men struggled through the storm of flying metal, up through the abatis to the palisade…only to discover their scaling ladders were too short—another blunder by British engineers.
All Fischer could do was hold position and await the arrival of the light companies of the 8th Foot and the de Wattevilles. He had sent those soldiers to wade around waist-deep in the icy waters of the Niagara, near the lakeshore end of the abatis, and attack Towson’s battery from the rear. As those soldiers floundered ashore, however, they found the 21st U.S. Infantry waiting for them. When the Americans opened fire, panic seized the struggling men in the water. Shouting wildly, they broke in confusion. One hundred and fifty of them were forced to surrender. Others, dead or badly wounded, were swept into the Niagara River by the stiff current. The remainder fled into the darkness.
At Snake Hill, Fischer found his column was leaking men to the rear at a prodigious rate—many de Wattevilles were seizing the opportunity to desert. Regardless, though his scaling ladders were too short and his soldiers’ muskets useless without flints, Fischer drove his soldiers to the attack five times, and five times the withering American fire drove the Redcoats back. Finally, badly mauled, the British withdrew.
With Fischer’s column in disarray, his attack a failure, British success depended entirely on Drummond’s two other columns.
Scott’s attack was short-lived and bloody. As his column moved forward, the crunch of British boots on stones along the riverbank alerted the waiting Americans. The artillery at Battery Douglass opened with a murderous volley. In moments Scott and more than half of his force were killed. The survivors were forced to withdraw.
Lt. Col. Drummond’s men fared better, scaling the walls despite heavy fire from the defending Americans. From within the fort Private Amasiah Ford of the 23rd U.S. Infantry observed, “The enemy attacked us on the right and left flanks…Colonel Drummond having command of the charge of the fort and exclaiming at almost every breath to his men, ‘Shew the damned Yankees no quarter.’ As soon as the action commenced, the first and second companies of the 23rd were ordered to the fort, and I, belonging to the first company, was amongst the rest. We immediately repaired to the fort, where we kept our enemy off with bayonets from scaling the walls.”
On their third attempt Drummond’s Redcoats gained a foothold in the fort’s northeast bastion, but they quickly came under heavy fire from the stone blockhouse. Gaines counterattacked, first with elements of the 17th, 19th and 23rd Infantry and the 4th Rifles, then with the 11th and 22nd Infantry. However, the narrow approaches to the bastion made it impossible for the Americans to bring their full weight against the British. The battle seesawed, neither side giving way, but Drummond’s men gradually gained the upper hand and cleared the bastion of American defenders. Immediately, they turned a captured 9-pound gun against the fort’s defenders, depressing the muzzle to fire into the ranks of Americans below the bastion.
As the gun discharged, the earth trembled and there was a colossal roar. The magazine below the bastion, probably ignited by a spark that had fallen between the roof planks, had blown up. The Americans, shielded by the walls of the stone blockhouse, were spared, but the British attack collapsed in an eruption of flame, smoke, stone debris and broken bodies. Le Couteur was blown from the parapet and fell 20 feet into the ditch, winded and bruised. He staggered back to the safety of the British battery line where “sorrow and despair” overtook him. “Forgetting where I was,” he recalled, “I threw my sword down on the battery, weeping, ‘This is a disgraceful day for Old England!’”
General Drummond’s assault on Fort Erie had been a dismal failure. Some 900 British soldiers—nearly one-third of his force—had been killed or wounded or were missing. Gaines recorded fewer than 100 casualties. Drummond, in his report to Prévost, insisted the assault “must have succeeded had the troops fulfilled that part allotted to them.” His faulty planning, apparently, had played no part in the debacle.
Gaines called the affair a “handsome victory,” but his elation was short-lived, for despite his failed assault Drummond did not lift the siege. The cannonade resumed. Day after day the British fired into the fort. On August 28 a shell struck the chimney above Gaines’ headquarters, wounding the general so badly that he was evacuated to Buffalo. Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown, although still recovering from wounds received at Lundy’s Lane, assumed command.
Still the siege dragged on. Drummond had ordered construction of a second battery, which Phillpotts placed in the woods 450 yards southwest of the first. Armed with four artillery pieces, the battery was ready on August 29. But when a work detail cut down the screen of trees, it revealed that the hapless Phillpotts had neglected to properly examine the ground between the battery and the fort. Noted Dunlop, “It was discovered that the battery had been erected without taking the levels, and that a rise of ground in front of it prevented us even from seeing the fort.” Phillpotts then constructed a third battery, this one just 400 yards from the fort. It was ready in mid-September. By then Drummond’s losses had been made good by the arrival of 1,200 veterans of the 6th and 82nd Foot, first-class regiments newly arrived in North America after service in Spain with Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
As the summer gave way to autumn the exchange of artillery fire intensified, and there was almost daily skirmishing. Casualties mounted on both sides. To add to the soldiers’ misery, the autumn rains began.
About that time Brown decided on a sortie “to storm the batteries, destroy the cannon and roughly handle the [British] brigade upon duty before those in reserve could be brought into action.” The Americans attacked on the morning of September 17. After surprising and overwhelming the British sentries, they spiked or otherwise destroyed the enemy cannon and blew up the ready-use powder magazines. When Drummond mounted a determined counterattack, Brown’s men retreated through the woods in the rain, closely pursued by the Glengarry Light Infantry and Norton’s Iroquois. Losses in the action were heavy on both sides.
Brown believed he had disabled most of the British guns and saved his command from certain disaster. What he didn’t know was that the day before his attack Drummond had ordered Phillpotts to start removing the guns from the batteries in preparation for a British withdrawal. Days after Brown’s sortie Drummond’s decimated force slipped away, and by September 21 the Redcoats were safely across the Chippawa River.
The Americans were too exhausted to follow. On November 5 they blew up the fortifications at Fort Erie and withdrew from Canada. It was the final act of the hardest-fought campaign of the War of 1812.
Ontario-based author James W. Shosenberg specializes in Napoleonic history and the early wars of North America. For further reading he recommends While Washington Burned: The Battle for Fort Erie, 1814, by Joseph Whitehorne, and Amateurs, to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812, by John R. Elting.