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Fort George National Historic Site of Canada

The War of 1812

1813 The War Turns

Across the Atlantic

In France, Napoleon had returned from his disastrous invasion of Russia with a sorely depleted army. The retreat from Moscow destroyed 3/4 of Napoleon's 400,000 man army. The British effort on the continent could be reduced. As a result, in January of 1813, Britain officially declared war on the United States. At the same time they sent more men and supplies which would trickle slowly into the defence of Upper Canada.

Defending Upper Canada

For the most part, during the winter, war in North America was impossible logistically. Winter was a time to build ships and plan for the campaign season to come. In a few instances, the freezing of lakes and rivers made it possible for quick raids from one side and back and the first few months of 1813 saw a number of raids across the St. Lawrence at Prescott and down on the Detroit River. 1812 had been a bad year for the American war effort. In 1813 the nature of the war had to change substantially. The failure of all of Dearborn's officers to invade Upper Canada and Montreal was a blow to the confidence of the American people. Madison, a pro-war President, needed a victory to maintain the popularity of the war.

One of the primary concerns for the 1813 campaign was the naval control of the Great Lakes. For the British, the lakes represented the only possible chain of supply and transportation. If the Americans could seize control of the lakes the British would be forced to give up their defence of Upper Canada. To this end vessel construction began in earnest in late 1812 and early 1813. In York, Kingston and Sackets Harbour the shipyards were busy. Sir James Lucas Yeo was sent to take charge of the inland (Great Lakes) Navy and relieved the Provincial Marine of that duty in April.

Natives

The Natives of the Western Tribes were keen for action as the 1813 campaign began. British initiative shown at Detroit and Michilimackinac impressed the Natives in 1812 and their support of the tiny forces of the Right Division (Fort Malden) was substantial. The manpower contribution of 1,500 men for the siege of Fort Meigs more than doubled the size of the regulars and militia present. The failure to capture Fort Meigs and a later unsuccessful stand off at Fort Stephenson combined with the death of Tecumseh at Moraviantown in October destroyed the desire of western Natives to support the British.(1,000 retreated with Proctor and Tecumseh up the Thames River and only 400 continued to Burlington Heights after the defeat at Moraviantown.)

For the Grand River reserve, pressure to serve became the strongest when the Americans pushed into the Niagara region. Some thought had been given to lend assistance at York in late April as there were 500 warriors available near Hamilton but caution and time factors won out and the native force didn't go to York. After the invasion of the Niagara region a month later, the Natives of the area and some warriors from Lower Canada were critical to the defeat of the Americans at Beaver Dams and the subsequent hemming in' of the miltiamen of American General McClure's force at Fort George when the regular troops left for Sackets Harbour. The inability of the militiamen to cope with raids by Natives and scouting parties led to the hurried and disorganized withdrawl of the Americans in December 1813.

Black soldiers on the Niagara Frontier

Runchey's Coloured Corps saw constant duty on the Niagara frontier throughout the winter of 1812 (following the Battle of Queenston Heights in which they had participated) and saw action in the battle of Fort George and Stoney Creek. In 1813, the composition of the corps changed in the summer, being amalgamated with two other volunteer corps to reform as the Company of Provincial Artificers who were attached to the Royal Engineers and worked at strengthening fortifications and repairing military materials. This job had previously been shouldered by the militia and the new corps of artificers was created to alleviate that pressure.

Militia and Fencibles

Recognizing that the War was going to continue, Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe changed the structure of the Militia to assist the army. The militia were trained and equipped better than the previous year and plans were made to reorganize the militia into 3 battalions of Incorporated Militia in Kingston, York and Niagara. Before they had the ability to reorganize, the Militia flank companies at York were tested, and were forced, with prominent citizens like Reverend John Strachan, to negotiate the terms of the surrender of that town. The early losses in 1813 slowed the process of reorganization dramatically.
Recruitment was difficult as Incorporated Militia service required constant duty until the war ended. Those who chose to serve in the Incorporated Militia were forced to abandon their homes (when the Americans invaded Niagara) and lived in poor conditions, foraging for food and shelter. Upon returning to the burnt out remains of Niagara in December, the militia participated in the burnings of American towns across the river at the end of the year.

Niagara

The grain harvest was poor in 1812 and as a result civilians suffered privations as did the Army. The capture and burning at York severed the next immediate link in the chain of supply on Lake Ontario (from Fort George to Kingston) and the arrival of that same American army across the river at Fort Niagara 12 days later gave great cause for alarm. Slightly more than two weeks after that, Niagara would be the scene of a bombardment and invasion with a battle running down its streets. The British forces that tried to defend the town were forced to retreat and would not return for almost 7 months.

The American occupation did not severely alter activity in the town as American soldiers needed food and supplies just as the British had. The American presence would be reinforced by naval blockades at the mouth of the Niagara. The residents would not benefit from acting against the invaders. In some instances inhabitants did more than cooperate with the Americans. The openly disloyal formed the company of Canadian Volunteers raised to support the American cause. Joseph Willcocks, Benejah Mallory and Abraham Markle (last 2 were former members of the Upper Canadian legislature) led the unit and were principally responsible for damage and theft of property as well as the eventual burning of Niagara as the American retreated in December. The assistance rendered by Willcock's Canadian Volunteers was dominated by a desire for revenge on fellow citizens and damaged the relationship between the town and the American garrison. In the town itself 130 buildings were burned and 400 of the inhabitants were left homeless.

Fort George

Fort George experienced drastic change in 1813. It is unclear whether the British or the Americans completed the division of the Fort that occurred in this year. On May 25th the bombardment of hotshot into Fort George began and due to the exposed position of the garrison it was consumed by fire in short order. It was abandoned by the British and taken two days later by the invading Americans. The Fort they had just levelled would have to be an American garrison for the next six months. Accordingly, Fort George was reconstructed as a reduced facility, and several outerworks were created to defend against an assault by land (as the original complex faced the river).

American morale within the fort was poor due to the quick departure of the American regular soldiers, disease and sickness that ravaged the U.S.encampment and consistent pressure on American patrols around the perimeter of their captured land.

American militiamen garrisoned at the fort began to desert at harvest time and Brigadier General McClure was left in poor condition to defend Niagara against the growing pressure of the British Force based at Burlington Heights. The Americans abandoned the rebuilt Fort George intact and full of military supplies. With the British capture of Fort Niagara 10 days later, pressure to repair Fort George dissipated and the following year, construction at the site of Fort Mississauga began.

American Trench lines at Fort George 1813

American Trench lines at Fort George
American alterations to the fort and the American trench
© Parks Canada / 1816
This 1816 map of Fort George shows how the Americans extended the fortifications. From the upper right of the Fort the line of entrenchments extends all the way to St. Mark's church and down to the Niagara river. The Fort was originally designed to defend toward the river and the occupying Americans had to restructure the Fort to make it defensible from the inland side.