THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (Nov. 25-Dec. 1)
The Niagara Frontier
Fort Erie is a stone fort on the Canadian side of the Niagara River opposite Buffalo, New York. It replaced an earlier wood and earth fort — destroyed by river ice — that the British first constructed in the 1760s after the French and Indian War.
Construction of the stone fort started in 1804, but Fort Erie is still undergoing renovation when U.S. troops attack its outlying fortifications on Nov. 28, 1812.
The Americans launch a two-pronged raid across the Niagara in advance of a full-blown invasion of Canada planned by Brigadier Gen. Alexander Smyth.
One group of 150 regular Army soldiers and 70 sailors captures and burns a small British-Canadian post and disables its cannons. Those guns pose a threat to any planned U.S. invasion across the Niagara River. A second group of 200 U.S. infantrymen have less luck destroying a bridge over Frenchman’s Creek. The axes they brought for the job either didn’t make it to shore or were left behind in the boats that did reach Canadian soil. The bridge needs to be taken out to deny the British a route for bringing up reinforcements to counter attack. A small party is left to tear up the bridge as best they can while the rest head back to the shore to be picked up..
Due to mis-communication and poor planning, not enough boats are sent to pick up all the raiders when their work is done. More than 30 soldiers and sailors are stranded on the Canadian side and captured. Another 350 reserve troops sent by Smyth to assist the raid, come under fire, suffer casualties and turn back.
U.S. casualties total 88 killed and wounded and 39 captured – out of a total force of 770. The combined British-Canadian forces – numbering about 650 troops – lose 13 killed, 44 wounded and 34 captured.
Brig. Gen. Smyth decides to go ahead with his invasion plans to send 3,000 U.S. troops to seize Fort Erie and drive the British off the Niagara Peninsula. But poor planning again leads to chaos in the nighttime attack. Only about 1,200 men make it into the boats before sunrise. The situation is aggravated by torrential rain and freezing cold. Smyth postpones the attack for another day.
U.S. troop morale plummets when Smyth calls off another chaotic amphibious assault on Nov. 31 and eventually drops plans for a late fall/early winter campaign. He sends the militiamen home and goes into winter quarters with the regulars. Three months later, President James Madison quietly fires Smyth, who is dropped from the Army’s rolls.
The Americans will take another crack at Fort Erie in 1814 and the surrounding area will be the scene of the bloodiest fighting in Canada during the war.