Battle of Fort Oswego

Mr. Madison’s War

For some time past the pioneers who lived in the scattered villages throughout Northern New York had realized that President Madison was bent upon a war with Great Britain. It was by no means an encouraging prospect for them. For one thing their social and commercial contact was much closer with Canada than it was with Albany and New York. It was a good week’s trip from Utica to Ogdensburg over the land routes then followed while in the winter one could go from Ogdensburg down the St. Lawrence to Montreal in three days. Residents of Prescott and Ogdensburg alike referred to New York and Philadelphia as in “the states,” and it took government mail four weeks to go from Philadelphia to Ogdensburg.

Then, again, many of the residents of the Northern New York of that day were from the Mohawk region and had a vivid, childhood memory of the Indian raids of Revolutionary days when the whole “Valley” was aflame with burning villages and when men, women and children, alike, were slaughtered by the Indians and their Tory allies. Descendants of these same Indians and Tories still lived in the villages north of the St. Lawrence, scarcely more than a stone’s throw from the defenseless American hamlets on the other side of the river.

Also there was a feeling that the Republicans, that is to say the party of Jefferson and Madison and Monroe, the modern Democratic party, were promoting a war with England for political purposes. The Federalists, who were far in the majority in Northern New York, would have preferred a war with France. Even Jacob Brown of Brownville, who had just been made a brigadier general of militia by Governor Tompkins, and who, if a Republican had Federalist leanings, did not hesitate to write the governor that he was not one who thought that a war with Great Britain was the best thing that could happen to his country, but rather thought that the honor of the nation would have been preserved had congress declared war on the “tyrant of the continent” (Napoleon).

The great landowners of the north, who were almost without exception Federalists and therefore opposed to anything Madison was for, had another reason, more vital than politics, for opposing a war with England. Fear of war had already ruined emigration to the Northern New York settlements. It was almost impossible to get anyone to buy any land there. As early as 1807 Nathan Ford, land agent at Ogdensburg, had complained to his employer, Samuel Ogden, that “the sound of war has palsied the sales of land in this county. . . . Many are for flying immediately and others are so frightened they do not know which way to run.”

To make matters worse, the frontier was practically defenseless. The settlers found themselves being rushed into a war which they did not want and for which they were totally unprepared yet the national government, with blissful unconcern, refused to take any steps whatsoever in the way of national defense. Four years before the declaration of war a committee representing every town in Jefferson county had written President Thomas Jefferson urging that the government construct a fort in the north, but the president contented himself with sending on the petition to Governor Tompkins with the opinion that the building of such a fort would only “produce a greater accumulation of hostile forces in that quarter.”

Nothing could be expected of the state militia, most of whom were hopelessly lacking in training and equipment. Officers were selected by that Council of Appointment which selected the sheriffs and justices of the peace, and politics entered into one selection almost as much as it did into the other. If there was a man of “sound principles” available, to use a favorite expression of the time, why pick a Federalist. So when the question of the commander of the St. Lawrence county militia regiment came up for decision, Major David Ford of Morristown, an experienced soldier but a Federalist, was overlooked and another candidate chosen.

In the city hall in New York City hangs a portrait of a forceful-looking young man attired in the stiff, uncomfortable uniform of War of 1812 days. The time came when the name of General Jacob Brown was known from one end of the country to the other, when he was granted the freedom of the City of New York and the thanks of Congress, and in time attained the rank of commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States, but at the outbreak of the War of 1812 Jacob Brown’s chief claim to fame was the fact that he was a member of the Agricultural and Philosophical Society of the State of New York and was a friend of Gouverneur Morris.

In 1812 Brown was ranking officer of militia along the Northern New York border. True, he knew nothing about war, but then neither did any of the other militia generals and few of the regulars. He did, however, have certain commendable qualities including the ability to handle men, a reckless bravery and the most unbounded confidence in his own ability to accomplish any task which he set out to do.

When Jacob Brown died in Washington in February, 1828, John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary: “Gen. Brown was one of the eminent men of this age, and though bred a Quaker, he was a man of lofty and martial spirit and in the late war contributed perhaps more than any other man to redeem and establish the military character of his country. He had a high sense of honor and courtesy, an unassuming deportment, and conduct irreproachable in private life. He was commander-in-chief of the army from the time of its reduction in 1821. The splendor of the defense of New Orleans has cast into the shade Brown’s military fame, but his campaign on the Canadian frontier in 1814 was far more severely contested than were the achievements of Jackson, who was aided by good fortune and by the egregious errors of the enemy.”

And then came the declaration of war. Silas Stow, representative in Congress from the Northern New York counties, voted against it as did most of his colleagues from New York. To him and to them it was simply “Mr. Madison’s War” and they wanted no responsibility for it. Not so with Brown. Now that there was to be a war, politics were forgotten so far as he was concerned.

“I place much reliance on your abilities and valor in protecting our frontier inhabitants until the arrival of further troops and supplies,” Governor Tompkins wrote his northern commander.

“We will try to keep them at bay,” Brown wrote back and within an hour had men on fast horses speeding into every section of Northern New York calling out the reluctant militia. Within twenty-four hours the farmer-soldiers came straggling into Sackets Harbor and Ogdensburg. The little stone arsenals at Watertown and Russell were ransacked for arms and equipment. Col. Thomas B. Benedict of DeKalb drew up his militiamen in an uneven line along the water front at Ogdensburg and waited for orders. Gen. Walter Martin sat in his big, stone house at Martinsburg, his horse saddled and ready. Brown, who knew nothing about war, was a genius at organizing men. Within the week the frontier was guarded after a fashion. With less than 600 men Brown was holding it from St. Regis to Oswego.

And it was a discouraging prospect. It was bad enough to have the whole countryside in a panic with entire families deserting their homes and fleeing to the Mohawk. Brown worked prodigiously to reassure the people who had abandoned their farm work to build blockhouses. He rode many weary miles through Jefferson county, from town to town and from settlement to settlement, and then wrote Tompkins that he was leaving for St. Lawrence county where he had learned that “the people are abandoning it in a most shameful manner.” St. Lawrence county surely needed looking after. The astute and wealthy Mr. David Parish, who now owned the village of Ogdensburg, was not above “playing both ends against the middle.” At the same time that Mr. Parish in Philadelphia was making a substantial loan to the United States to help carry on the war, he was dispatching his young nephew, Mr. John Ross, to Ogdensburg to see to it that the British knew where his sympathies were.

Ross took his employer’s instructions literally. Long into the night the windows of the big Red Villa glowed with mellow light as Mr. Ross entertained his majesty’s scarlet-coated officers with Mr. Parish’s rare wines. Not only did British officers boldly cross the river to dine at Mr. Parish’s house but they openly shopped in Ogdensburg stores and neither the British nor Col. Benedict’s militia seemed to see anything strange about it. For several months after the declaration of war the British commander at Prescott, Col. MacDonald, was a frequent guest at the Parish mansion. Naturally when later the British captured Ogdensburg the extensive properties of Mr. Parish were untouched although his agent complained that the concussion of the cannon broke many of the windows in the mansion house. However, by this time Parish, who never neglected to make an honest dollar, had opened his iron foundries at Rossie and was offering to make cannon ball for the United States, to mow down his British friends, at $85 a ton. After all it was Mr. Madison’s War.

The First Attacks

But if some of the Federalist landowners of Northern New York were not above making a private peace with the British, not so Jacob Brown, brigadier general of militia. While the war department deliberated and did nothing, Governor Tompkins acted. He appreciated that Northern New York was to be one of the main theaters of the war and at great expense and with infinite labor heavy guns and muskets were sent northward. The route ordinarily taken was the familiar one of the Mohawk river, Wood creek, the Oswego river and the lake, but occasionally heavy wagons loaded with equipment creaked and groaned as they were hauled from Utica to Sackets Harbor and Watertown over the atrocious roads of the period.

In the meantime the first gun of the war had been fired at Sackets Harbor. The British frigates, headed by the Royal George, stood off the village, and after a demand for surrender had been refused, proceeded to fire a few bombardments in the general direction of the shore. The Americans had mounted a big naval gun on the shore and returned the British fire so briskly that the frigates soon turned and made for the open lake. The naval gun, which so quickly ended the attack, was affectionately called by the Americans “Old Sow” and now occupies a place of honor in the cemetery at Turin, Lewis county, but how it ever reached there, no one knows.

One day a big, strapping youth at the head of a company of green-jacketed riflemen with jaunty, feathered hats, marched into little Sackets Harbor. The first regulars had arrived in the person of Captain Ben Forsythe and his company. Captain Ben, described by one who served under him as “a great, big, good-looking damned fool,” soon won a reputation for himself as a raider. He had the habit of appearing dramatically and unexpectedly at Canadian villages along the St. Lawrence and he never went away empty handed. When he raided Brockville he came home with a half hundred prisoners. Even the matter of fact Tompkins waxed enthusiastic. “I would like to meet that intrepid and brave officer,” he wrote Brown.

But Brown was now in Ogdensburg. Somewhat sulkily he had relinquished the main command to a Gen. Richard Dodge of Oneida county who had appeared with his brigade of Central New York militia. Brown proceeded to let Ogdensburg know there was a war going on. No longer did scarlet-coated officers saunter down Ogdensburg streets and do their shopping in Ogdensburg stores. Perhaps because they resented the new order of things the British at Prescott essayed an attack on the town but Brown had a couple of old cannon which had been captured from Burgoyne at Saratoga and a few, well-directed shots sent the invaders back towards Prescott.

In the course of time the exploits of Brown and Forsythe became known in Washington which was still downcast over the news of the loss of Detroit and the decisive defeat in the Niagara sector. There was rejoicing that at least at one place on the border the Americans were holding their own and suddenly there dawned upon President Madison and his associates the realization that Northern New York was to be one of the main battlegrounds of the war. Commodore Isaac Chauncey, veteran of the war with Tripoli and at one time in command of the frigate, Chesapeake, was ordered to Lake Ontario. The most cautious man in the world when it came to fighting, he was a genius as an organizer. Tompkins returning to Albany from New York on the steamboat was surprised to find forty ship carpenters aboard bound for Sackets Harbor. They told him that marines and sailors were on their way and that ordnance of every description was being rushed northward.

SleepySackets Harbor changed in appearance almost over night. The place was alive with activity. Veteran tars who had sailed the seven seas and who swore strange, foreign oaths swaggered through the streets and boasted of Rodgers, Decatur and Hull. Chauncey raised his broad pennant on the masthead of the brig, Oneida, and in forty-five days from the time the trees were cut in Antwerp his ship carpenters had constructed the frigate, Madison. The governor, hearing what was going on, rode northward himself. He found snow falling and a chill wind blowing in from the lake. But he found time to complain to the government because regulars had not been sent on and to complain to the postmaster general because everyone was reading the letters posted at the Sackets post office. Then, shivering, he hastened southward.

But the government was awakened at last. All winter long, regular soldiers, muffled to the ears in their great watch coats, trudged northward over snow-filled roads. True they were regulars only in name and not much more reliable than the raw militiamen but at least they did not expect to return home in a month. There was almost a steady procession of sleighs moving towards Water-town from Utica, loaded high with munitions of war. Sackets Harbor became a military camp of the first magnitude. Artillerymen, their long, blue coats piped with scarlet, jaunty dragoons, infantrymen in the high caps of the period and riflemen in feathered hats and fringed jackets rubbed shoulders with sailors and marines from Marblehead and Boston.

Officers whose names were already becoming household words were stationed there. Gen. Zebulon Pike, already famed as the discoverer of Pike’s Peak, marched in from Champlain on snow-shoes at the head of his regiment. The enormous figure of Col. Winfield Scott, who was to command the armies of the United States in another war, became a familiar one about the village. General Covington of Maryland, who was to fall at the head of his men at Chrysler’s Farm and whose body still rests in the military cemetery at Sackets Harbor, was there, as were Gen. Boyd, who was to command at York after Pike fell, and Col. Ripley, whose name after the Niagara campaign was to be known to every school boy. Finally came the day when the troops were drawn up stiffly along the shores and as the drums rolled and the cannon boomed in salute, old Maj. Gen. Dearborn, himself, with much grumbling and complaining was helped ashore. The most effective fighting force in all the United States was concentrated at Sackets Harbor.

But the government made no effort to repair the dilapidated works at Fort Ontario in Oswego, despite the fact that the water highway of the Mohawk, Wood creek, Oneida Lake and the Oswego river was the main route by which munitions could be moved from Albany to Lake Ontario. A few companies of Cayuga county militia under command of Col. George Flemming were stationed there soon after the outbreak of the war and two Oswego schooners, the Julia and the Charles and Ann, later renamed the Governor Tompkins, were taken over by the federal government and converted into war ships. The militia at the old fort was constantly being changed. In June, 1813, a small body of regulars was stationed there. This same month the British frigate, General Wolfe, appeared off Oswego and opened fire. The American batteries responded and for a time there was a brisk cannonade but no damage was done on either side and after a time the British frigate retired.

The Raid on Ogdensburg

Map of the Battle of Ogdensburg
Map of the Battle of Ogdensburg

In the meantime the prosperous, little village of Ogdensburg had been raided and looted by the British. Brown, who had demanded a brigadier general’s commission in the regular army and had been refused, had retired in a huff to his stone house at Brownville. Forsythe, the raider, had succeeded him in command at Ogdensburg. On February 6th, Forsythe at the head of two hundred men, crossed the ice from Morristown, the raider leading one section and Col. Benedict of the St. Lawrence county militia the other, invaded Elizabethtown (now Brockville), rescued a number of American prisoners being held in the jail there, took a few British prisoners, and returned to Ogdensburg, only one American being wounded.

The British at Prescott determined to attack Ogdensburg in retaliation. The village was poorly defended, as the British well knew. Near the intersection of Ford and the present State street, stood an iron twelve-pounder, one of the cannon captured by the Americans at Saratoga from Burgoyne. On the west side of Ford street, between State and Isabella, was a brass six-pounder. North of Mr. Parish’s store was a wooden breastwork, defended by an iron twelve-pounder, another trophy of Burgoyne’s surrender, mounted on a sled. On the site, where the lighthouse now stands, was a brass nine-pounder, also mounted on a sled. Back of the wall of the old stone fort were two old-fashioned iron cannon and to the left a six-pounder, also mounted on a sled. Forsythe had only his own company and a few militiamen from Canton under command of Captain John Conkey.

Lieut. Col. McDonald commanded the British force which moved over the ice towards Ogdensburg in two columns on the morning of February 22, 1813. There were 800 men in all. One force of 500 men advanced toward Parish’s store while the other of 300 men marched toward the old stone garrison. Forsythe’s regulars stationed behind the stone walls opened fire on this force, compelling them to retire for the moment. But the other British column had dislodged the Americans on the other side of the Oswegatchie and captured their cannon. Now they could give all their attention to Forsythe and his little band of regulars. The British fired from in back of Mr. Parish’s store and the American replied from their stone breastwork. Five Americans were killed and eighteen wounded. The British officials reports admits they lost eight men killed and forty-eight wounded, among them seven officers.

Seeing that further resistance in the face of such overwhelming odds was useless, Forsythe gave the order to retreat through the woods to DePeyster. The British made no attempt to follow but proceeded to loot the town. “Most of the houses in the village were plundered,” an Ogdensburg woman wrote at the time. “You will be astonished when I tell you that they were not contented with what the Indians and the soldiers could plunder, but after it was over, the women on the other side came across and took what was left.” But the British did not plunder all the houses. They were careful to overlook the houses of prominent Federalists, including that of Judge Ford, a fact which did not escape such administration journals as the Albany Argus.

In the meantime Forsythe had rallied his shattered forces at Kellogg’s Tavern in DePeyster and from there wrote the secretary of war that “we have killed two of the enemy to one of ours killed by them. We want ammunition and some provisions sent to us, also sleighs for the wounded. If you can send three hundred men, all shall be retaken, and Prescott, too, or I will lose my life in the attempt.” Joseph Rosseel, Parish’s land agent, who hurried from Ogdensburg with the land office papers, found the utmost confusion prevailing at De Peyster. “Forsythe and his rifle corps were at Kellogg’s and I found the militia at Remington’s (Heuvelton) ” he writes. “They would not allow me to go any further until I told them my errand. The teamster who drove me was very drunk and never minded the challenge from the pickets placed here and there along the road, which was narrow, I sometimes feeling their rifles touching our bodies. At Kellogg’s I found almost all Ogdensburg, soldier and civilian, all pell-mell.”

Forsythe, after waiting for reinforcements which did not come, marched his little force of riflemen to Sackets Harbor. He arrived just in time to get action and plenty of it. Stubborn, old Gen. Dearborn, who had been ordered by the secretary of war to attack Kingston, decided that instead he would attack York.

The force that Dearborn, sick and complaining, led to York, now Toronto, represented the flower of the American army. Pike was to be the actual commander of the army on the field. Chauncey’s new fleet was to transport the troops. It is no part of this story to tell the tale of that expedition, how Forsythe and his riflemen led the advance, how the grape from Chauncey’s guns drove the Indians from the woods and how a bayonet charge by the 15th United States Infantry to the strains of Yankee Doodle finally won the day. But it was a victory dearly won. An exploding British magazine killed or disabled a fifth of the American force, including one the nation could ill spare. Just as the Union Jack came down Pike died. It was a badly shattered and discouraged force which returned to the American side. Dearborn, far behind the lines, had won an empty victory.

Even Sir George Prevost, governor general of Canada, never noted for aggressiveness could not well ignore the fact that the expedition to York had left the important American naval post of Sackets Harbor practically defenseless. On a day late in May he embarked his force of some 800 men on Sir James Yeo’s fleet and set sail for the American side, the 24-gun frigate Royal George leading the way. The American scout, the Lady of the Lake, sighted the enemy fleet just in time and put on full sail for Sackets Harbor, firing alarm guns the while. In command of a skeleton force at Sackets was Col. Backus of the dragoons who immediately sent men on fast horses to arouse the militia. From Champion and Rutland and Watertown, from Adams, Brownville and Ellisburg came the farmers fresh from the plow. And from Brownville, too, his indignities forgotten, came Jacob Brown, glowing with the prospect of a good fight. Relieved, Backus turned over the command, just as the line of British frigates hove too just off the harbor.

The Battle of Sackets Harbor

Battle of Sacket's Harbor
Battle of Sacket’s Harbor

Even to this day one speaks with respect of the battle of Sackets Harbor. True it was not an important engagement so far as numbers go but it was important in its effect. For one thing the capture of Sackets Harbor at this time with its rich store of military and naval equipment would have all but decided the outcome of the war. The British defeat on the other hand was a most inspiring thing to the Americans. It made Brown a national figure almost over night. It gave him the opportunity for which he had been waiting. It won him the commission of brigadier general in the regular army which such a short time before he had sought in vain, and eventually it resulted in him being given the command of the armies of the United States.

For a time it looked as though the British would surely succeed in their object. The landing was made without difficulty, the American volunteers posted near the shore fleeing in disorder before the steady advance of the scarlet-coated grenadiers of the line. The militia, terrified by the blazing muskets, joined in the rout. The roads to Adams and Sandy Creek were filled with fleeing men seeking the safety of their farm homes. Brown cursing himself into a frenzy could do nothing with them. But Backus’ dragoons advancing as steadily as on parade were of different caliber. They yielded but slowly before the British assault, stubbornly contesting every inch of the ground. Backus fell almost in Brown’s arms. A naval officer thinking all was lost set fire to the navy yard and before it could be extinguished valuable stores were lost. In the meantime the dragoons had taken refuge in the log barracks, while from little Fort Tompkins the artillerymen poured grape into the scarlet ranks.

Time after time the veteran British 110th and 100th regiments charged the American position. As many times they retreated to reform their lines out of the range of musket fire. Far to the rear Sir George Prevost and Sir James Yeo watched the battle through glasses. The British loss was heavy. “I do not exaggerate when I tell you that the shot, both of musketry and grape, was falling about us like hail,” a British officer wrote. The British Major Gray had fallen, both Prevost and Col. Baynes were convinced that the American position could not possibly be taken and, to make matters worse, Brown had succeeded in rallying a few of the militia who were advancing on the British boats. It was enough for Prevost. The retreat was sounded. Later the governor general was to make an official report in which he said that he had “reluctantly ordered the troops to leave a beaten enemy whom they had driven before them for upwards of three hours” but Col. Baynes, the British field commander, was candid enough to admit that the American blockhouses “could not be carried by assault nor reduced by field-pieces had we been provided with them.” Brown insisted that had not the British retired “with the utmost precipitation” under the guns of their vessels they would never have returned to Kingston. Some of them never did. Of Prevost’s 800 men he lost 259 in killed, wounded and missing, nearly a third of his force.

The Rev. William Case, a Methodist circuit rider of the period, has left an interesting picture of the battle in his diary. True, Elder Case did not arrive at Sackets in time for the fighting. He and another preacher were just preparing for a camp meeting in Rutland, ten miles from the harbor, when they heard the thunder of the big guns. The two pastors took only time to kneel in prayer and “to weep aloud” before mounting their horses and starting for the scene of battle. There they arrived just after the British had retreated and when the dead and wounded still lay on the field of battle. “We were then conducted to the remains of Col. Mills of the Albany volunteers,” writes the elder. “He and the British general, Gray, were laid out together, both brave ‘by mutual wounds expired’ but now sleep peacefully together.” Elder Case was shocked to find that one “Brother Day of Ellisburg,” who had apparently made it for home early in the engagement, had fallen in with Indians who shot and scalped him. The good pastor, however, was consoled by the fact that the Indians were interrupted in their gruesome task and in hasty flight left scalp and knife. “His scalp is in the possession of the widow,” he writes.

Wilkinson’s Expedition

Secretary of War Armstrong now determined that the time had come for the grand invasion of Canada and what better place to start it than from Sackets Harbor, recently so valiantly defended. And for some strange reason he selected Major General James Wilkinson, a man whom he certainly distrusted and probably hated, to command the expedition. Wilkinson was an officer of the old army, a class described by one historian as “old, vain, respectable and incapable.” His record in the Revolution had not been free from censure and he had few friends in the service. Scott, who was nothing if not frank, called him an “unprincipled imbecile.” But Armstrong wanted Wilkinson to command the invasion. “Come to the north and come quickly,” he wrote that general, who took nearly all the summer to reach Sackets Harbor only arriving there August 20th.

No expense was spared to make the expedition a success. Heavy naval guns were transported to Sackets at the cost of $1,000 a gun. Troops were concentrated there on a scale never before known in Northern New York. Chauncey’s fleet brought the Niagara army back to Sackets. The roads were clogged with marching men. And finally on came the secretary of war, himself, to establish the war department at Sackets Harbor for nearly two months, and to dispute with Wilkinson over every detail of the plans. Whether or not Armstrong thought Montreal could be taken is not clear. Certainly Wilkinson thought the attempt suicidal, as it no doubt was. The plan was to descend the river to Montreal without taking a single fortified place. “Should we surmount every obstacle,” wrote Wilkinson, “We shall advance upon Montreal ignorant of the force arrayed against us, and in case of misfortune, having no retreat, the army must surrender at discretion.” But as the “invasion” never proceeded any further than French Mills, the present Fort Covington, this statement could not be tested.

Never was there a braver or more colorful sight than the start of the expedition. Seven thousand men were loaded into the boats as the fifers and drummers played their most stirring airs. Out in the lake lay Chauncey’s stately frigates, a fleet such as Perry would have given his soul to possess. But ill luck assailed the invaders from the first. It took twelve days for Wilkinson to get his force to Clayton and he did not arrive in Ogdensburg for almost as many days more. Here Secretary Armstrong, who preferred the land for travel, was to meet him but Northern New York roads were too much for the secretary. He got as far as Antwerp and decided to turn back. From Denmark he wrote that “bad roads, worst weather and a considerable degree of illness” had decided him to return to Washington. This was just a week after Major General Wade Hampton whose force was to form a juncture with that of Wilkinson suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of a few hundred French Canadians on the Chateaugay.

He immediately retired to Chateaugay village and when ordered to march to St. Regis and form a junction with Wilkinson’s troops he replied that his troops were sickly, discouraged and in want of food. Four days later he calmly set out for Plattsburgh. This was the very day that Boyd’s division of Wilkinson’s army suffered a bad defeat and was all but routed at Chrysler’s Farm on the Canadian side.

One column of the American army under the immediate command of Gen. Boyd, with Generals Swartout and Covington commanding brigades under him, had been followed by a Canadian force from the vicinity of Prescott. The Canadians launched an attack at Chrysler’s Farm, about twenty miles above Cornwall. While there is some uncertainty as to the number of men engaged, an examination of the official reports would seem to indicate that the Canadians were decidedly outnumbered. Wilkinson, ill, was unable to leave his berth in the boat and did not give a single order. Morgan Lewis was little better off. Boyd was left to fight the battle as best he could and Boyd was never known to be an aggressive officer. It is said that Brown threatened to resign rather than serve under him and Winifred Scott called him an imbecile. After two hours of the hardest kind of fighting, Gen. Covington was killed, his brigade gave way and the whole American line fell back, if not routed at least beaten. It was an inexcusable defeat. The Americans lost 339 in killed and wounded and the British about half as many. The name of French Mills, Franklin county, was changed to Fort Covington after the gallant Southern officer who fell at the head of his troops at Chrysler’s Farm. His body lies in the military cemetery at Sackets Harbor.

Two days after the defeat Wilkinson, with unusual energy, moved his whole force to French Mills and knowing now that he could expect no cooperation from Hampton went into winter quarters at that place. Later he established himself at the more comfortable Harison manor house at Malone. From here he wrote assailing both Hampton and Armstrong. The brave invasion of Canada was at an end.

The American army established itself at French Mills as best it could. Huts were built for the men and the blockhouses strengthened. Illness spread in the army largely as a result of improper food and lack of supplies of all sorts. Several hospitals were established in Malone and at one time nearly 500 of Wilkinson’s army were reported sick. Later that winter Wilkinson received orders to abandon Malone and Chateaugay and move to Plattsburgh, while Brown with 2,000 men was ordered to march to Sackets Harbor. Scores of teamsters from Jefferson and Lewis counties were employed to haul Brown’s supplies from Chateaugay to Sackets. Scarcely had the American troops left when a motley force of British, Canadians and Indians invaded American territory and looted Malone, Chateaugay, French Mills and Hopkinton.

The failure of Wilkinson’s campaign had not served to make the war any more popular in the Northern New York counties. The landowners openly voiced their opposition. The people murmured over the high taxes. Congress imposed a direct tax in August, 1813, of $3,000,000. The allotment for Franklin county was $770, St. Lawrence county, $3,000, Jefferson $4,610 and Lewis $1,960. The militia was being constantly called out. There was always fear of invasion. A number of the border villages had been looted by the British and Canadians. Northern New York was bearing the brunt of a war which many sections of the country scarcely felt. In the election of 1813, every Northern New York county with the exception of Lewis, where Tompkins got a narrow majority, went for Gen. Van Renssalaer, the Federalist candidate for governor, St. Lawrence by a vote of nearly three to one. Only two towns in the present county of Oswego, Redfield and Scriba, were carried by Governor Tompkins. The Federalists were opposed to the war and in certain states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, had refused all cooperation with the national government. Moss Kent of LeRaysville, Federalist, was returned to Congress from the Northern New York district, defeating Samuel Whittlesley of Watertown, friend and supporter of Governor Tompkins.

Many Northern New York farmers were openly selling supplies to the British armies. Gen. Izard reported to Armstrong that “from the St. Lawrence to the ocean, an open disregard prevails for the laws prohibiting intercourse with the enemy. The road to St. Regis is covered with droves of cattle, and the river with rafts, designed for the enemy. The revenue officers see these things but acknowledge their inability to put a stop to such outrageous proceedings.”

Writing to David Parish in January, 1814, Vincent LeRay, the Jefferson county landowner, said: “We have arrived at a crisis from which we must extricate ourselves, ‘peacefully if we can; forcibly if we must/ The same measures cannot be adopted for another twelve months without a political convulsion. If the Union should unhappily dissolve this country will for some time be no desirable abode.” The letter is significant when it is considered that even at that time the Federalists of New England were seriously considering secession from the Union, a movement which culminated later in the Hartford convention, to which, according to administration papers, Northern New York Federalists proposed sending delegates.

In an effort to win the lukewarm or openly hostile people to the cause of the war, the government pushed ship-building at Sackets Harbor at full speed. Had Chauncey been a man like Perry the issue might have been decided on Lake Ontario long before this time. But instead he contented himself with playing a game of hide and seek with Sir James Yeo, who, fortunately for Chauncey, was equally cautious. The inactivity of the fleet disgusted Brown who openly taunted the naval commander. Particularly was Brown moved to a frenzy when Chauncey remained cooped up in Sackets Harbor because Yeo had one more ship than he had. Work was rushed on the great American frigate, the Superior, 66 guns, which was ready for launching 80 days from the time she was started. But the Superior had no equipment. Her armament was being shipped up from Albany by boat by way of the Mohawk, Oneida Lake and the Oswego river. The British, now in full command of the lake, decided to capture these stores and to keep Chauncey bottled up in Black River Bay.

The Capture of Oswego

Battle of Fort Oswego
Battle of Fort Oswego

The naval guns and other stores were being held at Oswego Falls awaiting a safe opportunity to slip them down the river and up the lake to Sackets Harbor. At Oswego also were a large number of military and naval stores in charge of Alvin Bronson. Gen. Gaines, who was then in command at Sackets Harbor, learned of the British project and dispatched Col. Mitchell with five companies of artillery, armed as infantry, to Oswego to occupy Fort Ontario. Mitchell marched his little force of 300 men through Sandy creek, Pulaski and Mexico, arriving in Oswego April 30th, 1814. The Americans found the fort practically in ruins with five rusty old guns mounted on the ramparts. Bronson concealed his stores as well as he could in the neighborhood forest. Then the Americans waited for the British attack.

It was not long in coming. On the morning of May 6th, the American sentinels at Fort Ontario saw the long line of British frigates, their prows pointed towards Oswego harbor. The fleet was armed with two hundred and twenty-two guns. Sir James Yeo was in command of the fleet while Lieut. Gen. Sir George Gordon Drummond of the British army was on board in command of over a thousand soldiers. The American schooner, Growler, was in the river and she was at once sunk and part of her crew joined the defenders in the fort. The British frigates rounded too about a quarter of a mile from shore and the British began to make preparations to land. In the meantime Mitchell had sent a small detachment of men with an old iron twelve-pounder down near the shore. Fifteen large boats, crammed with red-coated soldiers, were soon being rowed swiftly towards the shore. At the same time the big guns on the fleet opened a heavy fire on the crumbling walls of the old fort.

But the old twelve-pounder on the shore opened up with disastrous effect. Several British boats were abandoned, the soldiers clambering into the remaining craft. The utmost confusion prevailed as grape from the old iron cannon ripped into the thickly packed soldiery. Within a few moments, the boats were turned and made for the fleet. Sails were unfurled and in a little time the big British ships of the line were headed for the open lake once more. But they had not abandoned the attack. The next morning, bright and early, the frigates again hove into view, the red cross of St. George flapping at their mastheads. At ten o’clock the fleet started a bombardment of the fort with all its guns. One after another the American guns were disabled but still the cannonade continued. Not only did the British bombard the fort but also the neighboring woods in the hope of scattering any militia that might be lurking there.

Col. Mitchell now realized that the real attack was coming. He left a few men in the fort but posted most of his battalion in the underbrush to the east of it. About one o’clock, when every American gun had been disabled excepting one, the British soldiery prepared to land. Lieut. Col. Fischer was in command of the landing party which consisted of three companies of British regulars, a battalion of marines and 200 seamen, armed with pikes, under Captain Mulcaster of the Royal navy. Once landed Fischer led his soldiers and marines towards Mitchell’s men in the underbrush while Mulcaster led his sailors towards the fort. There they found little opposition. In a moment they were climbing over the battered ramparts. The few Americans who had been defending the fort took a position near the southern wall and determined to fight to the last. The Star-Spangled Banner was still waving from its pole on the northwestern bastion. It had been nailed there and a British tar tried to climb the pole to tear it down. An American sharpshooter picked him off. Another attempted it, but he, too, was shot down. Then Captain Mulcaster himself sprang on the parapet in an effort to tear down the offending banner. The next instant he fell severely wounded to the ground.

A particularly graphic account of the storming of Oswego from the British standpoint is given in Snyder’s “In the Wake of the Eighteen-Twelvers,” in which Malachi Malone of the British ship “Magnet” thus describes the engagement:

“We lay closest to the fort, and they hailed red-hot shot on us from the ramparts. We came back with cold grape and round. They slithered our sails to ribbons and cut up our rigging till it hung in tangled bunches of hemp. ‘We can’t get out o’ here, lads,’ hailed Captain Popham, ‘for our gear’s all gone, but—’ A ball whizzed, and his right hand, holding the trumpet, dropped, mangled. He raised the trumpet with the other hand and finished—‘we’ll give them the worth of their money, since they want us to stay so badly!’

“Up the steep slope of the hill to the fort swarmed two hundred bluejackets with their boarding pikes, Sir William Howe Mulcaster, of the old Royal George, at their head. Sir James Yeo, the commodore, was ashore, too. Along the back of the fort hill, from the landing place, streamed the kilted Glengarries and the De Wattevilles, in red tunics and white breeches, and the Royal Marines in their glazed, stiff hats, red coats and blue trousers. But they could fight, those same Johnnies, and the Yanks who had potted them from the shelter of the woods, were now on the run for the fort.

“By this time we were on fire. The red-hot shot from the furnaces in the fort made our tarred rigging sizzle and the flames licked up the masts.

“‘Buckers aloft!’ called Captain Popham, and the topmen scrambled up the flaming ratlines and laid out along the scorching yards with leather buckets on long lines and soused everything. I could see through the smoke the bluejackets were up the bank now, and Lieutenant Laurie, Sir James Yeo’s secretary, was scrambling over the ramparts first of all. Then another burst o’ flame along our decks made everybody’s heart thump, for fire in a wooden ship, ballasted with gunpowder, is a pretty sure passport to the big beyond!

“The bulwarks had taken fire, but we smothered them with sand and tarpaulins, when there came a yell from aloft. A brace of red-hot chain shot had struck the foretop and sheared away the main-topmast stays’l, where it was stowed there. It floated down like a flaming parachute on to the fo’c’s’le head by the powder gangway. The sailing master rushed forward with a boarding pike, caught the mass as it fell, and pitched it overboard. Then with a scream he dropped the pike and rolled down the gangway, where his left arm had been hung was a bloody mass of seared flesh and shredded jacket sleeve. A red-hot round shot had got him.

“I helped carry him to the cockpit. ‘It’ll have to come off at the shoulder,’ I heard the surgeon say. Jimmy Richardson gritted his teeth and then above the roar of the guns I heard round of cheers on cheers. I rushed on deck, sick with the smell of the surgeon’s shambles, and there on the hilltop, with his legs locked around the head of the fort flagpole, I could see a marine hanging. It was Lieutenant Hewitt. He had swarmed up, as nimble as a man-’o-warsman and had torn the big Stars and Stripes down with his hands. The colors had been nailed to the pole.”

The Americans gave a good account of themselves but they were outnumbered two to one and gradually were forced back by the advancing British grenadiers and marines.

With the fort captured, Mitchell saw that further resistance was useless and ordered a retreat, marching towards Oswego Falls, where the bulk of the stores were located. The British made no attempt to pursue him. The Americans lost six killed, thirty-eight wounded and twenty-five missing in the engagement. The British lost nineteen killed and seventy-five wounded. Such stores and supplies as could be found in Oswego were seized by the invaders. Mr. Bronson, the American storekeeper, was roughly treated by the British and finally taken on board the fleet as a prisoner.

The utmost excitement prevailed all through the present Oswego county when it became known that the British had captured Oswego. Most everyone expected that the invaders would advance up the Oswego river and take the stores at the Falls. People generally deserted their homes and fled. Major Stone’s tavern at the present Scriba was crowded with people who stopped there for a time on their way to safety. Mitchell, in retreating up the Oswego river, felled trees to block the road and took other steps to safeguard the precious stores, but all proved unnecessary. After destroying all the public property in Oswego that they could the British fleet sailed away, but did not fail to maintain a blockade along the eastern end of the lake.

Captain Woolsey and two or three naval officers had retreated from Oswego with Mitchell. It was Mitchell’s duty to get the guns and equipment for the new frigate, Superior, to Sackets Harbor if possible. In view of the British blockade, it appeared impossible to ship them in schooners, as had been originally planned. Woolsey hit upon the idea of loading the stores in a flotilla of small boats and running the blockade to Stony creek and transporting them by land the rest of the way to Sackets. Gen. Gaines was communicated with and he agreed to the plan. At once the Americans at Oswego Falls got busy. Heavy naval guns were run over the falls in scows by expert pilots, a feat which would seem impossible today. Then guns, cables and all were stored in nineteen large, open boats. In all there were thirty-five naval guns, twenty-two long thirty-two-pounders, ten twenty-four-pounders, three forty-two-pound carronades and twelve large cables, in addition to quantities of shot. The main cable for the Superior was so immense that it filled one of the largest boats, being twenty-two inches in circumference and weighing over nine thousand pounds. Besides the boatsmen, there was an escort of 130 riflemen under Major Daniel Appling, a young Georgian who had already rendered distinguished service.

The flotilla reached Oswego Harbor without mishap and as the twilight fell on the evening of May 28th, stole quietly out of the bay, the prows of the boats pointing eastward. All night long the rowers plied their oars and by dawn the little fleet of barges had reached the mouth of the Salmon river. One barge, however, had become separated from the others in the darkness and when morning came was sighted and captured by a British cruiser. This gave the whole thing away. It became apparent to the British that the Americans were attempting to run the blockade and the cruiser immediately put on full sail to get the news to Sir James Yeo.

In the meantime the Americans had met, according to plan, about 150 Oneida Indians who were waiting for them at the mouth of the Salmon on the site of old La Famine where the historic conference between de la Barre and the Iroquois had taken place 150 years before. When the lost barge did not appear Woolsey decided that it must have been captured and that there was little chance of him reaching Stony Creek as he had planned. Instead he started with all the speed his sturdy oarsmen could muster for the mouth of Big Sandy creek in Jefferson county. The officers scanned the lake anxiously for a sight of the British fleet as the rowers bent to their task. Along the sandy shore, keeping pace with the boats, trotted the Oneida braves, stripped to their breech-clouts, painted and feathered for battle. At noon the boats reached the mouth of Big Sandy and quickly proceeded up that stream as far as the depth of water would permit. Then the boatmen and soldiers set to work and moved the stores to the shore. There was nothing further they could do but wait for the fight they knew was coming.

Fortunately a messenger had been rushed to Sackets Harbor from Salmon river telling Gen. Gaines of the attempt to enter Big Sandy creek with the guns and the other naval equipment. As soon as a landing was made at Big Sandy, other messengers were sent in every direction to rally the militia and to get oxen and wagon to move the stores overland to Sackets Harbor. The following morning an American lookout boat sighted the British making for the creek. The American subterfuge had been discovered. The enemy consisted of a corps of seamen and marines in seven boats, three gunboats, three cutters and a gig. Just as the British proceeded up the creek and started a bombardment from a heavy sixty-eight pounder of the American boats, the masts of which could be seen through the trees, a squadron of dragoons and a company of light artillery came dashing up through the woods from Sackets Harbor. They had arrived just in time. The British were preparing to make a land attack.

Major Appling concealed his riflemen behind a log fence where they could not be observed by the enemy. The troops from Sackets were lined up near the boats, where they could be seen by the British. The enemy had landed on the north bank of the creek and in column formation advanced towards the American position. The British column had arrived at a point about ten rods from the concealed riflemen, when suddenly Appling gave the command to fire. The riflemen rose from their ambush and poured a deadly hail of bullets into the ranks of the foe. So complete was the surprise that the British column was thrown into the utmost confusion. At the same moment Appling gave the command to charge, while the Indians made the woods ring with their whoops. There could be only one end to a conflict of this kind. Within a few minutes the British had surrendered. It was all the American officers could do to restrain the Indians from murdering the prisoners on the spot, and indeed there is some reason for believing that they did murder two or three. The British loss was eighteen killed, fifty wounded and 133 prisoners. The American loss was one Indian killed and one rifleman wounded. So far as the numbers involved go it was not such an important engagement, but measured by its results it was a decisive victory for the American arms.

Carrying the Cable

The problem now was to get the naval stores to Sackets Harbor at the earliest possible moment so that the Superior could be equipped and the blockade, which had kept the American fleet cooped up in Black River Bay, lifted. The guns and most of the other equipment could be loaded into ox carts and the story has come down from eyewitnesses of that day of the great, creaking carts, loaded with their munitions of war, drawn by span after span of oxen, slowly moving along the forest roads towards Sackets.

The great ship cable for The Superior, weighing over four tons and nine inches in diameter, presented a problem. It was too large to be put into an ox cart. Finally it was decided to transport it on the shoulders of men. A long line of militiamen was formed. One end of the ponderous cable was put into an ox cart and the rest was supported on the shoulders of the men. It was no small task. The road was little more than a forest trail, filled with stumps. It was twenty miles to Sackets Harbor. There were men who carried that cable who bore the marks on their shoulders to the day they died. The feat caught the fancy of the countryside. Through Ellis Village and Smithville the novel procession moved. All along the road, farmers and their families gathered to cheer the marching men. On the second day the long line came into sight of Sackets Harbor. Soldiers and sailors rushed out to relieve the tired men of their burden. A drummer boy was hoisted to the top of the great cable. A flag was borne triumphantly in the van. And into Sackets the great rope was carried to complete the equipment of the new frigate, Superior, which gave the Americans, for the time being at least, the mastery of the lake.

In 1930, largely through the instrumentality of the Daughters of 1812 and with the assistance of the state historian and Mr. W. Pierrepont White of Utica, who has contributed so much in the marking of historic sites, the route taken by the cable-carriers was marked by artistic tablets, preserving for all time this dramatic incident of our second war with Great Britain.

The American fleet on the lake was now formidable. The big American frigate, Macedonian, being laid up in the Thames, its crew and officers were immediately sent from the seaboard to Sackets Harbor. The crew of the Congress, laid up in Portsmouth, began to arrive at Sackets Harbor about the middle of June. The little frontier village, which before the war had been practically unknown, suddenly found itself the largest naval depot in the United States, its streets crowded with sailors who had fought the King’s navy on the high seas to a standstill. Britain, too, shipped many of her sailors to Kingston and both sides prepared for what it was anticipated would be the greatest naval battle of the war. It was a battle which owing to the super-cautiousness of Commodore Chauncey and Sir James Yeo never occurred.

The Niagara Campaign

But if the fleet was idle the army was not. Dearborn, Wilkinson, Lewis, Hampton and most of the other older generals had passed out of the picture. A group of young, active men now led the Northern armies, Brown, Porter, Ripley, Scott and Miller, all men of no reputation before the war. And for the first time in the war they led troops who were really trained. Regiments famous from that day since came into being, the Ninth, the Eleventh, the Twenty-second and the Twenty-fifth. Brown, impatient, hot-tempered and too ready to fight, was such a contrast to the generals of the old army, that he became a national hero. He received the thanks of congress, the thanks of the state legislature and the freedom of the City of New York. Says a noted historian: “That Brown might have become a great general was possible, had his experience been larger; but whatever was his merit as a general, his qualities as a fighter were more remarkable than those of any other general officer in the war. Except immediately after receiving his wound at Lundy Lane, when his army was exhausted by four hours of extreme effort, he never seemed satiated with fighting. Among all the American major-generals, he alone made raw troops as steady as grenadiers, and caused militia to storm entrenched lines held by British soldiers.”

Brown’s Niagara campaign was one of the few glorious chapters in the military history of the War of 1812. At Chippewa Scott’s regulars crumbled the British line, despite the fact the Americans were seriously outnumbered. Then Brown with an army numbering less than 2,500 effectives won the smashing victory of Lundy’s Lane, where Miller’s men charged the heights and bayoneted the British artillerymen at their guns. For fifty years after every school boy knew the story and gloried in Miller’s quiet “I’ll try” with which he answered Brown when the general asked him if he could carry the enemy’s position.

The war swung away from Northern New York. While there were constant alarms, the British never again threatened Sackets Harbor, but the village remained the most important military and naval post on the lakes. On one occasion the governor sent his aide de camp, Washington Irving, to Sackets with orders for the commander there. Describing his ride to the Harbor, Irving writes in his diary:

“The forest swept down from beneath my feet, and spread out into a vast ocean of foliage, tinted with all the brilliant dyes of autumn and gilded by the setting sun. Here and there a column of smoke curling its light blue volume into the air, rose like a beacon to direct the eye to some infant settlement, as to some haven in this sylvan sea. As my eye ranged over the mellow landscape, I could perceive where the country dipped into its second terrace—the foliage beyond being more and more blended in the purple mist of the sunset, until a glistening line of gold, trembling along the horizon, showed the distant waters of Ontario. . . . I, at length, came to where the country suddenly opened—Sackets Harbor lay before me; a town which had recently sprung up in the bosom of the wilderness; beyond it the lake spread its vast waters like an ocean, no opposing shore being visible; while a few miles from land rode a squadron of ships of war at anchor on the calm bosom of the lake, and looking as if they were balanced in air.”

The end of the war on such favorable terms to the United States surprised no one as much as the Federalists. They were discredited on every side and practically ceased to exist as a political party. Mr. Madison had won his war, all of which changed the situation decidedly.

Landon, Harry F. The north country; a history, embracing Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Oswego, Lewis and Franklin counties, New York, vol 1 of 3. Historical Publishing Company Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932.

1 thought on “Mr. Madison’s War”

  1. Bretiss Smith Zacek

    HI – I need info for Clark Perkins and wife Lydia Haxton Perkins living in Stockbridge or Munnsville, New York. Both are buried in the Stockbridge Cemetery.
    He was born in Vermont or Massachusetts. I understand he was brought to NY by his father.

    Clarks Parents:
    Nathan Perkins
    BIRTH 23 JANUARY 1757 • Plympton (Kingston), Plymouth, Massachusetts,
    DEATH 16 MARCH 1832 • Woodstock, Windsor, Vermont, USA

    Hannah Sturtevant
    BIRTH 1 JAN 1762 • Halifax, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
    DEATH 19 JUL 1847 • Woodstock, Windsor County, Vermont, USA

    Thank you – Bretiss Smith Zacek former resident of New York.

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