While the War of 1812 was fought on many fronts on land and water, it
was largely a hit-run, raid-and-hold type of conflict. There were a
number of battles, of course, and a handful of sieges upon forts; but
few long campaigns were even attempted, and very little of the land
fighting was more than a short hike away from a navigable body of
water. Neither side ever occupied much of the other’s territory for
long. The 1812 war’s only theater of sustained fighting was here on the
Niagara Frontier, which is why it ought to be so immediate to us. This
was Buffalo’s war.
Across the Niagara, that narrow, 30-mile long strait–it’s a connector
of two big water bodies, not a true river–the citizens can glower at
each other to their hearts’ content, as well as snipe and shoot if they
dare. The farsighted can almost read expressions. A canoe or even a
hearty swim can get you across if you pick your spot. The old-timers
used to paddle across holding onto a log. (I don’t advise it upstream
of the Falls.) An army can ferry across it in 10 or 15 minutes if it
has enough boats. For the full three years, the citizens of both Upper
Canada and Western New York were in a constant state of alert. Raids,
smuggling, spying and cross-river cannon-attacks were constant. The
summer and fall of 1814 were both epic and pivotal for this war and
along the Niagara, and some of the most gripping stories I’ve ever
heard of any war come from this place and time. Before we start to
develop the events of the war’s local finale, most of us could use a
The War of 1812 leaves a murky impression in the popular mind. It’s one
of the few wars that has ever been fought over little more than
national frustration. There are fringe theories about the war’s
underground causes, but its direct ones are almost as hard to
summarize. The U. S. utterly shocked the British by lashing out over a
handful of things the Empire was doing that didn’t seem to it worth
fighting over. (Cutting off trade with France during the Napoleonic
Wars, which hurt the U.S. Impressment–forced recruiting–of suspected
British citizens off of intercepted vessels, which included some U.S.
citizens. Dillydallying about returning forts and territory after the
Revolution. Encouraging Native Americans to push back against American
settlement in the Great Lakes.) In reflection, both sides probably had
things to work out from the War of Independence, and one of them was
bound to flare up. The young U.S. did so first. It couldn’t get at the
British homeland. (The world’s number one navy had other ideas.)
British interests in Canada were a close second target.
The Niagara fighting had been inconsequential in 1812: a few
cross-river raids and one battle (Queenston Heights) that was
humiliating for the United States. 1813 was a different story, though,
with the U.S. managing to occupy the whole western side of the Niagara
for half the year, then seeing it all fold back in on itself. By
December 1813, it was the British-Canadian war effort that was filled
with passionate intensity–and reinforcements.
For all but the last two days of 1813, Buffalo was a prospering
community with a fancy street plan in the elbow of the meeting of two
water-lanes, the Buffalo Creek and the Niagara. Dense woods came up to
the village limits and covered everything that wasn’t a stream, a road
or a homestead. Most of Buffalo’s 500-800 citizens lived and worked
south of today’s Chippewa Street and west of today’s Ellicott. They had
tucked in feeling pretty safe on the night of December 29, just as a
British-Canadian-Native American force was crossing the Niagara in
several waves. It won a riverside battle against disorganized Americans
and completed the torching of the American side.
Photo: Western New York Heritage Press
The dawn that broke on New Year’s Day, 1814, found Buffalo a devastated
community and most of Western New York quaking in dread of another
invasion. Every significant settlement or structure within a mile of
the Niagara was devastated, and for the citizens returning to what was
left of their homes in Buffalo, the matter of simple survival trumped
all other ambitions. “Wide right” and the Polar Vortex have nothing on
the winter of 1814, the most miserable season Buffalo ever knew. The
shocks were felt far inland. The rest of New York State was overwhelmed
having to shelter so many refugees.
In those days winter and even early spring could be times of
hibernation for war efforts. Armies stayed in place and consolidated as
much as they could. Forts did their best to hang on. The winter of 1814
was different. Mighty forces were moving for both sides.
Because of the expense of the war effort, the United States was broke.
Even its unity was being tested. The disruption of trade had bankrupted
New England, and some of its team players were clamoring to secede from
England and all the forces the Empire could muster had fought the first
two years of the 1812 war while engaged in a desperate set of clashes
against Napoleon. By the spring of 1814, “Old Boney” was just about
toast, and Brittania, as they called her, had her right hand free
again. She could send ships and armies to America in overwhelming
force, and they were going to start to arrive in earnest in the spring
of 1814. It looked bad for the United States.
But there were some good signs, and on the Niagara. On to the last two seasons of our 200-year old war!