Private and Officer of the 100th Regiment.
‘Fort Niagara in the winter, c. 1812 by Peter Rindlisbacher.’
The American strategy for 1813 looked very much like that of the previous year: conquer Canada. Regaining Detroit and invading UC at that point was still a priority. This would protect settlements in the Northwest and would be followed up with the recapture of Michilimackinac, which would break British influence on the natives and secure the lucrative fur-trade route. Less specifically defined was a campaign on the St. Lawrence River. As winter turned to spring, the point of attack varied, and Dearborn and Chauncey were allowed to make the final decision based on circumstances in the field, mixed with Armstrong’s confusing directives. No firm plan was made in the Champlain valley except to improve Macdonough’s squadron. Jones ordered his saltwater captains to make independent cruises as commerce raiders rather than operate in squadrons.
In the Northwest, William Harrison had intended to redeem Hull’s loss by the end of 1812, but time was needed to subdue the rising native threat in the region. In addition, forming, supplying, and coordinating the wings of his army brought endless problems, so it was not until December that his advance under Brigadier General James Winchester was proceeding down the Maumee River in Ohio toward the western end of Lake Erie. Here, in January 1813, Harrison suffered a major setback when Winchester seized the British outpost at Frenchtown, Michigan, on 18 January only to be attacked and brutally defeated on 22 January by a force of about 400 regulars and militia and up to 800 native warriors under now-Brigadier General Henry Procter. Procter’s casualty rate was high, but Winchester lost up to 400 men killed and 550 captured.
Harrison nearly pressed forward to overtake Procter’s hurried withdrawal but chose instead to consolidate his position by building Fort Meigs 12 miles up the Maumee. It developed into a formidable establishment, and Procter realized that Harrison would launch his invasion from there. As a preemptive strike and, in part, because of the pressure that Tecumseh and the senior chiefs put on him to be aggressive, Procter undertook an expedition at the end of April to lay siege to the fort. He lacked suitable siege weapons, however, and could not breach the ramparts. A significant action took place on 5 May, when American reinforcements overran British batteries and were then badly mauled while an American sortie attacked another battery. The British rebuffed these attacks, but inclement weather and lack of supplies forced Procter to lift the siege.
He invested Fort Meigs late in July, at the urging of Tecumseh, but achieved little and suffered a sharp failure when he attacked Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River on 2 August before heading home. Many of Procter’s warrior allies left Fort Amherstburg after this, further weakening Procter’s force.
By August, Harrison’s army was ready to invade UC, but this depended on the USN. Perry had assembled and constructed a squadron at Erie, Pennsylvania, through the spring and summer and sailed early in August to take control of Lake Erie. This worsened Procter’s position, as it cut off his supply route. The British PM squadron that had operated with impunity in 1812 was taken over by the RN in June 1813. Commander Robert Barclay had been sent there by Commodore Yeo but had received little in the way of men or munitions. Even Barclay and Procter’s individual pleas to Prevost went more or less unanswered. Forced to reopen the supply line, Barclay sailed with his six-vessel squadron (more than half the crews were infantry detached from Procter’s regiments) and met Perry off Put-in-Bay on 10 September. The hard-fought battle lasted for three hours with Perry narrowly winning his “signal victory” and entering the realm of the great American heroes.
Procter again earned Tecumseh’s disgust by ordering a retreat from Fort Amherstburg, but the expedition was badly organized, and the British had barely left when Perry’s squadron ferried Harrison’s army to land at nearby Amherstburg, UC; a large portion of the American force went overland to recover Detroit. Harrison was soon in pursuit of Procter’s force and caught up with it at Moraviantown on the Thames River on 5 October. Here Harrison sent regiments of Kentucky militia and his own allied native warriors to route the hurriedly deployed British regulars and the natives under Tecumseh. The great chief was killed, and most of the regulars were captured; Procter and the survivors limped back to Burlington Heights at the western end of Lake Ontario. The Americans now occupied southwestern UC, but it was too late in the season to attempt a recapture of Michilimackinac.
On Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, things had not been so one-sided. After much debate, Dearborn and Chauncey opened their campaign with an attack on York on 27 April. Kingston was considered too well defended, while the two British ships rumored to be under construction at the capital of UC were tempting targets. The first-ever U. S. Army/U. S. Navy combined operation succeeded in capturing York but at the cost of hundreds of casualties and widespread sickness to the force. Sheaffe, who happened to be there, escaped toward Kingston with half his small corps after burning the one warship under construction. Prevost soon relieved the unpopular general of command.
Chauncey then landed Dearborn’s army near Fort Niagara while he went to Sackets Harbor for more troops. Their next goal was Fort George, across the Niagara River from Fort Niagara, and this was managed in a well-orchestrated attack on 27 May. Once more, however, the British army, commanded by Brigadier General John Vincent, managed to escape and take up quarters at Burlington Heights. Dearborn and Chauncey were planning a pursuit of Vincent when news arrived that the British had attacked Sackets Harbor; Chauncey hurriedly sailed for his base.
Commodore Yeo reached Kingston in mid-May in company with Prevost, and by the last week of the month the former PM squadron was ready for action. As a diversion in support of the expected attack on the Niagara Peninsula, Prevost proposed an attack on Chauncey’s shipyard. The RN transported a force there on 28 May, and the attack was launched the next day. Here Brigadier General Jacob Brown of the New York Militia saw his first major action when his militia broke before the charging redcoats, but a small corps of regulars, USN personnel, U. S. Marines, and militia held off the British, inflicting heavy casualties and prompting Prevost to approve a withdrawal, to the displeasure of many officers, most notably Yeo. When Chauncey returned, however, and saw how he had nearly lost a new ship and all his resources, he stayed put and rarely ever left his base unless he could be sure of its defense.
On the Niagara Peninsula, the early American success had gone sour. The pursuit of Vincent’s army ended in the night action at Stoney Creek on 6 June. Though it was an indecisive battle, the Americans hurried back to Fort George when Yeo’s squadron arrived to support Vincent. The British slowly advanced under command of Major General Francis de Rottenburg, hemming the Americans in at Fort George. Their only major expedition from the fort ended in disaster at the battle of Beaver Dams on 24 June, when over 600 Americans were captured or killed in this unique victory achieved by British native allies.
De Rottenburg undertook a blockade of the Americans at Fort George resulting in a long, hot summer of constant skirmishing during which everyone watched Lake Ontario, expecting the issue to be decided by the commodores.
In July, both Chauncey and Yeo were instructed to seek a decisive action as a priority instead of only supporting the armies. The commodores craved such a fight, but the disparity between the strengths and weaknesses of the two squadrons forced each man into constantly maneuvering for a momentary advantage. Chauncey nearly caught Yeo in a lull off the Genesee River on 11 September, and on 28 September he managed to partially dismast Yeo’s flagship. Supremacy on Lake Ontario and the armies’ essential supply route hung in the balance for several minutes until Yeo’s cohort, Commander William Mulcaster, steered his ship to intercept Chauncey, allowing his commodore to recover and flee. In the end, the Americans were left fighting for their very survival against a tremendous storm, while Yeo managed to anchor in safety and make repairs.
Chauncey did succeed the next week in capturing a troop convoy en route for Kingston, sparking Prevost to criticize Yeo for not providing the necessary protection. Yeo was then instructed to support de Rottenburg’s army, which was ending the blockade and pulling back to Burlington. Chauncey completed his essential assignment of covering the movement of a large army in small boats from Niagara to Sackets Harbor.
At the head of this army was Major General James Wilkinson, as notorious an officer as ever served in the U. S. Army. Secretary Armstrong had picked him to work under Dearborn and then to replace him when the older man fell ill in June. During the summer, the notion of attacking the St. Lawrence River region came under discussion again. Wilkinson ordered most of the army at Fort George to Sackets Harbor, where a second large force was gathering. Only late in October did he commit to a campaign down the St. Lawrence to Montreal rather than Kingston, which Chauncey had been led to believe would be the target. Armstrong had ordered Major General Wade Hampton to march his 4,000-man division from Plattsburgh toward LC in support of Wilkinson. This was a critical error, as the two generals despised one another and communicated only, and rarely at that, through Armstrong.
Hampton made a weak effort to probe the Richelieu River valley but turned back after a skirmish at Odelltown, LC, on 20 September to head for the Chateauguay River in New York. Without any clear instructions from Armstrong and no effort to coordinate his movements with Wilkinson’s, Hampton slowly advanced up the Chateauguay until opposed by an advanced party of about 400 British regulars, militia, and natives at hurriedly made barricades about 25 miles from the river’s mouth on the St. Lawrence. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Salaberry, this small force, backed by a larger reserve, fought Hampton to a standstill on 26 October. The general retreated to his previous camp and then gave up on the whole enterprise and returned to Plattsburgh.
Wilkinson’s 7,300-man army began heading down the St. Lawrence late in October, fighting off an attack by four small RN warships at French Creek on 1-2 November and passing the British batteries at Prescott on 6 November. By this time, de Rottenburg had sent from Kingston a “corps of observation” of infantry and the RN in gunboats down the river after Wilkinson. It picked up more regulars, some militia, and natives at Prescott, increasing its strength to about 1,200. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Morrison, this corps soon began to harass Wilkinson’s rear guard, retarding his progress and eventually forcing the battle of Crysler’s Farm (11 November 1813). Since Wilkinson had been laid low by illness (and had never shown much talent for organization), command during the battle devolved on Brigadier General John Boyd. It was fought under classic open-field conditions, ending with a victory for Morrison; casualties ran high on both sides. The Americans withdrew and fled down the river to Cornwall, where Wilkinson decided the expedition was at an end and ordered his army to go into winter camp at French Mills, New York.
Through the summer and fall, military and naval reinforcements had reached Quebec, and among these was Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, sent from England to replace de Rottenburg in command of the government and forces in UC. He reached Kingston in the first week of December and was at St. Davids on the Niagara Peninsula on 16 December to see firsthand the evidence of a recent American outrage.
Following Wilkinson’s departure early in October, the American strength at Fort George had gradually diminished until it was held by mainly New York Militia under Brigadier General George McClure. Prior to his pullout, on 10 December he ordered the burning of the town of Niagara, which was completely destroyed, and the inhabitants were turned out into a snowstorm.
Drummond moved quickly to seek retribution. The British captured Fort Niagara in a bloody fight at the bayonet’s point on 18-19 December and then raided and burned the villages of Lewiston (19 December), Manchester (21 December), Black Rock and Buffalo (30 December), and all points in between. As the old year ended, the British had regained Fort George and the Niagara Peninsula and occupied Fort Niagara. Drummond and Yeo concocted a plan to recapture Barclay’s warships moored at Put-in-Bay, but a moderate winter kept the ice too thin for their proposed expedition.
On Lake Champlain, little had occurred during the year. Commander Daniel Pring, RN, had charge of the new dockyard at Isle-aux-Noix on the Richelieu River and held the advantage for the summer after capturing two of Macdonough’s converted merchantmen on 3 June. At the end of July, a combined naval and military expedition raided communities on the Vermont and New York shores, but after Macdonough sailed with a slightly stronger force in September, the British remained at their base to build a proper brig of war.
While half their goals for 1813 had been achieved in the north, the Americans found themselves vulnerable to attack in the Chesapeake Bay region. The British government sent more warships, two battalions of Royal Marines, a regiment of infantry, artillery, rocketeers, and two companies of ill-disciplined expatriate French soldiers to Admiral Warren with orders to extend the blockade and bring the war to the thriving tidal ports. Most important, Rear Admiral George Cockburn joined Warren at Bermuda during January and began a reconnaissance of the bay in March before most of the reinforcements arrived.
Under Warren’s direction, Cockburn roamed the shores of the Chesapeake through April and early May with a small squadron of vessels. This force, usually with Cockburn leading from the front, captured many vessels and raided numerous communities. Cockburn tolerated no resistance from the locals and his destruction by fire of Havre de Grace, Maryland (3 May 1813), earned him the reputation in the United States as a barbarous scoundrel. The local militias seldom resisted the British raids, and the U. S. Army and U. S. Navy lacked the strength locally to oppose the incursions.
The larger military force arrived in June, and Warren centered his activities in the southern part of the bay. An attack on Craney Island, which was to have led to the capture of Norfolk and the USS Constellation blockaded there, failed miserably on 22 June. Hampton, Virginia, fell easily on 25 June and was briefly occupied.
Cockburn sailed with part of the force to make a raid at the Ocracoke Inlet off North Carolina’s coast in July and then returned to meet Warren in the Chesapeake, where more raids were conducted in August. In September, a small blockading squadron was left at the mouth of the bay, while Cockburn went to Bermuda for a refit of his warships and Warren headed for Halifax.
The British blockade, which was increased to cover most of the American coast in November 1813, managed to prevent USN warships and merchantmen from sailing, but some did escape, with the privateers leading the pack and striking at British shipping. Unable to maintain a perfect blockade (impossible under the best conditions) and fight an ambitious inshore campaign at the same time, Warren had only moderate success in each. The Admiralty was dissatisfied with his efforts and chose Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane to replace him.
The war at sea between opposing warships ended with the RN earning four victories to the USN’s three. The most significant of these was the capture of the USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon off Boston on 1 June; following this incident, Secretary Jones forbade his captains to seek battle in such a manner as Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake had. As per another of Jones’s orders, the few American warships that managed to evade the British blockade made relatively successful cruises as commerce raiders and were the object of RN patrols. The USS Essex under Captain David Porter spent the year in the Pacific Ocean, seizing British whalers with impunity and making a long stay in the Marquesas Islands.
The unpopularity of the war, evident in some quarters since its beginning, became more obvious during 1813. The UC Militia, who had shown some zeal on the Niagara Peninsula in 1812, failed to perform at York in April and after the fall of Fort George offered up their parole to the conquering Americans in large numbers. A radical element in the province’s legislature had caused Brock concern before the war, and some of these individuals formed a corps of turncoats who fought for the Americans, calling themselves the Canadian Volunteers. Rather than go this far, other locals began to maraud through the western counties, especially after Harrison’s victory at Moraviantown. Martial law was considered several times as a means of forcing farmers to sell their produce to the government. Such evidence of dissension caused much concern for Prevost and his commanders in the upper province.
Similar, though not quite as extreme, examples existed in the United States. New England merchants obtained licenses from British authorities at Halifax to ship goods to the forces in the Peninsular War. In Vermont and northern New York, farmers sent wagonloads of goods and herds of cattle into LC to feed Prevost’s troops. Everywhere, militia failed to turn out when ordered, and newspapers criticized the government’s ineptitude. Even DeWitt Clinton, a leading Republican, considered forming a Peace Party, merging Federalists and disenchanted Republicans to oust Madison in 1812. When this idea failed, Clinton’s antiwar efforts nearly made the failed general Stephen Van Rensselaer the governor of New York in 1813.