One day in September I had a chance to indulge in what I enjoy best. Become an historical time traveler of sorts, journeying back nearly 200 years to a point in time when British North America ( Canada) was invaded and came within mere inches of becoming part of the United States. My starting point was Old Fort Erie on the southern end of the Niagara River.
200 years ago, the Niagara River was a vital link on the supply route from east to west in British North America, a key part of the Great Lakes superhighway. This made it a prime target for any American army intent on invasion. To protect their interests, the British had constructed forts at both ends of the river, but their armies’ strength was depleted because of the war raging in Europe. What happened over the three years of the 1812 conflict would see Fort Erie and Fort George (30 miles north, near the mouth of the Niagara River) completely destroyed, the town of Niagara (now called Niagara-on-the-Lake) burned to the ground and lives changed forever on both sides of the border.
Old Fort Erie – Before 9:00 am
It was very early on a humid Saturday morning in late September. While waiting for Fort Erie to open for the day, I spent time walking around the perimeter of its earthworks.
A short distance away from the fort’s entrance, I encountered a monument to the British who died while attempting to retake the fort from the Americans in one of the bloodiest series of battles to take place in the War of 1812. It sits on top of a mass grave of over 150 British and American Soldiers uncovered during restoration work. I’ve included part of the inscription below:
“IN MEMORY OF THE OFFICERS AND SEAMEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY,THE OFFICERS, NON COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND PRIVATES OF THE ROYAL ARTILLERY, ROYAL ENGINEERS, ROYAL MARINES, 1st ROYALSCOTS, 19th LIGHT DRAGOONS, 6th, 8th (KING’S), 41st, 82nd, 89th, 103rd, 104th, AND DEWATTEVILLE’S REGIMENTS, THE GLENGARRY LIGHT INFANTRY AND THE INCORPORATED MILITIA WHO FELL DURING THE SIEGE OF FORT ERIE, AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER 1814”
When you scan down thru the names, you can see the faces of all these men who fought so hard and gave their lives to re-take the fort from the Americans.
By the time I returned to the fort’s front gates, a trio of youth who worked as historic interpreters at the fort had already entered and were preparing for the days visitors. Like a good number of other places of living history, these interpreters were dressed in full period attire and if asked would readily provide you with volumes of information, the kind you don’t always find reading thru websites. Through a long discussion with one of the interpreters – a young man who appeared to be
, I discovered that there had been a Fort Erie in this area since 1764. The original Fort Erie was located close to the river’s edge and was the first in a network of forts that were constructed along the Niagara River and the upper Great Lakes after all of New France was ceded to Britain in 1763. For the next 50 years, Fort Erie played a number of roles; supply depot, a port for ships transporting supplies, troops and passengers and a link of communication.
By 1803 plans were authorized for a new fort on the heights further back from the river’s edge where the current Fort Erie stands today. When the Americans declared war in June of 1812, work on the new fort was not yet complete. In November 1812, members of Fort Erie’s Garrison fought in their first engagement at the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek. The years 1813 and 1814 saw Fort Erie changing hands a number of times, being dismantled then rebuilt by whoever was the current occupying force.
I encountered another interpreter, this time a young woman dressed as a soldier’s wife. Very few soldiers were allowed to bring their wives and children with them. Soldier’s wives were often employed doing the garrison’s laundry and sewing. I asked if Fort Erie was a typical design as far as British forts in North America. She smiled and commented that in its current design the fort has a lot of American innovations and in some ways has more attributes of an American fort. The summer of 1814 saw the American army, now occupying Fort Erie, hard at work extending and improving the fortifications.
At this point the interpreter excused herself and went off to greet visitors who have just arrived. Before leaving she pointed out where the fort’s three powder magazines are – only one of which is accessible to the public. I decided to visit the powder magazine first, then gradually work my way back to the other end of the fort. The magazine is located near the southwest end of the fort in a lower part of the stone fortifications, well out of the line of fire. Unlike the fort’s outer gate, which has iron studding and re-enforcements, the outer doors and ventilation shafts of the powder magazine are sheathed in copper to prevent any chance of sparking. In fact all the tools for the preparation of the gunpowder in this room are made of brass or copper to avoid any chance of ignition.
Other areas like the Soldier’s Barracks, Officer’s Quarters, Officers Kitchen and the Guardroom all provide valuable insights into what life was really like for those who were part of Fort Erie’s garrison. A number of other displays at the fort have uniforms, maps, weapons and other artifacts. One display is dedicated to the remains of 28 US soldiers who died during the occupation of Fort Erie. Their graves were discovered in 1987, the archaeological dig that followed attracted great public interest and media attention on both sides of the border. The soldiers were eventually returned to their homeland and given an honorary reburial.
The last place I visited in the fort was the North East Bastion. It was here in the early hours of August 15 that a massive explosion took place during a British attempt to retake the fort from the Americans. It was the first of two major attacks that the British launched on the fort. Initially the attackers made little progress, until an attempt was made to take the North East bastion. The British surprised the American defenders driving them away from their positions. The fighting would go on for an hour with both sides attacking, retreating and counter-attacking. British soldiers had just begun to fire one of the captured cannon on the North East Bastion when the powder magazine beneath their feet ignited. The explosion destroyed in the entire bastion taking twenty-five percent of the fort and the lives of some 200 British and Canadian soldiers. The resulting havoc saw the British retreating to their siege lines having suffered nearly 1,000 casualties in that night alone.
Total casualties for both attacks would number more than 2,000 making Fort Erie the bloodiest battlefield in Canada. The Americans ultimately broke the siege in September, the British lifting their siege lines and withdrawing to positions north of Chippawa. By November with the cold damp winter weather settling in the Americans destroyed what was left of the fort and withdrew.
The British army continued to occupy the ruined fort until 1823 under the suspicion of further American attacks. In 1866 the Fenians used the ruins of the old fort as a base during their raids into Ontario. It wasn’t until 1937 that a major re-construction and restoration effort was undertaken. Jointly sponsored by the Provincial and Federal governments and The Niagara Parks Commission, the project restored Fort Erie to way it looked during the 1812-1814 period. The official opening took place on July 1 st 1939. Thousands of visitors have continued to visit the fort every year since. In more recent years, on the second weekend in August hundreds of historical re-enactors travel to Fort Erie to take part in a re-enactment of the siege of Fort Erie focusing in on the battle of August 15 th, 1814.
It had been three hours since I entered the gates at Fort Erie and I felt like I had just scratched the surface of what there is to learn here. Expressing my thanks to the interpreters, my historical travel guides, I left Fort Erie and began my journey north along the Niagara Parkway. My next destination Fort George.
Next : Fort George -Part 2