The Battle of Fort Erie

The Siege of Fort Erie

Three different forts, all named after the lake have been constructed in this immediate vicinity. The first Fort Erie was constructed in 1764 under the direction of British engineer John Montressor. With its close proximity to the lake, the fort was often damaged by storms and in March 1799, one such storm damage the fort so badly that it had to be reconstructed the next summer.

In 1803 another sever storm, this time accompanied by ice, once again damaged the fort , and this led to the approval of construction of a new solid masonry fort on January 9, 1804. under this plan the fort was constructed further back from the river. But construction work was sporadic, and by the time of the War of 1812 the fort was still incomplete. In the first year of the war, no serious effort was made by the Americans to capture Fort Erie, but on November 28th a party of U.S. soldiers landed at Frenchman’s Creek, just to the north, and tried to destroy the battery there. British reinforcements eventually drove them of.

After the fall of fort George on May 27, 1813, the British were forced to evacuate most of the Niagara Peninsula and retreat to Burlington. At that time fort Erie and the nearby batteries were held by Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Bisshop, with two companies of the 8th regiment. Bisshop’s regulars joined in the retreat to Burlington, while detachments from the Lincoln Militia remained to destroy the fort.

The destruction by the militia was very thorough, and when the American Army occupied the site they found in a “heap of ruins”. The U.S. Army did not hold the fort long, and just three days after the defeat at the Battle of Stoney Creek on June 6th they concentrated their forces at Fort George. In General Drummond’s “Winter Campaign” the British retook Fort Erie, and by the spring of 1814 a larger garrison was placed there. Once again, work was begun on repairing the fortifications.

On July 3, 1814, General Jacob Brown and his army crossed the Niagara River and invested Fort Erie. With no hope of defence, Major Buck, with less than 150 soldiers, was forced to surrender. For the duration of Brown’s campaign the fort was used as his main base on the Canadian shore. the Battle of Lundy’s Lane on July 25th, Brown’s army fell back to the fort, where it was put under siege by the British under Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond.
While in possession of the fort, The American Army had not been idle, and the fortifications were greatly extended and improved. On the evening of August 15th, Drummond ordered a general assault on the fortifications. Troops under his nephew Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond, temporarily succeeded in occupying the northeast bastion, but somehow during the confusion the magazine exploded and the assault was repulsed. On September 15th, Brown launched his own counter-attack against Drummond’s positions, and this resulted in the destruction of many of his batteries. Now Drummond had no hope of retaking Fort Erie and withdrew his forces to Chippawa on the evening of September 21st.

The siege, though unsuccessful, had contained the American Army on the Niagara Peninsula, and now they held only the fort itself. When Major General George Isard replaced Brown as commander of the army, he ordered the troops to blow up Fort Erie and retire to Buffalo. Old Fort Erie has been beautifully restored, and the well-maintained grounds are under the jurisdiction of the Niagara Parks Commission.

The Caledonia and The Detroit

On the morning of December 8, 1812, two British vessels, The Caledonia and The Detroit, were anchored under the guns of Fort Erie. The Caledonia was a small schooner that had been pressed into service by Captain Roberts for the capture of fort Michilamackinac. The Detroit was the former American brig Adams, which had been captured by Brock at Detroit.

Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliot, determined to capture the two British vessels and add them to his own squadron, then fitting out at Black Rock, just across the river. Utilizing some sailors that had just arrived, and collection some drafts from the army, Lieutenant Elliot soon had a force of about one hundred men. At 1:00 am on December 9th they left the American shore in two long boats carrying fifty men each. At 3:00 am they were alongside the two vessels, when they were net by a volley of musketry.<9> In a ten minute boarding action at close quarters, the two vessels were taken. With great difficulty, the vessels were finally brought away, fighting the swift Niagara current and under constant fire from British troops. The Caledonia eventually reached the safety of Black Rock, but the Detroit, became unmanageable and ran aground on Squaw Island. Hit numerous times by artillery fire from both sides, she was finally set on fire by the Americans and destroyed. The Caledonia eventually became part of the American Lake Erie squadron, and participated in the battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813. This daring “cutting out expedition”, tipped the naval balance in favour of the Americans on Lake Erie. Presently, this small but important naval action is uncommemorated. (Collins, Gilbert, Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812, 1998, pages 118 - 121)

For more information, see the Fort Erie internet site.

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