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The Capture of Fort Niagara

The burning of Newark caused even the battle hardened British regulars to seek vengence. The Canadian militia also wanted to get revenge after seeing their families and neighbours living in appalling conditions, some under canvas in the dead of winter.

McClure's therory that it was necessary to burn the town so the British would not have shelter was rather weak when Butler's Barracks, with it's store of tents and other military equipment was not touched at all. McClure's comment that "the enemy is much exasperated" was an understatement to say the least. The call for retribution was universal.

On 13 December events moved forward that would see the rage felt by the British and Canadian Militia unleashed on the American frontier. On that day Sir Gordon Drummond was appointed president of the council and administrator of Upper Canada. He also assumed command of all the troops in the province.

Drummond wasted no time. He arrived at Vincent's headquarters in St. Davids on the seventeenth and ordered an immediate attack on Fort Niagara. Colonel John Murray was put in command to lead a surprise night attack. Captain Merritt's Dragoons went all over the country side looking for boats. Members of the Lincoln militia hauled some boats all the way from Burlington Bay, this was no small task. Captain Merritt himself would not be able to take part in this raid due to illness and exhaustion.

Late on the night of 18 December Colonel John Murray embarked his troops at a ravine some two miles up stream from their objective. The force consisted of detachments of the 100th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Scots and the flank companies of the 41st Regiment of Foot. The Lincoln Militia acted as boat handlers and guides.

Private Shadrack Byfield of the 41st Foot stood in the narrow ravine waiting to enter the boats for the slip down river to Fort Niagara. His attempts to restore some feeling in his feet by stamping them brought a whispered order to keep quiet from Lieutenant Bullock. To the sergeant he added take that man's name. Not only was Byfield cold but if he survived the attack on Fort Niagara he could expect extra duties.

The boats quietly made their way down the Niagara River and landed near Youngstown. As Byfield formed his company he saw Sergeant Andrew Spearman of the Grenadier company of the 100th Foot slip by. It would be hard to miss the huge bulk of Spearman. For all his size though Spearman moved liked a cat. He surprised the lone picket outside a tavern and choked him into silence. After forcing the password from him he dispatched him with a single thrust of his bayonet. The rest of the picket inside met the same fate.

As they approached the main gate Byfield let out a big sigh of relief. All was quiet. His company was to follow up on the main attack by the 100th. His feet and cold were forgotten as a sudden challenge from the main gate broke the silence.

Sergeant Spearman had walked across the drawbridge and gave the sentry the password in answer to his challenge "who goes there". As the guard opened the sally port Spearman strangled him with his massive hands.

A shout of alarm came from the fort as the gate swung open. Byfield charged through and formed up with the rest of his company in reserve. Nothing had been left to chance. Even in the darkness he could see Daniel Servos, an officer in the Lincoln Militia standing with a piece of wood to jam in the gate to keep it from being closed behind them.

There was an eerie feeling of fantasy about the battle that followed. Except for a volley from the Royal Scots, who were holding the salient angle of the fort, little musket fire was in evidence. The fort was taken at the point of the bayonet and in the stillness of the night the cries of the wounded seemed to be magnified.

The Americans lost sixty-five dead and six wounded, the British lost six dead and five wounded. Also captured were twenty-nine guns, seven thousand muskets, seven thousand pairs of shoes and a huge supply of clothing that originally was captured by the Americans from the British.

One of the prize trophies of the victory was the American battle flag that flew from the flag pole during daylight hours. Byfield knew that it would be sent to England as a spoil of war.

The jails at the fort had eight Canadians in them that had been arrested by Joseph Willcocks, among them was eighty year old Peter McMicking of Stamford. Those same cells were quickly filled with the four hundred prisoners taken.

Shadrack Byfield stood warming himself by the fireplace in the comfortable stone house in Youngstown. He had marched out to take picket duty with the rest of his company. His sergeant gave each man fifteen minutes in the commandeered house to thaw out from the bitter cold. Looking around, he could feel some pity for the owners. Tommorow it probably would be a pile of ashes.

With the mornning of 19 December reinforcements arrived under Major General Phineas Riall. He gave the order to burn Youngstown and the Tuscarora village before marching on to Lewiston. The Americans on Lewiston Heights decamped as the British approached leaving behind some guns and two hundred barrels of flour. After torching Lewiston Riall pushed on to Manchester and Fort Schlosser. Since the bridge at Tonawanda Creek had been destroyed by retreating American forces, the general turned back to Lewiston crossing the Niagara River there into Queenston leaving the American frontier in flames.

In the meantime General Drummond was putting plans into motion to end the threat to the peninsula for the balance of the winter. His next objective was the destruction of the American Forces at Buffalo and the town itself.

CLICK HERE to see the plaque for ths battle.

Fort Niagara