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The Siege at Fort Erie

After the violent and bloody Battle of Lundy's Lane, the American forces pull back to the confines of Fort Erie. The British forces followed the Americans back to the Fort along the Niagara River a few days later in an effort to bottle them up and contain them.

During the two day march American and British forces along with Militia and Indians fought many skirmishes along the River Road leading to Fort Erie. The Americans arrived at Fort Erie and began to reinforce it, as well, they built an encampment at the rear of the fort. British General Drummond arrived with his army and sets up his siege lines.

After a week of bombarding the American fortifcations, General Drummond was convinced the time had come to attack. A shell had just landed on the American magazine chest. Drummond was confident that it had caused many casualties.

General Drummond and the American Brigadier General Edmund Pendleton Gaines (Ripley's replacement) are like blind men, searching to find out the others strengths and weaknesses. Both have miscalculated. Because the British entrenchments are hidden behind a screen of trees, Gaines can only guess at Drummond's force, which he estimates to be five thousand. Actually Drummond has fewer than three thousand men. Drummond on the other hand is mislead by his spies and informers into believing the Americans have fifteen hundred troops. In fact, Gaines has almost twice that number. Drummond has made another mistake, the explosion of the magazine has caused only a few casualties. And Gaines, shrewedly reading his opponent's mind, is now expecting an immediate British attack.

Drummond plans a simultaneous attack against each of the three major gun batteries that protect the corners of the fifteen acre encampment. The camp is surrounded on three sides by embankments, ditches, and palisades. Directly ahead, at the near corner, not more than five hundred yards from the British lines, General Drummond can see the outlines of the old fort, now bristling with cannon. One hundred and fifty yards to the left, on the edge of the lake,(Lake Erie) is a second artillery battery commanded by David Douglass. The two are connected by a wall of earth, seven feet high, eighteen feet thick. Half a mile up the lake, and also connected to the fort by an enclosed rampart, is Nathan Towson's battery of five guns, perched on a conical mound of sand, thirty feet high, known as Snake Hill and joined to the lake by a double ditch and abatis. If Drummond's plan succeeds, his assault forces will strike all three batteries at the same time and sieze the encampment.

At 4 P.M. his main force sets off. It's task is to attack Towson's battery on Snake Hill. Drummond orders it to march down the Garrison Road, screened from view by the forest, to rendezvous on the far side of the American encampment, and to attack at two the following morning. The General orders the troops to remove their flints from their firelocks and to depend entirely upon the bayonet, identifying the enemy in the dark by their white pantaloons. Loud talk is prohibited and the roll is to be called every hour to frustrate desertions.

This last is a curious instruction. Does General Drummond think some of his men will desert in the dark of night? Clearly he does. The bulk of the thousand man force attacking the Towson battery is made up of soldiers from the de Watteville regiment, a foreign corps recruited twenty years before in Switzerland but shattered in the Peninsula campaign and now heavily interlaced with prisoners of war and deserters from Napoleon's armies - French, German, Dutch, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese Their commander, Lieutenant - Colonel Victor Fischer, is an able officer; he has under his command a smattering of British regulars from the King's and the 89th. They may stiffen the backs of the less disciplined de Wattevilles, but the motley foreign corps forms the majoity.

Drummond considers the attck on Snake Hill to be the key to sucess. If Fischer and his men can capture that end of the encampmet, victory is certain.

Drummond has not bothered to reconnoitre the defences at Snake Hill, where a vast abatis of tangled roots and sharpened branches can inhibit any assault force. Nor does he intend to soften those defences with canon fire, he has purposely refrained from bombarding the position in order to conceal his real purpose from Gaines. Secure in his overconfident conviction that the Americans are outnumbered and demoralized, he plunges ahead in the belief that he can conquer by surprise alone.

He has divided his force. While Fischer assaults the far end of the camp, two smaller detachments will attack the near end. The General's nephew, Lieutenant-Colonel William Drummond of Keltie, will lead 360 men against the ramparts of the original fort. Lieutenant Colonel Hercules Scott will lead another 700 men against the Douglas battery on the lakeshore and against the embankment that connects it to the old fort. Scott's regiment is the notorious 103rd, originally the New South Wales Fencibles, known in the colony as "the Rum Regiment", brought up to strength before sailing for Canada by recruitment of released convicts. Two of it's companies are composed of boys below fighting age.

It is two in the morning. Three hundred yards away from Snake Hill, a picket of one hundered Americans hear the British column aproaching and sounds the alarm. Surprise, the essence of Drummond's plan, has not been achieved.

Towson's artillery is already in action. The British attackers are illuminated in a sheet of flame, so bright that Snake Hill will shortly be known as Towson's Lighthouse.

Now Fischer comes up against the formidable abatis that the Americans have constructed between Snake Hill and the lake - thousands of tree trunks, four to six inches in diameter, their branches cut off three feet above the base, pointing in all directions and forming an impassable tangle. Unable to breach this defence, Fischer's Forlorn Hope dashes around the end on the American left and into the lake in the hope of taking the defenders from the rear. The current is swift, the channel a maze of slippery rocks. The men struggle in waist-deep water. Part of the Forlorn Hope does reach the rear of the battery to fight hand to hand with the defenders, but two companies of Eleazer Wood's 21st, especially detailed for such an emergency, pour a galling fire on those who follow.

Panic seizes the men of the de Watteville regiment struggling in the water. Some, dead or badly wounded, are being swept into the Niagara River by the swift current. Shouting wildly, they break in confusion, turn tail and plunge directly into the King's regiment, carrying those veterans with them like a torrent. Only the seasoned 89th holds fast. The hundred men of the Forlorn Hope who have managed to penetrate the American defences are killed or captured.

Fischer, meanwhile, is attempting to storm the Towson battery with the rest of his force, only to find that his scaling ladders are too short to reach the parapet. Worse, he cannot reply to the heavy fire being poured down on him because, to ensure secrecy, his men have been ordered to remove the flints from their muskets. He charges the parapet five times before giving up. His losses are very heavy. Many of the de Wattville regiment have deserted and are hiding in the woods. The King's, too, have been badly mauled during the panic. Only the 89th, which maintained order is intact.

Drummond's princible attack has failed. Success now depends entirely on the forces of his nephew and those of the embittered Hercules Scott.

At the other end of the American camp a call of "To arms! To arms! To arms! goes out and down the line of tents. The reserve is aroused and formed in sixty seconds. On Douglass's left the American 9th battalion, bayonets fixed, has already formed a double line. His own corps is wide awake and standing to their guns, primers holding their hands over the priming to protect it from dampness, the firemen opening their dark lanterns, lighting their slow matches.

Up the river, at Snake Hill, the sky is brilliantly lit with rocket flares, bomb bursts, and musket fire. The sound of small arms and artillery, blended together, becomes a continuous roar like a stupendous drum roll.

Douglass has seen the signal rockets rise from the woods in front of him in answer to those from Fischer's column, but there is yet no hint of an attack on his battery. As the minutes go by, tension start to build.

The sound of plodding feet grows louder. Then, as if on a signal, a sheet of fire blazes, and the batteries along the entrenchment from the water to the fort open up in reply.

It is three o'clock. Douglass is firing his cannon at point blank range, cramming each to the muzzle with round shot, canister, and bags of musket balls-stuffing each barrel so full that he can touch the last piece of wadding with his hand.

From the direction of the old fort comes a sudden cry: "Cease Fire! You are firing on your own men!"

As Douglass considers, the fire slackens momentarily. But the voice was stiffly British; this, he guesses is a trick to get him to stop firing. A second voice calls out in an American twang: "Go to hell. Fire away, there, why don't you?" and the cannonade continues again as it had moments before.

Hercules Scott's column surges forward with scaling ladders, seeking to surmount the breastwork. Again and again the British are repulsed by the heavy American fire. Of the twenty officers, only four escape without wounds. More than half the regiment are cassualties. By dawn it is clear that the attempt has failed.

On Scott's right, Drummond of Keltie is more successful. He forms up his men in a deep ravine, and unbuckles his sword, and asks his friend Dunlop, the surgeon, to keep it for him; he prefers a boarding pike and pistol. Then he leads his 350 men in a dash across the open plain to the fort.

Twice his men attempt to scale the walls with ladders and are beaten back by severe American fire power. Finally, hidden under the smoke of the big guns, they creep along the outer ditch, scale the north bastion of the old fort, and leap into the upper storey.

"Give the damn Yankees no quarter!" shouts William Drummond.

The gunners desert their cannon as the British and Americans struggle hand to hand with pikes, bayonets and spears. One of the American defenders, Lieutenant John McDonough, badly wounded by a bayonet, asks for quarters, but Drummond in a rage shoots him with his pistol. This would be Drummond's last act, a moment later the General's brash nephew falls dead, shot through the heart and bayoneted.

The British managed to take control of one side of the fort but are subject to heavy fire from the blockhouse above. The battle seesaws, neither side giving way, until suddenly beneath their feet comes a trembling followed by a roar and a huge explosion. The magazine in the north bastion has blown up, either by accident or design.

Douglass, over a hundred yards away, feels the ground shake under him, then he sees a jet of flame shoot up from the fort for more than a hundred feet into the night sky, followed by a shower of stone, earth, chunks of timber, bits of human bodies. One of his own men falls dead, struck by debris.

The carnage is ghastly. The Americans, most of them but not all protected by the walls of the barracks, are spared, but the British attackers are torn, crushed, mangled. Some, flung from the parapet, die on the bayonets of their commrades in the ditch below. Nothing can stem the panic that follows. Believing the entire fort is mined, the men break and flee across the plain to the safety of the British trenches.

General Drummond asks a young officer "Where is Colonel Scott?" the officer replies "Oh, Sir! He is killed, just being brought in by his men" General Drummond asks "Where is Colonel Drummond? the young officer replies "Alas, Sir! He is killed, too. Bayoneted." At the memory of his commanders death and that of three quarters of his own men, the young officer bursts into tears.

The General is heartsick, and not just over the death of his nephew. Clearly he has underestimated the size of the American force and the strength of it's defences and overestimated the effect of his artillery barrage.

The British losses are appalling. More than nine hunderd men, one third of the army are dead, wounded or missing. Six battalions are so badly shattered they are no longer fit for field duty.

The assault had been a disaster. While Sir Gordon Drummond accepted responsibility for the failure, he attempted to shift most of the blame to DeWatteville's regiment. While the Swiss did break, the attack suffered generally from poor planning and inadequate siege artillery. Despite these shortcomings, the plan nearly succeeded. If the reserve troops had followed up the capture of the bastion, or the detonation of the magazine had not occurred the British may have been able to pull it off.

Drummond continued to stand his ground, though the siege became an affair of small attacks and counter-attacks, all taking their toll of lives. On 17 September, the US troops, once again under the command of Major General Jacob Brown, made a full-scale sortie, during which destroyed two of Drummond's batteries and the British lost another 600 men.

The attacking columns were composed as follows:

    Right Column: Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fisher of De Watteville's regiment commanding 1300 men drawn from companies of his own regiment and the 8th (King's) plus the light companies of the 89th and the l00th. Their objective was the American battery at Snake Hill.
  1. 2) Centre Column: Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond of the 104tn commanding 250 men from the flank companies of the 4lst and the 104th plus a number of seamen and marines. Their objective was the main fort.
  2. 3) Left Column: Lieutenant Colonel Hercules Scott of the 103rd commanding 650 men drawn from his own regiment. Their objective was the Douglas Battery located between the fort and the lake shore.

    After thirteen days of continuous rain which filled their entrenchment's and turned their encampment into a swamp, the British retired to prepared positions at Chippawa, burning their bridges behind them. The American forces, now commanded by Major General George Izard did little to exploit their advantage.

    After sending a small force to destroy Cook's Mills, Izard decided to abandon the fort. He ordered the fort to be mined and the artillery removed. After the garrison was withdrawn, the buildings were set on fire and the mines detonated on 5 November.

    The British, after surveying the ruins, decided not to rebuild the fort.

    After the war Fort Erie existed as only a barracks building until 1823, when it was abandoned completely.

    The Fort was reconstructed in the 1930's, during which time a mass grave was discovered containing many of the casualties of the August l5th attack.

    A monument erected at the ruins was relocated to this site to honour these long forgotten soldiers. On the monument are the following plagues: "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, lst ROYAL SCOTS, l9th LIGHT DRAGOONS, 6th, 8th(KING'S), 4lst, 82nd, 89th, 103rd, 104th, AND DEWATTEVILLE'S REGIMENTS, THE GLEN- GARRY LIGHT INFANTRY AND THE INCORPORATED MILITIA WHO FELL DURING THE SIEGE OF FORT ERIE, AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER 1814"

    "OFFICERS KILLED DURING SIEGE OF FORT ERIE

    COLONEL HERCULES SCOTT 103rd Regt LIEUT-COLONEL Wm DRUMMOND 104th Regt LIEUT-COLONEL JOHN GORDON ROYAL SCOTS CAPTAIN R.D.PATTESON 6th REGT CAPTAIN TORRENS 8th REGT CAPTAIN ED.WALKER INCORPORATED MILITIA LIEUT COPLES RADCLIFFE ROYAL NAVY LIEUT NOEL ROYAL SCOTS LIEUT J.RUTLEDGE ROYAL SCOTS LIEUT HARSTOW 8th REGT LIEUT PELLICHODY DE WATTEVILLE'S REGT ENSIGN C.LANGFORD 82nd REGT"

    At the foot of the monument is a stone tablet with the following inscription:

    "HERE LIE BURIED 150 BRITISH OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE ATTACK ON FORT ERIE ON THE 26th(sic) DAY OF AUGUST 1814 AND THREE OF THE DEFENDERS, MEN OF THE UNITED STATES INFANTRY, WHOSE REMAINS WERE DISCOVERED DURING THE RESTORATION OF FORT ERIE 1938 & 1939"