War of 1812: Siege of Fort Erie

Gordon Drummond during the War of 1812
Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Siege of Fort Erie- Conflict & Dates:

The Siege of Fort Erie was conducted August 4 to September 21, 1814, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815). 

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond
  • approx. 3,000 men

United States

  • Major General Jacob Brown
  • Brigadier General Edmund Gaines
  • approx. 2,500 men

Siege of Fort Erie - Background:

With the beginning of the War of 1812, the US Army commenced operations along the Niagara frontier with Canada.

  The initial attempt to mount an invasion failed when Major Generals Isaac Brock and Roger H. Sheaffe turned back Major General Stephen van Rensselaer at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812.  The following May, American forces successfully attacked Fort George and gained a foothold on the west bank of the Niagara River.  Unable to capitalize on this victory, and suffering setbacks at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams, they abandoned the fort and withdrew in December.  Command changes in 1814 saw Major General Jacob Brown assume oversight of the Niagara frontier.      

Aided by Brigadier General Winfield Scott, who had relentless drilled the American army over the previous months, Brown crossed the Niagara on July 3 and quickly captured Fort Erie from Major Thomas Buck.  Turning north, Scott defeated the British two days later the Battle of Chippawa.  Pushing ahead, the two sides clashed again on July 25 at the Battle of Lundy's Lane.

  A bloody stalemate, the fighting saw both Brown and Scott wounded.  As a result, command of the army devolved to Brigadier General Eleazer Ripley.  Outnumbered, Ripley withdrew south to Fort Erie and initially desired to retreat across the river.  Ordering Ripley to hold the post, a wounded Brown dispatched Brigadier General Edmund P.

Gaines to take command.

Siege of Fort Erie - Preparations:

Assuming a defensive position at Fort Erie, American forces worked to improve its fortifications.  As the fort was too small to hold Gaines' command, an earthen wall was extended south from the fort to Snake Hill where an artillery battery was emplaced.  To the north, a wall was built from the northeast bastion to the shore of Lake Erie.  This new line was anchored by a gun emplacement dubbed the Douglass Battery for its commander Lieutenant David Douglass.  To make the earthworks more difficult to breach, abatis were mounted along their front.  Improvements, such as the construction of block houses, continued throughout the siege.

Siege of Fort Erie - Preliminaries:

Moving south, Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond reached the vicinity of Fort Erie in early August.  Possessing around 3,000 men, he dispatched a raiding force across the river on August 3 with the intention of capturing or destroying American supplies.  This effort was blocked and repulsed by a detachment of the 1st US Rifle Regiment led by Major Lodowick Morgan.  Moving into camp, Drummond commenced building artillery emplacements to bombard the fort.  On August 12, British sailors mounted a surprise small boat attack and captured the American schooners USS Ohio and USS Somers, the latter being a veteran of the Battle of Lake Erie.

  The next day, Drummond commenced his bombardment of Fort Erie.  Though he possessed a few heavy guns, his batteries were sited too far from the fort's walls and their fire proved ineffective.

Siege of Fort Erie - Drummond Attacks:

Despite the failure of his guns to penetrate Fort Erie's walls, Drummond moved forward with planning an assault for the night of August 15/16.  This called for Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fischer to strike Snake Hill with 1,300 men and Colonel Hercules Scott to assault the Douglass Battery with around 700.  After these columns moved forward and drew the defenders to the northern and southern ends of the defenses, Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond would advance 360 men against the American center with the goal of taking the original part of the fort.  Though the senior Drummond hoped to achieve surprise, Gaines was quickly alerted to the impending attack as the Americans could see his troops preparing and moving during the day.

Moving against Snake Hill that night, Fischer's men were spotted by an American picket who sounded the alert.  Charging forward, his men repeatedly attacked the area around Snake Hill.  Each time they were thrown back by Ripley's men and the battery which was commanded by Captain Nathaniel Towson.  Scott's attack in the north met a similar fate.  Though hiding in a ravine for much of the day, his men were seen as they approached and came under heavy artillery and musket fire.  Only in the center did the British have any degree of success.  Approaching stealthily, William Drummond's men overwhelmed the defenders in the fort's northeast bastion.  An intense fight erupted which only ended when a magazine in the bastion exploded killing many of the attackers.  

Siege of Fort Erie - Stalemate:

Having been bloodily repulsed and having lost nearly a third of his command in the assault, Drummond resumed the siege of the fort.  As August progressed, his army was reinforced by the 6th and 82nd Regiments of Foot which had seen service with the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars.  On the 29th, a lucky shot hit and wounded Gaines.  Departing the fort, command shifted to the less resolute Ripley.  Concerned about Ripley holding the post, Brown returned to the fort despite having not fully recovered from his injuries.  Taking an aggressive posture, Brown dispatched a force to attack Battery No. 2 in the British lines on September 4.  Striking Drummond's men, the fighting lasted around six hours until rain brought it to a halt.

Thirteen days later, Brown again sortied from the fort as the British had constructed a battery (No. 3) that endangered the American defenses.  Capturing that battery and Battery No. 2, the Americans were finally compelled to withdraw by Drummond's reserves.  While the batteries were not destroyed, several of the British guns were spiked.  Though largely successful, the American attack proved unnecessary as Drummond had already resolved to break off the siege.  Informing his superior, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, of his intentions, he justified his actions by citing a lack of men and equipment as well as the poor weather.  On the night of September 21, the British departed and moved north to establish a defensive line behind the Chippawa River.

Siege of Fort Erie - Aftermath:

The Siege of Fort Erie saw Drummond sustain 283 killed, 508 wounded, 748 captured, and 12 missing while the American garrison incurred 213 killed, 565 wounded, 240 captured, and 57 missing.  Further reinforcing his command, Brown contemplated offensive action against the new British position.  This was soon precluded by the launching of the 112-gun ship of the line HMS St. Lawrence which gave naval dominance on Lake Ontario to the British.  As it would be difficult to shift supplies to the Niagara front without control of the lake, Brown dispersed his men to defensive positions.  On November 5, Major General George Izard, who was commanding at Fort Erie, ordered the fort destroyed and withdrew his men into winter quarters in New York.

 

Selected Sources