War of 1812: Battle of Fort George

Battle of Fort George. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Fort George - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Fort George was fought May 25 to 27, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815).

Armies & Commanders

United States

  • Major General Henry Dearborn
  • Commodore Isaac Chauncey
  • 4,000 men, 14 warships

Great Britain

  • Brigadier General John Vincent
  • 1,350 men

Battle of Fort George - Background:

The early months of the War of 1812 proceeded poorly for US forces as Detroit fell and an invasion of Canada failed at Queenston Heights.

In 1813, American planners called for a push on the Niagara frontier. Success on this front also required control of Lake Ontario. To this end, Captain Isaac Chauncey was dispatched to Sackets Harbor, NY for the purpose of constructing a fleet on the lake. It was believed that victory in and around Lake Ontario would cut off Upper Canada and open the way for an attack on Montreal. In preparation for the main American offensive, Major General Henry Dearborn was ordered to position 3,000 men at Buffalo for a strike against Forts Erie and George as well as 4,000 men at Sackets Harbor for an attack on Kingston at the upper outlet of the lake. At Sackets Harbor, Chauncey rapidly constructed a fleet which wrested naval superiority away from his British counterpart, Captain Sir James Yeo.

Meeting prior to the campaign, Dearborn and Chauncey began to have misgivings about the Kingston operation despite the fact that the objective was only thirty miles away.

While Chauncey fretted about possible ice around Kingston, Dearborn was concerned about the size of the British garrison. Instead of attacking Kingston, the two commanders instead elected to conduct a raid against York, Ontario (present-day Toronto). Though of minimal strategic value, York was the capital of Upper Canada and Chauncey had intelligence that two brigs were under construction there.

Striking on April 27, American forces won the Battle of York but lost a promising commander in Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. Following the York operation, Secretary of War John Armstrong chastised Dearborn for failing to accomplish anything of strategic value and blamed him for Pike's death. In response, Dearborn and Chauncey began shifting troops south for an assault on Fort George in late May.

Battle of Fort George - The British Position:

Situated on the western bank of the Niagara River near where it enters Lake Ontario, Fort George was completed in 1802. Sizable, it consisted of earthworks, palisades, as well as several blockhouses and served as the key to British defenses on the Niagara Peninsula. A similar American fortification, Fort Niagara, was located directly across the river. Command of British forces on the peninsula fell to Brigadier General John Vincent, a veteran of the Battle of Copenhagen who had been in Canada since 1803. Possessing around 1,000 regulars, 300 militia, and 50 Native Americans he was aware that an American assault on Fort George was imminent, but lacked intelligence as to from which direction the enemy would strike. Dividing his command in three, Vincent posted the bulk of his regulars along the Niagara River as he believed the Americans would cross under the protection of Fort Niagara's guns.

Battle of Fort George - The American Plan:

Arriving at Fort Niagara after the attack on York, Dearborn's army suffered as the base lacked sufficient accommodations for his men. The situation began to improve on May 15 when Colonel Winfield Scott became Dearborn's adjutant general. Imposing order and elevating the army's administration, the effective Scott also worked to develop plans for an attack on Fort George. Rather than cross the Niagara River as expected, his plan called for landings on the lake shore before rapidly advancing against the British positions. Scott was aided in his preparations by Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry who would later lead American forces to victory on Lake Erie that September. Conducting soundings and reconnoitering landing sites, Perry marked channels for the attack.

Supported by Chauncey's ships, Scott intended to land 4,000 men in four waves.

While he planned to personally lead the first wave, Scott directed Brigadier General John Parker Boyd to command the second. These would be followed a third wave led by Brigadier General William H. Winder while a fourth, under Brigadier General John Chandler, would serve as the reserve. As in the past, the aged Dearborn delegated operational command to his subordinates and planned to watch the landings from USS Madison (22 guns). While Major General Morgan Lewis assumed command of the landing force, Scott provided the inertia for the operation. Moving forward on May 25, American forces commenced an intense bombardment of Fort George using the guns at Fort Niagara as well as several of Chauncey's gunboats.

Battle of Fort George - The Americans Attack:

Moving through the dawn fog on May 27, Scott led the first wave towards the beach. Coming ashore, the Americans quickly overwhelmed a detachment of the Glengarry Light Infantry and began pushing inland. A short time later, Vincent's troops counterattacked forcing Scott to fall back. Supported by Perry, who was overseeing the gunboats, and the lead elements of Boyd's men, Scott defeated this assault and the advance resumed. In an effort to save the situation, Vincent withdrew his men from the Niagara River line and directed them to form a new position inland, out of range of the naval guns. As work on this line progressed, Winder's men landed further enlarging the American force. Receiving word that his right flank was in danger and realizing the disparity in the size of the two armies, Vincent ordered a retreat south along the river to prevent being encircled.

Closely pursuing the enemy, Scott captured Fort George largely intact but suffered a broken collarbone when one its magazines exploded. Eager to complete the victory, he drove his forces south after Vincent. Slowed by a troop of British dragoons, Scott soon received orders from Lewis to break off and return to Fort George.

Fearful that Scott would be ambushed, Lewis' conservative approach prevented American forces from eliminating Vincent's small army. Reaching Queenston, the British commander joined with the garrisons of other posts along the Niagara River and began a general withdrawal west to Burlington Heights at the western side of Lake Ontario.

Battle of Fort George - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of Fort George, the Americans suffered 41 killed and 113 wounded while Vincent incurred 52 killed, 44 wounded, and 262 missing/captured. Taking advantage of the victory, Perry was able shift several vessels to Lake Erie as the British presence along the Niagara River had been removed. Moving the remainder of his army across the river, Dearborn failed to quickly capitalize on his victory and instead consolidated the area around Fort George. Later efforts to advance west were checked by British and Native American forces at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams. Following these reverses, American troops seldom ventured out from Fort George. For his weak performance, Dearborn was recalled on July 6 and replaced with Major General James Wilkinson.

Selected Sources