War of 1812: Battle of Beaver Dams

Laura Secord
Laura Secord warns James FitzGibbon. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Beaver Dams was fought June 24, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815). In the aftermath of the failed campaigns of 1812, newly re-elected President James Madison was compelled to reassess the strategic situation along the Canadian border. As efforts in the Northwest were stalled pending an American fleet gaining control of Lake Erie, it was decided to center American operations for 1813 on achieving victory on Lake Ontario and the Niagara frontier.

It was believed that victory in and around Lake Ontario would cut off Upper Canada and pave the way for an strike against Montreal.

American Preparations

In preparation for the main American push on Lake Ontario, Major General Henry Dearborn was directed to shift 3,000 men from Buffalo for assaults against Forts Erie and George as well as position 4,000 men at Sackets Harbor. This second force was to attack Kingston at the upper outlet of the lake. Success on both fronts would sever the lake from the Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River. At Sackets Harbor, Captain Isaac Chauncey had rapidly built a fleet and had seized naval superiority from his British counterpart, Captain Sir James Yeo. Meeting at Sackets Harbor, Dearborn and Chauncey began to have concerns about the Kingston operation despite the fact that the town was only thirty miles away. While Chauncey worried about possible ice around Kingston, Dearborn was fretted about the size of the British garrison.

Instead of striking at Kingston, the two commanders instead decided to conduct a raid against York, Ontario (present-day Toronto). Though of insignificant strategic value, York was the capital of Upper Canada and Chauncey had word that two brigs were under construction there. Attacking on April 27, American forces captured and burned the town.

Following the York operation, Secretary of War John Armstrong chastised Dearborn for failing to accomplish anything of strategic value.

Fort George

In response, Dearborn and Chauncey began shifting troops south for an assault on Fort George in late May. Alerted to this, Yeo and the Governor General of Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, immediately moved to attack Sackets Harbor while American forces were occupied along the Niagara. Departing Kingston, they landed outside of the town on May 29 and marched to destroy the shipyard and Fort Tompkins. These operations were quickly disrupted by a mixed regular and militia force led by Brigadier General Jacob Brown of the New York militia. Containing the British beachhead, his men poured intense fire into Prevost's troops and compelled them to withdraw. For his part in the defense, Brown was offered a brigadier general's commission in the regular army.

To the southwest, Dearborn and Chauncey moved forward with their attack on Fort George. Delegating operational command to Colonel Winfield Scott, Dearborn observed as American forces conducted an early morning amphibious assault on May 27. This was aided by a force of dragoons crossing the Niagara River upstream at Queenston which was tasked with severing the British line of retreat to Fort Erie.

Meeting Brigadier General John Vincent's troops outside of the fort, the Americans succeeded in driving off the British with the aid of naval gunfire support from Chauncey's ships. Forced to surrender the fort and with the route south blocked, Vincent abandoned his posts on the Canadian side of the river and withdrew west. As a result, American forces crossed the river and took Fort Erie (Map).

Dearborn Retreats

Having lost the dynamic Scott to a broken collarbone, Dearborn ordered Brigadier Generals William Winder and John Chandler west to pursue Vincent. Political appointees, neither had meaningful military experience. On June 5, Vincent counterattacked at the Battle of Stoney Creek and succeeded in capturing both generals. On the lake, Chauncey's fleet had departed for Sackets Harbor only to be replaced by Yeo's.

Threatened from the lake, Dearborn lost his nerve and ordered a retreat to a perimeter around Fort George. Carefully following, the British moved east and occupied two outposts at Twelve Mile Creek and Beaver Dams. These positions allowed British and Native American forces to raid the area around Fort George and keep American troops contained.

Armies & Commanders:

Americans

  • Lieutenant Colonel Charles Boerstler
  • approximately 600 men

British

  • Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon
  • 450 men

Background

In an effort to end these attacks, the American commander at Fort George, Brigadier General John Parker Boyd, ordered a force assembled to strike at Beaver Dams. Intended to be a secret attack, a column of around 600 men was assembled under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Boerstler. A mixed force of infantry and dragoons, Boerstler also was assigned two cannon. At sunset on June 23, the Americans departed Fort George and moved south along the Niagara River to the village of Queenston. Occupying the town, Boerstler quartered his men with the inhabitants.

Laura Secord

A number of American officers stayed with James and Laura Secord. According to tradition, Laura Secord overheard their plans to attack Beaver Damns and slipped away from the town to warn the British garrison. Traveling through the woods, she was intercepted by Native Americans and taken to Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon who commanded the 50-man garrison at Beaver Dams. Alerted to American intentions, Native American scouts were deployed to identify their route and set up ambushes.

Departing Queenston in late morning on June 24, Boerstler believed he retained the element of surprise.

The Americans Beaten

Advancing through wooded terrain, it soon became apparent that Native American warriors were moving on their flanks and rear. These were 300 Caughnawaga led by Captain Dominique Ducharme of the Indian Department and 100 Mohawks led by Captain William Johnson Kerr. Attacking the American column, the Native Americans initiated three-hour battle in the forest. Wounded early in the action, Boerstler was placed in a supply wagon. Fighting through the Native American lines, the Americans sought to reach open ground where their artillery could be brought into action.

Arriving on the scene with his 50 regulars, Fitzgibbon approached the wounded Boerstler under a flag of truce. Telling the American commander that his men were surrounded, Fitzgibbon demanded his surrender stating that if they did not capitulate he could not guarantee that the Native Americans would not slaughter them. Wounded and seeing no other option, Boerstler surrendered with 484 of his men.

Aftermath

The fighting at the Battle of Beaver Dams cost the British approximately 25-50 killed and wounded, all from their Native American allies. American losses were around 100 killed and wounded, with the remainder being captured. The defeat badly demoralized the garrison at Fort George and American forces became reluctant to advance more than a mile from its walls. Despite the victory, the British were not strong enough to force the Americans from the fort and were forced to content themselves with interdicting its supplies.

For his weak performance during the campaign, Dearborn was recalled on July 6 and replaced with Major General James Wilkinson.

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Beaver Dams." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2018, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-beaver-dams-2360820. Hickman, Kennedy. (2018, February 9). War of 1812: Battle of Beaver Dams. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-beaver-dams-2360820 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Beaver Dams." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-beaver-dams-2360820 (accessed February 17, 2018).