Taking of Fort Erie

Directly across from Buffalo, at the head of Niagara river, on the Canada side, stood Fort Erie. Chippewa, at that time head-quarters of the British army, was eighteen miles below, on the same side. Fort Erie was garrisoned by about one hundred and seventy men; at Chippewa and within available distances from it, was stationed the principal part of the British force in this region.

The plan with which it was proposed to open the campaign of 1814, contemplated an attack on both of these places.

The campaign of the previous year, though favorable in a good degree, did not close with entire success to the American arms. The idea was entertained of descending the St. Lawrence, with a view of capturing Montreal, a design which signally failed. Taking advantage of the feeble defense of our frontier, by the withdrawal of the regular troops for the purpose named, the enemy, on the 18th of December, surprised and took Fort Niagara, and sweeping along our frontier settlements on the Niagara river, ravaged the country by fire and sword, as they passed rapidly on, carrying the works at Lewiston, and Manchester, and laying in ashes the thriving villages of Black Rock and Buffalo. They burned also without opposition, a village of the Tuscarora.

The voice of Red Jacket was thereupon heard, arousing his people again, to the necessity of taking up arms. And as the result, about six hundred warriors, mostly from the Seneca nation, were in readiness to offer their services, at the opening of the present campaign.

Buffalo was the appointed place of rendezvous, and on the first of July, General Brown, who commanded our forces, regarding them as sufficient to warrant the commencement of the plan of operations, began by reconnoitering Fort Erie. During the night of the second of July, General Ripley, with a part of his brigade, embarked in boats, with a view of landing on the opposite shore, one mile above the Fort, at about day break the next morning.

General Scott with his brigade was to cross the Niagara river, through a difficult pass in the Black Rock Rapids, and make a simultaneous landing below the fort. The two brigades enclosing the fort, could prevent the escape of the garrison, until artillery to reduce it, should be brought from Buffalo.

General Scott with his usual promptness, made good his landing, and was on the ground at the hour appointed, and by the aid of a few Indians and volunteers who accompanied him as guides, invested the fort, so as to secure its garrison. General Ripley though prompt in his departure, was delayed in reaching his position, by a dense fog which misled his pilots.

As the sun rose the British commandant and his officers, could see the busy operations going on in ferrying across from Buffalo, artillery, Indians and soldiers, with their various preparations of war. They discovered also how completely they were invested. At the demand of General Brown, without firing a gun or making any attempt at resistance, the fort and garrison were surrendered.

This part of their enterprise being accomplished, they next turned their thoughts toward Chippewa.

The Chippewa or Welland river, is a considerable stream not far from one hundred yards wide, and from twelve to twenty feet deep, entering the Niagara at right angles, as it flows in from the west.

On the north or left bank of this stream, near its mouth, the British army had its station and defenses, consisting of two block houses, connected and flanked by a parapet.

Street’s creek was two miles above, or south of this, a small sluggish stream, which enters the Niagara in a direction parallel with the Chippewa. The mouth of this creek was selected by the American commanders, as affording a favorable position for their army before the battle.

On the evening of the same day of the capture of Fort Erie, General Scott with his brigade and Towson’s artillery, proceeded down the river on his way toward Chippewa, and on the morning of the fourth, encamped in the open field, on the south side of Street’s creek, having driven in some advanced posts of the enemy. In the evening he was joined by General Brown, with General Ripley’s brigade, which took post in the same field, in rear of General Scott.

General Porter with the Indians, and Pennsylvania volunteers, crossed the Niagara at Black Rock during the night of the fourth, and on the morning of the fifth, marched for the camp, arriving there at about noon.

The two armies nearly equal in numbers, and well qualified by their thorough equipments, and the skill of their commanders, to harm each other effectually, were now encamped with only two miles, and the two streams, on whose banks they rested, between them.

But though thus near, intervening objects prevented their seeing each other. Between them was a strip of woodland about one-fourth of a mile in width, extending from the forest on the west, near to the bank of the river, where it was cleared for the public highway. This effectually shut out from the view of the other, the maneuvers of each army.

The Indians and militia from the British army infested these woods, and became annoying to our forces. General Porter being well acquainted with the country, and having charge of the Indians, was requested to take them, and a part of his Pennsylvania volunteers, and dislodge this portion of the enemy; General Brown assuring him, that none of the British regulars would be found south of the Chippewa on that day, and promising him in case of so improbable a contingency, the support of General Scott’s brigade.

At about three o’clock of the same day of his arrival, General Porter formed his men, half a mile in rear of the main camp, into single or Indian file, placing the Indians on the left, and a part of the Pennsylvanians on the right.

“Thence he marched into the woods in the same order, in a line at right angles to the river, until the whole Indian force was immerged in the forest, leaving the white troops in the open field; they had only to halt and face to the right, when the whole were formed in line of battle, three-fourths of a mile long and one man deep, looking in the direction of Chippewa. Red Jacket was placed on the extreme left of the line, and General Porter took his station on the margin of the woods between his white and red troops, accompanied by Captain Pollard, a Seneca chief, who, in this campaign, was considered first in command among the Indians; Colonel Flemming, the Quarter-master of the Indian corps, Lieutenant Donald Fraser his aid, and Henry Johnson his interpreter. He was also accompanied by Major Jones, and Major Wood of the Engineers, as volunteers; and was supported by a company of regular infantry, marching in column in rear, as a reserve.

“The Indians were commanded by their war-chiefs, who were indulged in their own mode of conducting the attack, marching about twenty yards in advance of the warriors of their respective tribes. General Porter having sent out scouts to reconnoiter the enemy, the march was commenced by signal, and proceeded at first with great stillness and caution. The chiefs have signals, by which, on the discovery of any circumstance requiring consultation, or change of route or action, they convey notice through their ranks with great celerity, on which the whole line of warriors drop instantly on the ground, and remain there until further orders. Two maneuvers of this kind occurred on the march, the first of little moment, but the second communicating through the scouts, the exact position of the enemy, who, apprised of their assailants’ approach, lay concealed in a thicket of bushes, along the margin of Street’s creek.

“A consultation was thereupon held, and new orders given, the purport of which was to change the line of march, so as to meet the enemy to more advantage, to increase the speed as much as was consistent with the preservation of order, and to receive their first fire, but not to return it except singly, and when it could be done with certain effect, and then to raise the war-whoop, pursue, capture, and slay as many as practicable, until they should reach the open ground in front of Chippewa, and thence return to camp.

“The march was accordingly resumed, the fire of the enemy received, and a rush accompanied with savage yells made upon them, and continued for more than a mile, through scenes of frightful havoc and slaughter, few only of the fugitives offering to surrender as prisoners, while others, believing that no quarter would be given, suffered themselves to be cut down with the tomahawk, or turning back upon their pursuers, fought hand to hand to the last.

“On reaching the open field in front of Chippewa, the assailants were met by a tremendous discharge of musketry, by which the warriors, who were principally in front, were thrown back upon the volunteers and reserve, who for want of equal speed were a short distance in the rear. Presuming that the fire had come from the enemy he had been pursuing, and who had rallied on reaching the open ground, General Porter made an effort, not without success, to reform his line with volunteers, reserve and a portion of the warriors; but on again advancing to the margin of the woods, found himself within a few yards of the whole British regular army, formed in line of battle, and presenting within a given space at least three men fresh from their camp, to a single one in his own attenuated and exhausted line. After receiving and returning two or three fires, the enemy rushed forward with charged bayonets, when hearing nothing from General Scott, he gave the order to retreat and form again on the left of General Scott’s brigade, wherever it should be found.

“It appears that the British commander had resolved on making a general attack, that day, on the American camp; and in execution of this purpose had marched his whole force across the Chippewa, a short time before General Porter entered the woods with the Indians; and having sent forward his Indians and militia, which was the British force met in the woods, to commence his attack on the left flank of the Americans, formed in the meantime his battalions of regulars on the plain, under cover of the strip of woodland which divided the two camps, with his artillery on his left, near the gorge occupied by the road along the bank of the river; ready to act the moment the effect of the flank attack should be developed.

“The repulse of General Porter’s command was thus effected by the main body of the British army, while General Scott’s brigade was more than a mile in the rear, and had not yet crossed the bridge over Street’s creek…. In a retreat of a mile in a diagonal direction to the right, so as to uncover the enemy to the fire of the American line, then just beginning to form, they gained but little distance on the British columns, who were in hot pursuit. When General Porter and his staff arrived at Street’s creek, they were met by Major Jessup’s battalion, then in the act of taking its position, which was on the left, and a short distance from the remainder of General Scott’s brigade; and the volunteers fatigued as they were, aided Major Jessup’s evolutions, which were executed with great order and celerity, by breaking down the fences to enable him to pass from the road bordering on Street’s creek, to his position in the field.

“Nothing could exceed the coolness and order with which General Scott’s brigade crossed the bridge and formed its line, under the galling fire of the enemy’s artillery, and the headlong approach of his infantry, who, when only fifty yards distant, were received by a tremendous discharge of musketry from the American line, which forced them to fall back for a considerable distance. But they speedily rallied and advanced again, when they were met in the same gallant manner; and they thereupon fled, with as much precipitation as they had entered it, not halting until they had recrossed the Chippewa and destroyed their bridge.

“General Scott pursued them around the point of woods, beyond which he could only advance in face of their batteries, and these he could not reach by reason of the intervening river. He therefore deployed to the left, and forming a line in the open field, in front of Chippewa, directed his men to lie down with their heads toward the batteries, the better to avoid the effect of their fire.

“The battle between the regular troops, was but of a few minutes duration, with the exception of the artillery, which on both sides was earliest and longest engaged, and served with the most destructive effect; Colonel Towson occupying the right of the American line, on Street’s creek, and the British artillery the left of theirs, at the point of woods, and both commencing with the first movements of the regular troops.

“Immediately after the two lines had encountered on Street’s creek, a magnificent charger completely caparisoned, but without a rider, was seen prancing and curveting in the center of the battle field, and endeavoring to make his escape through the American line to the rear. Presuming that he belonged to some officer who had fallen, he was forthwith secured by the servant of General Porter, and immediately mounted by the General, to whom he was a most acceptable acquisition, after the labors of the day, which he had performed on foot.

“Riding up to General Brown, who was also in the midst of the action, General Porter received his orders to march with the two hundred Pennsylvanians, who had been left in camp, to the support of General Scott; which orders were promptly executed by following General Scott’s brigade around the point of woods, receiving the fire of the British batteries, and taking post on his left, with the men in the same recumbent position. Here they awaited the arrival of General Ripley’s brigade, which on the first discovery that the whole British army was in the field, had been ordered to make a detour through the woods, and attack the enemy’s right. They soon came up, in the same muddy plight with the volunteers and Indians, who had previously traversed the same ground; when the whole army at about sundown quietly retired to their camp, on the south side of Street’s creek.

“And thus ended the battle of Chippewa, which probably produced more important results in favor of the American arms, than any other engagement by land in the course of that war; although there were several battles fought on the Niagara, if not elsewhere, during the same campaign, exhibiting a greater number of combatants engaged, a larger number of slain, and a result equally creditable to the gallantry and good conduct of the American soldiers.

“The first advantage gained was in driving from the British army those troublesome enemies, their Indian allies, who had been the terror of our troops in the west, during all the preceding stages of the war, and had kept the camps of General Dearborn, General Lewis, and General Boyd, in a perpetual panic during the campaign of 1813. Terrified and disheartened by the reception they met with at Chippewa, they fled from the battle field to the head of Lake Ontario, a distance of thirty miles, without halting, and never again during the remainder of the war appeared in the British camp 1 .”

The Indians during this engagement performed a most important service. Their conduct was highly commended by General Porter. Speaking of those under his command, General Porter says: “The great body of warriors as well as volunteers, engaged in the opening attack, fought with boldness, not to say desperation, unsurpassed by any other troops, until they were placed in a situation where it would have been madness not to retreat.”

The part Red Jacket took in this battle, though by no means conspicuous, was such as to call forth from an early biographer the affirmation, that “he displayed the most undaunted intrepidity, and completely redeemed his character from the suspicion of that unmanly weakness, with which he had been charged in early life; while in no instance did he exhibit the ferocity of the savage, or disgrace himself, by any act of outrage towards a prisoner, or a fallen enemy.”

The same writer adds: “His therefore was that true moral courage, which results from self respect, and the sense of duty, and which is more noble, and a more active principle, than that mere animal instinct which renders many men insensible to danger. Opposed to war, not ambitious of martial fame, and unskilled in military affairs, he went to battle from principle, and met its perils with the spirit of a veteran warrior, while he shrunk from its cruelties with the sensibility of a man and of a philosopher 2 .”

Red Jacket as a civil officer was not called to take so prominent a place on the field of battle, as the war chiefs. Yet in all of their deliberations, which were frequent during the campaign, he could act as their counsellor, as he did on every such occasion. He was uniformly their principal orator, and his manner on these occasions is represented as being “graceful and imposing in the eye of every beholder, and his voice music, especially in the ears of his own people. He had the power of wielding them at will, and the soul stirring trumpet could not produce a more kindling effect in the bosoms of a disciplined army, than would his appeals upon the warriors of his race 3 .”

That the battle of Chippewa was particularly severe to the Indian forces engaged in it, may be inferred from the fact that the British Indians retreated not only beyond the Chippewa, but stayed not until they had gone thirty miles further. The battle ground was strewed with many of their number who had been slain. Two, who had been mortally wounded, and were still alive, were despatched by a party of New York Indians, who were looking for the bodies of their fallen friends. Being reproached for their conduct in taking the life of an unresisting foe, one of them replied, in a manner that indicated evident sorrow for the deed done, “That it did seem hard to take the lives of these men, but they should remember that these were very hard times 4 .”

The sight of slain warriors was far from being a pleasing object for Red Jacket to behold, and having ever been opposed to his people engaging in contests that did not really concern them, he proposed now that the Indians had helped chastise the British for burning one of their villages, and as they were no longer on Indian ground, that they should withdraw from a further participation in the war, in case they could prevail on their Canadian brethren to do the same.

With the consent and approval of General Brown, a deputation of two brave and influential chiefs was sent to the Indians, who had fought with the British, with this in view. They were successful in persuading them to enter into this arrangement. The Indians therefore after this retired to their villages, with the exception of a few young braves, with whom the love of war, was a more potent influence, than the counsels of the aged and more considerate of their nation.

Soon after the battle, our army forced a passage across the Chippewa, and after a short engagement the enemy gave way, and retired to Lake Ontario. Our army continued its march down the Niagara river, destroying some of the British works on their way.

With new forces brought into the field, General Drummond took command of the British, and on the 25th of July the two armies met again, and there was a hard fought, but not very decisive battle, at Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls. The American army soon after fell back to Fort Erie. A British force of five thousand advanced and laid siege to the Fort, making a vigorous assault on the 15th of August. They were repulsed with a loss of a thousand men. Later, General Brown issued from the fort and gave them so stunning a blow as caused them to relinquish the siege.

Other successful engagements during the year, ending with the signal victory at New Orleans under General Jackson, inspired greatly the hopes of the American people, and served likewise to repress the ardor of their opponents; which led to the return of peace with England, which was concluded at Ghent on the 24th of December, 1814.Citations:

  1. Colonel Stone’s Life and Times of Red Jacket. Mr. Stone refers to General Porter, as his authority, representing him as having voluntarily prepared the account given of this campaign.[]
  2. Life of Red Jacket. McKenny’s Indian Biography.[]
  3. Col. Stone’s Life of Red Jacket.[]
  4. Col. Stone.[]

Brown, Porter,

Hubbard, John Niles. n Account of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket, and His People, 1750-1830. Self Published. 1885.

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