Historian's Office




 The War of 1812: A Most Paradoxical Struggle

The "Second War of American Independence" was largely fought on the frontier; the isolated settlements in western New York knew themselves to be vulnerable, and contributed mightily to the war effort. 

The Mother Country had, it seemed, never been reconciled to the loss of her American colonies nearly 30 years earlier. The maintenance by Great Britain of the right to search and even seize persons and property from ships on the high seas had been a sore point for a long time, and the presence of an armed British presence at Fort Niagara and elsewhere did nothing to calm the fears of people living on the old lands of the Senecas, British allies during the late war. The Simcoe Scare and other incidents kept the pot boiling, but the poor success and unpopularity of the embargo on British goods during Jefferson's second term made a new war seem unlikely. 

The United States declared war on Great Britain nevertheless, in June 1812. The American navy consisted of a few frigates and sloops, the army was a half-drilled mob of recruits. The divisions in the country over the wisdom of war prompted Connecticut and Massachusetts to refuse to send men or materiel of war to the fighting, states which many of the New York frontier settlers had called home. 

Even before war was declared, several villages in the Genesee Country had been designated as depositories for military stores. Every able-bodied man between 18 and 45 was by law a member of a local militia and obliged to perform routine maneuvers. Since the British had maintained possession of their forts at Niagara and Oswego, western New York was perhaps more than most areas of the country continually in fear of an attack by the British and more particularly by the Senecas, who had been dispossessed of the land the settlers now farmed in their stead. 

News of the declaration of war reached the New York frontier within a few days. Several of the militia regiments that up to that time had restricted their martial efforts to the required weekly maneuvers, now marched off to fight. A corps of men otherwise exempt from military duty was organized to form a home guard, in case the Indians should attack while the other men were away; thankfully, they never had to defend their homes against attack, and in fact several influential Seneca chiefs, notably Red Jacket, kept their people out of the war. 

The Battle of Queenston, fought 13 October 1812, brought Winfield Scott and John Wool to prominence. By and large however it was a disgrace to American arms. The first attempted attack, by night, ended when the first boat across the Niagara River took with it the oars to all the other boats. The next night, 13 boats crossed and drove back the British defenders, and a party of regulars commanded by Wool seized a battery of artillery that commanded the town. The main body of militia was still at Black Rock on the American side, and they refused to join the assault, since they had only signed on to repel invasion. The Americans were finally driven back toward the river, and no one would row across to save them; many were surrendered. 

A second army was raised. On November 27 an advance party crossed and spiked the Canadian guns. This accomplished, the sailors recrossed to the American side, abandoning the soldiers, who were captured. The commander of the main body halted a rescue attempt when he heard the enemy's bugles and decided they were now alerted and an attack could not succeed. Yet another attack was aborted, and one of the commander's senior officers called him a coward and challenged him to a duel. The army was treated to the edifying sight of their two most senior generals firing at each other and missing. The commander was afterward hooted whenever he ventured out among his men, and the whole campaign was abandoned, after the waste of many lives and arms. 

Joshua Lee, surgeon to Colonel Avery Smith's Yates County militia regiment, now grandiloquently called the 3rd New York Infantry and Light Artillery, was one of the first to cross the Niagara River during the October battle. In the same unit was surgeon's mate Walter Wolcott, whose elder brother Roger was one of the many Connecticut natives who had settled in Canada after the Revolution; Roger commanded a company of Canadian militia during the war and many years later moved to St. Charles in Illinois, where he died in 1863 at the age of 90. (Ironically, Dr. Walter Wolcott's youngest son and namesake was a merchant in Vicksburg, Mississippi at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861; he commanded a Confederate company, and was killed at Gettysburg; he is buried with his parents and the rest of his family in Hillside Cemetery in Dundee, Yates County.) 

The spring of 1813 saw the Buffalo campaign, which resulted in the burning of that village by the Canadians and a threatened invasion of the Genesee country. Many families fled their homes into the more settled areas of what is now Ontario, Wayne and Yates Counties. The state legislature voted the enormous sum of $40,000 to aid these people, who were fed and sheltered by families without a great deal of either to spare. At the same time, families native to New England who had settled in Canada after the Revolution were driven out and a number arrived in parts of Yates County, particularly the area of Starkey subsequently called the Canada Settlement. 

An army was formed in western New York in the spring of 1814, comprising two brigades of regulars, and another of volunteers, some 500 from Pennsylvania, about 600 from New York, plus nearly 600 Iroquois warriors. This army took part in the capture of Fort Erie, the battles at Chippewa, Lundy's Lane and Conjockety Creek, and then the siege and relief of Fort Erie, the last real action on the New York frontier. 

The War of 1812 has become something of a forgotten conflict, little regarded in our history. Its biggest battle was fought at New Orleans after the peace treaty was signed, and it resulted in disastrous defeats at Baltimore and Washington. Its best-known lasting legacy has probably been the national anthem, composed by Francis Scott Key during the battle for Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. However, the war did once and for all settle the national boundary at Niagara and put an end to British inflamation of the Senecas. The population of the New York frontier exploded, the Erie Canal was begun and less than a decade after the war's end, Yates County was organized with very nearly the same population it has reattained now more than 170 years later.