The American occupation of Niagara began on May 27, 1813, and lasted until December 10th when they withdrew to Fort Niagara. It was a time of great distress, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty for the residents most of whom were women, children and old men. Despite American promises of security for lives and property, American forces plundered and harassed town residents. Able-bodied men were away with the militia or were prisoners of war so that the burdens of looking after children, relatives who were ill, of maintaining the house and perhaps a business, fell upon women.
As well, fighting continued as small bands of British soldiers, militia and native warriors frequently attacked American outposts and, sometimes, even penetrated into the town. To defend their position, the Americans dug entrenchments extending from the fort to the rear of St. Marks church. The American troops were supported by the Canadian Volunteers led by Joseph Willcocks. He was a resident of Niagara who had briefly published a newspaper and had served as an elected member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly. He joined the Americans in the summer of 1813, and formed a corps of volunteers who rode about the area gathering intelligence and cowing the population by arbitrary arrests and destruction of property. These men were regarded as traitors.
The American soldiers, living in tents outside the fort, suffered severely from sickness. Frequent rains soaked the tents and turned the ground into mud. These miserable conditions were described by an eyewitness, the chief American surgeon to the army, Dr. Mann: “In October and November diseases were typhus, diarrhea, dysentery, many died from diarrhea, being stopped with acetate of lead which brought other diseases.” No wonder their morale, health and discipline deteriorated. Their numbers declined as troops were sent away to other fronts and most of the militiamen departed for their homes as their terms of service ended. By December, the commanding general, George McClure claimed that his force was reduced to about “60 effective regulars”. He increasingly worried about his ability to defend the town and Fort George even with the aid of 90-100 Canadian Volunteers.
On the evening of December 10th as the British forces approached the old town from Four Mile Creek, they could see the orange glow in the sky. By the time they entered the town, as W. Hamilton Merritt recorded in his journal, “Nothing but heaps of coals, and streets of furniture that the inhabitants were fortunate enough to get out of their Houses, met the Eye in all Directions.”
Earlier in the day, the American commander, McClure had conferred with his remaining senior officers and with Joseph Willcocks. He explained that he was confident that he had the authorization from his superiors to withdraw to the American side and burn the town, thus denying the British troops any shelter during the approaching winter. The locals were to be given several hours to save what belongings they could. The older children, women and even the elderly frantically carried out into the snowy streets whatever they could: articles of clothing, quilts, chairs, tables, a grandfather clock, family silverware, a few books; even a treasured mantelpiece was wrenched from the wall and dragged outside by a determined grandmother. .
The inhabitants could only watch as their homes burned to the ground. In the cold and blowing snow that night the townsfolk sought refuge in root cellars, smoke houses, in make-shift lean-tos up against the remaining standing chimneys and wherever. It would be days before most of the inhabitants found shelter amongst friends and relatives in the township.
Only two structures survive in town today: the original stone powder magazine in Fort George and the stone walls of St Mark’s church.
Let us not soon forget the tribulations of our innocent predecessors who suffered so much during this unnecessary war.
Condensed from a reading at St. Mark’s Church, December 10, 2013
Richard D. Merritt MD, FRCSC and Prof. Wesley Turner,