1813 had been a tumultuous year in the War of 1812 with both sides experiencing successes. It ended with a good deal of suffering on both sides of the Niagara River as the US burned civilian properties on the Canadian side and in retribution the British crossed the Niagara River to lay waste to civilian properties on the east side of the river.
There had been a great deal of military action in the Great Lakes region.
1. April 27: The US had sailed from Sacket's Harbor on Lake Ontario to attack the capital of Upper Canada, York (now Toronto). They stayed for a few days and burned some public buildings.
2. May 25: The USN sailed to the west end of Lake Ontario and bombed Fort George which guards the entrance of the Niagara River to Lake Ontario.
3. May 26: The RN extended its blockade on the Atlantic coast to restrict trade in more states of the US.
4. May 27: US land forces captured Fort George. British troops retreated to the west end of Lake Ontario, near present day Burlington, Ont.
5. May 29: British attack Sacket's Harbor while US fleet was engaged near Fort George. They failed to seize it but USN Commodore Chauncey took his fleet back to Sacket's Harbor leaving US land forces without support.
6. Several battles took place on the Niagara Peninsula in June at Stoney Creek, Beaver Dams and Burlington. All British victories and the US forces retreated to Fort George fearing that they had insufficient strength to defeat the British.
7. Sept. 9: In a critical naval battle on Lake Erie, the USN squadron defeated an RN squadron giving the US control of that lake.
8. Oct. 5: Battle of Moraviantown (Thames). US forces under William Henry Harrison defeat British on the north shore of Lake Erie. Tecumseh is killed and British forces retreat to the east toward Burlington Bay.
9. US forces in Lower Canada attempt a pincer movement to seize Montréal but are defeated at the Battle of Chateauguay on Oct. 26 and the Battle of Crysler's Farm on Nov. 11
That brings us to the month of December. The US invasion of the Niagara Peninsula in 1813 had been a failure as had the invasion of Lower Canada. The invasion of SW Upper Canada had been successful but the US failed to pursue its advantage.
The US still held Fort George. You can see it on this map near the outflow of Niagara River waters into Lake Ontario and opposite the US Fort Niagara in upper New York state.
Many US militia had returned home and with enlistment periods up, US soldiers had returned home. So the US had few soldiers left to defend the fort and Gen. McClure decided to abandon the fort and to return home.
But he enlisted the service of a Canadian traitor named Joseph Willcocks who was told that to deny the British soldiers warm billets in the harsh winter, the town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) should be burned to the ground. Willcocks was more than willing to assist. The suggestion to burn Newark had earlier been proposed by US Secretary of War John Armstrong.
And so on Dec. 10, 1813, US forces torched the town. They forced people to stand in the deep snow to watch their properties burn. An elderly woman in her sick bed was carried, she and her bed, and dropped in the snow in front of her home to watch it burn.
By morning only 3 homes were still standing and there were 400 homeless people looking for shelter. As the village burned the Americans left Fort George and crossed to the US side.
The burning of Newark is sometimes cited as the reason the British burned Washington. That has been debated but what is certain is that the action hardened the opinions of the residents against the Americans. Upper Canada was full of Americans and the British were never sure of their loyalty. They were called the "late Loyalists" because they only came for land and had not been forced out of the US because they had sympathized with the crown during the American revolution.
US Gen. McClure claimed that he was trying to deny the British habitation but while he burned Newark had ignored British supplies of tents and blankets that had been found near Fort George at Butler's Barracks. Despite seemingly to have followed orders, Gen. McClure was dismissed from the army for ordering the sacking.[Read More]
The British were incensed. And shortly they would seek retribution and those that would suffer would be American civilians.
Dec. 18: About 600 British soldiers rowed across the Niagara River and landed near Youngstown, NY. They marched one km. to the fort, killed the sentries with bayonets and slipped into the fort. They quickly seized one part of it but the Americans barricaded themselves into another. The British broke in and began to bayonet defenders who quickly capitulated. British General Drummond crossed the river and took possession of the fort. The British would hold Fort Niagara to the end of the war.
Major General Riall then crossed with another force and began the destruction of property on the east side of the river.
On Dec. 19 Riall destroyed Youngstown and continued on to Lewiston which met the same fate.
The British returned to the Canadian side but were back on the American side in short order to continue to fire homes and businesses all they way down to Buffalo, NY. By Dec. 30, the Niagara Frontier on the US side had been destroyed. About 40 people had been killed and scalped in Buffalo.
Commemorative plaque in Black Rock, New York near Buffalo
None of this was pretty of course and it seems that in war, civilians eventually pay a price. But December of 1813 was a particularly difficult month for the civilians of both sides.