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War of 1812: Part I - A Nasty War

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812.  It was a savage war  that neither side won, but which changed the lives of generations of people along the Niagara Frontier.  WBFO News contributor Rich Kellman begins a week-long series of reports with a look at how the war began.

The war was one of the least understood and most savage in the history of the Niagara Frontier.  Maybe you’ve driven past a reminder near Buffalo Airport on Aero Drive, a small cemetery, marked by a cannon and small white crosses.

"There’s a total of about 600 remains here, about equal between Americans and British," said Amherst town historian David Sherman.

The War of 1812 was nasty.  It was brutal. 

"The fighting here on the Niagara Frontier was horrific," said local historian Patrick Kavanaugh.

Both sides used fire as a weapon.  They burned Buffalo to the ground and Black Rock and Lewiston, and what would someday be Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

Some 20,000 died in the war, 15,000 from disease alone. 

"If you were to ask the citizens, on both sides of the Niagara River, the vast majority were against this war. They didn’t want this," said Kavanaugh.  

"To the average person here, what were they thinking?", asked Kellman.  

"I don’t think the common person knew what was going on," said Kavanaugh.

What was the War of 1812 all about anyway?  Seemed awfully confusing.  The United States declared war on England, but attacked Canada, a British colony.  It all began a decade earlier in Europe.

England was at war with Napoleon’s France on land and sea.  The British captured and impressed American sailors into the British navy and restricted American trade with France. 

"It would be difficult to sail across the ocean and do any damage to a major European power, but Canada, if we could take off a chunk of Canada, we might get some concessions from the British," said Douglas Decroix, historian of Western New York Heritage Press.

"So Canada was a proxy for Britain?", asked Kellman. 

"Exactly," said Decroix.

In Congress, the drumbeat for war grew louder. 

“We had probably the biggest war hawk, expansionist there was in America, and he was a congressman and a general in the militia, and he was the infamous Peter B. Porter of Black Rock," said Kavanaugh.

"He’s a hero, isn’t he?," asked Kellman. 

"Well, yeah, ok, however, he’s the one that’s on the floor of congress demanding the annexation of Canada," said Kavanaugh.

But how much of that was just talk?

"The acquisition of Canada was not a major war aim, other than as a means to an end," said Decroix.

On October 13, 1812, the Americans launch an attack on Queenston Heights. 

"The American army launches here at Lewiston Landing," said Decorix.  "And it didn’t go so well.” 

The river was treacherous.  The American army disorganized.  The local militias refused to cross to a foreign country, and Queenston Heights on the other side was nearly 300 feet  straight up. 

"The sun comes up eventually on the morning of October 13th as there’s boats in the river," said  Jim Hill of Canada’s Niagara Parks.  "And one of the boats with probably 40 men on board takes a direct hit, sinks, all the men are lost.  Other boats look up at a 20-foot, 30-foot bluff lined with muskets.  trying to fight your way up that hill would have been impossible. they were all captured.”  

The British soldiers were more disciplined, their officers experienced.  But their commander, the legendary General Sir Isaac Brock is killed in the early hours of the battle.  He becomes Canada’s first national war hero. But the British have a secret weapon. 

“The British want the Americans to be afraid of what’s hiding in the woods," said Hill.

In the woods of Queenston Heights was a force specializing in guerilla warfare.  They terrified the Americans and were instrumental in turning the battle against the invaders and driving them back across the Niagara River. 

The war went on for two-and-a-half years.  It became a bitter war of retribution.  The Americans burned the capitol of upper Canada, the British burned Buffalo and the White House and the Library of Congress.

Francis Scott key wrote what became our national anthem during the attack on Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, and Andrew Jackson won the battle of  New Orleans.  Turned out, though, that the agreement to end the war was reached several weeks earlier.

In the end, neither side won any territory, nobody gained any treasure.  Along the way there were spectacular naval battles on Lake Erie, stories of individual bravery and monstrous betrayals and a pistol duel fought on grand island between two American officers because one insulted the other.