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War of 1812: Part II - Death and Disease

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The War of 1812 was brutal and ugly.  The bulk of the casualties were on the Niagara Frontier. More than 20,000 died in the war, 15,000 from disease alone.

“It says, ‘Deaths in the Hospital,’ dated November 17, 1812.”

Patrick Kavanaugh is the historian at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. He pages through copies of original documents from those years.

“They list the last name of the soldiers, where they were from.”

They were from Baltimore, Carlisle, PA, Alexandria, VA., and New Jersey and Kentucky.  Of the 600 soldiers, British and American, buried in the 1812 cemetery on Aero Drive near Buffalo International Airport, only 16 were known to be from New York State.

“The United States Army established a small hospital here before they had any idea of the number of casualties there’d be,” says Amherst Town Historian David Sherman.

Historian Douglas DeCroix of Western New York Heritage Press adds, “In Williamsville was a hospital, it was a garrison at one point. Garrison Road is a common landmark. There was death from disease, from infections.”

“The winters were terrible,” says Patrick.

The winter of 1812 brought death to what would become Delaware Park in Buffalo. He reads from a plaque on a boulder in the meadow at the park. “‘To the memory of unknown soldiers of the war of 1812 … '”

The boulder marks where the dead were eventually buried. They died of disease, starvation and battle wounds. The frozen ground was so hard that winter, their caskets were left only partially buried. The following spring, Dr. Daniel Chapin dug them up and reburied them in a mass grave on what was then his property and is now the Delaware Park golf course. The next time you’re there, you might want to remember the war dead buried beneath your feet.

“There’s people that have walked this park for years and they never knew what this was about out here and what this meant,” says Patrick. “These people are out here and it’s the least we can do to remember them.”

Some 20,000 dead on both sides.

On October 13, 1812, the Americans launched an attack on Queenston Heights, Ontario just across the Niagara River from Lewiston.  “It didn’t go so well,” says historian Douglas DeCroix.

The Americans weren’t fighting just the British and Canadian militias.

“The British wanted the Americans to be afraid of what’s hiding in the woods,” says Jim Hill, Heritage Director of Canada’s Niagara Parks.

Hiding in the woods of Queenston Heights was Major John Norton and his Native warriors. Norton’s father was Cherokee, his mother, Scottish. He deserted the British Army years before the War of 1812 to return to his native roots. Still, he fought with the British in 1812. They were guerilla warriors.

“Their war cries were a horrific, mournful sound, and (the Americans) can hear it across the water,” says Hill. “For awhile, it’s less than 100 Native warriors that are pinning American troops in place, by hit-and-run tactics, by sniping,” adds Hill.

And by fear. The Buffalo Central Library has a letter from an American soldier in 1812 telling of the killings of 17 soldiers by Native warriors. “These 17 men were mangled and scalped in a manner not palpable to be described,” it reads, “and three of them cut open and their hearts taken out.”

There were, in fact, atrocities on all sides. In Canada, the great Native leader Tecumseh, hoping to stop westward expansion by the Americans, sided with the British. He was killed by American troops in battle on October 5, 1813. 

“Most American reports say they cut him up for souvenirs, razor strops,” says Hill. “One British officer threatened to use the flat of his sword on his own men.” 

It was an ugly war. But it was also a war of stunning spectacle, with British and American warships battling on the Great Lakes. On the land, the Americans were for the most part unprepared and inept. But on the lakes, they were often formidable, and gave the British a preview of what was to come on the high seas in the next century.

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